Israel and the Arab World
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter traces and analyzes the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict from its early days to the present. What began as a Jewish-Arab conflict in and over Palestine developed in 1948 into a larger conflict between Israel and the Arab world. The conflict festered in the 1950s and culminated in the war of June 1967. That war had two major contradictory results. First, it provided Israel with bargaining chips for negotiating peace with Arab countries that lost territory in the Six-Day War. Most significantly, this led to the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979. But second, it also encumbered Israel with the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the lingering control of a large Palestinian population. To a great extent the larger Arab-Israeli conflict was telescoped into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its present form. In recent years two other contradictory developments have been shaping the Israeli-Arab landscape. The return of Iran and Turkey into the Middle Eastern arena has added an important Islamic dimension to the conflict. But Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and the exacerbation of Sunni-Shiite tensions in the Middle East have had a moderating effect on the attitude of the Sunni Arab states toward Israel.
In the second half of the 2010s Israeli leaders and policymakers tended to express their delight with Israel’s good relationship with several Sunni Arab states, as well as to suggest a regional approach to the resolution of the underlying and persistent Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The phrase “regional approach” refers to the notion of relying on such major Sunni Arab states as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan as partners in the resolution of the Palestinian issue. There was and is a substantive dimension to this view. Israel has full-fledged peaceful and diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, as well as working relationships with several other Sunni Arab states, and the Arab consensus endorsed in 2007 the Saudi initiative for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. But these relationships rest on a very slender base. Egypt and Jordan are committed to the peace treaties with Israel, and both countries maintain security relationships with it. Other Sunni Arab countries share with Israel common enmity with Iran and Jihadi Islam and maintain various forms of cooperation with Israel, mostly under the table. In a Middle East shaped by political turmoil, Iranian expansionism, the resurgence of Russia, and a decreased American commitment and presence, Israel does not necessarily seem the archenemy it used to be decades earlier. But the perspective of the political and governing elites is not shared by Arab public opinion. The Arab publics, affected by Islamist influence, the mass media, and social media, continue to view Israel as an alien, illegitimate presence in their midst and the oppressor of the Palestinians. It does not take much for these sentiments to erupt and force the hands of their governments. In July 2017, when a terrorist act near the Temple Mount led Israel to limit access to the mosques, populations and governments in the Arab world responded angrily, to the point of jeopardizing Israel’s diplomatic relations with Jordan. And while Iran’s quest for regional hegemony has improved Israel’s relationship with Teheran’s Sunni Arab rivals, it has added a formidable foe to the ranks of Israel’s opponents and has reinforced the Islamic dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
These developments are emblematic of the current phase of Israel’s relationship with the Arab world: much better than it was at the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but resting on slender feet and bedeviled by the lingering Israeli-Palestinian strife. To put these events in perspective, this chapter examines the origins and unfolding of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The full-fledged Arab-Israeli conflict began in 1948 at the conclusion of the first Arab-Israeli war, which ended with Israel’s victory and consolidation. The Arab defeat transformed the Arab-Jewish conflict in and over Palestine and the Arab states’ support for the Palestinian cause into a bitter conflict between Israel and the Arab collective.
The Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine developed in the aftermath and as a product of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the formation of the British Mandate in Palestine. Arab-Jewish tensions had been apparent since the beginning of modern Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine after 1882. But at that point Arab nationalism—let alone Palestinian nationalism—did not exist, and the tensions between the native population and the early Zionists were local and limited. The end of World War I, the destruction of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, the rise of Arab nationalism as the dominant political and ideological force in the Levant, and British-Zionist cooperation in the construction of the Jewish “national home” in Palestine gave birth to a classic national conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism. Both nationalist movements were consumed by the conflict. The Arab Palestinian national movement, which developed in the 1920s and 1930s under the leadership of the mufti of Jerusalem, was determined to fight the Zionist challenge tooth and nail. It rejected any idea of coming to terms with the growing Jewish community or of collaborating with the British in the development of a constitutional framework that would have given them a majority position. Its animosity toward the Jewish community manifested itself in several rounds of riots and then in the Arab Revolt of 1936–1939.
