How significant was the involvement of foreign powers as an influence on the nature of Arab Israeli relations in the years 1900-2000?

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How significant was the involvement of foreign powers as an influence on the nature of Arab Israeli relations in the years 1900-2000?

The Arab-Israeli conflict as we know it is rooted in British influence. In 1917 Britain was entrenched in World War One, and Lloyd George’s government used the Zionist movement1 as a potential ally, aware of the significant proportion of high-ranking Zionists in Wilson’s American government. As a result the 1917 Balfour Declaration, a letter from Balfour2 to Rothschild,3 was published, which was a ‘catastrophe for the Arabs.’4 By stating the government ‘view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,’5 ‘many Jews regarded the declaration as a promise from the British government to help set up a Jewish state,’6 despite the ambiguity of ‘national home.’7 The Balfour Declaration ultimately led to the institution of the British Mandate and gave Jews worldwide the impetus to immigrate en masse; from 1919-1923, approximately 40,000 Jews arrived in Palestine and 82,000 from 1924–1929.8 This immigration fuelled ‘Arab and Jewish suspicions of each other’9 as Palestinians felt Jews were ‘stealing [their] land.’10 Furthermore, Arabs also felt the Balfour Declaration and British Mandate had nullified previous promises– namely the McMahon-Hussein letters,11 which had given Palestine to existing Palestinians. Alongside immigration, this resulted in a separatist attitude, whereby Jews weren’t integrated into existing Palestinian society; the British were effectively a wall between two peoples. This ultimately caused Arab-Jewish riots in 1920 in Jaffa and Tel Aviv; there were 200 Jewish and 120 Arab fatalities.12 Although immigration was restricted directly after, the damage was done; the Balfour Declaration had ‘alienated…Arabs’13 and begun a downward spiral which would end in full scale war.

However, some historians argue that the Zionist movement and Herzl’s ‘Der Judenstaat’ – a pamphlet proposing Palestine as a Jewish state and outlining methods of ‘recolonising’14 it – were more significant in fuelling early Arab-Jewish tensions. According to Yacobson and Rubinstein, Herzl was the ‘bedrock’ of Zionism and ‘was borne out fully…in the 20th Century;’15 he essentially engineered a legitimate Zionism, a ‘political expression of an old idea.’16 Der Judenstaat gained publicity amongst Jewish communities, but little political support: although Herzl appealed to the Rothschild dynasty, they refused to participate. Conversely, Rothschild’s involvement in the Balfour Declaration show support of high-ranking Jews was essential for the establishment of a Jewish state. Yacobson and Rubinstein’s insistence that Der Judenstaat was vital to the inhibition of Arab-Jewish relations can therefore be discredited with Laqueur’s more accurate view that ‘up until the Balfour Declaration, Zionism was…of no political importance.’17 Der Judenstaat alone could not have produced mass Jewish immigration; it needed widespread political backing to achieve this ‘dream’.18 Whilst Zionism and the Balfour Declaration had a somewhat symbiotic relationship, the latter can be considered more significant; it was the political influence from the Declaration that was truly instrumental in causing Jewish immigration19 and therefore tension between Arabs and Jews, founding an ‘eternal war.’20 Zionism ‘became a political force because of outside pressure, not because eccentric Jewish litterateurs published stirring appeals.’21

