Saturday, October 29th, marked the 55th anniversary of the start of Operation Kadesh, or the Sinai Campaign. It began with the parachuting of the 890th Battalion east of the Mitla Pass, fairly close to the Suez Canal, for the purpose of providing Britain and France with an excuse to intervene militarily. Whether this opening act fulfilled Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan's call to "start the war at the end, with heads turned backward, toward the Israeli border," is an open question.
Historians are wont to assess the pros and cons of this military operation, whose legacy in the region was perhaps the quietest decade Israel has ever experienced, along with far more costly wars after the end of that decade. Israel stained itself morally by hatching a conspiracy with two fading European powers against North African national liberation movements, yet the IDF amazed the world with its daring maneuvers and intimidating agility; and the opening of a naval route to the Red Sea enabled relations to be cultivated with newly independent states in Asia and Africa.
These calculations have a contemporary dimension, one embodied by the last of the surviving figures, Shimon Peres, who was an architect of the Sinai campaign, along with Dayan, and who operated under the guidance of then prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion. The public and personal lessons which President Peres drew from Operation Kadesh remain with him today. Ben-Gurion's successors as prime minister and defense minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - one at the start of his seventh decade the other at the end of that decade - have yet to realize their ambitions of notching glorious victories, and search for their own Sinai Campaign, a victory which was inscribed on the resumes of Dayan, then 41 years old, and Peres, then 33.
It's no coincidence that compared to his relations with Netanyahu and Barak, Peres has a relatively easy time accepting the positions and characters of Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan.
In recent years, in conversations with researchers and students, Peres has articulated some lessons drawn from the 1956 war. First, he has outlined the goals of the war as, first and foremost, the opening of the Mitla Pass, and also the weakening of Fedayeen terrorists from the Gaza Strip, and the vanquishing of the strengthened Egyptian army.
Second, the consolidation of the government coalition by the ousting of Moshe Sharett and winning the support of the Ahdut Ha'avoda faction, without which an initiative to launch the operation in winter 1955-1956 failed to get off the ground.
Third, Peres believes that lessons are to be learned from the way Ben-Gurion delayed announcement of his final decision in favor of the war, without making an effort to sell the plan to military planners and wheeler-dealers in the political framework. Fourth, the fact that the Chief of Staff and key major generals recommended a feasible plan was crucial.
Fifth, the war points to lessons regarding the defense of Israel's civilian population, which is vulnerable to shelling. And sixth, there is the issue of the alliance with Washington, or with powers that heed America's dictates.
Alongside the bumbling actions of the British and French armies, and errors made in London, Paris and Tel Aviv, the war and its results were influenced by the inclinations of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower. The Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the impending U.S. elections, held one week after the start of the operation, did nothing to soften the President's response; in fact, these factors hardened Eisenhower's attitude. Without American support, the operation was doomed to failure; the West European leaders who sponsored it paid a steep political price, and the IDF was forced to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip.
The parallel is clear. An Israeli operation against Iran's nuclear program is liable to recycle the cons of Operation Kadesh, without its benefits. Such a fear is harbored by those who oppose this possible military adventure; the list of negative effects outweighs whatever diplomatic or military advantages might be accrued by such an action, the critics believe. After all, Barak is no Moshe Dayan, and Bibi is not Ben-Gurion.
Only Peres, who is no mere symbolic President (as Yitzhak Ben Zvi 55 years ago ), remains in power, this time exerting an influence against the military undertaking. The theater of fateful political-military decisions lacks today in Israel a playwright, producer and actor. Meanwhile, trenchant criticism leveled by the main critic in this theater, the public, against any dress rehearsal might ward off the premier performance of this proposed military adventure in Iran. The critic cannot afford to keep mum; it will soon have to raise its voice.
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