Read an Excerpt
THE LINGERING CONFLICT
ISRAEL, THE ARABS, AND THE MIDDLE EAST, 1948–2012
By ITAMAR RABINOVICH
BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS
Copyright © 2013 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Background
The Arab-Israeli conflict is now in its seventh decade. An earlier conflict between the small Jewish and the much larger Arab community in Palestine had first erupted in the late Ottoman period. It became fiercer and more significant after the First World War, the publication in 1917 of the Balfour Declaration (in which the British government supported the "establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people"), and the establishment in 1920 of a British Mandate over Palestine on both sides of the Jordan River. During the next three decades, Arabs and Jews fought over rights and control, their conflict culminating in a war that broke out after the United Nations' decision in 1947 to partition Palestine between a Jewish state and a Palestinian-Arab one.
Throughout the decades of low-level conflict, the indigenous Palestinian Arabs were supported and helped by a large part of the Arab world, but the conflict widened following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the immediate invasion by five Arab armies. Israel's victory, the consolidation of its existence and expansion of its original territory, the Arabs' military defeat, the failure to establish the Palestinian Arab state envisaged by the UN resolution, and the consequent problem of Palestinian refugees were the fundamental facts in the process that transformed the Arab-Jewish conflict in Mandate Palestine into the Arab-Israeli conflict we still know today.
The conflict's history is divided by the October War of 1973. For twenty-five years after the creation of Israel, the old wounds festered as efforts to heal them or at least address some of their causes failed for reasons that I analyze. But after the Israeli victory in October 1973, diplomatic procedures were inaugurated that developed into an Israeli-Egyptian peace process, which in March 1979 produced Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab state. This process subsequently came to a grinding halt, and the ensuing stasis lasted through the 1980s. Then a new phase of peace negotiations was inaugurated in October 1991 at the Madrid Conference. These negotiations gave birth to a second Israeli peace treaty in 1994, with Jordan, to a Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough, and to a significant degree of Arab-Israeli normalization. Even in the heyday of the "Madrid process" in 1993–95, this phase failed to bring about a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict or to end the political disputes and the bloodshed between Israel and parts of the Arab world. New developments in 1996 slowed negotiations and in 1998 brought them near collapse.
The Madrid process represents the first sustained international effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is significant that no comparable effort—as distinct from short-lived attempts, various mediation efforts, and partial settlements—had been undertaken before, and that nearly forty years of an uneven peace process have still failed to produce a comprehensive settlement. The Arab-Israeli conflict has indeed been one of the most complex and difficult international problems of the second half of the twentieth century and into the current century. The first step to understanding its complexity is to recognize that there is no single Arab-Israeli dispute but a cluster of distinct, interrelated conflicts:
—The core conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a classic conflict between two national movements claiming historical title to and vying for possession of the same land. This original strand in the Arab-Israeli dispute was overshadowed for some fifteen years (1949–64) by the pulverization of the Palestinian community that had been dispersed during Israel's war of independence, and by the preeminence then of pan-Arab ideologies and Arab state interests. The resurgence of Palestinian nationalism in the mid-1960s and, ironically, the establishment in 1967 of Israeli control over the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan River restored a major role to the Palestinians in the Arab world. Their new importance was reinforced by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) offensive against Israel, conducted with the defeat of the established Arab armies in the background.
—A broader dispute between Israel and Arab nationalism. This is a national, political, cultural, and increasingly religious conflict. Both sides came into this conflict carrying their historical and cultural legacies. The Jewish people's national revival in their historic homeland in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the Holocaust, and after millennia of exile and persecution, unfolded during a head-on collision with an Arab national movement seeking revival, renewal, and power after a century of soul-searching and humiliation at the hands of Western powers. Unfortunately, most Arabs have perceived Zionism and Israel as either part of the West or, worse, a Western bridgehead established in their midst.
—A series of bilateral disputes between Israel and neighboring Arab states created by geopolitical rivalries combined with other factors. Thus Egypt was drawn into war with Israel in 1948 by the Palestinian problem, but its decision to join the Arab war coalition and its subsequent conflict with Israel were also affected by the ambitions of Arab and regional leaders, by Egypt's sense of competition with Israel as the other powerful and ambitious state in the region, and by a desire to obtain a land bridge to the eastern Arab world through the southern Negev Desert. Similarly, Syria's bitter relationship with Israel has expressed both its genuine attachment to Arab nationalism and to the Palestinian cause and its acute sense of rivalry with Israel for hegemony in the Levant.
