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. …