Arab-Israeli Conflict: Is It History?
Delvoie, Louis A., Behind the Headlines
For two generations of Western politicians, diplomats, and scholars, the most serious regional conflict in the world was the Arab-Israeli dispute. For many, it still is. But does it rate this degree of concern and attention today on the part of the West?
The traditional Western interest in the dispute was firmly rooted in certain features of the region in which it was to unfold. Beyond the literary and scholarly horizons opened up by the now much criticized school of `Orientalists' and the popular appetite for the tales of exploration and adventure of the likes of Richard Burton, T.E. Lawrence, and Wilfred Thesiger, the Western world's primary interest in the Middle East was as a transit route linking Britain, France, Portugal, and Holland with their empires in Asia. First the overland route and then the Suez Canal were seen as vital assets in political, economic, and military terms.
The strategic importance of the Middle East region for the West increased dramatically with the discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian peninsula in the 1920s and 1930s. Not only the oil producing countries but also the Suez Canal as the route for the westward movement of oil took on an importance they had never before enjoyed in Western eyes. Indeed the region became one of the key prizes fought over during the Second World War.
The end of that war gave rise to a new dimension of Western involvement in the Middle East. When the full extent and horror of the crimes perpetrated against the Jews of Europe by Germany's Third Reich slowly sank into their consciousness, the peoples of Western Europe and North America were overcome by sympathy or a sense or guilt, or both. One Western nation after another rallied to the Zionist call for the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East and gave support to the United Nations plan to partition Palestine. This humanitarian impulse remained dominant as the fledgling state of Israel fought off a concerted attack by its Arab neighbours and in turn provoked the mass exodus of Palestinians, who were to become homeless refugees throughout the region.
The creation of the state of Israel and its first war with its neighbours transformed what had been a localized struggle into a major regional conflict. The traditional `Palestine question' had been confined within a reasonably finite territory in which Palestinian Arabs and Jews vied for control. What became the `Arab-Israeli conflict' was to pit the Jewish state against an ever increasing number of Arab countries from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf and was to become a major source of political and military instability.
The onset of the cold war and its spread beyond its initial European and East-West axes gave yet another dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Progressively the United States and the Soviet Union became more heavily engaged in the Middle East and on opposite sides of various fences. The United States and its Western allies tended to support Israel and the conservative Arab regimes. The Soviet Union and its East European allies supported the revolutionary Arab regimes, most notably Egypt and Syria, which were Israel's strongest and most committed adversaries.
Thus what came to distinguish the Arab-Israeli dispute from so many other regional conflicts was that it seemed to represent the greatest threat to international peace and security and thus to the welfare of people around the world. There was general recognition that wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours posed a real risk of escalation and global conflagration because of the very direct and adversarial political and military engagement of the two superpowers in the region. Indeed, those fears proved well justified and were, if anything, intensified by events surrounding the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars.
But if there was a steady and understandable increase in Western interest and involvement in Arab-Israeli affairs between the 1940s and the 1970s, in the intervening years many developments argue that this trend has more than run its course.
With the collapse of the European empires in Asia, the Middle East lost some of its strategic significance as a transit route for the West. The closure of the Suez Canal for nearly seven years in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 demonstrated that the West could survive the loss of what had always been described as `this vital artery.' Technological progress in the form of giant oil tankers and large container ships using the route around the Cape of Good Hope and of jumbo jets overflying the Middle East ensured a steady flow of goods and people between East and West, at relatively little extra cost and inconvenience. The myth of Western Europe's almost total dependence on the Suez Canal was shattered. Indeed, when the Canal re-opened in 1974, the Egyptian government had to engage in a serious selling effort to regain clients and traffic.
The passage of years and events also went a long way towards allaying one of the most abiding Western concerns about the Arab-Israeli conflict - the ability of the state of Israel to survive. Fuelled by sentiments inspired by the Holocaust and by the geopolitical reality of a small Jewish state surrounded by hostile and larger Arab states, fears for the survival of Israel were slow to abate in the West. Abate they did, however, as Israel repeatedly proved not only its ability to defend itself, but also its capacity for inflicting crushing military defeats on any and all combinations of its Arab neighbours. Indeed, the concern now is not that Israel will succumb to the Arab states or the Palestinian people, but that it may harm and destabilize them by its overly ready and frequently disproportionate resort to the use of military force.
But what has changed the most in terms of Western interests is that the Arab-Israeli dispute no longer poses a serious threat to international peace and security. The fear that a war between Israel and its Arab neighbours could escalate into a global conflict is now part of the historical record, not a contemporary reality. Regional and international developments, taken together, not only make escalation virtually unthinkable, but also another full-blown Arab-Israeli war highly unlikely.
Whereas four Arab-Israeli wars broke out at relatively short intervals between 1948 and 1973, there has not now been such a war in over twenty years. Political compromise and diplomatic endeavour have slowly but largely been substituted for outright war in relations between Israel and the Arab states.
