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What Are the Origins of the Middle East Crisis?

Editor's Note: This is the first chapter in Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2002). We are taking the extraordinary step of publishing the entire chapter to help readers understand the origins of the current Middle East crisis. We thank the publisher and the author for giving us permission.

Arabs, Israelis, and the Great Powers, 1948 to 1966

Nighttime, December 31, 1964 - A squad of Palestinian guerrillas crosses from Lebanon into northern Israel. Armed with Soviet-made explosives, their uniforms supplied by the Syrians, they advance toward their target: a pump for conveying Galilee water to the Negev desert. A modest objective, seemingly, yet the Palestinians' purpose is immense. Members of the militant al-Fatah (meaning,"The Conquest," also a reverse acronym for the Movement for the Liberation of Palestine), they want to bring about the decisive showdown in the Middle East. Their action, they hope, will provoke an Israeli retaliation against one of its neighboring countries-Lebanon itself, or Jordan-igniting an all-Arab offensive to destroy the Zionist state.

This, al-Fatah's maiden operation, ends in fiasco. First the explosive charges fail to detonate. Then, exiting Israel, the guerrillas are arrested by Lebanese police. Nevertheless, the leader of al-Fatah, a 35-year-old former engineer from Gaza named Yasser Arafat, issues a victorious communiqué extolling"the duty of Jihad (holy war) and . . . the dreams of revolutionary Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf.."

A singularly limber imagination would have been required that New Year's Eve night to conceive that this act of small-scale sabotage, even had it been successful, could have triggered a war involving masses of men and matériel-a war that would change the course of Middle Eastern history and, with it, much of the world's. Yet al-Fatah's operation contained many of the flashpoints that would set off precisely such a war in less than three years. There was, of course, the Palestinian dimension, a complex and volatile issue that plagued the Arab states as much as it did Israel. There was terror and Syrian support for it and Soviet support for Syria. And there was water. More than any other individual factor, the war would revolve around water.

Yet, to claim that that first al-Fatah operation, or any one of its subsequent attacks, brought about a general Middle East war, would be far too simplistic and determinist."A beginning is an artifice," wrote Ian McEwan in his novel Enduring Love,"and what recommends one over another is how much sense it makes of what follows." The observation certainly applies to history, where attempts to identify prime causes are often at best arbitrary, at worst futile. One could just as easily begin with early Zionist settlement in Palestine, or with British policy there after World War I. Or with the rise of Arab nationalism, or with the Holocaust. The options are myriad and equally-potentially-valid.

While it may be useless to try to pinpoint the cause or causes of the Middle East war of 1967, one can describe the context in which that war became possible. Much like the hypothetical butterfly that, flapping its wings, gives rise to currents that eventually generate a storm, so, too, might small, seemingly insignificant events spark processes leading ultimately to cataclysm. And just as that butterfly needs a certain context-the earth's atmosphere, gravity, the laws of thermodynamics-to produce its tempest, so, too, did events prior to June 1967 require specific circumstances in order to precipitate war. The context was that of the Middle East in its postcolonial, revolutionary period-a region torn by bitter internecine feuds, by superpower encroachment, and by the constant irritant of what had come to be known as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A Context Contrived

Even a discussion of a context must have a starting point-another arbitrary choice. Let us begin with Zionism, the Jewish people's movement to build an independent polity in their historical homeland. The introduction of Zionism into the maelstrom of Middle East politics galvanized what was already a highly unstable environment into a framework for regional war. Facile though it may sound, without Zionism there would have been no State of Israel and, without Israel, no context of comprehensive conflict.

What began as a mere idea in the mid-nineteenth century had, by the beginning of the twentieth, motivated thousands of European and Middle Eastern Jews to leave their homes and settle in unthinkably distant Palestine. The secret of Zionism lay in its wedding of modern nationalist notions to the Jewish people's mystical, millennial attachment to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). That power sustained the Yishuv, or Jewish community, in Palestine throughout the depredations of Ottoman rule and during World War I, when many Jewish leaders were expelled as enemy (mostly Russian) aliens. By war's end, the British had supplanted the Turks in Palestine and, under the so-called Balfour Declaration, pledged to build a Jewish National Home in the country.

Under the British Mandate, the Yishuv swelled with refugees from European anti-Semitism-first Polish, then German-and established social, economic, educational institutions that in a short time surpassed those furnished by Britain. By the 1940s, the Yishuv was a powerhouse in the making: dynamic, inventive, ideologically and politically pluralistic. Drawing on Western and Eastern European models, the Jews of Palestine created new vehicles for agrarian settlement (the communal kibbutz and cooperative moshav), a viable socialist economy with systems for national health, reforestation, and infrastructure development, a respectable university, and a symphony orchestra-and to defend them all, an underground citizens' army, the Hagannah. Though the British had steadily abandoned their support for a Jewish national home, that home was already a fact: an inchoate, burgeoning state.