Although the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli war was an internal event, its outbreak was characterised by foreign involvement. UN Resolution 181, precipitated by the termination of the British mandate, imposed a partition plan on Palestine. Although previous partition plans had been rejected,22 the proposed borders in Resolution 181 provoked a military reaction, the results of which solved little. An Israeli victory entrenched Arab rejectionism as the cultural norm and shaped the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict for the following decades. The aims of the Arab states in ‘pursuing [their] own political and territorial aims,’23 shown by Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank, were not fully realised and led to ‘instability in the Arab states as a result of domestic challenges to the leadership which had lost the war, rivalry between Arab states in pursuit of regional hegemony, the rise of Arab nationalism, and an emerging tendency to more revolutionary ideologies.’24 According to Gold and Morrison, Resolution 181 alone was responsible for this disintegration in Arab-Israeli relationships: ‘it bears repeating that Palestinian and Arab states not only rejected 181, but actively sought to overthrow it.’25 Scot-Baumann and Schulze support this, saying ‘Arab states were unwilling to recognise the Jewish state.’26 However, this view can be discredited when taking into account internal Palestinian-Jewish tensions – UN involvement was simply the match to the tinder, and arguably war was inevitable. Bregman argues that ‘the great problem which had caused the war…was the struggle between the Jews and Arab Palestinians for mastery of the land.’27 This is a more accurate judgment, as the realpolitik was more driven by territorial integrity and immigration than cultural and political discrepancies; Jews and Palestinians had coexisted peacefully for years. This argument is further supported by the rise in Jewish terrorism leading up to the 1948-1949 war, which put into action the controversial Plan Dalet. Infamously, the Irgun’s massacre at Deir Yassin accelerated the Palestinian Nakba28 and provoked Arab retaliation29. As Palestinians fled – either due to fear or forcible expulsion – the refugee crisis gathered incredible proportions, with an estimated 700000 displaced Palestinians.30 Israel’s refusal to vindicate Palestinian right of return led to increased frustration and anger, leading to war in 1948 and the rise of Arab nationalism. This ratifies Bregman’s view: although UN involvement was significant in the outbreak of war, this was less so than independent Arab-Israeli actions.

If in 1948 foreign intervention had played little significance in Arab-Israeli relations, the 1955 Czech Arms Deal was its antithesis. It changed the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, polarising it according to wider US/USSR contention. Nasser’s31 refusal to take sides with either superpower meant he came under increasing pressure when he didn’t have military strength to back his ‘activist’32 stance, so he turned to the Soviets: neither America, France or Britain were willing to conclude an Arms Deal, with pan-Arabism threatening the Baghdad Pact and Nasser’s involvement in Algeria.33 Czechoslovakia, acting by proxy for the Soviets, agreed to grant ‘any quantity of arms, including tanks and planes of the latest design against deferred payment in Egyptian cotton and rice.’34 This significantly impacted Israel’s mentality; they ‘embarked upon a road that led to a preventive war,’35 as the perceived Egyptian/Soviet threat ‘worsened’36 their domestic security. Shlaim supports this view, saying ‘it was the Czech arms deal…which began to tip the balance in the Israeli cabinet in favour of a preemptive strike against Egypt.’37 This led to a dominating ‘activist’38 political environment in Israel, as ‘prior to the arms deal, the IDF39 assumed it had the military capability to defeat the Arab countries’40 and meant Israel concluded its own arms deal with France – effectively setting the stage for the Suez Crisis of 1956. Furthermore, Israel’s tactics – preemptive strikes – became the modus operandi as ‘Israel’s adversity was translated into an operative will to launch a war’41. Whilst Bregman’s suggestion ‘the view Nasser meant to attack Israel at that time [is]…mistaken’42 can be accounted for, Israel’s reaction ensured the inevitability of war, intended or not. Yet Bar-On refutes this, writing ‘the causes of the tension and dispute between Israel and Egypt…had existed already at the beginning of the 1950s.’43 This suggests the arms deal did not generate discord, but was rather a watermark on the path to war that Israel had already initiated. Golani expands further, saying ‘the arms deal…temporarily blocked Israel’s efforts to launch a war,’44 and states that Egyptian arms build-up was not ‘casus belli’ for the Sinai campaign.45 This is supported by Bregman’s view that ‘Israel saw in the possibility of war against Egypt an opportunity to achieve its own aims,’46 by deescalating the Arab nationalist movement. This emphasises a level of political expediency as a factor in stimulating a campaign that drastically changed the nature of Arab-Israeli relationships. The Sinai Campaign was without doubt a result of a combination of factors, but the ‘conventional view’47 that it was the Czech arms deal which was so significant seems to be the most accurate: Israel’s responding arms deal and the institution of preemptive strikes prove it.