This transformation took place in three stages. First and foremost, Egypt concluded peace with Israel in the late 1970s, regained its lost territory, and under two different presidents has demonstrated the political will to respect its peace treaty, thus ruling itself out as a combatant. Secondly, Lebanon tore itself apart or was torn apart in the course of a protracted civil war; never a military power in its own right, Lebanon is still barely able to function as a state and deal with the challenges of reconstruction. Thirdly, the king of Jordan renounced his territorial claim to the Israeli occupied West Bank in the late 1980s and has more recently signed a peace agreement with Israel. In short, three of Israel's four Arab neighbours are no longer in the war game.
That leaves Syria. No one doubts the Syrian regime's profound enmity for Israel or its propensity for brutal and unscrupulous action. No one, however, has reason to accuse the Syrian regime of suicidal tendencies. Although frequently provoked by Israeli actions or spurred on from various quarters in the Arab world, President Hafez Assad and his associates have steadfastly resisted occasions and temptations to engage in direct military confrontation with Israel. They clearly recognize that if Syria suffered a series of military defeats at the hands of Israel when it had Egypt on its side, the prospects of prevailing against Israel without the aid of Egypt are virtually non-existent.
Nor can Syria hope for much effective assistance from other quarters in a war against Israel. Syria's traditional source of armaments and political support, the Soviet Union, has collapsed, and its principal successor state, the Russian Federation, has neither the will nor the capacity to continue playing that role. It also seems most unlikely that Syria could or would count on receiving much help from Iraq in view of the persistent political and ideological enmities which have for so many years characterized relations between Damascus and Baghdad. Indeed, Syria was a member of the coalition, led by the United States, which soundly defeated Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War. As for other Arab states, they are either militarily too weak or too far removed geographically to be of much help to Syria.
If the risks of another interstate Arab-Israeli war are virtually nil (whether or not a formal peace treaty is concluded between Syria and Israel), the risks of escalation are absolutely nil. The end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union put paid to the era of superpower polarization and confrontation in the Middle East. The United States is now the only superpower present and playing a role in the region, as it will be for the foreseeable future. The threat of a world war originating in or over the Arab-Israeli dispute is now a thing of the past.
Thus a series of international and regional events have had the effect of reversing the transformation of the dispute from the `Palestine question' into the `Arab-Israeli conflict.' It has now reverted to its former status as the `Palestine question.' While small-scale incursions from outside the contested territory occasionally produce highly regrettable incidents, these are essentially localized; they are not great issues of regional or international peace and security.
In other words, the Arab-Israeli dispute is now essentially a civil war, indistinguishable in terms of its realities from any number of other civil wars unfolding around the globe. In fact, it is a reasonably benign civil war, having produced over the last five years far less death, destruction, suffering, and political instability than any one of the civil wars in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Liberia, and the Sudan. Even what many regard as the most central humanitarian issue in the Arab-Israeli dispute, the fate of the Palestinian refugees, is certainly not unique; there are more Afghan refugees than there are Palestinian refugees.
And yet the Western world continues to devote more political, diplomatic, and financial resources to finding solutions to the Palestine question than to any other comparable conflict. Why? As has been suggested, the answer certainly cannot be found in any hard-nosed assessment of Western political and economic interests. Within the Middle East region, the West's interests are far more directly at stake in the mutually hostile relations of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran than in Israel's relations with the Palestinians, Syria, or Jordan. In the post-cold war world, the importance of the politics, the oil resources, the armaments, and the transit routes of the Persian Gulf area dwarf anything which the Levant has to offer.
If the answer does not rest in an assessment of Western interests, where does it lie? It can probably be discovered in three mutually reinforcing phenomena. The first is inertia or `force of habit,' a failure or unwillingness to recognize change and changing realities - if the Arab-Israeli dispute was of key importance to the West from 1945 to 1985, then it must still be so today. The second is the presence in many Western countries of large and politically influential Jewish or Arab communities which exert pressures on Western governments to maintain an unflagging involvement in Arab-Israeli affairs. The third is the existence throughout the Western world of often interlocking networks of government officials, academics, and journalists who have devoted most of their working lives to the Arab-Israeli dispute; any diminution of Western involvement in the dispute would undermine the value and marketability of their hard earned expertise.
The sum of these phenomena probably means that Western governments will be slow to change the ranking of the Arab-Israeli dispute on their lists of foreign policy priorities. Does it matter? In one sense the answer is no. There are still genuine and vexing political and humanitarian problems to be resolved in the Arab-Israeli arena. In another sense the answer is a resounding yes. Given the finite limits of the West's political, diplomatic, and financial resources, the preoccupation with things Arab-Israeli is having a distorting effect on Western foreign policy agendas and is often detrimental to the pursuit of other more important or more pressing political, economic, security, or humanitarian objectives in other parts of the world. An article in the Economist on 8 June 1996 eloquently illustrated the issue by pointing out that whereas the United States secretary of state, Warren Christopher, had paid 26 visits to Israel and 24 to Syria between 1993 and 1996, he had been to China and Bosnia only once. The author of the article, noting the lack of progress toward an Israel-Syria peace agreement, gently asked whether this allocation of time and effort was not `misguided.' A valid question and one well worth pondering.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Arab-Israeli Conflict: Is It History?. Contributors: Delvoie, Louis A. - Author. Magazine title: Behind the Headlines. Volume: 55. Issue: 1 Publication date: Autumn 1997. Page number: 12+. © 2007 Canadian International Council. COPYRIGHT 1997 Gale Group.