Arab-Israel conflict lessons

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 18 Feb 2020

Looking back is necessary if we want to move forward. The Arab-Israeli conflict is an apt case in point, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

The US Middle East peace plan invites us to look back and try to learn the lessons of the 120 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict since Herzl first came up with his concept of a “Jewish state”. The Trump deal is hardly the first attempt to resolve this conflict. Since the end of World War II, not a single US president has not dreamed of being the statesman who brought peace to the land of Jesus Christ. Trump is no exception. Truman believed he could do it by fostering the UN “partition resolution” in 1948. In the mid-1950s, Eisenhower saw the solution in a formula for sharing the waters of Levantine Rivers. Kennedy, in 1962, thought dialogue with Nasser would do the trick while his successor, LBJ, who was bogged down by the Vietnam War, decided to get it over with by putting his weight behind Israel in 1967. Nixon opened with the Rogers Plan in 1970 and closed with the disengagement agreements on the Syrian and Egyptian fronts in 1974. Carter initiated Camp David and concluded with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Reagan put his name to an initiative in 1983 and Bush Sr kickstarted the Madrid Conference in 1991. Clinton hosted Camp David II and brokered a set of understandings in 2000, while in 2008 Bush Jr pushed a “roadmap” for peace at the Annapolis Naval Academy. Obama tried his best to mediate but failed because of Israeli settlement expansion. Then Trump came along to impose a new status quo regarding Jerusalem and the refugees, then designed a “bargain” with some economic inducements thrown in and called it the “Deal of the Century”. This long road of US peace-making attempts intersected with such phenomena as the US-Israeli special relationship, US-Arab relations as shaped by oil, the complexities of the Cold War and US global supremacy.

Lesson one from this long history is that de facto realities have always held sway over legal and moral arguments. This helps us identify a basic difference between Jewish and Palestinian political elites in their handling of this age-old conflict. It is undeniable that the Jews not only settled and took root on a land that did not belong to them and that was already inhabited by others (the Palestinians), but they also built political, economic and social edifices on that land. In the early days, the Jews encountered major obstacles to the Zionist project, not least of which was the rise of the rabidly anti-Semitic Nazi and fascist movements in Europe, on the one hand, and the reluctance on the part many countries, including the US, to accept Jewish refugees, on the other. On the other side, the Palestinians who lived on their land and who had long and extensive cultural and civilisational relations with the rest of the Arab world, did not do much in the way of building the nucleus of a Palestinian state. This is not to suggest that there were no attempts, of course. But the difference in scale was considerable. Whether this had to do with the British occupation of Palestine, the profound underdevelopment of Arab and Palestinian societies, the continued hold of colonial powers over Palestine’s neighbours, or other factors, the upshot is that by the time of the Partition Resolution, the Jews had everything in place to administer a state and they were ready to fight for it, whether by building universities or building modern armies. The Palestinians were dependant on other Arab countries and these were under colonial occupation and suffered developmental problems of their own.

The second lesson is that military force, however powerful, has limits. Military might, alone, cannot attain the objectives of either side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Arabs failed in the wars of 1948 and 1967, but the Israelis failed in 1956 and 1973. Israeli troops also failed to suppress the first and second Palestinian Intifadas by use of force. Moreover, there were times when military victory backfired. In 1982, Israeli achieved one of its greatest victories with its invasion of Lebanon and the occupation of its capital, Beirut. But the consequence was the birth of one of the fiercest threats Israel has encountered: Hizbullah which, in turn, lured the expansion of Iranian influence up to the Mediterranean, threatening Arab and Israeli borders. 

Despite its military victories, Israel has not succeeded in expunging the Palestinian presence in Palestine. Some 12 million people live in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Half them are Israeli Jews and the other half are Palestinians. They live in close proximity in all parts of Palestine, sometimes in such tight quarters as the Haram Al-Sharif precinct where you find Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Wailing Wall. These demographic facts and these holy places, which epitomise history and religious passions, are also major concrete realities. Despite its victories from 1948 to 1967 and the military upper hand it has always had over the Arabs, Israel has always lacked legitimacy, not only in the Arab world but also in the broader Islamic world and among other countries in the world, as well. In this multi-layered war (state versus state, state versus liberation movement/grassroots uprising/revolutionary terrorism, conventional war and guerrilla warfare, etc), neither side has been able to achieve a definitive victory over the other. 

Lesson three is that the Arab-Israeli conflict has an impetus and an essential essence that has enabled it to continue even as the whole world changes and shifts from one type of global order to another. The conflict began in World War I and survived World War II with its repercussions on Jews and Arabs and Palestinians alike. It outlasted all the fluctuations of the Cold War, the reverberating collapse of the Soviet Union and the attack against the World Trade Centre in New York. Leaders and fighters adjusted to changing realities and scrambled to take advantage of new developments. 

The perpetuity of the conflict combined with the futility of military force brings us to the fourth lesson. Nothing has ever been able to stimulate a major change in the geopolitical context of the conflict except direct dialogue between the Arabs and the Jews and between Arab states and Israel. It was Camp David that brought the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and the end to the Israeli occupation of Sinai in 1982. Just over a decade later, another set of face-to-face meetings led to the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty. In-between came the Oslo Accords which established the first Palestinian national authority, creating an unprecedented Palestinian reality on the ground in Palestine. 

The fifth lesson is that the longer the Arab-Israeli conflict lasted, the less Arab countries were able to grapple with the challenges of development and to address strategic threats at home and abroad. As we entered the second decade of this century, the experience of that conflict combined with a diagnosis of the state of the Middle East tells us to what extent the contradictions of the Arab-Israeli conflict can lead to the rise of major problems for both sides. During the past decade, these problems have assumed the form of widespread anarchy and terrorism.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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