This was precisely what the Arabs of Palestine resented. Centuries-established, representing the majority of the country's total population, the Palestinian Arabs regarded the Yishuv as a tool of Western imperialism, an alien culture inimical to their traditional way of life. Though the Jews had long been tolerated, albeit in an inferior status, by Islam, that protection in no sense entitled them to sovereignty over part of Islam's heartland or authority over Muslims. No less than their co-religionists straining under French rule in Syria and North Africa, or under the British in Iraq and Egypt, the Palestinian Arabs earnestly sought independence. They, too, had received promises from Britain, and demanded to see them fulfilled. But independence under Jewish dominion could never be an option for the Arabs, only a more odious form of colonialism.

So it happened that every wave of Jewish immigration into Palestine-in 1920, 1921, and 1929-ignited ever more violent Arab reactions, culminating in the 1936 Arab revolt against both the Jews and the British. The insurrection lasted three years and resulted in the deportation of much of the Palestinian Arabs' leadership and the weakening of their economy. The Yishuv, conversely, grew strong. Yet victory was denied the Jews. Fearful of a backlash by Muslims throughout their empire, Britain issued a White Paper that effectively nullified the Balfour Declaration. Erupting shortly thereafter, World War II saw Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion declaring his movement's intention to"fight the White Paper as if there were no war and to fight the war as if there were no White Paper." By contrast, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the British-appointed Mufti and self-proclaimed representative of the Palestinian Arabs, threw in his lot with Hitler.

The Arab revolt of 1936-39 had another, even more fateful outcome. If previously the conflict had been between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, it was now between Zionism and Arabs everywhere. Palestine's plight aroused a groundswell of sympathy throughout the surrounding Arab lands, where a new nationalist spirit was blossoming. Pan-Arabism, another outgrowth of modern European thought, proclaimed the existence of a single Arab people whose identity transcended race, religion, or family ties. That people was now called upon to avenge three centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West-imperialism was merely its latest phase-and to cast off the colonial yoke. Though the dream of a single, independent Arab state extending from the Taurus Mountains in the north and the Atlas in the west, from the Persian Gulf to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, would remain just that-a dream-the emergence of an Arab world bound by sentiment and culture had become a political fact. From the late 1930s onward, increasingly, incidents in Palestine could set off riots in Baghdad and Cairo, in Homs and Tunis and Casablanca.

Nobody understood this process better, or feared it more, than the Arab leaders of the time. Lacking any constitutional legitimacy, opposed to free expression, this assortment of prime ministers, princes, sultans, and emirs, were highly sensitive to outpourings of public opinion-the Arab"street." The leaders' task, then, lay in discerning which way the street was heading and maneuvering to stay ahead of it. The street was fulminating against Zionism. Responding to that rage, locked in bitter rivalries with one another, Arab regimes became deeply embroiled in Palestine. The conflict would never again be local.

The British, meanwhile, shrewdly took advantage of Zionism's neutralization during the war to placate Arab nationalism, fostering the creation of an Arab League whose members could display their unity and preserve their independence all at once. But then, with victory in Europe assured, Zionism came back with a vengeance. Incensed by the continuation of the White Paper, inflamed by the Holocaust, many of whose six million victims might have lived had that document never been writ, the Zionists declared war on the Mandate-first the right-wing Irgun militia of Menachem Begin, then the mainstream Hagannah.

War-worn, hounded by an American president, Harry Truman, who was publicly committed to the Zionist cause, Britain by 1947 was ready to hand the entire Palestine issue over to the United Nations. The consequence came with the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181. This provided for the creation of two states, one Arab and the other Jewish, in Palestine, and an international regime for Jerusalem. The Zionists approved of the plan but the Arabs, having already rejected an earlier, more favorable (for them) partition offer from Britain, stood firm in their demand for sovereignty over Palestine in full.

On November 30, 1947, the day after the UN approved the partition resolution, Palestinian guerrillas attacked Jewish settlements throughout the country and blockaded the roads between them. The Zionists' response was restraint, lest the UN, shocked by the violence it wrought, deem partition unworkable. But Palestinian resistance proved too effective, and in April of 1948, the Jews went on the offensive. The operation succeeded in reopening the roads and saving the settlements, but it also expedited the large-scale flight of Palestinian civilians that had begun in November. Spurred by reports of massacres such as that which occurred at the village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem, between 650,000 and 750,000 Palestinians either fled or were driven into neighboring countries. Most expected to return in the near future, after the combined Arab forces intervened and expelled the Zionist"usurpers."

