This study is a recap of historical facts and aims to shed new light on the many failures of the Sykes-Picot agreement and implementation during the past century. Along with the comments and observations, it is a reminder to avoid naiveté and mistakes of the past. Jerusalem Center experts also explain the reasons for the failure of Western countries in achieving sustainable peace.
A century after the Sykes-Picot Agreement signed in 1916 between France and Britain, the Middle-East remains a political powder keg and the location of successive armed conflicts. The boundaries drawn just a century ago by Western powers are evaporating. Suddenly, the whole character of the region is changing beyond all recognition.
After the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and the division of the Middle East between Britain and France, this region was marked by a series of treaties and international conferences, often contradictory and rarely strictly observed and respected. The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, the control of natural resources, gas and oil, the arms race, arms supplies and freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal, all prompted a power battle, and this area became the region for all confrontations.
Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot divided the Middle East loosely and arbitrarily without being convinced that their agreement would, in reality, be implemented. From the start, the division was fragile. The Agreement was signed hastily in secret in the midst of World War I and in a climate of mutual distrust.
The division into zones of influence did not take into account the local peoples. Demographic, socio-cultural and religious aspects were not taken into account by France or Britain. Several Arab tribes, though nomadic, found themselves separated and dispersed into different states. They strongly rejected the central government. These diplomatic schemes led to a strengthening of the Alawite minority in the Sunni majority in Syria and domination of the Sunni minority over the Shiite majority in Iraq. Over the years, the region was shaken by internal uprisings, coups and revolts that continue to this day.
Britain carried out incoherent and contradictory policies within the Middle East. It used questionable diplomatic maneuvering to satisfy both Arab and Jewish claims while avoiding a serious analysis both of the current and foreseeable problems in the region.
Today, across the region from Libya to Syria, authority has collapsed and people are reaching for their older identities — Sunni, Shiite, Kurd. Sectarian groups, often Islamist, have filled the power vacuum, spilling over borders and spreading violence.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only outstanding issue in the region. During the last six decades, 23 conflicts have been recorded, including the war between Iranian Shiites and Iraqi Sunnis, which upset military and strategic stability and caused more than a million casualties.
The domino-effect of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria has no link to the Arab-Israeli conflict. All the unrest in the Arab world is internal, social, religious and tribal. It emerged as a result of corrupt leaders who, for decades, benefited from the poverty and ignorance of their citizens and stole from the national treasury by creating a police state and ruling by terror and a cult of personality.
The Arab war against Jewish presence in the Middle East began long before the creation of the State of Israel. It was indeed documented as a local conflict among others which existed since the Mandate period and was caused due to the weaknesses of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Over the years, the Middle East has become an arena of confrontation between the two superpowers, deepening the divide between the antagonists and continuing to destabilize of the region.
The West and the UN have managed to avoid involvement in any war in the Middle East and have always discouraged Israel from launching preemptive operations despite the existential dangers it faced. The events on the eve of the Six Day War were a good example. Since the time of Nasser until today and despite the aggressive statements of the Iranian Ayatollahs, Westerners have failed to take the threats against Israel seriously and intervened only after the outbreak of hostilities by accusing Israel of aggression.
The West, the Vatican, and the United Nations have failed to save Eastern Christians and the remains of World Heritage Sites in the Middle East. The failure of their policy towards the Bashar Assad regime has intensified the civil war in Syria and the outpouring of more than four million refugees to neighboring countries and Europe.
Europe never proposed a rational and viable Arab-Israeli peace plan. It did not actively participate in the peace conference in Geneva in 1974 or in Madrid in 1991. It was absent from the drafting of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but witnessed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 regarding the solution to the Palestinian problem. Europe, and especially France, usually intervened after the failure of an American mission. Sometimes Europe was associated with international initiatives such as the Quartet’s involvement in the “Roadmap” but sometimes it acted alone, always in accordance with UN resolutions.
Europe was content in all the declarations of the need to create a Palestinian state without going into detail or insisting upon its long-term viability. European declarations were identical, they still condemned colonization and returned to the hackneyed phrase “withdrawal from territories to secure and recognized boundaries” without specific mention whether these borders were truly defensible or taking into account new geopolitical situations. The concerns of Europe, including that of France, regarding the security of the State of Israel were incompatible with the policy on the ground and the decisions taken. They were usually accompanied by moral hectoring and warnings. These were characterized by an arms embargo on the eve of the Six Day War and a destructive apathy during the Yom Kippur War.
The Palestinian refugee problem has not been solved since the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948-9. The West has failed to resolve the humanitarian problem at its source, as they have failed to find a solution to the Syrian crisis and the influx of refugees into Europe. The blame also lies with rich Arab countries that refuse, like in 1948, to accept the integration of refugees into their own territories.
The new Middle East is characterized by competing approaches to the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its legacy, which reflect the rivalry between the major political trends in the region. The greatest challenge to the legacy comes from Radical Islam. The factions of Radical Islam deny the idea of nationalism in general and of local nationalism in particular. They believe in reviving the Islamic Ummah (nation) as one political entity that should be governed according to Shariah (Islamic law). All radical Islamists reject the Western culture and its perceived attempts to dominate Moslem culture and territory, and are all committed to the need to establish a Caliphate over all of the Moslem-populated areas and later over the entire world.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the most important struggle in the region. Israel has genuine security concerns that justify its insistence on having secured and defensible borders both on the Golan Heights and along the Jordan River.
With the collapse of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and despite the existing difficulties in international law, only viable state lines, defensible borders, and adequate safety measures will ensure the stability of the Middle East and the sustainability of the peace process with the Palestinians.
The Europeans have to take into consideration not only the objectives of the Arabs, but also the threats, vital interests and security of the Jewish state.
The new picture of the region also presents Israel with some opportunities. First it raises the chances of developing security cooperation with pragmatic elements in the region in their efforts to confront the radicals, including Iran.
Since its establishment, Israel remains an exemplary democratic state sharing the universal values of the Western world. The country has a burning desire to put an end to all hostilities with her neighbors and to achieve a lasting and sustainable peace. The Israelis want negotiations and are willing to make painful and important concessions provided that the other party supports an end to the conflict and agrees to Israeli demands for security and defense.