The 1978 Camp David Accords was a ‘significant turning point’48 in ‘laying the foundations of peace’49 and was the product of the Carter administration. After a period of lessened foreign involvement, this Egyptian-Israeli peace marked a repolarisation of the conflict according to cold war interests and a reinstatement of significant foreign influence. As Schulze says, American intervention ‘was able to provide the environment that made Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations possible.’50 In facilitating this agreement, America’s involvement, which allowed the ratification of the treaty, was highly significant in terms of Arab-Israeli relationships. Essentially, Sadat worked for Egypt’s national interests – and in doing so, broken the only unifying Arab policy: refusal to recognise Israel. In doing so, he sacrificed the Palestinian cause and any hopes Palestinians had pinned on Egypt for a solution to their transient position. Therefore, whilst achieving an unprecedented peace, the Accords saw the disintegration of intra-Arab relationships, and Egypt was relegated from the Arab League in 1979. Furthermore, the Arab world was left without its ‘standard-bearer’51, which Egypt had become with Nasser’s advent. This led to the fragmentation of the pan-Arab movement and Arab unity; Bickerton and Klausner support this, saying ‘pan-Arabism was no longer…a straitjacket determining Egyptian policy.’52 Perhaps Sadat was delusional in initiating peace – Israel certainly benefitted more; a Sinai withdrawal was worth the added security, the Palestinian question had been circumvented and the neutralisation of their southern border freed troops which enabled ‘Operation Peace for Galilee.’53 Israel had little to fear from Egypt: ‘the Camp David agreements simultaneously lessened Arab rejectionism and Israeli suspicion,’54 although this didn’t affect Israeli relationships with other Arab states and seemed to deescalate the Palestinian cause which had grown exponentially in the early 1970s.55 Yet despite America’s obviously significant influence over Arab-Israeli relations in mediating Camp David, some historians argue it was Sadat’s persona that was the principal factor in causing this dramatic turnaround in Arab-Israeli relations. Quandt says ‘Camp David was an integral part of Sadat’s vision for Egypt, and significant policies were generated by that vision.’56 A contrasting political persona to Nasser, Sadat saw the need for peace after the Yom Kippur War57, and took the peace ‘initiative.’58 However, in the light of the subsequent negotiations, and Begin’s59 reluctance to engage diplomatically, American involvement was far more significant; it had to take an outside, diplomatic power – albeit with its own Middle Eastern agenda – to bring together two opposing cultural and political sides and achieve a lasting peace, which characterised later agreements.60

Foreign involvement is therefore inextricable from the nature of Arab-Israeli relations. Almost every episode in its convoluted history has been significantly influenced by foreign powers, which has subliminally dictated its development, although internal factors are in some instances equally as significant. The political and cultural values which define Arab-Israeli relations have been shaped by foreign involvement – from civil tension to ongoing conflicts that seemingly has no endpoint. Whilst mid-century saw a decline in the significance of foreign influence with the rise of Arab Nationalism, one mustn’t forget it was foreign involvement that set the whole conflict in motion and often produced these internal factors. As Shlaim appropriately summarises, ‘Great power involvement is not a unique feature of the Middle East but…what distinguishes the Middle East is [its] the intensity, pervasiveness and profound impact. No other part of the world has been so…caught up in great power rivalries.’61

1 Zionism – a school of thought based on Jewish national self-determination, i.e. the right to have a Jewish state.

2 Arthur James Balfour was the British foreign secretary under Lloyd George’s government. He would later become Prime Minister.

