There is an old adage that the only thing guaranteed in life is death and taxes, but observers of history and foreign affairs could submit a third guarantee; war in the Middle East.
But with all jest aside, there is a truly complex history with global interests, human migration, war, religion, and ideology all at play. And all those things, when analyzed together, give us a relatively concise answer to the question of why Israel always seems to be fighting with its neighbors. I will provide you a narrative of that history below.
Israel has fought four major wars in its modern history, but when we examine them all together they are essentially the prolonged and delayed result of the same issue; sovereignty in the Middle East.
The Balfour Declaration
In 1917, approaching the end of the First World War, Britain was fighting a long and protracted campaign against the Ottoman Empire who were the eminent superpower in the Middle East. In a bid to secure local allies for their fight on the Ottoman’s frontiers, the British provided political guarantees to various ethnic and religious groups. The product of such policy, with the greatest implications for instability in the Trans-Jordan region, was the Balfour Declaration. In it, the British declared a “national home for the Jewish people.”
In 1917, James Balfour wrote to Lord Rothschild:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. [and] will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object. [it] being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
In this period, an age of empires, European powers had conducted decades of administration across their territories. Whether or not the British knew their decision would cause such instability for the future cannot be known, but the Balfour Declaration was the first time a world power would acknowledge that the Jews had a historic and cultural rite to the land we now know as Israel.
The Mandate for Palestine
When World War I ended, allied victory saw the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and with it an apparent need to administer the region into peace and stability. So, in 1920, the British are given the “Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. In it, they are tasked with the management of the territory of Palestine and Trans-Jordan with a strict condition to administer the region until the peoples within could peacefully do so on their own.
In the Inter-War Period, particularly the 1930s, Jewish immigration booms in the region. This is particularly due to the rise of National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany in 1933, and the terror of Stalinism in the USSR.
Outraged by the masses of Jews coming to the region, local Arab Muslims protest and demand freedom from the British Crown and the crackdown on immigration.
The Palestine Statement of Policy
In 1939, the British issue an amendment to the Balfour Policy, declaring it fulfilled due to nearly half-a-million Jews now in the region. The amendment commits Britain to establishing an official, independent Jewish state within a ten year period. In an effort to appease local Arab interests, however, the British begin to restrict Jewish immigration to the region as well as the purchase of land.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain is unable to fulfill some of the promises it has made, and Jewish immigration continues to increase. This is due to the mass exodus of Jews escaping the Holocaust in Europe, as well as Zionist groups assisting migrants to enter the region.
When World War II ends, Britain is unable to manage its empire. Unable to fulfill policy goals in the region, and looking to European affairs, Britain abandons their project in Palestine and hands over the responsibility to the newly formed United Nations.
In 1947, looking to capitalize on the progress made by the British, the UN proposes a partition plan to the Jews and Arabs. The plan includes an independent Jewish state, and independent Arab state, and a neutral, international Jerusalem. Arab nations, outraged, prepare a unified response.
First Arab-Israeli War (1948) AKA Israeli War of Independence
In May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declares the establishment of an official Jewish state known as Israel. In response, the newly formed Arab League — made up of Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen — launch a full-scale invasion against Israel.
Israel emerges from the war victorious in 1949, and now occupies the territories mandated to Israel by the UN, roughly 60% of land allotted to Arabs, and West Jerusalem. Jordan and Egypt, both of the Arab League, are granted control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, respectfully.
Additionally, while terms for peace were agreed upon, the Arab nations would refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty.
Second Arab-Israeli War (1956) AKA the Suez Crisis
In 1956, due to erratic and reckless diplomacy by Egypt’s Gamal Nasser, Egypt spurs on the Suez Crisis, an international incident. Egypt’s goal was to reclaim lost territory and destroy the Israeli state. Closing the Strait of Tehran would mean Israeli isolation from international trade.
Israel would not only emerge from the war victorious, but they would also gain the attention of the United States. Hoping to develop a new ally in their fight against global communism, the US would commit to guaranteeing Israeli sovereignty during this time.
From this period until 1967, Israel and neighboring Arabs would continue to skirmish one another. Syria and Egypt would form a mutual defensive pact against perceived Israeli aggression.
Third Arab-Israeli War (1967) AKA the Six Day War
This period was marked by increasing hostility between Israel and Syria and Egypt. Egypt and Syria had recently formed a defensive pact based off of claims of an imminent invasion of Israel into the Sinai Peninsula.
Claiming to move preemptively in self-defense, Egypt martials its forces in Sinai along the border with Israel. Additionally, like in 1956, Egypt once again closes the Strait of Tehran and restricts any trade or travel for Israel.
Fearing a repeat of the 1956 scenario, Israel launches a masterful airstrike campaign against Egyptian military targets while ground forces invade the Sinai and Gaza Strip. Egypt’s military forces are utterly capitulated, and while Jordan and Syria join the war, a ceasefire comes after a mere six days.
This conflict alone is perhaps the one that remains deep within the psyche of contemporary Arabs and Muslims sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, as Israel emerges from the war occupying the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. It is here that Israel begins its mass expulsion of Arabs.
Unaccepting of their defeat, Egypt’s Gamal Nasser holds the Arab League Summit in August 1967. There, the Khartoum Resolution is proposed, famously declaring its “Three No’s”:
- No peace with Israel
- No recognition of Israel
- No negotiating with Israel
And so, from 1967 to 1970, Israel and its Arab neighbors would wage a war of attrition amongst one another, where smaller scale skirmishes would dominate. In 1970, having received major economic and military arms support from the USSR, Egypt begins to pressure the international community to convince Israel to return territory it seized from the 1967 conflict.
Fourth Arab-Israeli War (1973) AKA the Yom Kippur War
In 1971, Egypt proposes a plan to Israel, stating they will accept a lasting peace should Israel return the land, But Israel states it will negotiate a settlement based on mutual compromise. Dissatisfied with this answer and giving an ultimatum to Israel, Egypt vows to have the decision made — by diplomacy or force. When this falls through, and finding no support from the US or USSR, Egypt prepares its forces for another conflict to reclaim the Sinai. Egypt launches another invasion on Israel on Yom Kippur in 1973.
The war, lasting for roughly three weeks, ends with an Israeli victory. However, shocked at the unexpected invasion, Israel understood its unpreparedness. Seeing the possibility that it may not be able to withstand another surprise conflict from the entire Arab League, Israel looks to diplomacy.
It is not until 1979 that Israel and Egypt achieve a major diplomatic breakthrough. The two nations agree to a settlement in which Sinai is returned to Egypt in exchange for Egypt recognizing Israeli sovereignty. Because of this, the Arab League would vote to expel Egypt from their organization.
Contemporary relations between Israel and the Arab world are, more or less, rooted in this history. From the Israeli perspective, the existence of an Israeli state will always be an existential issue. The nation had been born in the shadow of the most tumultuous and challenging time for Jews — the Holocaust. And while on the cusp of self-determination in their historic homeland, the possibility of a future for a Jewish nation was attacked as quickly as it was imagined. This short yet vibrant history has formed the core of Israel’s national psyche. Assaulted from all sides and unable to earnestly pursue regional diplomacy, Israel is once again up against the wall.