The Zionist Jewish position was far more complex. A whole gamut of opinion developed, from a leftist liberal wing that advocated binationalism and compromise to a nationalistic trend that argued the Zionist movement would have to resort to force and rely on international support in order to build a Jewish state in the face of Palestinian Arab opposition. By the mid-1930s the leadership of the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine) and the Zionist movement, headed by David Ben Gurion, had reached the conclusion that a military clash with the Palestinian Arabs and probably with part of the Arab world was inevitable if a Jewish state were to be established. The quest for statehood was intensified by the sense of an impending disaster hanging over the heads of European Jewry.
Ben Gurion’s belief that some of the Arab states were likely to join the Palestinian Arabs in a future military conflict derived from the growing involvement of the emerging system of Arab states in the Palestine conflict. A full-fledged Arab system emerged only at the end of World War II as the power of Great Britain and France declined and countries like Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria came to enjoy real, If not full, independence. A combination of ideological commitment to pan-Arabism, genuine solidarity with the Palestinian Arabs, and state and dynastic interests drew these Arab states into the Palestinian issue in support of the Palestinian Arabs. The latter encouraged Arab participation in the conflict in an understandable effort to increase their leverage (the Palestinians came to regret this development when they realized that they had lost control over their own destiny and become dependent on the Arab states’ interests). But there was another side to the relationship between the Arab collective and the Palestinian issue. As early as 1919, a school of thought emerged within the Zionist leadership that sought to resolve the Palestinian conflict through an agreement with the larger Arab world. The rationale underlying this approach argued that it was much easier for the Zionist movement to come to terms with leaders who had a larger scope rather than fight with the Palestinian leadership over the limited territory of Palestine. This was the logic behind the abortive agreement, drafted but not signed, between the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Hashemite prince (and future king) Faysal in 1919. This motif remained part of the Arab-Israeli relationship throughout the twentieth century and up to the present.
1948 and the Emergence of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
The UN Partition Resolution of November 1947, which ended the British Mandate over Palestine and divided Palestine west of the Jordan into a Jewish state and an Arab one, was accepted by the Jewish leadership and rejected by the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states. It was followed by a civil war in Palestine and, after the declaration of Israeli statehood in May 1948, by an Arab invasion (volunteers from Syria and Egypt had joined the fray earlier). The war ended in 1949 with a series of armistice agreements between Israel and the invading Arab states (except Iraq). By the war’s end, Israel controlled an area larger than the territory assigned to it by the Partition Resolution. The area known as the West Bank was annexed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip came under Egyptian control. An Arab Palestinian state did not come into being, and the Palestinian population was dispersed. This chain of events came to be known in Arabic as the Nakba (“Disaster”). The term refers first and foremost to the loss of Palestine, but it soon acquired a much larger significance. The Arab world had to ask itself how several Arab states and armies were defeated by a small Jewish community in Palestine.
The ensuing soul-searching in the Arab world had several consequences. It contributed to the series of coups d’état and revolutions and more broadly to the collapse of the old order in the Arab world. But it also led to a festering of the conflict with Israel. Israel was now seen as a bridgehead of the West implanted in the middle of the Arab world, separating Egypt from the Levant. It was easier to explain the humiliating defeat by depicting Israel not as a small, self-standing entity, but as an extension of the mighty West. Another version depicted Israel in diabolic terms. These trends were exacerbated by two other developments: the militarization and radicalization of Arab politics and the extension of the Cold War between East and West from Europe to the Middle East. By the mid-1950s it became a conflict led on the Arab side by radical nationalists allied with the Soviet Union against a pro-Western Israel. The West itself was ambivalent in its attitude toward Israel. Britain and France colluded with Israel in the rearguard action of 1956 against Egypt, but Washington was still hoping to come to terms with Arab nationalism and viewed Israel as a liability rather than as an asset.
All efforts in the immediate aftermath of the 1948 war and into the early 1960s to resolve or at least moderate the Arab-Israeli conflict failed. For one thing, the Arab world was not in a hurry. Given the disparity between itself and Israel, its leaders felt that they just had to wait, that time was on their side. In more concrete terms, they wanted massive Israeli concessions that would be a partial compensation for the loss of Palestine and the Arab world’s humiliation. In turn Israel, feeling vulnerable, was not willing to make any major concessions. In Israel’s view it had accepted the Partition Resolution, the Palestinian Arabs had rejected it and started a war, and the Arab states had joined the fray and lost. There was no reason to reward aggression and penalize compliance. Thus, by the early 1950s the conflict seemed to be endemic, defying resolution.
