From Conflict to Peace? Israel's Relations with Syria and the Palestinians

By Ma'oz, Moshe | The Middle East Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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From Conflict to Peace? Israel's Relations with Syria and the Palestinians


Ma'oz, Moshe, The Middle East Journal


For about two decades after the 1948 war, Israel successfully fought against Arab belligerency and, in the 1967 war, it occupied new Arab territories. But while concluding a peace agreement with Egypt (1979) and conducting de facto peaceful relations with Jordan (since 1970), Israel continued its bitter conflicts with Syria and the Palestinians, highlighted in the 1982 Lebanese war. Only under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's leadership (1992-95) did major breakthroughs occur for the first time between Israel, the Palestinians and Syria. But these remarkable developments were halted during Binyamin Netanyahu's term as prime minister (1996-99), leaving Israel with the crucial challenges to achieve full peace and reconciliation with these two Arab nations.

No single article could adequately summarize the entire scope of Israeli-Arab relations over the past 50 years. After many complexities and several wars, peace treaties have been signed by Israel with Egypt and with Jordan. Israel and Lebanon maintained the cease-fire on their border for many years, but an ultimate resolution of the remaining issues between them will be dependent on Syria.

Thus the two major outstanding issues are Israel's relations with Syria and with the Palestinians. Israel and Syria have been in a state of war since 1948, despite brief periods of negotiations, while Israeli-Palestinian relations are still precarious, despite the Oslo Accord of 1993. Indeed, these deep-rooted conflicts continue to influence significantly Israel's relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, and have repercussions within Israel's domestic politics and society.

ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIANS: THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE 1948 WAR

For Israel's Arab neighbors, and notably for the Palestinians, their humiliating military defeat in the 1948 war at the hands of the tiny Jewish state was a severe blow, the naksa, or catastrophe, as they have traditionally referred to it. The Palestinians' national community disintegrated and dispersed, while more than half (some 700,000) became refugees, partly having fled the war zones and partly been expelled by Israeli forces.1 They were put in refugee camps in the other two inhabited parts of Palestine-the Jordanian-held West Bank and Egyptian controlled Gaza Strip-as well as in Lebanon, Syria and the East Bank of Jordan. Ever since, they and their offspring have longed to return to their homes inside Israel; many would illegally infiltrate into Israel to work their fields, to visit their relatives or to commit acts of violence against Jews.2 Indeed the Palestinian refugee camps became, begining in the early 1950s, mobilization centers for guerrilla/terrorist attacks on Israeli Jews, engineered or permitted by Arab regimes. These camps also became breeding grounds for the various Palestinian fida'i ("sacrifice," guerrilla) organizations, notably Fatah, which emerged in the early 1960s, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), established in 1964 (and subsequently consolidated under ChairmanYasir `Arafat's leadership). These organizations were committed for many years to the destruction of Israel by means of a military-guerrilla struggle.

Adopting harsh measures against Palestinian infiltrators and fida'iyyun, Israel also consistently opposed the return of Palestinian refugees and rejected United Nations Security Council Resolution 194 (of December 1948), which recognized the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes inside Israel, or receive compensation. Israel blamed the Arabs for attacking it in 1948 (killing 6,000 Jews out of the 650,000 inhabitants) and thus causing the Palestinian refugee problem. It has also argued that the return of the Palestinian refugees would undermine the viability and character of the Jewish state, which itself absorbed many Jewish refugees from Arab countries. But owing to American pressure, Israel has nevertheless admitted some 40,000-50,000 Palestinian refugees since the early 1950s, under a family reunification program.

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