Israel@70: Israel’s Tougher Neighborhood
Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Begin greet each other, Camp David, Md., September 1978. Source: Government Press Office of Israel.

In January this year, 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 seventy years ago, its neighborhood was hostile but relatively tranquil. Middle Eastern states were young, having just emerged from the post WWII period. Not today.   

Middle Eastern countries have vast unemployment and massive numbers of populations 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 blood-letting or restore a semblance of order between states. Sitting on a sliver of land on the eastern Mediterranean as a non-Moslem and 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 retention of territories — the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights – remarks made by two former Israeli Generals, Moshe Dayan in 1977 and former IDF Chief of Staff, Raful Eitan in 1996 have contemporary relevance. 

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 and not 650,000. Israel has 20% of its population at about the poverty level, while producing vast amounts of exportable hydrocarbons that are cementing trade alliances with Mediterranean and southern European states.

In the 1940s and 1950s, when US administrations were distinctly discomforted with closeness to a Jewish state’s unfolding, and except for a couple of discomforting later presidencies – Carter and Obama, 11 of the 13 other US administrations have treated Israel reasonably well. Public bouts of anger that Obama and Carter displayed toward Israel were somewhat offset by consummating major military aid and diplomatic agreements respectively.

Each US president had at least one major bone to pick with Israeli foreign policy choices. Many of those issues were not resolved – 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.

Troubling 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. And broader still today is the lesson absorbed from the international community’s repeated reluctance to act aggressively against regional facist rulers who summarily kill their own citizens. 

The USSR, a distinct and feared Israeli Cold War enemy in the 1950s-1980s, at least with its successor state Russia so far, seeks to avoid a confrontation with Israel over who might control the lands north of Israel. Russia apparently recognizes that Israel has a redline that cannot be penetrated to the point where Israel’s northern populations will be held hostage to Iranian or other proxy groups.

Where Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, Turkey, the first Moslem country to recognize Israel is jousting for control of lands that sit closely astride to Israel’s northern reaches. Iran’s ruling elite, once a key strategic ally and source of oil for Israel, has replaced Egypt of fifty 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 land areas on all sides of the 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. To fend off its foes, Israel requires cutting edge intelligence gathering, and the same sort of innovation and inventiveness that was 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% of the Palestinians are satisfied with their president’s performance, and 68% demand his resignation.

History as context. On October 4, 1977, at the beginning of a four hour meeting at the United Nations Plaza Hotel, Israeli General, and then Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan outlined in excruciating and unacceptable detail for President Carter and members of his administration Israeli government policies about the content of any negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors. He told Carter that Israel would not be exchanging land for peace at as quick a pace as Carter anticipated.

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

Carter was the first US 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 PLO as long as it did not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Dayan had already participated in secret talks with Egyptian President 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 four hundred thousand people there.” 

In 2005, Israel withdrew 9000 settlers and its military presence from the Gaza Strip. A year later, Hamas took control of area. Today there two million Gazans, a 500% population increase.   Hamas today, like the PLO forty 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 twenty years later, former IDF Chief of Staff, Raful Eitan said on September 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 (1973) war look like a game.”