3 Lord Rothschild was a leading British Jew, extremely influential in Parliament, and the scion of a banking dynasty. See Niall Ferguson, The House of Rothschild: Volume 2: The World's Banker: 1849-1999, Penguin 2000

4 Paul Scham, Walid Salem and Benjamin Progund, Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, left Coast Press 2005, p.111

5 The Balfour Declaration, 2nd November 1917

6 Michael Scot-Baumann, Crisis in the Middle-East: Israel and the Arab States 1945-2007, Hodder Education 2009, p.5

7 The Balfour Declaration, 2nd November 1917


9 Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pearson Longman, Second Edition, p.7

10 William Hanna and Dr. Milena Rampoldi, The Tragedy of Palestine and its Children, p.148

11 The McMahon-Hussein correspondence were a series of letters between the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon in 1915. McMahon, in letter No.4, said ‘The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded [by Hussein]. With the above modification, and without prejudice of our existing treaties with Arab chiefs, we accept those limits…Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sharif of Mecca.’ This included Palestine. See Isaiah Friedman, Palestine, a Twice-Promised Land: The British, the Arabs and Zionism 1915-1920, Vol. 1, Transaction Publishers 2000

12 Michael Scot-Baumann, Crisis in the Middle-East: Israel and the Arab States 1945-2007, Hodder Education, 2009, p.11

13 Spencer Tucker and Priscilla C. Roberts, The Encyclopaedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History, ABC-CLIO 2008, p.190

14 Theodor Herzl, Der Judenstaat, February 1986. Herzl used ‘recolonising’ rather than ‘colonising’ in the light of Jewish history; according to the Old Testament (The Holy Bible, KJV) and hence the Torah, God promised Palestine to the Jews, who were ‘the chosen people.’ See Genesis 17v. 8: ‘And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession.’ The Jews under Abraham first lived in Israel, and it was reconquered under Joshua when they returned from their captivity in Egypt – where they resided (despite the Babylonian captivity) until the diaspora under the Roman Empire. Canaan is the biblical term for the geographical area of Palestine, and constant reference to the ‘land of thy fathers’ from Genesis to Malachi highlights the prevalent doctrine that Palestine was first and foremost a Jewish state, which obviously continued in the Zionist’s ideology. Other specific references to this promise includes the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34v. 4. See The Holy Bible, King James’ Authorised Version.

15 Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, Routledge 2009 pp.84-86

16 Isaiah Friedman, British Pan-Arab Policy 1915-1922, p.198

17 Walter Laqueur, The History of Zionism, Tauris Parks Publishing 2003, p.590

18 Ibid.

19 See Thomas Baylis, How Israel was Won, Lexington books 1999 pp.1-29

20 Antoine A. Abraham, The Eternal War: A Psychological Perspective on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, University Press of America 2011

21 Walter Laqueur, The History of Zionism, Tauris Parks Publishing 2003

22 Namely the 1937 partition plan proposed by the Peel Commission

23 Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pearson Longman, Second Edition, p.16

24 Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pearson Longman, Second Edition,

25 Ambassador Dore Gold and Diane Morrison, Averting Palestinian Unilateralism: The International Criminal Court and the Recognition of the Palestinian Authority as a Palestinian State, Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs 2010, p.21

26 Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pearson Longman, Second Edition, p.19

27Ahron Bregman, Israel's Wars: A History Since 1947, Routledge, Third Edition, p.33

28 ‘Nakba’ in Arabic literally means ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’ and refers to the mass Palestinian expdus from 1947 – 49 as a result of atrocities such as the massacre at Deir Yassin or the atmosphere of fear arising from these attacks; whether Jewish actions were deliberate ethnic cleansing or not is widely debated. See Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the first Arab-Israeli war, Yale University Press 2008 and Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications 2006

29 Such as the Hadassah Hospital massacre and the Kfar Etzion massacre; see Dershowitz, The Case for Israel, John Wiley & Sons 2003 and Mark A. Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Indiana University Press 1994, pp.269 - 273

30 Ahmad H. Sa'di and Lila Abu-Lughod, Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, Colombia University Press 2007

31 Nasser was the Egyptian President from 1918 – 1970, when he was replaced by Sadat. He signalled the true emergence of Arab nationalism.

