The Arab-Israeli Conflict: an Overview


“To draw the boldest outline of the past is to make Israel’s basic case. To sketch the present is to see the Arab’s plight” (Bickerton, 3). The definition and framework in which a question is observed and its causes identified is the focal point from which an applicable solution stems. In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict even the simple act of defining and understanding the causes behind it prove to be daunting. Whether it is looked upon from the religious, ethnic, political, historical, economic, demographic or nationalistic lens, the picture will never be complete and a solution found, until an all-inclusive viable explanation is given and a framework is created.

In the eve of the 19th century, the rise of Arab Nationalism and Zionism, as well as the collapse of Ottoman Empire, and the First World War, gave birth to the modern Arab-Israeli conflict. This conflict is a product of political and nationalist rivalry and territorial disputes that came forward after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. However, when in the beginning it used to be a large-scale Arab-Israeli conflict, in the years following the 1973 War it became more local Israeli- Palestinian conflict. This conflict and the peace process were and remain central for the study of international relations.

In this paper I will look at the conflict and the causes that shaped it through a multi-facet lens, as the complexity of the issue cannot be undermined by simplifying it and concentrating on one side only. Ideological and religious differences, the absence of great leaders in Arab world and in Palestine, border disputes, control over Jerusalem, demographic and ethnic differences, as well as the involvement of Great Powers in the conflict, form the multi-strata base on which the conflict came to rest. Moreover, the convoluted nature and interrelation of these causes became also the main reasons of the continued failure of the conflict’s resolution.

What differentiates the Arab-Israeli conflict from similar disputes is the fact that its secular nature of a territorial dispute is fueled by the ideological and religious differences. Even though, both Judaism and Islam share similarities, historically the deep-laying differences were played upon and the religion was politicized to achieve political ends. The sheer fact that Judaism, being the oldest monotheistic religion, is concentrated around the idea of Jewish supremacy and of Jews being the chosen people through whom God acts on earth, in itself foreshadows Islam and Christianity, causing their followers’ antagonism. In a greater sense Judaism encompasses the way of Jewish life, its traditions and serves as a blueprint for the future of the nation and the role it is meant to play for the world and humanity. Islam on the other hand came into existence only in the beginning of the 7th century, when Muhammad began to preach, becoming the acknowledged military, political and religious leader by 622 C.E.. As Judaism for Jews, similarly Qur’an and Sharia Law became the guidelines for the Muslims around the world, making them into a new political-religious unit.

The spread of Zionism in the early 19th century was a result of a well thought out and executed plan by the pioneers of the Zionist ideology, particularly political Zionists such as Theodor Herzl. The notorious Dreyfus Affair spurred a large-scale movement encompassing the powerful Jewish diasporas around the world. The accepted idea was that the only way to end the discrimination against Jews and the rising wave of anti-Semitism was to have a nation-state of their own. The central role given to Jews and the fact that the Bible and Judaism pinpoint to the Eretz Yisrael as the Jewish Homeland, became the justification on which Zionists based their claims on the territories of the Ottoman Empire known as Palestine. “A land without people for people without land,” became the motto of the political Zionists. The fact that Christian European powers of the 19th century saw a potential Jewish state in the Middle East as a possibly strong ally in a predominantly Muslim region, as well as the desire to get rid of the Jewish question, and get support from the powerful Jewish Diasporas domestically, incited them to favorably approach the assertion that Palestine is the only legitimate home for the Jewish people. Thus, Political Zionism successfully spread and implemented its ideology, and as the Jewish nationalistic feelings became more fervent so did the nationalism among Arabs. And this brings us to another major cause that needs to be analyzed in the greater framework of the conflict: that of nationalism and territorial disputes that arose after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The 19th century saw the formation and rise of the nation-states, based on the ideas of nationalism, and the majority of territorial disputes that are inherited from this time have the issue of nationalism at their very core. During the WWI “The British had to coordinate policy with their allies and planned the partition of the Ottoman Empire with France, Russia, and Italy, even while the War was in progress” (Bickerton, 35). The main agreements towards the partition of the Ottoman Empire were the 1915-16 Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, and finally the Balfour Declaration of 1917. With the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence between Sherif Hussein of Mecca and the British high commissioner in Egypt, the British masterfully manipulated Arabs of the Middle East promising them independence after the war and used their support to create internal divisions in the Ottoman Empire, already the “sick man of Europe”. This correspondence, however, did not have a binding force and another set of agreements (Sykes-Picot), which were secretly negotiated between the French and the British, took precedence. By this agreement not only Arabs did not get independence but also Britain and France got mandates and influence over their chosen areas of Levant and Iraq. This was the first drop in the cup of the disappointment and betrayal that Arabs would endure on the hands of the European great powers and their colonial goals. The third major document, the Balfour Declaration became a starting point for the development and future escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, for it included the points stated in Sykes-Picot agreement, but was the first to mention Palestine as a legitimate Jewish homeland, calling it “the much promised land.” This fueled anger and tension between the inhabitants of the region, Arabs and repatriated Jews, who went with the attitude of owners. Even though Hussein-McMahon Correspondence was not an official document, Arabs felt betrayed by the Europeans and especially by the British, and were enraged at Jews. In their turn Jews were not happy about the size of the land provided to them. As a result, each side had a justified ground to be hostile towards the other.