The Turning Point of 1967
The Six-Day War, which broke out in June 1967, was the first major turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It was an unplanned war, the product of a classic case of deterioration. The Sinai Campaign of 1956 had produced eleven years of relative stability in Arab-Israeli relations. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt and of Arab nationalism, concluded at the end of the Sinai Campaign that he must not be drawn into war against Israel before he was ready. He definitely was not ready in May 1967, but he was moved by Syrian provocations and by a series of miscalculations to challenge Israel by sending his army into the Sinai Peninsula. Israel responded to the challenge by launching war on June 5, 1967. In six days it defeated the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian armies and captured the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, as well as the Golan Heights (see the chapter by Tal in this volume).
The war had manifold and far-reaching consequences. Israel demonstrated its military might and became an important regional power. Its relationship with the United States, which had been improving during the previous few years, became a close alliance. Arab nationalism, represented and symbolized by Nasser and Egypt and the Ba’ath Party in Syria, suffered a deadly blow. Arabism’s decline contributed to “the return of Islam.” An important cleavage was introduced into the relationship between the Arab states and the Palestinians. It was not immediately apparent, but the Arab states’ interests in regaining territories they lost in 1967 overshadowed their commitment to the Palestinians. The repercussions for Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians were enormous. For the first time since 1948 the whole of western Palestine was under one rule, in this case Israel’s. In theory, the partition that had not been implemented in 1947–1948 could now be implemented. But the war had other consequences as well. In Israel it gave birth to a movement led by the orthodox stream of Zionism, which saw the events of 1967 as an act of divine intervention, a messianic moment in the wake of which it was mandatory to settle Judea and Samaria and add them to the State of Israel (see the chapters by Barak and Pedahzur & Perliger in this volume). On the Palestinian side, the Palestinian nationalist movement that had been awakened in the early 1960s acquired a new impetus. Under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, his movement, Fatah, and the larger Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) conducted the struggle against Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as well as the “Zionist entity” as such.
The Six-Day War was the first major turning point in the history of Arab-Israeli relations since 1948, but its consequences were not unequivocal. It created the conditions for a potential resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict but also compounded it. Israel’s spectacular victory persuaded many Arabs that it was militarily invincible. Israel also acquired the assets that had been absent in 1949 for striking a bargain with the Arab world that would be an essential component of any settlement. On the negative side of the scale were the facts that Arab humiliation became more profound;the rise of political Islam turned an essentially political conflict into an increasingly religious one; and in Israel powerful forces emerged that sought to perpetuate the territorial status quo, which they preferred to the prospect of a political settlement.
In any event, the positive potential that was inherent in the consequences of the Six-Day War could not be exploited in its immediate aftermath. The Arab world was in no mood to accept the defeat, and at the Khartoum Arab summit in September 1967 the Arab consensus reaffirmed its traditional rejectionism. In Israel, The Land of Israel movement was founded, reinforced in short order by the Block of the Faithful settler movement as well as by a widespread mood that Israel was powerful and could wait for the Arabs to come to their senses. It took another war, the October war of 1973, for a peace process to be launched. That war was waged by Egypt and Syria, two states that had lost parts of their national territory in 1967 and were determined to regain them. Israel was caught by surprise, and the Israeli Defense Forces’s performance during the first few days was disappointing. But Israel rebounded, and the war was interrupted by the superpowers when the IDF was on the Egyptian mainland, 101 kilometers from Cairo and close to Damascus. Israel was shocked by the setbacks of the prewar and the early war and paid an enormous price in losses. The Arabs, Egypt in particular, took pride in their achievements at the war’s outset but realized that the failure to win a war that began so auspiciously indicated that Israel was indeed invincible. The ambiguous outcome provided an ideal setting for the US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, to launch a peace process. Between October 1973 and September 1975 Kissinger was able to negotiate a series of limited agreements that ended the war, disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria, and the more impressive Egyptian-Israeli interim agreement of September 1975. Kissinger’s “step-by-step” diplomacy contested the assumption that it was impossible to negotiate a comprehensive Arab-Israeli agreement and demonstrated that the optimal way to proceed was a series of interim agreements that would prevent a relapse into war and prepare the ground for an eventual comprehensive deal.
