On November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly voted 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions, in favor of the Partition Plan, ending the British Mandate in Palestine and establishing a Jewish state and an Arab state in the territory known as Palestine. This two state solution was to go in effect on May 14, 1948, the date of British withdrawal. Immediately the Arabs refused to accept the Plan as did militant Jewish organizations such as the Irgun and its leader and future Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Next month will mark the 63rd anniversary of the creation of the flourishing Democratic State of Israel and 63 years of foreign policy and political dealings unmatched in any other region of the world.
Did you know that the first country to recognize Israel’s statehood was the Soviet Union? Did you also know that during the Civil War of 1947/48 and the 1948 War of Independence, it was the Soviet Union, through its satellite Czechoslovakia that armed the fledgling Jewish Agency in its war with the Arab nations of Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon? For the first decade of its existence, Israel’s primary benefactor was the Soviet Union, while lobbying efforts in the United States, a nation dealing with its own post WWII and Korean peninsula issues, began to take hold. So while the socialism inspired Jewish state began to take roots, the Arab world remained chaotic and disorganized as result of bitter infighting and revolutions. The emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt harkened a new era in the region: the role of the Super Powers in the sand box.
Immediately after seizing power in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Nasser became a pain in the neck to the European regional powers France and Britain, while also opening relations with the Soviet Union, and exerting his influence on other Arab nations Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He also commenced the crackdown and banning of Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood; a pot that would simmer for nearly 60 years. Things came to a head in what is referred to as the Suez Crisis, when Israel, backed by France and Britain attacked Egypt in 1956 after Nasser announced he would nationalize the Suez Canal threatening the European powers trade routes and authority. This ended badly for the Europeans as both the USA and USSR condemned the attacks, but it also weakened Nasser as his forces were completely overpowered by the Israelis, who were able to realize an increased security buffer with the mandated presence of UN forces. This greatest impacts of this mini-war: the decline of the European powers in the region, the emergence of the USA and USSR as the power brokers in the region, the suppression of militant Sunni factions and Shia minorities, and the Egypt led pan-Arab commitment to destroy Israel.
The violence and border skirmishes would continue for another decade and the emergence of terrorist organizations such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) would leave Israel in a constant state of alert. Meanwhile, in Gaza, under the control of Egypt, had become a hot spot of terrorist activity dating back to 1948 when Arab’s fleeing the Jewish armies fled to the last bastion of Arab control. The victory by the Jewish forces in 1948 was marred by their failure to wrest control of Jerusalem from the British led Jordanian forces known as the Arab Legion; a well-trained fighting force. This all changed in June 5, 1967 when Israel preemptively struck the Egyptian air force while it sat on the ground. Over the course of the next six days, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt in the south, the strategic Golan Heights from Syria in the north, and the greatest emotional prize: Jerusalem from Jordan in the East. It marked the high point in Israel’s military history; the outnumbered US and French armed Israel forces vanquished the Soviet armed Arab armies. The one strategic failure was what Israeli forces did versus what they didn’t do: they captured Gaza from Egypt and thus cementing this hornet’s nest permanently in the middle of the Israel/Arab/Palestinian problem.
The Yom Kippur war of 1973, where Israel barely survived the sneak attack by Egyptian and Syrian forces, brought the concept of Arab economic unity to the forefront. Threatening embargo to all nations who supported Israel, the Arab controlled OPEC could bring any nation, and its economy, too dependent on gulf oil to its knees. It also marked the first time that Egyptian leaders began to realize that military conquest of the Jewish state was becoming a pipe dream. The 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by Anwar Sadat and former terrorist Menachem Begin led to the opening of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping, returned a now demilitarized Sinai (captured in 1967) back to Egypt, and normalized trade relations between the two countries. All guaranteed by billions of US dollars in the form of military and economic assistance.
This treaty would become the turning point for Israel. Suddenly, land for peace could produce an economic dividend and with Egypt on the sidelines, the threat from other Arab nations became significantly diminished. Israel could divert money from its military to economic and infrastructure development. The subsequent treaty with Jordan in 1995 provided a sense of security on its eastern border, and while no treaty with Syria was ever achieved, the Syrians were effectively contained via isolation. The one border that could not be secured or the one treaty that remained out of its grasp was an effective solution to the Palestinian situation.