32 Charles D. Smith, Palestine and the Arab Israeli Conflict, Bedford/St. Martins, Sixth Edition 2007, pp.242-243

33 Ibid.

34 Patrick Seale, The Struggle for Syria: A Study of Post-War Arab Politics 1945 – 1958, Oxford University Press 1966, p.235

35 Michael Bar-Zohar quoted in Motti Golani, The Historical Place of the Czech-Egyptian Arms Deal, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No.4, Israel, Oct 1995, pp.803 - 827

36 Orna Almog, Britain, Israel and the United States 1955-58: Beyond Suez, Routledge 2004, p.47

37 Avi Shlaim in Ngaire Woods, Explaining International Relations since 1945, Oxford University Press 1996, pp.219 - 240

38 Orna Almog, Britain, Israel and the United States 1955-58: Beyond Suez, Routledge 2004, p.47

39 IDF – Israeli Defence Force

40 Orna Almog, Britain, Israel and the United States 1955-58: Beyond Suez, Routledge 2004, p.47

41 Motti Golani, The Historical Place of the Czech-Egyptian Arms Deal, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No.4, Israel, Oct 1995, pp.803 - 827

42 Ahron Bregman, Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, Routledge, Third Edition 2000, p.53

43 Mordechai Bar-On, The Gates of Gaza: Israel’s Road to Suez and Back, Palgrave MacMillan 1995

44 Motti Golani, The Historical Place of the Czech-Egyptian Arms Deal, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, No.4, Israel, Oct 1995, pp.803 - 827

45 Ibid.

46 Ahron Bregman, Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947, Routledge, Third Edition 2000, p.56

47 Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pearson Longman, Second Edition 2008 p.26

48 William B. Quandt, Camp David: Peacemaking and Politics, The Brookings Institution 1986, p.1

49 Ibid.

50 Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Pearson Longman, Second Edition p.52


52 Ian J Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner, A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Prentice Hall 2005, p.197

53 ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ was the term Begin coined for Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon – so called because the explicit motive was to halt PLO Katyusha rocket attacks into upper Galilee. See Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Oxford University Press 1991

54 Ian J Bickerton and Carla L. Klausner, A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Prentice Hall 2005, p.198

55 The creation of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, headed by Yasser Arafat, was responsible for this – the PLO was endorsed by all Arab states, and Arafat’s speech to the UN in 1974 can be seen as a monumental cornerstone in wide recognition of the Palestinian Cause. See Said K. Aburish, Arafat: From Defender to Dictator ,Bloomsbury Publishing 1998 and As’ad Ganim, Palestinian Politics after Arafat: A Failed National Movement, Indiana University Press 2010

56 William B. Quandt, The Middle East: Ten Years After Camp David, The Brookings Institution 1988, p.20

57 The ‘Yom Kippur’ War, so called because Arabs attacked on the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur, took place in 1973 and was a loss for the Arabs; Israel retained the Sinai, West Bank and the Gaza Strip which they had gained in the 1967 Six Day War.

58 Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, Israel and the Peace Process 1977 – 1982: In Search of Legitimacy for Peace, State University of New York Press 1994, pp.35-48

59 Menachim Begin was Israeli Prime Minister from 1977-1983, former leader of the Irgun, a Jewish extremist group, and a fundamentalist Zionist.

60 Such as the Oslo Accords in 1993

61 Avi Shlaim, The 1967 Arab-Israeli War: Origins and Consequences, Cambridge University Press 2012, p.5; See also L. Carl Brown, International Politics and the Middle East: Old Rules, Dangerous Game, Princeton University Press 1984 p.4

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