Egyptian-Israeli Peace, 1977–1979
Kissinger’s approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking appears to have run its course in 1975 and was in any event abandoned by Washington at the end of 1976 when Jimmy Carter defeated Gerald Ford in the November presidential elections. Carter came into office determined to seek comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace predicated on full Israeli withdrawal from the territories captured in 1967, Palestinian statehood, and full peace granted by the Arab world to Israel. Ironically, his efforts to achieve such a formula, his cooperation with the Soviet Union, and his courting of Syria and the PLO pushed Egypt and Israel into each other’s arms. Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat, was a man who believed in bold initiatives and steps. In Israel, Labor’s hegemony was broken after forty years when Menachem Begin, leader of the right-wing Likud Party, won the elections of May 1977. Begin was a devout believer in Israel’s right to control the whole of the Land of Israel, but he was willing to exclude the Sinai Peninsula from his definition of that entity. More important, he was a new leader, a man who had come to power after decades of being in the opposition, and was willing to try something new. The personal interactions among President Carter, President Sadat, and Prime Minister Begin played a major role in the success of the efforts to reach peace between Israel and Egypt. Carter’s initial response to the bilateral Israeli-Egyptian negotiations was rather negative because he preferred a comprehensive deal, but when he understood that it was significant enough to obtain peace between Israel and the major Arab state, he made a major contribution to the breakthrough that was achieved at the Camp David summit in September 1978.
The Egyptian-Israeli peace had two parts to it. The bilateral part consisted of Israeli agreement to withdraw fully from the Sinai Peninsula in return for a full-fledged, contractual peace and a satisfactory security regime in the Sinai. Egypt’s commitment to the Palestinian cause was satisfied by an autonomy agreement according to which the Palestinians were to enjoy autonomy in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for a transitional period. The full-fledged Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed in 1979 and was a milestone in Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. Not only did Israel win peace and recognition from an Arab party, but that party was the Arab world’s largest and most important state. Sadat was initially denounced and ostracized by the other Arabs, but he told them defiantly that they would come to see that he was right and that they would follow in his footsteps. He was correct.
From Israel’s point of view, peace with Egypt was an important step in changing the Arab world’s view of the Jewish state. The end of belligerency with Egypt became an important pillar in Israel’s national security. But one of Begin’s major assumptions when he made peace with Egypt and gave up the Sinai was proven wrong. Begin believed that Sadat was in fact ready to make a separate peace with Israel and that the autonomy plan did not have to be taken seriously. Over the next few years he discovered that this was not the case and that the Palestinian challenge presented by the PLO, primarily from its base in Lebanon, remained powerful. It is against this backdrop that Begin’s terrible mistake of being drawn into the 1982 war in Lebanon should be viewed.
Israel also discovered that its bilateral peace with Egypt was destined to remain a “cold peace.” Egypt’s government made peace with Israel, but there were large and strong currents of opinion in Egypt, among Islamists and Nasserites, who opposed the peace and continued to boycott Israel and Israelis. As the regime’s disappointment with Israel’s failure to implement the autonomy plan mounted and was aggravated by the Lebanon war, the regime itself developed a strategy of keeping the letter of the peace treaty but not its spirit. This policy came to be known as “the cold peace.” Israel itself acted with ambivalence. After years of being completely cut off from its regional environment, the prospect of being integrated at least in part into the region proved frightening to many Israelis, who preferred the comfort and familiarity of the Israel they knew and were terrified by the notion of open borders with the Arab world.
The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was followed by thirteen years of stalemate. Israel became preoccupied with the 1982 war in Lebanon and its aftermath, and the Arab world was preoccupied with the long Iran-Iraq war. It was only in 1991 that an Arab-Israeli peace process was renewed, at the initiative of the George H. W. Bush administration in the wake of the First Gulf War.
The Madrid Peace Process, 1991–1996
The most ambitious effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict was the product of several developments: the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, America’s new position as the world’s only superpower, and the Gulf crisis and the First Gulf War (1990–1991). At the end of the Gulf War, Washington enjoyed an unprecedented position in the Middle East; the world’s only superpower had just saved its Arab friends (Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) from Iraqi aggression and demonstrated its immense military superiority. During the war, ballistic missiles were used for the first time in an Arab-Israeli context when Saddam’s Iraq fired Scud missiles into Israel. It seemed both urgent and feasible to take advantage of Washington’s new and unique position to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict (see the chapter by Stein in this volume).