Rigorous attempts would be made to prevent such intervention. Jewish leaders secretly sought a modus vivendi with Abdallah, Transjordan's Hashemite monarch, based on their common fear of Palestinian nationalism. The U.S State Department, never enamored of the Zionist dream and deeply opposed to partition, championed an international trusteeship plan for Palestine. Proposals were floated for a binational Arab-Jewish state or an Arab federation in which the Jews would enjoy local autonomy. None of these initiatives succeeded, however, and when, on May 14, the British Mandate ended, the Jewish state was declared. Henceforth, the Jews were Israelis, while Palestine's Arabs became, simply, the Palestinians.

It was also that day that the civil strife burning since November exploded into a regional clash between Israel and the five nearest Arab countries. Led by the Iraqis and the Syrians, always the most truculent of anti-Zionists, and threatened by the possibility that Transjordan would gain territorially-and thus politically-through conquest, Egypt was fully drawn into the fight. Thousands of troops, fortified by bombers, fighter planes and tanks, swept forward in what was cavalierly described as a"police action."

That action succeeded in throwing the nascent state on the deep defensive as Arab armies penetrated through the Negev and Galilee, reaching the approaches to Tel Aviv, Israel's largest city. The 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem were subject to a brutal siege. Yet Ben-Gurion refused to despair. Short but imposing, a visionary with a pragmatist's appreciation of power, he exploited UN-mediated truces to refresh and rearm his forces. That advantage, together with the Arabs' egregious lack of command, dramatically turned the tide.

By the fall of 1948, the newly constituted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had managed to bypass the Arab blockade of Jerusalem and to fight Transjordan's British-led Arab Legion, if not to victory, then at least to a stalemate. Also stymied were the Syrian advances in the north and Iraq's incursion into the country's center. But the brunt of the Israelis' armed might was aimed at Egypt, the largest Arab contingent. Egyptian troops were driven from the vicinity of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and out of the entire Negev but for a small pocket of men. These held out until early 1949, when Cairo sued for an armistice.

The War of Independence, as the Israelis called it, had ended. The Jewish state had captured some 30 percent more territory than the UN had allotted it, and, by dint of the Palestinian exodus, a solid Jewish majority. Only the threat of forfeiting that majority and possibly inviting a war with Britain-Egypt's and Jordan's protector-deterred the IDF from conquering the West Bank and Gaza as well. In a final operation launched in March 1949, after the armistice with Jordan, Israeli troops took Umm al-Rashrash on the Red Sea, an area that had originally been partitioned to the Jews. Renamed Eilat, the port would serve as Israel's lifeline through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran, to the markets of Africa and Asia.

Against what had seemed to them near-impossible odds, young commanders such as Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin had won a prodigious military victory, but at an almost pyrrhic price. Six thousand Jews had been killed-1 percent of the population-and scores of villages bombed and decimated. Despite repeated assaults by IDF troops, the Old City of Jerusalem remained in Hashemite hands, as did the Latrun Corridor leading up to it. The Arab Legion also uprooted the Jewish settlements of the Etzion Bloc, outside Bethlehem, and occupied the West Bank of the Jordan River. Syria, too, remained in possession of areas beyond the international frontier. All of Israel's major population and industrial centers remained within easy artillery range of one or another Arab army. At its narrowest point, the country was a mere nine miles wide, easily bifurcated by a Jordanian or an Iraqi thrust from the East, with nowhere to fall back to but the sea.

The mixed bag of Israel's victory, added to the aggregate trauma of Jewish history, created an ambivalence within the Israelis: an overblown confidence in their invincibility alongside an equally inflated sense of doom. To the West, Israelis portrayed themselves as inadequately armed Davids struggling against Philistine giants, and to the Arabs, as Goliaths of incalculable strength. During his first visit to Washington as IDF chief of staff in November 1953, Moshe Dayan told Pentagon officials that Israel faced mortal danger, and, in the same breath, that it could smash the combined Arab armies in weeks.

No such antitheses plagued the Arabs, however. For them, the 1948 war was al-Nakbah,"the Disaster," and an unmitigated one at that. The victory parades held in Cairo and Damascus could not disguise the fact that the Arab states had failed in their first postcolonial test. The annexation of the West Bank by Transjordan (ensconced on both sides of the river now, the country would soon drop the"trans"), and Egypt's occupation of Gaza, only underscored the Palestinians' loss of a state that was to have included both territories. Defeat at the hands of the relatively small, formerly disparaged Jewish army only redoubled their humiliation. That defeat could produce no heroes, only embittered soldiers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, one of the young officers who had held out in that Negev pocket, who now sought revenge not only against Israel, but against the inept Arab rulers it had humbled.

