70 Years: Israel’s Neighborhood Gets Rougher

70 Years: Israel’s Neighborhood Gets Rougher

The surrounding Muslim-majority states weren't friendly in 1948, but now many are in turmoil.

Ken Stein

Ken Stein, an Emory professor of modern Israeli history, is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org) and leads Emory’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel.

Israel’s biggest threat today, unlike 70 years ago, is off the map to the east: Iran. But it is asserting itself in unstable nations much closer to Israel’s borders.
Israel’s biggest threat today, unlike 70 years ago, is off the map to the east: Iran. But it is asserting itself in unstable nations much closer to Israel’s borders.

In January the veteran Arab journalist Rami Khouri made this assessment of the Middle East as a region: “Never before has the Arab region been so fractured, violent, volatile and vulnerable to the whims of desperate citizens, powerful autocrats, renegade militants, durable terrorists and predatory foreign militaries.”

By comparison, when Israel came into being 70 years ago, its neighborhood was hostile but relatively tranquil. Middle Eastern states were young, having just emerged from the post-World War II period. Not today.

Middle Eastern countries have vast unemployment and massive numbers of people displaced. Many are ripped by sectarian and ethnic rivalries, tribal contests, and religious intolerance. Arab national fabrics are imploding. And there is no apparent commitment of regional leaders to stem the bloodletting or restore a semblance of order between states.

Sitting on a sliver of land on the eastern Mediterranean as a non-Muslim, non-Arab state gives Israel almost no influence in shaping the region’s structural realignments, save for protecting its borders, citizens and sovereignty.

In terms of strategic vulnerabilities, Israel is more troubled by myriad uncertainties of Arab state survival than by resolution of the Palestinian issue. In unsettling times, by way of guidance about the retention of territories — the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights — remarks made by two former Israeli generals, Moshe Dayan in 1977 and Raful Eitan in 1996, have contemporary relevance. (See their comments below.)

On balance, with context as a teacher, Israel by the numbers is better off strategically in 2018 than it was in 1948. Its $315 billion annual GDP and its potent and highly sophisticated military provide it levels of deterrence that founding Zionist generations could not have dreamed of in the late 1940s.

It has a population of 8.4 million, not 650,000. About 20 percent of Israel’s population is below the poverty line. The country is producing vast amounts of exportable hydrocarbons that are cementing trade alliances with Mediterranean and southern European states.

With the exception of the Carter and Obama presidencies, 11 of 13 U.S. administrations have treated Israel reasonably well the past 70 years, though each had at least one major bone to pick with Israeli foreign policy.

Many of those issues were not resolved, including acquiring a nuclear weapon, using force to pre-empt an enemy’s attack and managing the territories taken in the June 1967 war. Still, Israel has a deep and mutually beneficial strategic relationship with the United States that is enshrined in law and custom.

Less promising for a small country like Israel is the steady reduction of America’s footprint in the region in the aftermath of the Cold War and of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Soviet Union was a distinct and feared Israeli Cold War enemy from the 1950s to the 1980s, but so far its successor state, Russia, has sought to avoid a confrontation with Israel over who might control the lands north of Israel. Russia apparently recognizes that Israel has a red line that cannot be penetrated to the point where Israel’s northern populations will be held hostage by Iranian or other proxy groups.

Where Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, Turkey, the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, is jousting for control of lands that sit close to Israel’s northern reaches.

Iran, once a key strategic ally and source of oil for Israel, has replaced Egypt of 50 years ago as Israel’s most potently troublesome enemy. Iran and her proxies are diabolical opponents of Israel’s very existence. Insurgencies and their offshoots, as well as terrorist organizations not present on Israel’s border areas seven decades ago, are embedded in territories on all sides of the Jewish state.

Oil revenues, not a lubricant for cultivating intolerance seven decades ago, continue to bankroll autocrats, religious extremists and radical groups.

Israel’s map of unfriendly folks in its near and distant neighborhood is more cluttered now. To fend off its foes, Israel requires cutting-edge intelligence gathering and the same sort of innovation and inventiveness that it needed to smuggle people and materials into the state-in-the-making.

Vexing for some in Israel and some of her supporters as she turns 70 is striving to find a path toward an accommodation with the Palestinians.

Israelis have not been able to move forward because of enormous ideological division within the Palestinian community itself and because of the flat-out unwillingness of a significant segment of Palestinians to accept Israel or its Jewish majority as a reality.

In addition, Palestinians themselves have a disdain for their own leadership; a recent poll shows that only 33 percent of the Palestinians are satisfied with their president’s performance, and 68 percent demand his resignation.

History as Context

On Oct. 4, 1977, at the beginning of a four-hour meeting at the United Nations Plaza Hotel, Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, the celebrated general, outlined in excruciating and unacceptable detail for President Jimmy Carter and members of his administration Israeli government policies about the content of any negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors.

Dayan told Carter that Israel would not exchange land for peace as quickly as Carter anticipated.

Menachem Begin’s Likud party had just replaced the Rabin-Peres Labor coalition governments that had ruled Israel for her first 29 years.

Carter was the first U.S. president to call for a “Palestinian homeland.” He had blindly hoped that the Labor Party would win the May 1977 elections — in fact, no one in the Carter administration predicted a Begin victory — and would thereby guarantee speedy negotiations for a Palestinian entity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Wrong.

Dayan told Carter, “No independent Palestinian state in the territories and no PLO involvement in the coming negotiations.”

Israel was not going to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization as long as it did not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Dayan had participated in secret talks with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s emissary. Both Begin and Sadat were gearing up to test each other’s intentions for an agreement, and not necessarily with American involvement.

Dayan’s soliloquy continued: “My attitude is that for the first time Egypt is ready and the others may not be. If you take one wheel off a car, it won’t drive. If Egypt is out of the conflict, there will be no war. We can’t make peace on all fronts now. Israel won’t pull back from all of the territories. Nowhere will Israel go all the way. … We can get a West Bank agreement, and there will not be annexation, and there will be no sovereign rule of others there, and we will keep our military installations and settlements.”

Dayan then presciently made this estimate about the Gaza Strip: “If Israel were to leave Gaza, what would they do? Then the terrorists would come in again, and there would be the refugees and no jobs, and it would be an impossible situation. We have to sit down and try to work out the future of Gaza. We can do without Gaza, but there are problems of 400,000 people there.”

In 2005, Israel withdrew 9,000 settlers and its military presence from the Gaza Strip. A year later, Hamas took control of area.

Today, there are 2 million Gazans, 500 percent of the population in 1977. Hamas today, like the PLO 40 years ago, refuses to recognize Israel’s existence — no Jewish state.

As for the Golan Heights, while Bashar Assad’s father was in power in Damascus, and no one had a clue about the rules governing Syria 20 years later, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Raful Eitan said on Sept. 20, 1996: “You cannot trust (Assad) a dictator. Today he is here, and tomorrow you can’t know who will be in his place. If we think the 1973 Yom Kippur War was something, what will take place following an Israeli pullout from the Golan Heights will make the war look like a game.”

Ken Stein is the president of the Center for Israel Education (www.israeled.org).

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