To this end the Madrid summit was convened in October 1991, and a framework was created for the negotiations. Israel was to negotiate bilaterally with three delegations: Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian-Palestinian. At the same time, five working groups were established to discuss multilateral issues (water, environment, refugees, arms control, and economic development). The inclusion of the Palestinians as a junior partner in a combined Jordanian-Palestinian delegation reflected the PLO’s weakened position in the aftermath of the Gulf War, in which Arafat had gambled on Saddam Hussein and become anathema to the Gulf Arabs. It also made it easier for Israel’s right-wing leader, Yitzhak Shamir, to participate in the Madrid process. Shamir’s willingness to go to Madrid should be seen against the backdrop of the first Palestinian intifada, which had broken out in December 1987. It was a spontaneous uprising of the Palestinian population that after twenty years of Israeli occupation forced the IDF to deal not with terrorists but with civilian opposition. Its impact on Israel’s population and mood was far-reaching.
The Madrid Peace Process: Years of Hope
The peace process launched in Madrid started in earnest almost a year later, after the formation of Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the summer of 1992. His predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, had sent a delegation to the Madrid conference, and his government had participated in the ensuing negotiations, but his concept of peace was limited. This concept and the difficulties inherent in the peace process were responsible for a slow and problematic beginning. Rabin came to power determined to take advantage of the Madrid framework to put Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors on a new basis. For Rabin, the real danger to Israel lay in the east, with Iran and Iraq. To cope with that challenge, he wanted to fix Israel’s relationship with its immediate neighbors. Rabin’s original approach was modest: he wanted an autonomy agreement with the Palestinians, to be negotiated with local leaders rather than the PLO. At the same time he was also willing to test the prospect of making peace with Syria, similar to the agreement made with Egypt in 1979.
One of the foundations of Rabin’s strategy in the peace process was his preference for dealing with individual Arab states rather than with the Arab collective. This perspective dated back to Rabin’s first experience in peacemaking with the Arabs as a member of the Israeli delegation to the Rhodes conference in 1949. Rabin and his colleagues had discovered that the Arab collective pursued a tough line determined by its most radical members and that it was much easier to deal separately with individual Arab states. Indeed, a distinction had and has to be made between Israel’s larger conflict with the Arab collective and the series of bilateral conflicts it has had with particular Arab states. Thus, the Israeli-Egyptian conflict, beyond having to deal with Egypt’s commitment to Arabism and the Palestinian issue, has also been shaped by the competition, sometimes explicit, sometimes more subtle, between two powerful states over seniority and hegemony in the region. This helps explain Egypt’s negative impact on the multilateral peace process in the mid-1990s. In theory, Egypt should have been delighted by the Oslo Accords, which finally implemented the commitments made by Begin to Sadat in 1979. In practice, however, Egypt became worried by the prospect of Israeli integration into the region and by the role it could conceivably play in the area’s politics and economy. When a large Israeli delegation arrived at the Casablanca regional economic conference in 1994, the Egyptians were visibly unhappy and lost no time obstructing the work of the multilateral working groups. Jordan’s relationship with Israel has been entirely different. In fact, that relationship has to be seen not as a bilateral one but as a trilateral one, since Israel, Hashemite Jordan, and the Palestinian National Movement have been engaged since the 1920s in a three-sided relationship whose nature has changed several times over the years. During most periods, the Zionist movement, Israel, and the Hashemites have seen themselves as allies rather than as rivals within that relationship.1
For many years it was common in Israel to state that “Lebanon would be the second Arab state to make peace with Israel.” This cliché was based on the assumption that as a Christian-dominated country, Lebanon had no real conflict with Israel and would be waiting for the first major Arab state to make peace with Israel in order to follow suit. This belief was never quite true and is definitely not true now, when Lebanon is dominated by the Shiite community and Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.
Israel’s relationship with Syria has been more complex. For more than forty years, from 1949 to 1992, Syria was considered Israel’s most implacable Arab enemy. The significance of its Arab identity, the closeness of Syria to the Palestinian Arabs, and the particular circumstances under which the 1948 war came to an end had all contributed to this relationship. In 1992 Syria’s president, Hafez al-Asad, under the imnpact of regional and international changes, joined the Madrid peace process. A serious Israeli-Syrian negotiation began under Rabin in 1993 and was pursued on and off for the next eighteen years under several Israeli prime ministers, several times coming to the brink of an achievement but never quite reaching it. In the aftermath of the Syrian civil war and the question marks regarding the country’s very future, the prospects for renewed negotiations seem dim (Rabinovich, 1998).