In this context, it is clear that the Arab-Israeli conflict will not end if there is no willingness to make shared concessions and if these factors are not taken into account:
- The Arab countries and terrorist organizations should understand that they cannot defeat Israel on the battlefield;
- The Jewish state exists and will continue to exist within the Arab world;
- The existence of Israel within secure borders is recognized by the UN and by the overwhelming majority of the world;
- Only a negotiated peace through direct discussions with each Arab state and with the Palestinians will be the best formula;
- No UN mission has managed to reach an end to hostilities or sign a peace treaty between Israel and the Arabs.
A century after the Sykes-Picot Agreement to draft borders in the Middle East was signed in 1916 between France and Britain, the region remains a political powder keg and the location of successive armed conflicts.
Researchers at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs wanted to understand why the international community has failed in its multiple attempts to achieve stability in our region.
What are the real reasons? Why is the Middle East still so volatile? Why are the Great Powers and the UN not able to settle the various conflicts in the region? How and why are we still without a peaceful resolution? What are the factors involved? Are the reasons political, economic, social, ethnic or tribal? Is it due to the creation of the Jewish state, regarded as a foreign body, a bastion of the West, positioned in a hostile Arab-Muslim environment? Is it a religious war? A new Muslim crusade against the birthplace of Judeo-Christian civilization? Can we find an appropriate solution or even a compromise? Is there any chance at achieving peace or are we doomed to survive in this untenable situation with a hand forever laid on the sword?
Today, after the Western powers closing of the nuclear deal with Iran and following the turmoil within Islam and successive revolts in the Arab world, the boundaries drawn just a century ago by Western powers are fading. Suddenly, the whole character of the region is changing beyond all recognition. The Middle East is disintegrating, the Islamic State is growing through fire and blood, and the area is turning into a mass of ethnic townships and communities.
This new study is a contemporary analysis of a historical document aiming to better understand the geopolitical stakes and complexities of the Middle East issues. We attempt to explain the reasons for the failure of Western countries in achieving sustainable peace.
On the eve of the centenary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we briefly recall the milestones in the history of the region since the defeat of the Ottomans in 1918. We find the Middle East may have been rich in oil, but poor in constructive projects and realistic peace plans.
Since libraries of books have been written on the history of the Middle East, this study does not attempt a rewrite. Our goal is to portray the events and bring them to new light; to analyze decisions and understand why, time after time, opportunities were missed; to explain the ongoing clashes between the Jewish state and the Arab-Muslim countries; to understand the reasons for the failure of peace talks with the Palestinians, the religious war between Sunnis and Shiites, and the fight against a global jihad.
Today, all these fundamental questions are under the spotlight and are at the heart of diplomatic debate. They focus the attention of chancelleries and international opinion. Without understanding the historical events and decisions, we cannot understand the current issues. We must avoid repeating the mistakes of the past to better address current problems, to ensure the stability of the entire region.
The various chapters of this paper, written in a pedagogical style, are simple and concise, providing a brief overview of developments over the past century. They explain, chronologically and from various perspectives, why and how, good or bad decisions have been made, and what their consequences and impact are to date.
Finally, this study provides a valuable and indispensable paper to better appreciate the strategic issues and the new geopolitical situation. It provides the researcher and the general public with a new perspective on current issues in the hope of a better understanding of the region, ensuring the State of Israel is to live in peace and security with its Arab neighbors.
The Division of the Middle East
Narrative of Events
From the end of the Crusader Period in the Holy Land to the conquests of Napoleon Bonaparte and the invasion of Egypt in 1798, and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East, and in particular Palestine, was never the focus of international concern. This region of the world was largely desert, it was not important in the eyes of Westerners but due to its geographical position, was at the crossroads of three major commercial and strategic arteries.
For Napoleon, like other great strategists of the time, the territory of Palestine held both strong offensive and defensive positions. It could serve as a rear base, a shield of sorts, for the defense of Egypt, but also as a springboard to fight in Iraq, the Persian Gulf, India or Turkey.
Powers of the time also believed that the different ethnic and religious communities in the Middle East preferred to be under European rather than Turkish rule. Moreover, the issue of religious and tribal communities is to this day one of the causes of instability in the Middle East. Several Shiite and Sunni Arab tribes were dispersed in different areas of influence without the possibility of returning to their familial and social structure.
Ethnic and religious realities were neglected by the powers and were not seriously addressed. They didn’t take into account the respective land interests, preferring to preserve friction and conflict in order to maintain overall rule. Napoleon Bonaparte acted in this way when he intentionally developed tensions between Maronites and Druze in order to capitalize on both Christian and Muslim holy sites. These sites have always been a basis for religious claims, as well as being a strong point of contention. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was initiated precisely because of disputes that opposed Western and Eastern Christian control of the holy sites in Palestine, particularly in Jerusalem.
Events soon accelerated with the construction of the Suez Canal and development of the rail network: Britain invaded Egypt and attempted to expand its influence on Palestine and southern Syria; France strengthened its hegemony in Lebanon and northern Syria; financial and business matters dominated the agenda. Investments in the railways increased, but the layout of the railway caused new political tensions between Paris and London. These tensions even reached Berlin, which wanted to build an independent rail network from Istanbul to Baghdad and onwards to the Persian Gulf, as well as another line from Damascus to Mecca.
German intentions worried the British because of the exploitation of energy resources and their transportation routes by sea and land. The Germans chose to build a railway line from Baghdad to Haifa.
In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, Germany signed two separate agreements, one with France and the other with Britain. An initial economic division of the Middle East was born when the Ottoman Empire began to weaken. Germany then had an influential role in the north from Istanbul to Baghdad; France in the center and south of Syria; and Britain along the Persian Gulf and the entire region to the west of Amman. Note that this was an agreement on the route of the railway lines but it subsequently created serious tensions regarding the fate of Palestine. The deep-rooted differences between Paris and London on this issue involved strategic, economic and religious interests and did not include the fate of the minorities living in the region. The future of the local populations was not deemed a primary concern. The powers thought they could resolve these groups’ future by safeguarding the status quo and offering them appropriate protection and later self-determination.
Recall that at the time, the British Empire faced more than 100 million Muslims who could have joined the jihad declared by the Ottomans at the end of 1914. It was therefore imperative to win the war as quickly as possible on the Eastern front and to proceed without delay in dividing the conquered territories. This strategic calculation was not shared by the French, whose top priority was to win the war against Germany and recapture Alsace-Lorraine.