Although Arabs formed a unified front to fight the Jews, erase the Jewish homeland, later to be known as Israel, from the maps of the world, and for once and all solve the issue of the Palestinian homeland, this idea and policy of Arab unity and “brotherhood” was used only for propaganda and as a justification to advance their own individual interests. This idea of Pan-Arabism over the interests of individual states was promoted by Nasser, the President of Egypt from 1956 to 1972. When it came to real actions and decision-making, however, each of the Arab states put more weight on its own geostrategic, military, economic and domestic-foreign political interests, than those of the united Arabs, or, in the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the issue of Palestinian nation-state. The divisions and luck of unity between Arabs, the absence of a strong leader, combined with the fact that Palestinians were left without a voice or a representation, made the peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and even harder one to achieve.

Nasser was advocating for Arab nationalism, while still keeping Egypt as the focal point of his ideology. Saudi Arabia King Feisal, who presented Pan-Islamism as a competing ideology to that of Nasser’s, did not see the crucial importance that the Arab-Israeli conflict had for the regional well being. Furthermore, King of Jordan, who became the official representative of the Palestinian people after the end of the 1967 Six-Day War, cared more about his personal fame, his reputation, and inclusion of Palestine within the borders of Jordan, than advocating for the Palestinian nationalistic interests.

The aftermath of the Six Day War, by which Israel got an upper hand, for once and for all killing the Nasserian dream of pan-Arabic unity, and by getting control over the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and East Jerusalem, brought even more seemingly unsolvable issues to the negotiation table. There was a need for a strong leader or an organization, which would have been able to comprehensively articulate the cause and the demands of the Palestinian people, become their voice and their face. Thus, historical and political demands of the time gave birth to such organizations as Fatah, PLO and other militant Palestinian groups, which took arms and started attacking the state of Israel, thus announcing their arrival and highlighting their dissatisfaction on the international scene.

The UN Resolution 242, which was a “peace in return for territory” policy, was yet another proof of this. It aimed to encourage Israel to return occupied territories to their rightful owners, in return for its recognition, and the right for peaceful coexistence. Egypt and Syria accepted this peace deal with Israel, showcasing just how deep the friction ran between the Arab states, how it was keeping them from unity, and how absurd and non achievable the idea of Pan Arabism over state nationalism was.

The aftermath of the 1967 War added new layers on the already stagnated nature of the conflict. The control of the occupied territories strengthened Israel’s stand during the negotiations. “Certainly the conquest of all this territory provided Israel with strategic depth. However, the continued occupation of the territories and Jewish settlements on West Bank and in Gaza did not bring Israel any closer to the peace it desired,” moreover, the presence of 1.3 million Palestinians under Israeli control and many more displaced, becoming refugees, made the Palestinian problem into Israel’s problem (Bickerton, 145).

Thus, the 1967 war brought still another undeniably important issue to the conflict, the Palestinian refugee question. Despite the fact that the issue existed since mid 1940s, the proportions and rapidity by which their number rose dramatically increased after the Six Day War, with more than a million Palestinians suddenly finding themselves under the Israeli rule in the occupied territories, while many more fled and became refugees in surrounding countries. Palestinians demand Israel to grant them a right to return, while Israel brings demographic, political and security issues associated with this demand to light. While granting citizenship to those Palestinians who reside in the occupied territories, Israel does not give it to the ones who fled and want to return, thus disregarding their UN Human Rights Declaration based “right to return” claim. This situation with the refugees needs to be addressed and resolved before any meaningful peace agreement could be achieved.
The dissolution of the Arab “brotherhood” and the failure of Nasser’s Arabism, when his own successor, Sadat, visited Israel and later signed a peace agreement by which for the first time Israel was officially recognized, marked the transformation of the Arab-Israeli conflict into a Israeli-Palestinian one. The interests of Egypt and return of the Sinai Peninsula proved to be much more important than the fate of Palestinians or the unity or Arab states. After the 1973 War, the Arab League named PLO, despite it being seen as a terrorist group, as the sole and legitimate representative of the Palestinians and their demands, thus forever sealing the conflict as an Israeli-Palestinian one.