The first breakthrough in the peace process of the 1990s was achieved with the PLO in a parallel secret track held in Oslo (see the chapter by Sela in this volume). The Oslo Accords, formally signed in Washington, DC, in September 1993, formed an interim agreement for five years based to a large extent on the autonomy plan that had been part of the Camp David accord and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. The major difference was the mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO and Israel’s agreement that Arafat, his entourage, and his security apparatus could govern the new Palestinian Authority (PA) established in Gaza and in the part of the West Bank. The first Oslo agreement was supplemented in September 1995 by the Oslo II agreement and was to be completed by final status negotiations between Israel and the PA. The Oslo Accords paved the way for a second Arab-Israeli peace treaty, signed between Israel and Jordan in October 1994, and for significant normalization of Israel’s relationships with several other Arab states. The Israeli-Syrian negotiations did not lead to an agreement. The broad lines of a potential agreement were drawn up in the negotiations of the years 1992–1996, but these negotiations were never completed.
These achievements laid the basis for the most optimistic phase in Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. On both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide it was widely felt that an end to the conflict could be negotiated. But this failed to happen. The Oslo peace process was obstructed by actions taken by both parties. More important, it was undermined by opposition and terror. Palestinian terrorists, mostly identified with the Hamas movement and supported by Iran, launched waves of terror in Israeli cities and turned the Israeli public against the peace process. On the Israeli side, a Jewish terrorist perpetrated a massacre of Palestinians in the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, and another assassinated Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, in order to derail the Oslo process. There were additional difficulties and challenges. Frustrated by the failure to regain the Golan Heights, Syria agitated against the peace process. Egypt, initially a supporter of the Oslo process, discovered that Israel was a potential competitor for hegemony in the region and began to undermine the peace process. Arab Islamists and nationalist intellectuals agitated against the acceptance of Israel. In Israel, opposition to the Oslo process and to the prospect of withdrawal from the Golan Heights gained momentum.
Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, was determined to continue the peace process and chose the Syrian track as his first priority. This was a miscalculation, and the new negotiations foundered. A fresh wave of Palestinian terrorism in the winter and early spring of 1996 contributed to Peres’s loss in the parliamentary election to Likud’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu promised to uphold the Oslo Accords, but once elected, he acted to emasculate them. He lost the election of 1999 to Ehud Barak, who vowed and acted to complete the negotiations on both the Syrian and Palestinian tracks. In the event, both efforts failed. Most resonant was the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000. When Arafat had signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, he had acted on the assumption that the Palestinians were weak and that time was on Israel’s side. By July 2000 his view had changed, and he was not willing to sign a final status agreement offering Israel finality and an end of claims. During the presummit negotiations and in Camp David, Ehud Barak broke several taboos, but an agreement was not reached. The failure of the Camp David summit led directly to the second intifada, which broke out in September 2000. This eruption of violence marked the end of the most ambitious effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Israeli Center Left and Left, the major supporters of a peace settlement with the Palestinians, suffered a deadly blow.
The Peace Process in the Twenty-First Century
The peace process did not come to an end with the outbreak of the second intifada. Ariel Sharon, the leader of the Israeli right wing who came to power in February 2001 and crushed the second intifada, took Israel out of Gaza in 2005 and dismantled the Israeli settlements in that region. The G. W. Bush administration launched the Annapolis process, which culminated in a far-reaching proposal made by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, to Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the summer and fall of 2008. Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, and his secretary of state, John Kerry, invested massive efforts between 2009 and 2016 in trying to renew and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Syrian agreement did not cease with Peres’s failure in the winter of 1996. Netanyahu, Barak and Olmert continued those negotiations intermittently until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in March 2011.
But these efforts did not quite approximate the seriousness of those in the years 1992–2000. Instead of a sustained, single-minded effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, a far more complex reality has crystallized. This reality is the product of a series of developments in the region, in the Arab world, in Israel, and among the Palestinians.