On the eve of the First World War, Palestine included the present territories of Israel and Jordan, an area of 11,600 km2 with a population of about 500,000 inhabitants, 85,000 of whom were Jews. Half the territory was desert and 60 percent of its inhabitants were nomadic. Administratively, Palestine was under Turkish rule, but was considered a sub-province.
The outbreak of the First World War in the summer of 1914 overthrew four centuries of Turkish rule: a mighty empire that stretched across three continents including Anatolia, the Armenian plateau, the Balkans, the Black Sea, Syria, Mesopotamia, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and part of North Africa. (France conquered Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1881 and proclaimed a protectorate in Morocco in 1912. Italy invaded Libya in 1912).
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire prompted the sharing of land administration and influence by two future mandatory powers in the Middle East: France and Britain.
After long and difficult negotiations, a secret agreement was signed by the British representative, Mark Sykes, and the French delegate, François Georges-Picot. On May 16, 1916, in the midst of World War I, on a one square meter map, the boundaries were drawn by the two diplomats using the single stroke of a pen. The line was drawn from Mosul to Haifa, dividing the Middle East into two spheres of influence. Everything in the north would be given to France and in the south to Great Britain:
- France would receive Syria, Libya and northern Palestine.
- Great Britain would receive Mesopotamia (the Negev desert, Transjordan and Iraq).
Palestine became a condominium with special international status: the north was under French control; Haifa port was under the control of the British navy; Russia received Turkish Armenia including the Dardanelles and the Orthodox holy sites in Palestine.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement remained loose enough to allow all possible interpretations in light of political and military events in the region, as well as claims from various populations, especially amongst Arabs and Jews.
The agreement was a diplomatic alliance between two envoys, a treaty to settle rivalries between Paris and London regarding rule of the Middle East and Levant. Suggested borders were not realistic, and the delineation of spheres of influence was not consistent with the strategic and economic interests of the signatories.
Note that the French government had been eager to convince Parliament to end the war. The military leaders were faced with mutinies and a pacifist wave was sweeping across France.
Faced with a deteriorating war situation, Mark Sykes launched a diplomatic offensive to ensure self-determination for minorities in the region. At a meeting with Zionist leaders held on February 7, 1917, he suggested that amongst international bodies, they make a claim for a “British Palestine.” Sykes’ approach was not welcomed by the Foreign Office and it caused an Arab revolt, inspired by the fanciful adventures of the English officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, future author of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom.”
Despite contrary advice from the Foreign Office, in April 1917, Sykes took part in a study tour of the Middle East. He met with Zionist leaders in Jerusalem and promised to work for their cause. He hoped that the Zionist movement would exert pressure tactics to dissolve the secret agreement signed with Georges-Picot on the future of Palestine. On his return to London, Sykes asked Lord Balfour, the colonial secretary, to seriously consider his project. These initial meetings came to fruition seven months later with the signing of the famous Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917.
As for Georges-Picot, he did not hide the fact that France wanted Palestine for itself. Indeed, France had diplomatic and consular representation in the Levant, a Catholic protectorate in Turkey, and sovereignty over Roman Catholics in the Levant including French nationals and foreigners. Additionally, we must not forget the Capitulation Accord conferring rights and privileges to European citizens, signed in the sixteenth century.
In fact, Georges-Picot rejected the idea of a condominium with Great Britain and the United States. Clemenceau himself was rather indifferent to the affairs of the region and was more concerned with future relations with Germany. The end of the war allowed Britain to control, through arms, the majority of territories in the Middle East.
The collapse of Russia, caused by the abdication of Nicolas II and the Bolshevik Revolution, as well as the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, greatly strengthened the position of England. Now it was England that would have overall rule in the region.
In October 1918, just after the signing of the armistice, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was amended in secret by Lloyd George and Clemenceau. France ceded the Mosul area in Iraq (rich in oil refineries) and Palestine (from Metula to Beersheba) to Great Britain, in exchange for direct control over all of Syria and access to a share of the Turkish Petroleum Company.
Among the diplomatic treaties, we must emphasize the agreements signed January 3, 1919, between King Faisal bin Hussein and the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. In a letter signed by King Faisal, he wrote: “The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is nationalist and not imperialist. There is room in Palestine for both of us.”
After the Paris Conference that would end the war, the Allies met in San Remo on April 25, 1920. France was awarded mandates over Syria and Lebanon, and England over Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan. A few months later, on August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres confirmed “the Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the [Balfour] declaration originally made on November 2, 1917.”
The United States had not attended the San Remo meeting nor the Treaty of Sèvres, but on June 30, 1920, Congress gave approval and President Thomas Woodrow Wilson accepted the Treaty of Sèvres on September 20, 1920.
Only on July 24, 1922, under Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, the British mandate was formally awarded to Palestine (see Appendix). For the first time, the international community confirmed the Balfour Declaration and recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
However, only after the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate, the creation of the new Republic of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal, and the Treaty of Lausanne on September 28, 1923, did the British Mandate officially come into force.
Both the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the high profile exposure generated by the Balfour Declaration, raised indignation and revolt in the Arab world. According to the Arabs, they flouted the commitments made in 1915 by the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali. McMahon promised a great kingdom that encompassed Arabia, Transjordan, Iraq and part of Syria. This vague promise, a year before the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was subject to different interpretations and was still a blow, since it was regarded as a gross violation of British commitments to the Arabs.
To appease the sensitivities in the Arab world, to calm opponents of the Balfour Declaration within the British government, but above all to restore calm after the bloody riots that swept against the Jews in Palestine, a series of White Papers was published by the British authorities that would create a heavy setback to Jewish immigration.
The first White Paper was published June 3, 1922, on the initiative of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill. Three months later, and 60 days after the British Mandate of Palestine was entrusted by the League of Nations, thus confirming the Balfour Declaration, which states the “reconstitution of the National Home” for Jews in Palestine, Britain and the Council of the League of Nations decided that the provisions for the establishment of a Jewish national home would not apply to the area east of the Jordan River. It comprised three-quarters of a territory that later became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Notes and Observations
- Note that Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot divided the Middle East loosely and arbitrarily without being convinced that their agreement would, in reality, be implemented. From the start, the division was fragile.
- The Agreement was signed hastily in secret, in the midst of World War I, and in a climate of mutual distrust.
- Dividing the region between two powers could not be done until the end of hostilities and especially not two years before the armistice, when no one knew the outcome of the war. On the ground, there was still a need to fight against the Turks, to face the Kemalist revolt and the intentions of the Emir Faisal, a friend of Lawrence of Arabia, guardian of the holy places of Mecca and self-proclaimed “King of Greater Syria.”