From 1979 to 1989, relations and policy in the region would be dominated by some major events that while they all may not have had a big impact at the time, they would cause significant shifts in the region, The Islamic Revolution in Iran caused an immediate crisis in the region and in the United States, For the next 30 years Iran would become an increasingly powerful player in the region through its own nationalism, but also through its disruptive and terrorist agents in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Remarkably, a Shia nation was able to influence and control Sunni leaders in Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. The rise of Iran led to the strange coalition of moderate Sunni nations like Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to realize that peace with Israel brought US security. Israel’s invasion into Lebanon in the 80’s to disrupt the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s terror campaign bought it some security, but with it the seeds were sown that the international love affair and support for the Jewish State had reached its apex. As Muslim populations in European states grew, these governments became more eager to condemn Israel and condone the Palestinians out of fear of reprisals on the home front. The Israeli bombing of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Ossirak and the tiny nations support of Iran during the Iraq-Iran war showed that it could operate tactically and strategically, albeit if it turned out to be wrong. The attack on Iraq was met with the usual public condemnation and private congratulations, while the arming of Iran to fend off Iraq was based on a belief that Saddam presented the clear and present danger to Israel and that Iran, with its still sizable Jewish population, was more moderate with a possibility of normalized relations. The final big event at the end of the 1980’s occurred thousands of miles away. The collapse of the Soviet Union would lead to an enormous emigration of Soviet and Eastern European Jews to Israel; Jews with advanced scientific educations and Jews with strong Zionistic beliefs that did not necessarily include the concept of a Palestinian state.
The next twenty years saw a massive shift in Israel’s economy, foreign policy, and domestic handling of the Palestinian question. Peace treaties, an influx of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, foreign direct investment, a shift from socialism to capitalism, and an improved security situation converted Israel from a sleepy agricultural-driven economy to a global high tech hotspot with liberal economic policies. During this period, it also occurred to the Israeli’s that building walls and increasing counterterrorism activities could bring security but that also forging ties with the moderate Arab dictators and their military and intelligence chiefs could yield a win-win situation. Sharing information on Shia terrorists or Sunni extremists would be valuable to both parties and while almost all Arab leaders could care less about the plight of the Palestinians, they did want info on possible troublemakers within their own borders. And thus, Israel learned its greatest lesson: foster relations with strongmen and maximize leverage through internal fighting in the Arab and Muslim world.
But now in 2011 is Israel in a better security position following the winter and spring unrest in the Arab world? Iran’s rise to regional power player is the least-often discussed ramification of President Bush’s adventure in Iraq. While Saddam was a brutal dictator, he was a security buffer to Iran and now we have a Shia majority in Iraq that is all too close to Iran. This coupled with Iran’s funding of Hezbollah and Hamas has kept the Israeli-Palestinian impasse front and center. As we saw with Hamas’ parliamentary elections success in Gaza, western governments and politicians need to understand the negative results of ‘free’ elections in states that have a burgeoning class of militant nationalists or jihadists. Israel will miss the security of Mubarak in Egypt and as everyone knows, change can be troublesome and deadly. The crackdown in Syria by its tyrant Bashar al-Assad could become the penultimate test of Islamism and the West with moderate Arab nations forced to pick sides with all roads eventually leading to a showdown with Iran. So if it all leads to Iran, does the Israeli-Palestinian problem really matter? Or is it a grand distraction by Iran? Can land for peace work with the Palestinians like it did with the Egyptians? Is the hope for a peace settlement increasingly unlikely as both sides become more militant and more reactionary?
The answers lie in multiple tactics and strategies. Continue to de-stable Syria, reach out to the Egyptians, continue to isolate Iran, continue to stoke Sunni fears of the growing Shia threat from Iran and within their own borders, continue to promote Arab disunity, and put a credible plan of Palestinian autonomy on the table. Believe it or not, the last suggestion will be the hardest to accomplish due to the politics in Israel and the weakness of the Netanyahu coalition government. Creating a two state solution will not solve all of the problems and there will always be self-serving politicians and demagogues who will claim the Palestinians got screwed. But, it may be enough to unify the vast majority of Western and Arab nations against the instigators in the militant wings of the Shia and Sunni sects.