Overcoming Adversity: Fifty Years of Israeli Independence

By Reich, Bernhard; Kieval, Gershon R. | Harvard International Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Overcoming Adversity: Fifty Years of Israeli Independence


Reich, Bernhard, Kieval, Gershon R., Harvard International Review


Author's Note:

This material has been reviewed by the CIA.

That review neither constitutes CIA authentication of information nor implies CIA endorsement of the author's views.

BERNARD REICH is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, and GERSHON R. KIEVAL is a senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

Israel's beginnings were inauspicious. Its Declaration of Independence, lofty in ideals and objectives, was promulgated in a land of limited potential and was greeted with a declaration of war by its neighbors. Fifty years later, Israel continues to face some, albeit fewer, hostile neighbors, and its economic prospects are bright. While its democratic system has been buffeted by challenges never imagined, such as the assassination of a prime minister by a Jewish extremist, it has weathered them to sustain its parliamentary structure and Western-style liberal democracy. At 50, Israel's prospects are substantial, although both adversity and challenges seem to grow with each new accomplishment.

Israel's history since independence is often recounted in terms of the wars it has fought with the Arab states that have challenged its right to exist. During its first five decades, Israel has fought six major wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1969-70, 1973, 1982) and engaged in countless skirmishes with its Arab neighbors in an effort to achieve the peace and stability essential for domestic development.

The first Arab-Israeli war, known in Israel as the War of Independence, was long and costly--some 6,000 Israelis were killed, representing about one percent of the Jewish population. The war left Israel in control of more territory than it had been allocated by the UN partition plan of 1947. The area was acquired at the expense of the projected Arab state of Palestine. Jerusalem was divided between Israel and Jordan rather than becoming the international city envisioned by the United Nations.

The war ended in armistice agreements that were intended to be the first steps toward peace. This hope soon evaporated amidst increasing tensions that were manifested in acts of sabotage, shootings, and cross-border attacks. Hundreds of Israelis were killed and injured in some 3,000 armed clashes with Arab regular or irregular forces inside Israeli territory. In addition, some 6,000 acts of sabotage, theft, or attempted theft were committed by infiltrators coming primarily from Egyptian and Jordanian territory. The situation continued to deteriorate until Israel, in collusion with Britain and France, invaded the Sinai Peninsula on October 29, 1956.

Peace again proved to be elusive for Israel after its eventual withdrawal from Egyptian territory. Although there was no large-scale outbreak of hostilities between Israel and the Arab states for a decade after the 1956 Sinai campaign, tensions remained high. During this period, Israel focused its attention on economic and social achievement at home and made considerable progress in transforming the country into a modern, urban, industrial society.

Of all the wars that Israel has fought, the June 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict--also known as the Six Day War--arguably has had the greatest impact on the country. Israel's decisive victory and its subsequent control of substantial amounts of territory altered the regional and domestic situation and generated considerable discussion in Israel on appropriate policies to secure peace. Until 1967, Israel was prepared for peace with the Arab states on the basis of the 1949 armistice lines with minor modifications, but after the events of May and June 1967, many in Israel argued for the need to change the security situation. Religious, ideological, and historical claims to the occupied territories reinforced this view. The status of these territories has been a focus of the peace process ever since.

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 took Israel by surprise. …

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