- On July 24, 1920, along with his troops, the French General Henri Gouraud entered Damascus and expelled the Emir Faisal, whom the British were offering in exchange for the throne in Iraq.
- Note that General Gouraud divided Syria into four distinct political entities: The State of Greater Lebanon (including the Province of Beirut and the Beqaa Valley), the State of Damascus, the State of Aleppo and the Alawite State. Following the civil war unleashed against the Assad regime in 2011, the question remains whether we are moving towards the same partition General Gouraud had decided upon nearly a century ago.
- The United States did not participate in the agreements, preferring the authority of the League of Nations to guarantee self-determination.
- France and Britain wanted to take advantage of the fall of the Ottoman Empire. France wanted to give a boost to infrastructure but also to the school network, education and culture. Britain strengthened its representative power through strict measures and laws, and the exploitation of energy resources. The case of Mosul speaks for itself: although the region was promised to France by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, after the armistice of 1918 it was the British who occupied and then administered it. France, after much procrastination, renounced her rights throughout the province, with the United Kingdom incorporating it into Mandatory Iraq. The Turks had protested but in 1925 the League of Nations would confirm the annexation of Mosul province by the British. Note that since June 2014 Mosul, 350 km north of Baghdad, has been controlled by the jihadists of Islamic State.
- Faced with the indifference of England, France, known in French as “la fille ainée de l’Eglise”, “the eldest daughter of the Church,” due to its historic connection to the Roman Catholic Church, was concerned with defending and respecting the Holy Land, and in particular its holy sites. French institutions in the Holy Land symbolized the continuity of Catholic France, from the Crusader period to the present day.
- The two powers had not previously seriously consulted local leaders in the Middle East. They rallied them in the fight against the Ottomans, but the promises made to them were not kept.
- The Agreement did not take into consideration the aspirations of the people nor the commitments given to the Jews, Kurds and Arabs.
- Intellectuals and British diplomats were watching the Middle East with a certain naivety and idealism. Influenced by the stories of Lawrence of Arabia, they wanted an Arab renaissance based on the authentic spirit quite distinct from the Bedouin “French Levant” and especially the corrupt Ottoman regime.
- The division into zones of influence did not consider local peoples. Demographic, socio-cultural and religious aspects were not taken into account either by France or Britain. Several Arab tribes, though nomadic, found themselves separated and dispersed into different states. They strongly rejected the central government. These attorneys’ schemes led to a strengthening of the Alawite minority in the Sunni majority in Syria, and domination of the Sunni minority over the Shiite majority in Iraq. Over the years, the region was shaken by internal uprisings, coups and revolts that continue to this day.
- Britain carried out incoherent and contradictory policies within the Middle East. It used questionable diplomatic maneuvering to satisfy both Arab and Jewish claims whilst avoiding a serious analysis of the current and foreseeable problems in the region.
- In issuing the Balfour Declaration, the British believed that the Jews could finance part of the war effort whilst the British also persuaded the United States to engage in World War I.
- The Balfour Declaration was undoubtedly a milestone in the modern history of the Jewish people since for the first time it officially recognized the natural right of the Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. However, the document cast many complex doubts, as well as embarrassing questions, to which, at this stage, the British government could not provide specific answers.
- The following points which are not included in this paper, reinforced the hopes of the Jews, and the frustrations and bitterness of the Arabs, causing revolts and riots:
- In order to restore calm, the British made repeated gestures in favor of the Arabs, and adopted a reserved, ambiguous, and often hostile approach towards the Jews, resulting in the creation of a series of White Papers.
- The Balfour Declaration made no reference to the future establishment of a sovereign, independent Jewish state:
- No details nor even suggestions were made as to the parameters of the State: its territory and borders as well as political, administrative and military character.
- No commitment was made on the autonomy of the national home.
- No mention was made on the links with Great Britain.
- The Balfour Declaration was declared and confirmed in the preamble to the text of the Mandate for Palestine (July 24, 1922), and in the same vein, with the British government memorandum on the implementation of this mandate in Transjordan, and approved by the Council of the League of Nations on September 16, 1922. The memorandum initiated by Winston Churchill in fact reduced the original territory of Palestine by three-quarters. It was arbitrarily detached from the rest of Palestine and King Abdullah Emir was recognized as Emir by the British. Later he became King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which also included the West Bank of the Jordan, or Cisjordan.
The End of Franco-British Influence
Narrative of Events
Since the beginning of 1947, the Palestinian issue has been debated at the UN in an attempt to find a solution acceptable to both Jews and Arabs. Britain was powerless to control violence and riots in Palestine, despite the fact it possessed an army of more than 100,000 men, four times the number in India.
In April 1947, UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), proposed an end to the British Mandate in favor of the partition of Palestine into two states: Arab and Jewish.
On 29 November 1947, the General Assembly of the UN voted on a partition plan. 33 countries voted in favor, including the United States, the Soviet Union and France; Britain abstained. The Jews accepted the partition plan, the Arabs staunchly rejected it, and hostilities were revived.
On May 14, 1948, the last British soldier left Palestine. It marked the end of the British Mandate; a new page was turned in the region with the Declaration of the State of Israel.
That very same evening, the armies of seven Arab countries invaded the new state attempting to end its early development. The fighting was fierce; weapons and armies were deployed in unequal number and strength. No Western country was willing to save the budding Jewish state, fighting for its survival.
On February 24, 1949, in Rhodes, an armistice agreement was negotiated upon between Israel and the Arab countries under the auspices of the UN envoy Ralph Bunche. The Jewish state was recognized as an independent sovereign state in the Middle East, and on May 11, 1949, it became the 59th member of the United Nations.
The signing of the armistice was not a peace treaty, nor did it mark an end to any hostility. A solution to the conflict could not be settled upon, and therefore the Arab countries could still engage in war.
The entire border between Israel and her Arab neighbors needed a permanent military presence. This was of enormous importance when comparing Israel to the unequal financial resources and military potential of the Arabs. The length of the borders allowed for the infiltration of Fedayeen who sabotaged the water pipes and attacked Israeli agricultural villages. There were more than a thousand incidents per month. During the first years of the existence of the State of Israel (1949-1953), 513 Israelis, mostly civilians, were killed in terrorist attacks. Israeli shipping through the Suez Canal was suspended by Egypt, and the blockade of the Straits of Tiran was reinforced, flouting a UN resolution of September 1, 1951.
