Conflict between the Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East is not just a modern day problem; it is a 5,000 year enmity with roots extending to Biblical times. After researching the history of the Middle East, I have come to the conclusion that peace in the region has not been achieved for several reasons. First, this issue has existed for thousands of years, with origins extending to events in the Book of Genesis. Secondly, there are modern day political dynamics involved between the Arabs and Israelis that make getting to the bargaining table difficult for the leadership of both sides. Additionally, Arab and Muslim aggression towards the Jewish State since its founding in 1948 is a leading contributor to hindrances in any peace process. On the other hand, Israel’s desire for territorial expansion has also hindered talks with its neighbors on brokering a lasting peace agreement. Lastly, there are the fluid self-interests of the United States and other nation states that must be taken into account when analyzing the stalemate in peace efforts in the region.
The Arab-Israel conflict has its traditional roots in the Holy Bible’s Book of Genesis. The issues began when two women, Sarah and Hagar, each gave birth to a son by the monotheistic patriarch, Abraham. In Genesis 16, Hagar gave birth to her son, Ishmael, and in Genesis 21 Sarah gave birth to Isaac. The God of Abraham tells the Patriarch in Genesis 17 that He will make his covenant through his son with Sarah and that Abraham’s descendants through Isaac will be given dominion over ‘all the Land of Canaan, for perpetual holding (Genesis 17:8).’ The Biblical ‘Land of Canaan’ encompasses the majority of modern day Palestine, giving way to the Jewish argument that all of the territory rightfully belongs to them since it was given to them directly by God. These events in Genesis reach their climax when in Genesis 21, at the orders of Sarah and with the consent of God, Abraham expels Hagar and Ishmael from his household. God tells Abraham not to worry about Ishmael because He would ‘make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring (Genesis 21:13).’
Ishmael and his offspring, known as ‘Ishmaelites,’ are traditionally considered to be the ancestors of today’s Arabs and Isaac and his offspring are the ancestors of modern day Jews. The great nations that God promises to each of Abraham’s sons are the modern Muslim and Jewish religions where Abraham is considered to be the ‘first Muslim’ and the ‘first Jew’ by the respective faiths. So it must be understood that discontent between these two peoples is not a modern phenomenon with its origins in 1948, but that this is an issue that has been occurring for thousands of years and that no lasting solutions for peace should be expected to happen easily. The famed Jewish writer and activist Elie Weisel sums up the ancient roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict in one of his writings, titled ‘Ishmael and Hagar,’ that ‘if only Sarah could have shared her love between Isaac and Ishmael! If only she could have brought them together instead of setting them apart! Maybe some of today’s tragedies would have been avoided. The Palestinian problem is rooted in the separation of these two brothers.’
Secondly, peace in the Middle East has not been attained due to modern day political dynamics between the Arabs and Israelis that make even getting to the bargaining table difficult for the leadership of both sides. Most of these political dynamics, while religious sentiments may be underlying issues, seem to stem from disagreements based on land and security. The idea of a Jewish state started in the latter part of the nineteenth century when rising anti-Semitism in continental Europe became a catalyst for the Zionist movement, which advocated for global Jewry to return to the land of their ancestors and create a Jewish state in the Holy Land. During this time period, the Holy Land was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which would cease to exist after World War I due to its alliance with the Central Powers. After the Great War, the Holy Land came under the authority of the British Empire and became known and the Mandate of Palestine.
In their periodical on the past and present issues concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, scholars Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar note that after the war, ‘the British foreign minister, Lord Arthur Balfour, issued a declaration announcing his government’s support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine’ (Beinin and Hajjar 3). Beinin and Hajjar go on to explain the details of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was an arrangement between Britain and France to divide the former Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces in an effort to split control of the region. After World War I, the League of Nations granted France a mandate over Syria and created a separate state, Lebanon, which contained a Christian majority. Britain obtained a mandate over Iraq and the present-day area of Israel, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jordan (Beinin and Hajjar 3). Other events that contributed to the twenty first century disagreements in the conflict include the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Six Day War in 1967. As a result of these two wars, Israel greatly expanded its territory into Arab majority areas such as the West Bank, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula up to the Suez Canal.
Presently, the top, political priorities for the Arabs are the creation of an independent state of Palestine that is comprised of the West Bank, Gaza, and other settlements within the current borders of Israel. Arab interests also include the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, the removal of Jewish settlers in Arab majority territories and the Palestinian national capitol being located in East Jerusalem. Israelis want a country where they feel safe and secure, access to their ancient, holy sites and for the Arabs in Palestine to live peacefully within the Jewish state. Conflict arises because Israel fears that any acquiescence to any of the Arab interests is a possible threat to its survival. For example, Israel will not give back the Golan Heights because it feels that they do not want to provide Shiite terrorists based in Syria the high ground to launch attacks. Additionally, the Israeli government is afraid that if the Palestinians are given complete sovereignty over the West Bank, Jewish citizens would be cut off from their holy sites in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. Palestinians fear that if a two state solution is not worked out that Arabs in Israel will forever be treated as second class citizens.