—The larger international conflict. The Palestine question has long been an important and a salient international issue. The interest and passion aroused by the Holy Land (Falastin to Arabs and Muslims), the saliency of what used to be called the Jewish question, the rivalries of colonial powers and later the superpowers in the Middle East, and the overall geopolitical importance of the Arab world are some of the considerations and forces that have accounted for the significance in international affairs of the evolving Arab-Israeli conflict. The conflict was not originally nor subsequently allowed to be a merely local squabble. Arabs and Israelis from the outset sought international support for their respective causes, while foreign governments and other actors—out of genuine commitment to one of the parties, in search of gain, or for the sake of peace and stability—have always intervened.
The Cold War magnified and exacerbated these international factors. The Middle East, because of its intrinsic importance, its geographical closeness to the Soviet Union, and its openness to change, became an important arena of Soviet-American competition. In the early 1950s, the Soviet Union shifted from initial support for Israel to sweeping support for the Arab states, and it exploited the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to weaken the Western position in the Middle East and enhance its own. After about a decade of fluctuation, the United States decided on a policy of open cooperation with Israel and other Middle Eastern allies against the region's radical and pro-Soviet regimes. So, in the Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973 and in other Middle Eastern crises, the two superpowers contended by proxy. Israel's power was increased dramatically by American aid and support, but the Soviet Union's military assistance to its allies and clients, the prospect of Soviet military intervention, and Soviet help in rebuilding the defeated Egyptian and Syrian armies were important in denying Israel the political fruits of its military power and achievements.
Whereas in the 1950s and early 1960s it was the Soviet Union that tended to take advantage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the equation was altered by Israel's victory in the 1967 war. Within a few years, the Arab world grasped that Washington held the key to regaining the territories Israel had captured in that war. American endorsement of the principle of exchanging land for peace, and an occasional willingness and ability to act on it, were the basis on which the United States was able to orchestrate the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and register several impressive achievements. For example, the Egyptian-Israeli peace process initiated after the 1973 war—the first major breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli conflict—was intimately linked to one of Washington's greatest Cold War accomplishments: Egypt's transition from a Soviet ally to a nation in the American orbit. After the Soviet Union's collapse and the end of the Cold War, the international and regional landscape in the Middle East was transformed. Washington's interests in the Middle East were no longer shaped to a large extent by its rivalry with the Soviet Union; regional actors like Iraq, Iran, and Turkey began to play larger roles and in recent years a reassertive Russia began to make fresh inroads in the Middle East.
This was the formative period of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The 1948 war that gave birth both to the state of Israel and to the Arab-Israeli conflict ended with a series of armistice agreements, not with a peace settlement. This fact has in recent years been the focus of a fierce debate in Israel among three schools of opinion: an orthodox, establishment-oriented, almost official historiography that blames this failure on the Arab world and its refusal to accept Israel's existence; a revisionist school that considers these critical years through a contemporary ideological prism, relying on several newly opened archives, primarily Israel's state archives, and that lays much of the blame on Israel and its first leader, David Ben-Gurion, for refusing any sensible compromise or concession; and another school of postrevisionists, also using newly available archival and other sources, that shuns both the apologetic tendency of the first historiography and the blunt revisionism of the second.
This third group is interested less in allocating blame and discovering "missed opportunities" than in trying to understand the stalemate produced by the Arab-Israeli clash of interests and outlooks and in their asymmetries. Israel sustained heavy casualties in the 1948 war, believed that in the aftermath of the Holocaust the Jewish people were entitled to a secure homeland, and maintained that a belligerent force defeated in a war that it had itself initiated could not reasonably demand a reversal of its outcome.
Israel was also guided by a genuine, albeit sometimes exaggerated, existential insecurity and a fear that a second round of conflict might be initiated by its Arab adversaries, who had refused to accept the war's outcome and Israel's entrenchment in their midst. Under Ben-Gurion's leadership, Israel sought to stabilize the status quo on the assumption that, once it had consolidated its existence and absorbed the postwar wave of Jewish refugees and immigrants, peace could later be made on better terms. In a series of exploratory and then real peace negotiations conducted after the 1948 war, Israel offered some concessions, though not the ones demanded by its Arab interlocutors.