Incursions from Gaza multiplied. A Security Council resolution to compel Egypt to lift the naval blockade could not be adopted because of the Soviet veto. President Nasser encouraged the Kremlin to intervene in the Middle East to the detriment of the United States.
For years, Moscow was almost non-existent in the region. The USSR was mainly concerned with domestic policy and security of its own borders. Khrushchev’s famous speech on Stalin’s crimes published in February 1956 would go on to shake the foundations of the Kremlin. Regarding foreign policy, Moscow hung back, preferring to provide ideological support to communist parties.
On the ground, tensions were deteriorating in Israel’s north and south with the diversion of the Jordan River. Note that between Israel and Syria-Jordan, were various regions of no man’s land, which for many years were the cause of incidents and local conflicts.
September 27, 1955, saw a major arms supplies contract signed between Egypt and Czechoslovakia. The balance of power in the Middle East was severely altered to the detriment of Israel. It must be noted that at the time the United States had declared an arms embargo against weapons for Israel.
In July 1956, Washington refused financial support to Nasser to build the Aswan Dam. London and the World Bank also refused. Humiliated, Nasser retaliated with a spectacular move: the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company.
The bold decision of Nasser directly affected the interests of France and Britain, carrying a mortal blow to their colonial prestige. All the diplomatic attempts to force Nasser to reconsider were doomed to failure. London and Paris abandoned all hope of obtaining American support against Nasser. The only remaining option was a military one.
At the time, the United States was in the midst of a presidential campaign and the USSR was concerned with the events in Poland and Hungary. In the Maghreb, Tunisia and Morocco had obtained their independence from France, and in Algeria the National Liberation Front was sweeping across the country.
On October 21, 1956, secret negotiations took place in Sèvres for a shared Franco-British-Israeli military operation. Eight days later, Operation Musketeer was launched against Egypt.
The Sinai Campaign quickly degenerated into a global crisis. The United States and the USSR demanded an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of troops. Soviet Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, concerned about the events in Budapest, even threatened to use nuclear weapons. The operation, whose aim was to control the Suez Canal, ended in a bitter and humiliating political failure for the two colonial powers. Nasser transformed his military defeat into a victory.
On November 7, 1956, the UN sent an emergency force to take over from the occupying troops and to oversee their withdrawal from all of Sinai. On March 16, 1957, facing U.S. pressure, the IDF left Egyptian territory and withdrew to the 1949 armistice lines.
The Suez Campaign was a severe blow to the prestige of France and Britain. Indeed, it would mark an end to the presence of these two colonial powers in the Middle East since the First World War and the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Notes and Observations
- The Suez War of 1956 deeply affected the Arab world and the strategic and political landscape. The Middle East regimes, already ripe for revolution like that led by Nasser, fell one after another: In Iraq the monarchy was swept away by a military dictatorship; In Syria, a new government coup, and in Yemen, a military revolution supported by Egypt triggered a bloody civil war that lasted eight years, and for the first time chemical weapons were used by the Egyptian army. A civil war in Lebanon followed the landing of U.S. Marines to avoid the fall of the pro-Western regime in Beirut; finally, the creation of the PLO in 1964 and the weakening of Jordan were also results. The Hashemite Kingdom was still reeling from the assassination of King Abdullah on July 20, 1951, outside the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Hashemite king had previously annexed the West Bank which was recognized only by Britain and Pakistan.
- Before the Suez Campaign, France gave weapons to Nasser in the hope that he would mediate in the Algerian conflict. The head of French diplomacy, Christian Pineau, even went to Cairo in a spirit of reconciliation with Nasser. Paris had obtained assurances that Nasser was not “the soul of the [Algerian] rebellion.” This commitment was never respected by the Egyptian leader and did not prevent the war against Nasser.
- The Suez War, however, allowed the creation of a UN Emergency Force along the Egyptian-Israeli border which prevented the infiltration of terrorists. Sharm el-Sheikh and the Gaza Strip were given to Egypt but were supposed to be under the control of peacekeepers.
- Nasser accepted the free passage of Israeli ships through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.
- Despite the strategic benefits and its military successes, Israel underestimated the determination of the Soviet Union to support Egypt and misjudged the attitude of the United States and the pressure it could exert.
- Jerusalem falsely believed that an overwhelming military victory against Egypt’s Colonel Nasser would force him to sit at the negotiating table.
- Given the cautious attitude of Britain and France, and in defiance of the Washington policy of restraint, the Soviet Union’s power surged in the Middle East and it became a staunch partner for the Arab world regarding the peace process in the region.
- Nasser strengthened his political, economic and military ties with the Arab countries and tried to form a Pan-Arabist coalition with the creation of United Arab Republic. He approached the Afro-Asian peoples and the socialist camps of the USSR and China. The construction of the gigantic Aswan Dam by the Soviets minimized the role of America in the region.
- The Suez Campaign was the last joint Franco-British war against a country in the Middle East, but also the first and last war the IDF was involved with in cooperation with foreign powers.
- This war was also the first war conducted on one front against one Arab country. Jordan and Syria did not participate in the fighting and did not come to the aid of Egypt.
- The war of October 1956 did not result in an Israeli occupation that required the administration of the territories nor the mass exodus of refugees as occurred in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
- The IDF withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula after 150 days. Israel restored the territories to the Egyptians following intense American and Soviet pressure. Note that the young state was only nine years old and was still very fragile to withstand such pressures.
- This war would put an end to the colonial policy which believed it was possible to resolve conflict and overthrow regimes through the force of arms. However, U.S. President Eisenhower’s policy, applied immediately after the Suez War, was intended to avoid destabilizing the Middle East regimes by providing economic and military aid. It wanted to preserve U.S. influence in this strategic region, which was rich in oil, and thus counter the hegemony of the Communist bloc. With this in mind, in July 1958, 14,000 American soldiers landed in Beirut to stop internal clashes and to force President Camille Chamoun to step down. The Marines left Lebanon three months later without participating in the factional fighting. Note that on March 18, 2003, a U.S. force invaded Iraq, captured Baghdad, and arrested Saddam Hussein. The Iraq war was contrary to the Eisenhower policy and ultimately turned into a big humiliation.
- The Sinai War failed to prevent Nasser from nationalizing the Suez Canal Company. The war humiliated France and Britain and removed any influential role they held in the Middle East.