The Middle Eastern regional environment has been transformed by the addition of two powerful regional actors: Iran and Turkey. These are two Muslim successor states to Middle Eastern empires, both large countries with a population of around eighty million people each, strong economies, and powerful militaries. Both have regional ambitions. Iran is a Shiite country, determined to acquire regional hegemony relying mostly on Shiite allies and clients. Iran advocates absolute animosity to Israel and to the notion of Arab-Israeli reconciliation. It also built in Lebanon a pro-Iranian militia, Hezbollah, which led the successful campaign against Israeli occupation of south Lebanon in the aftermath of the 1982 war. Hezbollah’s success became the inspiration for those in the region who believe in the notion of resistance as opposed to reconciliation (denounced as capitulation). By 2017 it became clear that Iran is seeking to construct a land bridge to the Mediterranean and establish a direct and an indirect presence on Israel’s borders. The Iranian-Israeli conflict seems at times to overshadow the Arab-Israeli one.
Turkey is a Sunni country and a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of Islamic fundamentalism. In the Israeli-Palestinian context it supports Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey maintains diplomatic relations with Israel, but under Recep Tayyip Erdogan it is a fierce critic of Israeli policies. The roles played by Iran and Turkey have reinformed the transformation of the Arab-Israeli conflict from an essentially national and political conflict into a dispute with a major religious component. This trend has been reinforced by the role played in Israeli politics by religious nationalist parties and factions. The rise of the Islamic State organization (ISIS) has exacerbated the religious dimension of the conflict. At this point ISIS is focused on Arab regimes, but it represents a radical jihadi opposition to Israel’s very existence.
These developments are countered by a change in the perception of Israel by the Gulf Arab and other Sunni states in the region. The Iranian-Shiite challenge and the challenge of ISIS are seen as the gravest threats to these regimes. In this context, Israel seems less menacing and furthermore as an actual and potential ally. The change in the Saudi perspective surfaced in 2002 when Saudi Arabia launched the Saudi peace initiative. According to this plan the Arab world would make peace and normalize relations with Israel in return for full withdrawal to the boundaries of June 4, 1967. The Saudi peace initiative was adopted by the Arab League and is now known as the “Arab peace initiative.” The initiative is not a full-fledged plan and contains some problematic elements from Israel’s point of view, but its very formulation was an important development in Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. In February 1945 Saudi Arabia’s king, Ibn Saud, met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and devoted much of his time to an anti-Zionist tirade. Saudi policy has come a long way since that episode. This trend has been reinforced in subsequent years, to the point of encouraging several Israeli leaders to speak of “regional peace.” This concept assumes that it would be easier for Israel to resolve the Palestinian issue through and in cooperation with the Arab states. But this is an overly optimistic approach. In order for the Arab states to develop their discrete relationships with Israel and to play a role in facilitating a resolution of the Palestinian problem, Israel will have to be ready to make the concessions offered by such leaders as Barak and Olmert, which have not been acceptable to Netanyahu’s government in the first and second decades of the current century.
When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, he stated several times his desire to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he describes as “the ultimate deal.” To this end he appointed a special negotiator and assigned his son-in-law and adviser to the same task. But the effectiveness of Trump’s foreign policy is questionable, and his aspirations are hampered by the current realities of Palestinian and Israeli politics.
The PA is now divided between the West Bank, led by Abu Mazen and Fatah, and the Gaza Strip, led by Hamas. Hamas is opposed to the very idea of peaceful resolution of the conflict (though not to the notion of a long-term armistice). It is clear that Abu Mazen’s tenure is coming to an end, and the future of the PA is uncertain. The uncertainty is enhanced by yet another effort, perhaps more serious than earlier ones, to negotiate a Palestinian reconciliation. Among the Palestinians there is growing pessimism, a sense that the two-state solution is dead. Not all Palestinians regret this trend. Many believe that one statehood is inevitable, and in the long term this could mark the end of the Zionist enterprise.
This argument is at the very center of the public and political debate in Israel. In 2018 Israel is governed by the most right-wing government in its history. The more radical right-wing elements in the government are openly opposed to the idea of a two-state solution and would like to annex the West Bank, or at least to perpetuate the Israeli presence in and control of that territory. These groups are not worried by the prospect of drifting toward one statehood. Prime Minister Netanyahu and the more pragmatic right wing that he leads and represents are paying lip service to the idea of a two-state solution but in fact find themselves trailing after the radical Right. The Center and Left in Israeli politics advocate the idea of a two-state solution and warn of the dire consequences of perpetuating the status quo, but they lack the authoritative leadership and political muscle to take Israel back to the heyday of the peace process.
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