Another impediment to peace in the Middle East has been Arab/Muslim aggression towards the Jewish state since its founding in 1948 and Israel’s desire for territorial expansion from its original partition borders. Modern violence first broke out in Palestine in late 1947, after the announcement of the United Nations Partition Plan that called for an Arab and Jewish State to be created in Palestine. The Jews accepted this UN plan while the Arabs did not. For the next few months, while under continuous attack from the Arabs, the region’s Jews were regularly on the defensive with the occasional offensive retaliation (Morris 2008). When the hostilities of the 1948 War came to an end between the Jews and Arabs, the State of Israel still controlled all of the territory that it was granted during the partition along with a large portion of the land that was set aside for the Arab state. Despondent about the outcome of the 1948 War, the Arabs were insistent on two major demands: that Israel withdraw its forces back to the original UN Partition Plan boundaries and allow Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. These demands were both rejected because Israel argued that the new borders were created on account of war and that the UN lines did not take into consideration the defense needs of the Jewish state. Israel also rejected the Arab requests for Palestinians to be allowed to return to Israel because doing so would alter the Jewishness of the new country (Sela 2002).
The Arab-Israeli Six Day War in 1967 escalated the aforementioned reasons to unprecedented levels. The Six Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, when Israel preemptively attacked Syria and Egypt and destroyed a significant amount of their air and ground forces. This caused the Kingdom of Jordan to enter the fray, but they too were soundly defeated by the Israeli armed forces. Within the next five days, Israel had taken control of the West Bank and the entire holy city of Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt (Beinin and Hajjar 7). In the aftermath of the War, Palestinian nationalism, increased Arab hatred toward the Jewish state and Israel’s unwillingness to disengage from its newly occupied territories made the region even more of a powder keg. Since the 1967 Six Day War, there have been several more conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War in which Israel was attacked on its religious Day of Atonement. Other conflicts have taken place in Lebanon between Israel and terrorist groups such as the Iranian backed Hezbollah group in the last decade and Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization in the 1980s.
The roots of the present political disagreements between the Arabs and Israelis are the parameters for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Also, the aftermath of the 2015 Israeli national elections have probably made things harder for peace talks with the reelected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying on the eve of the election that if he were to be reelected he would not be supportive of the two-state solution compromise with the Palestinians. This has led to tensions with the leadership of traditional allies of Israel such as the United States led by President Barack Obama.
Another major issue that must be analyzed and understood when discussing the lack of progress towards mediating the Arab-Israeli Conflict is the fluid self-interests of other nations including the United States and Iran. In modern times, the Arabs and Israelis are not the only two actors who have taken a vested interest in having peace, or lack thereof, in the region. Ever since the end of World War I when the British Empire took control over Palestine from the defeated Ottoman Empire, foreign nations have tried to impose their initiatives to establish a peaceful solution for living situation of the diverse groups of people living in such a small geographic location. As far as Great Britain is concerned, while present-day relations between Israel and the government of Prime Minister David Cameron are close, this has not always been so. After the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, Britain was seen as being pro-Arab by its maintaining of close ties to various Arab states (Black 2002).
Another example is the once-cordial relations that the State of Israel had with the Iranians when Iran was under the rule of the moderate Mohammad-Reza Shah of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Now, under the rule of the Ayatollahs since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran is widely considered to be Israel’s greatest antagonist, perhaps the largest sponsor of terrorism against the Jewish state. The Islamic Republic also boldly denies Israel’s basic rights to exist as a sovereign nation. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the United States has undoubtedly been the most influential foreign actor in its brief history. The United States was the first country to recognize Israel and has contributed billions of dollars in foreign assistance (Mark 2002). American Presidents from Harry Truman to George W. Bush have always advocated for policies that seemed to be pro-Israel and support for Israel always seemed to be an issue that crossed partisan lines. Today, however, support for Israel seems to be dependent on the political party with which a person affiliates with. Republicans tend to be more in favor of Israeli causes due to its policies of ‘hawkish’ foreign policy and its social conservative wing being pro-Israel for religious reasons. The Democratic Party tends not to let the religious dynamics be a part of its approach when dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have a more moderate outlook on foreign policy and like to take the viewpoint of the Arabs into account as part of the process for finding a solution to the ongoing dilemma. These differences of opinion between the political parties in the United States has contributed to why the peace process has stalled in the last few years.
This dynamic has come to the forefront in recent months with the public hostilities that have taken place between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Along with his election eve statement about not wanting a Palestinian state, a couple of weeks before the election Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the Republican-controlled American Congress about his opposition to the Obama administration’s policies towards reaching a nuclear deal with the government of Iran. This see-sawing of self-interests by foreign states, which is dependent on the policies of the present government or party in power, has had destabilizing effects on the region due to a lack of having a consistent plan for peace.
Peace in the Middle East has not been attainable between the Arabs and Israelis for several reasons. First, this issue has been going on since Biblical times with its roots taking shape due to events that take place in the Book of Genesis. There are also many modern day political dynamics that began in the late nineteenth century involving the Arabs and Israelis that make getting to the bargaining table difficult for the leadership of both sides. Also, Arab and Muslim aggression towards the Jewish State since its inception is a leading contributor to hindrances in any peace process, along with Israel’s desire for territorial expansion that have also hindered talks with the Arabs on brokering a lasting peace agreement. The fluid self-interests of the United States and other nation states such as Iran must also be taken into account when analyzing the stalemate in peace efforts in the region. This dilemma has a lot of serious variables and it is going to take a lot of compromise on the side of all parties to establish a lasting peace in the region.