The Impossible Peace

The General Armistice Agreements (GAA) signed between Israel and its four adjacent adversaries-Egypt, Jordan Lebanon, and Syria, in that order-in the first half of 1949 deeply influenced Arab-Israeli relations over the next nineteenth years. Under its ambiguous terms, one side, the Arab, claimed full belligerent rights, including the right to renew active hostilities at will, and denied the other side any form of legitimacy or recognition. As a diplomatic document, the GAA was sui generis. Intended as the basis"for a permanent peace in Palestine"-according to Ralph Bunche, the UN official who received the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating it-the Armistice in fact perpetuated the conflict and prepared the ground for war.

The Israelis had been duped. Thinking that they could retain the territories they had conquered beyond the Partition borders and keep the refugees out, Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders had spared Arab armies further punishment from the IDF. Attaining peace was only a matter of months, if not weeks, they believed. Yet no sooner had their forces withdrawn when the Arab governments declared the Armistice no more than a temporary truce under which Israeli goods could be boycotted and Israel shipping denied passage through the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal. There was no Israel, they claimed, only an Israeli army, and no Israeli borders but arbitrary Demarcation Lines pitted with Demilitarized Zones (DZ's) of questionable ownership.

So the agreement initially hailed as a trophy for Israel soon became its millstone. An attempt to challenge the Suez blockade in the Security Council in 1951 was promptly ignored by Egypt while, in the north, Syrian forces advanced further and occupied strategic hilltops over the Armistice line. The Mutual Armistice Commissions (MACs) created to handle day-to-day affairs became arenas for recriminations and counter-recriminations; most ceased functioning altogether. Efforts by a UN Palestine Conciliation Commission, by the U.S. and British governments, and by a procession of independent would-be mediators failed to move Israel and the Arab states substantially in the direction of peace.

Yet not all Arab leaders were opposed to peace, in principle at least, especially a peace that brought them territorial assets. While publicly clamoring for war, appeasing their"streets," some leaders sought secret agreements with the Zionists. Thus, Syrian dictator Husni Za'im clandestinely offered to resettle 300,000 refugees, but only in return for gaining control over half of the Sea of Galilee. Abdallah of Jordan wanted a corridor between his newly annexed West Bank and the Mediterranean, and Egypt's King Faruq, demanded the entire Negev desert- 62 percent of Israel's territory. Ben-Gurion, however, opposed any unilateral concessions of land, preferring to maintain the status quo in which Israel could develop its infrastructure, absorb immigrants, and gather strength. But the failure to attain peace ultimately owed less to his obduracy than to Arabs' inability to deal with Israel in any formal way. Thus, the Jordanian cabinet prevailed upon Abdallah to abandon his talks with the Israelis, and Egyptian emissaries explained that an agreement with the Zionists now or even in the foreseeable future would surely cost them their lives.

The efforts of Arab rulers to pander to public opinion proved futile eventually, as one by one they fell. Husni Za'im was barely six months in power before being overthrown and executed, setting the pattern for another sixteen regimes that would rise and dissolve in Syria in almost as many years. Next was Abdallah, felled by a Palestinian bullet outside Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque in July 1951, while his grandson and later successor, Hussein, looked on. Iraq's Hashemite king, Faisal, would be dismembered by a savage Baghdad mob in 1958, along with Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa'id, another vociferous anti-Zionist who had secretly contacted the Israelis. Egypt's turn came in July 1952 with Faruq's ouster by a clique of self-styled Free Officers under General Muhammad Naguib. Within a year, Naguib himself was deposed by the true strongman behind the regime, the inspired and purportedly moderate colonel: Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Here was a man with whom the Israelis thought they could do business. Egyptian and Israeli representatives again engaged in secret contacts, even producing a letter (unsigned) from Nasser to Israeli leaders. But the basic Egyptian position had not altered: Peace was unthinkable under current circumstances, and should those circumstances change, would become possible only once Israel ceded the entire Negev desert. By 1953, as Egypt began sponsoring raids by Palestinian guerrillas (fida'iyun in Arabic: self-sacrificers) into Israel, and its propaganda renewed calls for a"second round," Ben-Gurion had come to view the contacts as a ploy, an attempt to anesthetize Israel before slaughtering it.

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