- All Arab countries in the region broke off diplomatic relations with France, with the exception of Lebanon.
- Eisenhower’s administration committed a grave strategic error by refusing to finance and build the massive and crucial Aswan Dam on the Nile. This rejection had serious consequences not only for the future of U.S. influence across the region, but also presented the Soviets with a huge challenge. They wanted to prove to the Arab world that Western capitalism was self-interested, having only trade interests at heart. Soviet communists were still able to “undertake gigantic works for the welfare of Arab people and for the prosperity of all mankind.”
- The 1956 war was not followed by bilateral agreements between Israel and Egypt, and did not contribute to the peace process. The Soviets especially, took advantage of the war, paving the way for an arms race and an ongoing struggle with the United States on strategic control in the Middle East.
The Various Arab-Israeli Wars
Narrative of Events
In the 1960s, the situation on the northern border was worsening by the day. Incidents in no man’s land, located by the Sea of Galilee, returned as a result of the Syria’s diversion of the Jordan waters. The numerous kibbutzim along the border were shelled daily by Syrian army artillery stationed on the Golan Heights. The most serious incident broke out April 7, 1967, when Israeli fighters shot down six Syrian MiG aircraft.
Syria, who signed a defense agreement with Egypt, desperately called Colonel Nasser convincing him that Israel was preparing to launch a major operation against Damascus. The Egyptian Rais quickly put his troops on alert; yet Jerusalem had undertaken diplomatic steps to categorically deny alleged massing of IDF troops on the northern border.
Despite all the denials and the diplomatic flurry, an escalation of activity was inevitable.
On May 19, 1967, Nasser demanded the withdrawal of peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. The IDF puts all of its forces on high alert. Forty-eight hours later, 80,000 Egyptian soldiers with 800 tanks were stationed in the Sinai Peninsula. Several units were close to the border. On May 22, 1967, Nasser banned the Israeli navy from the Straits of Tiran. For Jerusalem it was seen as a casus belli, an act of war.
On the diplomatic front, Israel was isolated. The United States was immersed in the Vietnam War, France and Britain had just renewed their relations with the Arab countries, and the Soviet Union backed Egypt and Syria.
All attempts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis failed. Egypt and Syria united in a joint military leadership and signed a mutual assistance treaty with Jordan. Two Egyptian battalions arrived in Amman; an Iraqi expeditionary force crossed the border and arrived in Jordan. These military movements heightened Israel’s concerns, especially since General de Gaulle decided to impose an arms embargo. A state of emergency was announced and a national unity government was formed for the first time in the history of the young state.
The diplomatic failures, along with Nasser’s determination to exact his revenge for the Suez Campaign and the Soviet support for the Egyptian Rais, forced Israel, after lengthy negotiations and numerous dilemmas, to launch a preventive war.
On June 5, 1967, Israeli planes bombed Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian and Iraqi military airfields and targets in successive waves. Twenty years after the creation of the State of Israel a third war broke out in the Middle East. This time it lasted only six days.
After this campaign, Israel controlled territory three times larger than it did before June 1967. One million Arab inhabitants came under Israel’s control, adding to the already existing 300,000 Israeli Arab citizens.
True, Israel had won a resounding war, but the diplomatic battle was now different, complicated and very difficult. The isolation of the Jewish state in the international arena was reinforced. The USSR and the Communist bloc, with the exception of Romania, all broke diplomatic ties with Israel.
On November 22, 1967, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 242 demanding the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces in return for secure and recognized borders.
The Six Day War would not bring the Arabs to the negotiating table. Forty days after the war, Nasser met Arab leaders in Khartoum and unanimously decided to not recognize the existence of Israel, rejecting any negotiations and peace process.
Nasser was determined to continue the fight against Israel through a War of Attrition on every front, especially along the Suez Canal. For the first time in its history, the IDF had to partake in a static, defensive war. Artillery duels and dogfights were held daily, even between Israeli pilots and Russian pilots defending Egyptian airspace.
This War of Attrition – the longest and most unique in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict – lasted more than 18 months. Thirty-five days after the ceasefire, on September 28, 1970, President Nasser died, and was succeeded by Anwar Sadat. A new page was turned in the history of Egypt and in the Middle East.
After numerous diplomatic failures and aborted peace plans, Anwar Sadat came to the conclusion that only military means could be leveraged to reach a political settlement. He was convinced that the United States could exert strong pressure on Israel to withdraw from the territories. In July 1972, he expelled the Soviet advisers and military personnel, and strengthened ties with Syria, Jordan, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Libya who were committed to providing Sadat with substantial financial assistance.
Israel was increasingly cornered, and isolation on the international scene had intensified following an unprecedented wave of terrorist attacks, which culminated in the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
On the ground, the Egyptian maneuvers intensified. On September 13, 1973, 13 Syrian MiG aircraft were shot down by the Israeli fighters above the Syrian port city of Latakia. The Egyptians strengthened their forces and anti-aircraft missile battalions on the western bank of the Suez Canal, but nobody in Jerusalem, Washington, or Moscow believed that war was imminent.
However, on Yom Kippur, Saturday, October 6, 1973, war broke out. Egypt and Syria simultaneously launched an offensive of unprecedented scale in modern military history, against an incredulous Israel.
Along 180 km of the Suez Canal and 75 km Syrian-Israeli border of the Golan Heights, thousands of bombs and shells fell. Egyptian and Syrian bombers carried out raids even Israeli territory. Even the strategic depth of Sinai and the Golan could not have prevented these attacks.
The static “Bar Lev Line,” even with its obstacles and fortifications, was invaded by thousands of Egyptian soldiers crossing the waterway with amphibious tanks. On both fronts, the battles were ruthless. Thousands of Israeli soldiers were killed or wounded; several hundred were were captured.
The myth of Israel’s invincibility was instantly destroyed by the Arab armies. The failure of the military intelligence services was obvious, although they possessed valid and alarming information that should have forewarned them. Blind trust in the IDF, reinforced by the overwhelming victory of the Six Day War, was misleading and highly damaging.
After fierce fighting and heavy casualties the IDF counterattacked, entering the city of Suez and encircling 20,000 soldiers of the Third Egyptian Army. Meanwhile, Israeli troops advanced towards Damascus.
