Friday, November 13, 2009

So what's the deal with Israel and Palestine, anyway?

Unless you've been in a vegetative state for the last century or so, you'll know about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If you're like most people, you've probably picked a side already, and if you're really like most people, you'll have done so despite the fact that you don't know very much - if anything - about the situation.  Most people choose a side for personal reasons ("I'm of Arabic descent, so I support Palestine"), or political reasons ("I'm an American and the USA has good relations with Israel, so I support them.").  Being a fence-sitter is bad, but picking sides with no knowledge of the issues involved is even worse.

The big question is usually, "why all the violence over a piece of land?"  It's a hot-button topic, but here is one take:

The story so far.

In 1916 the British, who controlled the area, promised the land to the Arabs in return for their help in World War I.  Think Lawrence of Arabia.

With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the British promised the same land to the Jews.  After being kicked out of Israel by the Romans in the first century, the Jews had no state of their own, and the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine - called Zionism - had gained a lot of currency from the mid-19th century onwards.

Following World War II, the United Nations decided that, because of the Holocaust, an attempt should be made to create Israel.  However, this required the agreement of the Arabs, who were not too keen on giving up the land where they had lived for generations, and in any case hadn't the British promised it to them?  The plan was to carve up what was called the British Mandate of Palestine into Jordan, Israel, and Arab Palestine.

Despite the lack of an agreement regarding the break up of Palestine into Arab and Jewish territories, Israel unilaterally declared its independence in 1948.  There was bloodshed on both sides: Jewish attacks such as the Deir Yassin massacre caused many Arabs to flee.  The Arabs states retaliated, invading Palestine and attacking Israel.

Israel beat the Arabs in 1948, with Egypt crossing over into the Gaza strip which they occupied.  Jordan took control of the West Bank. The UN passed a resolution guaranteeing a Right of Return for the Arabs who had been forced to flee their homes.

In 1967, the Arabs attacked again.  Again Israel beat them back, but this time their military remained outside their borders, occupying the Gaza strip and the Sinai; the Golan Heights, which is a part of Syria; and the West Bank.  The UN passed a resolution stating that the borders of Israel were those that were present before the invasion.

Israel ceded the Sinai when they made peace with Egypt, but the Gaza strip remained under Israeli occupation.

Israel withdrew from Gaza a few years ago, but the military occupation of the West Bank continues to this day.  It is this military occupation which is the cause of the problem between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  There is also the issue of Israel building settlements in the West Bank, as transplanting of your people to occupied territory is forbidden by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

While there are inevitably some extremists who would like to see Israel wiped off of the map completely, the view of the world as expressed by the UN, and by the Arabs through the Saudi Peace initiative, is for Israel to return to its 1967 borders, according to what is called Resolution 242, and for the Palestinians, freed from occupation, to create their own state.  However, there are also extremists on the Israeli side who want all of Palestine for Israel, with the settlements in places such as Hebron - the second holiest site in Judaism after Jerusalem, but in the occupied West Bank - being "facts on the ground".

Then why is there US support for Israel?

The best way to understand why a US-Israeli relationship exists is to study how the relationship was formed.

The United States and Israel were intimately tied together since Israel's previously mentioned declaration of Independence - the future Israelis notified Truman of the declaration prior to its publication.  However, the issue found no consensus in the higher levels of the US government.  George Marshall famously stormed out of a meeting in protest of the recognition of Israel, and most of the State Department thought that a prompt recognition of Israel by the US would damage relationships with the Arab states.  The bigger point was that the USA's prompt recognition of Israel would do little for the US-Israeli relationship, seeing as the Soviets did the same.

In 1953 when Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, came into office, they intended to be impartial in the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Initially, this was not too difficult.  The US even aided in the successful Suez Base negotiations with Britain and Egypt.

However, things changed between 1955 and 1958.  For one, Gamal Abdel Nasser's rise to power posed a political threat to Israel, and his 1955 purchase of arms from the Soviet bloc also made him a military threat to Israel.  The US press were very unhappy about this, and wasted no time comparing him to Hitler.  Eisenhower ultimately resisted public pressure to intervene in the Suez war, and was publicly opposed to Israeli actions.  Neutrality prevailed.

But in 1958 everything changed.  Eisenhower intervened in Lebanon partly because he feared that another Munich crisis was on the table.  Moreover, the Eisenhower administration began to view Israel as a strategic asset in the Middle East, and the US became closer to Israel while the Soviets got in bed with the Arab states.  During the second Eisenhower administration, they forged closer ties with Israel for strategic reasons.

However, this is not to say that culture had no influence: Even before the Eisenhower administration decided to forge close ties to Israel, the memory of World War II allowed the press to compare Israel's enemy, Nasser, to Adolf Hitler.  Jewish people were being publicly assimilated into American life, and many Americans praised Israel as a democracy.

This relationship endures because these cultural factors remained after Israel became a strategic liability during the cold war.  The cultural attachment to Israel, which aided the strategic relationship, persisted despite the death of the strategic rationale for supporting Israel.

Where do I stand on the issue?

The US needs to put pressure on Israel.  Without significant nudging from their strongest ally, Israel will remain perfectly happy with the status quo.  Considering Russia's history with Chechnya, Israel is probably paranoid about seeing a long-time enemy end up with even more land and, like Russia, adopt the hardest possible line for fear of losing their grip on other areas. Withdrawal to the 1967 borders will obviously not end violence in the Middle East, but it's the only viable first step.

Oh, and despite what the propogandists will tell you, anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, it was very interesting and informative! A good description for the everyman.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the last post. This was very informative and it did not feel biased at all, just factual, exactly what I was looking for as I wanted to find out more about what was going on with palestine and israel. Im still not sure where I stand on the issue, I mean, the land was promised to palestine first, which should count for something, but considering the tragedy of the holocaust I think the palestines should have had sympathy for these people who had nowhere to go. On the other hand I had no idea that israel has taken over so much of the formerly palestinian land... So, I still don't know where I stand on the issue, guess I feel for them both. Still , I will furthr research the issue.