Israel and the End of the Cold War: The Shadow Has Faded

Article excerpt

The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union have profoundly affected the Middle East. On the strategic level, the deglobalization of the Arab-Israeli conflict--brought about by the loss of the radical Arab side's Soviet patron--made the current peace negotiations possible. On the cultural level, the reforging of links between Israel and Eastern Europe has refocused attention in Israel on the deep roots of many aspects of Israeli life in Central and Eastern Europe and will have far-reaching effects on the unfolding of Israel's identity and culture. Both developments herald greater stability in the Middle East.

A Regional Dispute Goes Global

In its origins, the Middle East conflict is a dispute between two national movements--Zionism and Arab nationalism--over a piece of land, called the Land of Israel by the Jews and Falastin (=Palestine) by the Arabs. During the 1950s, however, the regional conflict took on a global dimension with the alliance between the Soviet bloc and radical Arab nationalism, then symbolized by the person, charisma, and ideology of Egypt's President Gamal Abdel Nasser. That alliance, the most dramatic development in the Middle East since the failed Arab attempt to prevent the establishment of Israel in 1947-49, transformed the whole nature of the conflict.

The Nasserist-Soviet alliance was not primarily aimed against Israel. It was based on two common interests of the Soviets and radical Arabs in curtailing Western influence in the region: first, to put an end to the vestiges of British and French influence (as in the case of control over the Suez Canal, as well as French rule in Algeria) and, second, to counter growing American influence, which was greatly enhanced by the discovery and production of oil. But the simmering Arab-Israeli conflict and the unfinished Arab agenda regarding the Palestinian question meant that the Arab-Israeli conflict slowly became one of the mainstays of the new alliance.

The supply of Soviet arms to Egypt, Syria, and Iraq (later also to Libya)--together with the easy credits making these purchases possible--enabled the radical Arab states to increase and modernize their armed forces and helped maintain the Arab military elites in political power. It also severely curtailed the military options of the Jewish state in the event of regional war. First, it meant that Israel would have to take into account a possible Soviet response to a military engagement. And, second, it meant that even if Israel defeated the Arabs, Soviet diplomatic support and the resupply of fresh Soviet material would bring the Arab countries to their feet again, as indeed happened time and again in 1956, 1967, and 1973.

The Soviet decision to sever diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, shared by all Warsaw Pact countries except Romania, signaled the beginning of a diplomatic offensive that for many years put Israel at an international disadvantage. Soviet political, diplomatic, and ideological support for the radical Arab cause also secured for the Arab countries the international context that made it possible for them to keep the Palestinian issue on the world's agenda. It led in the 1970s to the attempt to delegitimize the ideological foundations of Israel through a series of United Nations resolutions equating Zionism with racism. Radical Palestinian factions received training and logistical support from Warsaw Pact countries' security services, which greatly facilitated their terroristic activities not only in the Middle East itself, but in Europe as well. And at least twice, during the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal in the summer of 1970 and then in the last days of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, Israeli forces found themselves on the verge of a virtual shooting war with Soviet forces. As a matter of fact, in August 1970 Israel shot down a number of MIG aircraft, flown by Soviet pilots, over the Suez Canal.

America Weighs In

The intensification of the Soviet-Arab alliance set in motion an ever-deepening U. …