Militarily and strategically, the war that began in catastrophic conditions ended with an Israeli victory partly thanks to an airlift of U.S. military equipment. After 18 days of intense war, Israeli troops controlled 1,600 km2 of land west of the Suez Canal, 70 km from Cairo. On the northern front, the IDF controlled 600 km2 beyond the ceasefire line imposed after the Six Day War, just 40 km from Damascus.
The Yom Kippur War which struck Israel was an “earthquake” in political and military terms. It rocked the Jewish state on all levels and for many years subsequently. Despite the victory, the war left the country in the grip of a deep dissatisfaction.
On October 26, 1973, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 338, complementing Resolution 242, which was adopted after the Six Day War.
Events in the region escalated. In Iran, the Shah, an ally of the West and Israel, was ousted by a Shiite Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun and U.S. diplomats were taken hostage. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan and war broke out between Iran and Iraq.
June 6, 1981, marked the Israeli aircraft bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor built by France in Baghdad. Four months later, President Sadat was assassinated and Moshe Dayan, the architect of the peace agreement with Egypt, died from cancer.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to annex the Golan Heights. Syrian President Assad launched an offensive in Lebanon and bombed Christian neighborhoods in Beirut. Attacks against Israeli villages along the border were launched daily by PLO members stationed in Lebanon.
Palestinian fighters were present in Lebanon since they were forced out of Jordan in September 1970. The presence of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) with its 5,000 peacekeepers could not prevent the escalation.
Internationally, the world’s eyes were mostly focused on the Falklands: a war launched between England and Argentina.
On May 22, 1982, two Syrian MiGs were destroyed above Beirut by the Israeli Air Force. A week later, the Israeli ambassador in London was seriously injured in a terrorist attack for which the Palestinian Abu Nidal terrorist group took responsibility. In retaliation, Israeli warplanes bombed Beirut. The PLO responded with rocket fire. The government, under Menachem Begin, decided to launch a major operation, Peace for Galilee.
The IDF entered Lebanon with hundreds of tanks heading in three axes, causing an outcry among the international community. The Security Council condemned Israel and demanded the immediate withdrawal of its troops. At the G7 Summit in Versailles, leaders urgently called for an end to hostilities.
Operation Peace for Galilee, initially limited to a radius of 40 km, quickly turned into an all-out war against the PLO and Syria, lasting more than three months. This war had many serious military, political and economic consequences for Israel and its Arab neighbors. The withdrawal of Israeli forces from Beirut and the departure of Arafat and his fighters to Tunis resulted in a new civil war between the various Lebanese communities and strengthened the influence of Shiite Iran with the rise of Hezbollah.
However, in Washington there was a stalemate in negotiations to revive the peace process with Israel, West Bank Palestinians, and King Hussein of Jordan. In the territories, frustration and discontent among Palestinians strengthened religious identity and solidarity with the Islamist Hamas. Friction between Jewish and Palestinian residents caused a distinct wave of violence and hatred. Riots were triggered suddenly on December 9, 1987, following a car accident in which four Palestinians were killed. These riots were rapidly transformed into a “War of Stones,” a popular revolt called the First Intifada.
During the 40 years of its existence, Israel had never experienced a wave of violence on such a scale, with such an outpouring of hatred in the territories. The IDF, the undisputed winner of the wars against all Arab armies combined, found itself neutralized when confronted with masked youths throwing stones and fire bombs.
After 20 years of Israeli administration and frustrated by the broken promises of their leaders sitting comfortably in Tunis, the local population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip came to realize that only a popular uprising with strong media coverage would focus the public’s attention, delegitimize Israel, and isolate it in the international arena.
However, King Hussein of Jordan feared that the intifada would also spread to his own kingdom. On July 31, 1988, he stated that “Jordan is not Palestine” and that “the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
The Hashemite King’s decision to break “legal and administrative ties” between his country and the West Bank altered the geopolitical situation and allowed the PLO to monopolize Palestinian representation in talks with Israel.
On November 14, 1988, whilst in Algiers, Yasser Arafat proclaimed the creation of a Palestinian State. A month later, he announced in Geneva that he recognized the right of Israel to live in peace and security, and fully renounced terrorism. But it was an Arafat promise that was broken many times in the form of Palestinian terror, clashes and attacks.
On August 20, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The United States sent troops and formed a coalition against Iraq. The First Gulf War broke out. Scud missiles fell on Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israel, which was not part of the coalition, was told unequivocally by the United States not to retaliate. Jerusalem adopted a low profile despite the risks involved. For the first time in its history, Israel’s defense was not the responsibility of the IDF.
On September 28, 2000, Ariel Sharon, the leader of the opposition, toured the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The visit caused Arab outrage. The Palestinians, who had been preparing for military action, used the occasion to launch a second Intifada in the territories. Suicide bombers exploded in cities throughout the country. On October 17, 2001, Rehavam Zeevi, an Israeli minister and former IDF general, was assassinated by Palestinians in a Jerusalem hotel. On February 6, 2001, Sharon won the elections and formed a government with Shimon Peres.
On September 11, 2001, terrorism struck the heart of America. Two planes crashed into the two World Trade Center towers in New York City; a third struck the Pentagon in Washington D.C.
On March 27, 2002, on Passover eve, a terrorist blew himself up in a crowded hotel dining room in Netanya. 30 people were killed. Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank and laid siege to Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah.
A year later, on March 18, 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq and captured Saddam Hussein. This time no missiles fell on Israel.
On March 22, 2004, Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Ismail Yassin, who was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks, was killed by the IDF. His death caused an outburst of anger in the Muslim world and a disavowal by the West.
On October 24, 2004, Yasser Arafat was flown to a hospital in Paris in serious condition. He died three weeks later, and Mahmoud Abbas replaced him as head of the Palestinian Authority.
February 8, 2005 marked the first meeting of regional leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, with the notable participation of Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas. After 1,558 days of the Intifada, and following the deaths of 1,036 Israelis and 3,592 Palestinians, serious peace discussions began. A week later, Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed by a bomb in Beirut along with several of his colleagues and bodyguards. Syrian involvement was obvious. President Chirac, a personal friend of Hariri, accused Assad and fiercely opposed Syria’s presence in Lebanon.
On August 15, 2005, Sharon ordered the withdrawal from all Gush Katif Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip: a unilateral withdrawal that would eventually give Hamas control of the territory.
January 4, 2006, Ariel Sharon was suddenly taken seriously ill. He was transported to hospital, where he fell into an irreversible coma, dying on January 11, 2014. He was succeeded by Ehud Olmert.