From the Arab nationalist perspective, Israel was an illegitimate state that threatened the Arab world culturally and geopolitically. The few Arab leaders who agreed to negotiate with Israel insisted on far-reaching concessions—giving up the southern part of the Negev Desert, allowing a corridor to link Gaza to the West Bank, permitting the return of Palestinian refugees, and jurisdiction over part of Lake Tiberias (or the Sea of Galilee). These leaders made such demands both to legitimize any prospective agreement in Arab eyes and because they believed that only significant and painful Israeli concessions could redress some of the injustices done them by Israel's very establishment and the expansion of its original territory, the defeat of the Arab armies, and the disintegration of the Palestinian community.
A close look at the various attempts to arrive at peace settlements between Israel and its Arab neighbors after the 1948 war will point to many reasons and forces responsible for their failure, but at the root of the difficulty is the truth that the Arab and Israeli perspectives were irreconcilable. In the circumstances obtaining at the war's end, any concession that could possibly satisfy at least some of the Arabs was perceived by Israel's leaders as an existential threat. This state of affairs continued until June 1967, when Israel's victory in the Six-Day War gave it territorial assets that it could use as bargaining chips in peace negotiations. Until then, the conflict had lingered and festered. The limitations and shortcomings of the armistice agreements, friction over unresolved issues, the impact of radical ideologies espoused by certain Arab army officers on Arab politics, Israel's response to these developments, and the Soviet Union's influence in the region combined to shape a full-blown Arab-Israeli conflict by the mid-1950s. This meant a virtual absence of normal contacts between Israel and the Arab world; a complete Arab boycott; border clashes; individual and organized group Arab violence against Israel and an Israeli policy to retaliate against both; a second Israeli-Arab war in 1956 shaped by Israel's cooperation with Great Britain and France, two declining colonial powers, versus revolutionary pan-Arab nationalists; an arms race; and perennial fear of still more war.
Soon events and developments occurred that led to the crisis of May 1967 and the Six-Day War in June. One was the completion of Israel's overland water carrier, bringing water from Lake Tiberias in the north to the more spacious but arid lands in the south, and the Arab decision to thwart a project designed to enhance Israel's capacity to absorb more people and thus consolidate its existence. A second was the return of the Palestinians and the Palestinian national movement to a directly active role in Middle Eastern politics with the emergence of various groups and organizations that subsequently assembled under the umbrella of the PLO. Third was the radicalization of Syrian politics under the Ba'ath Party's regime and the exacerbation of rivalries among various Arab states, particularly with regard to issues relating to Israel. Fourth was the intensification of Soviet-American rivalry in the region. And lastly there was a leadership crisis in Israel after David Ben-Gurion's second and final retirement in 1963.
Although the June 1967 war created a potential for a political settlement by gaining Israel new territorial assets, it also escalated the Arab-Israeli conflict to hitherto unfamiliar levels. Right after the war, Israel indeed considered the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights as, essentially, temporary holdings to be used to obtain a genuine peace. As time went by and peace failed to come, however, the situation progressively acquired the trappings of permanency, and the temporary holdings were tied to Israel by a variety of bonds and vested interests.
The West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which Jews considered parts of the historical Land of Israel and which had been parts of Mandate Palestine, were treated from the outset on an entirely different basis. Sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza was, unlike that over the Sinai and the Golan, according to the Israeli interpretation at least, an open issue. Control over and title to these territories raised fundamental issues of security and identity—these were the lands of the Bible (much more so, in fact, than the coastal plains where most of Israel's population actually lived). In them lay the key to a historic compromise with Palestinian nationalism or, alternatively, to yet another effort to make an agreement with Hashemite Jordan; but neither the shape of such a settlement nor an available partner was readily apparent. Moreover, Israel's politics were altered by the powerful wave of messianic-mystical nationalism generated by Israel's acquisition of Judea and Samaria. (In the coded language of Israeli politics, the term "West Bank" is neutral but the biblical term "Judea and Samaria" expresses a claim to the heartlands of Jewish history.) This wave was reinforced by the Israelis' unprecedented sense of power after their great and swift military victory, and their determination never to return to the vulnerable borders of the prewar period or to a trauma like the one they had endured in May 1967, when on the eve of the war many in Israel feared a disaster.
Excerpted from THE LINGERING CONFLICT by ITAMAR RABINOVICH Copyright © 2013 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.