While territorial disputes occupy a large place in the discourse on the peaceful resolution of this conflict, the central and core role played by the city of Jerusalem should be pointed out and highlighted. Palestinians demand that Israel returns East Jerusalem, which was part of Jordan and was taken by Isrealis during the Six Day War if 1967. Israel, on the other hand, claims that Jerusalem should stay whole and be part of the state of Israel. City carries an enormous importance for all three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism, thus rendering the partition of holy sites, such as the Temple Mount, impossible. Religion gets mixed with politics and war, thus creating to a poisonous mix. This was such a potent mix, that it was responsible for the collapse of the Camp David Talks in the early 1990s.

Those who possess the most military, economic or geostrategic power shape international politics. As a result, the Great Power politics was and is a reality, especially when important regional interests are involved. The colonial and imperial history of the 19th century, the World Wars and the Cold War defining the politics of the 20th century, the intimate involvement of Britain, France, Russia, US, China, and the UN, all came to give a form and a depth to the Arab-Israeli conflict, making it into a puzzle of utmost difficulty.

The second half of the twentieth century saw the rise of two major powers to the pinnacle of world supremacy, and, naturally, a competition started for world hegemony. The growing interest towards the region, its strategic and economic importance and natural resources made the Arab-Israeli conflict another important pawn to be used by the US and the USSR when playing their Cold War chess. When Israel declared independence in 1948, both the US and the USSR warmly welcomed the newcomer, tying hopes and interests with it. However, the recognition of the Communist China by Nasser was not swallowed well by the US, while the westernized manner of Israel was perceived as unfriendly by the Soviet Union. Moreover, their active involvement with the Arab-Israeli conflict stemmed from their own Cold War era friendships. The two had the tendency of creating power blocs and sticking to them, and this is exactly what happened in the Middle East: each chose its favorite and started to use them and their conflict as proxies to advance their own geopolitical interests. The conflict itself, much more its resolution, was overshadowed by a greater power play happening before it.

After the Cold War, the foreign intervention and fight for influence in the region didn’t end. Iran emerged as a major player in the region, through its Syrian based militant group Hezbollah, which aimed to spread the ideology of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 throughout the Middle East. Hezbollah was a straight response to Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, with Hezbollah fighters being trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, supplied by Iran and supported by Syria. Hezbollah declared that one of its goals was the elimination of the state of Israel from the map. This fact alone fueled animosity and hurt the peace process immensely. Although in 1990s Hezbollah transformed into a political group and took active participation in Lebanese political affairs, it is still recognized by many countries of the world as a terrorist group, and is partially blamed for the destabilization, and the increase of tensions in the area.

From all the abovementioned reasons for the failure of the peace process, one is missing, and that is the domestic aspect of the conflict. While internal divisions between PLO and Hamas in Palestine are heated, the same is true for domestic politics of Likud and Labor in Israel. Hamas was formed from the more extreme branches of Fatah in 1980, and, like some other, less powerful extreme organizations, hurt the image and the legitimacy of PLO, thus hindering the peace process, adding to the already tense relations. Hamas was transformed into a political party in 2006, much like Hezbollah in Lebanon. However, it failed to get any considerable support from the electorate. As for the internal developments in Israel, this little aspect is not that different from the Palestinian case. Likud is a more extreme right wing party than the Labor, advocating for no concessions to Palestine and for strong support for Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Likud party came to existence after the 1973 war, when the public was not content with the foreign policy course taken by Labor. The coming to power of the Likud party made it harder than ever to find a common ground to negotiate and to take the peace talks to the next level.

Despite many rounds of peace talks and meetings happening, the results are not encouraging. None of the UN Resolutions (242, 338) had any considerable effect on the peace process. The Madrid Conference of 1991 did not give much fruit as Israel rejected to deal with PLO and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir demanded their absence from the conference. The Oslo Accords that were negotiated and signed in 1993, came on the wake of the Madrid Conference, with President Clinton as a mediator. This was a big breakthrough, as PLO recognized Israel as a state, while Israel recognized PLO as the official representative of the Palestinian people. However, this was the last of the big achievements in the peace process of the Palestine-Israel conflict. Camp David talks of 2000 between Arafat and Israeli PM Ehud Barak, were not successful. Unfortunately, the standstill in the peace process continues, with no bright spots on the horizon.

The multi-layer and complex nature of the conflict requires careful analysis of all the causes that give birth to it, and all the historical circumstances that contribute to its development and intensification. To understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, the history, political, economic and social realities should be taken into account and explored. Religious and ideological differences, historical and colonial past, involvement of Great powers as well as the noticeable absence of a strong leader that will guide the Arab world and the Palestinian people, are all reasons why the tension continues, the conflict remains in a stagnated condition, and the peace process on a standstill.

Works Cited
Bickerton, Ian J., and Carla L. Klausner. A History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.
Kurtzer, Daniel. The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2013. Print.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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