On June 25, 2006, the French-Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit was kidnapped and held hostage by Hamas. Three weeks later, Hizbullah attacked a patrol vehicle on the Lebanese border. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two others taken hostage. The IDF launched a retaliation attack against Hizbullah. This operation would last 33 days and was called the Second Lebanon War. During the fighting, 164 Israelis were killed, including 119 soldiers. Four thousand rockets and missiles were launched against Israel’s northern towns and cities, causing the displacement of over 500,000 people. This war was primarily based on massive air and missile raids, and Israel’s air force proved that it was not overly effective in a guerrilla struggle. This failure generated great unease within the army. A commission of inquiry issued a damning report, resulting in the chief of staff and defense minister submitting their resignations.
In December 2007, a Syrian nuclear site was attacked by the Israeli Air Force. Although Jerusalem never officially claimed responsibility, it was cited and confirmed in the memoirs of President Bush in November 2010. Following the bombing of Osirak in Baghdad, this was the second time Israel attacked a nuclear power plant, rendering it inoperative.
December 27, 2008, following rocket salvoes, the IDF launched a major operation in Gaza, Cast Lead. It ended on January 8, 2009, with Resolution 1860 of the UN Security Council and was reviewed by a UN commission of inquiry headed by Judge Richard Goldstone.
After the resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert following accusations of embezzlement, new elections were won by Benjamin Netanyahu, who, for a second time became head of the Israeli government.
June 4, 2009, President Barack Obama delivered an historic speech in Cairo on the anniversary of the Six Day War, stating a desire to build relations with the Muslim world. This was a first step in the new U.S. president’s foreign policy that would impact its relations with the Jewish state and on a personal level with Netanyahu.
On January 6, 2010, Netanyahu met with President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh. In Beirut, the resignation of Hizbullah ministers led to a new government crisis and created tension on the border with Israel.
A week later, January 14, 2010, saw the start of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia which led to the Arab Spring and civil war in Syria, a popular revolt in Egypt against the Mubarak regime, and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On May 27, 2010, Israeli naval commandos intercepted a Turkish flotilla heading towards Gaza, and an international frenzy ensued. Nine Turkish activists were killed, and several soldiers were wounded. General outcry and a critical meeting of the Security Council resulted in demands to lift the maritime blockade off Gaza. Turkey recalled its ambassador and called for an inquiry and heavy compensation to the families of the victims.
On October 18, 2011, the IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was released in exchange for the release of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. A few days later, violence erupted in the Gaza Strip again.
In Paris, Palestine became a member of UNESCO, resulting in the ending of financial support from Israel, the United States and Canada to the UN agency. In Egypt, following the fall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president.
On June 25, 2012, the Russian President Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Israel. The Iranian nuclear issue was on the agenda. On the occasion of the 67th UN General Assembly, Netanyahu urged the UN to establish a “clear red line” to prevent Iran from acquiring an atomic bomb. Barack Obama was re-elected to the U.S. presidency. Rocket attacks from Gaza continued against Israeli villages.
On November 14, 2012, the IDF launched a new military operation, Pillar of Defense, against Hamas and its rockets. It was limited to air strikes and lasted just one week.
On November 29, 2012, the anniversary of the partition of Mandatory Palestine in 1947, Palestinians obtained observer status at the UN.
Israel experienced a new government crisis and parliamentary elections. Benjamin Netanyahu won and formed a new government.
March 20, 2013 marked the first official visit of President Barack Obama to Israel. It was followed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s tour of the Middle East. The Syrian crisis and the nuclear threat from Iran prompted Netanyahu to make a special trip to meet with Chinese leaders in Beijing and Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
September 14, 2013, saw three days of talks in Geneva, resulting in the foreign ministers of the United States and Russia reaching an agreement on the dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.
On June 30, 2013, three Israeli teenagers were murdered by members of Hamas in Hebron. Some days later, a young Palestinian from east Jerusalem was kidnapped and burned alive by extremist Jews who wanted to “avenge” the death of the Israeli teenagers. Hundreds of rockets were fired from Gaza against Israel.
On July 8, 2013, Operation Protective Edge was launched by the IDF. It lasted 50 days: 72 Israelis were killed, including 66 IDF soldiers. On the Palestinian side, there were more than 2,000 deaths, most of them Hamas fighters.
September 23, 2014 saw the first airstrikes by the international coalition against targets in Syria. The IDF shot down a Syrian fighter jet over the Golan. Shortly beforehand, the two individuals responsible for the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers were killed by the IDF.
Netanyahu spoke at the UN warning against Hamas attacks. An international conference on the reconstruction of Gaza opened in Cairo, in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, without the participation of Israel. The Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon arrived on a visit to Jerusalem and the territories.
On October 22, 2014, a car intentionally rammed into passengers of the Jerusalem light railway, wounding seven and killing two. The attack marked the beginning of a wave of attacks from “lone wolves” who used knives and rammed bystanders with vehicles. Some observers feared the emergence of a third Intifada. More attacks were perpetrated, especially in Jerusalem, and many victims were reported.
On November 18, 2014, five Jewish rabbis were killed and several wounded in a critical condition after a massacre in a Jerusalem synagogue. The two Palestinians responsible were armed with guns, knives and axes.
On December 2, 2014, Netanyahu dismissed two of his ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, ending the coalition government. Early parliamentary elections were announced for March 17, 2015.
On January 7, 2015, the Paris offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo were targeted by two jihadists. Eleven workers and one policeman were killed. The following day, an attack was perpetrated in a kosher supermarket in Paris, killing four French Jews and one policewoman. These bloody attacks killed 17 peopleand raised a wave of indignation across the world. Demonstrations were organized in Paris including a Republican march involving four million people across France. Fifty heads of state and foreign governments were present, including David Cameron, Angela Merkel, King Abdullah of Jordan, Mahmud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu.
On January 28, 2015, two IDF soldiers were killed near the Lebanese border in an attack for which Hizbullah claimed responsibility. In retaliation, the Israeli army attacked Shiite militia positions.
On March 3, 2015, in a speech before the U.S. Congress, Benjamin Netanyahu warned against the Iranian nuclear threat. Two weeks later, he was re-elected Prime Minister for the fourth time to the 20th Knesset.
On July 14, 2015, following several years of negotiations, Iran and the countries of the P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, France, UK and Germany) signed an agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal. The Israeli Prime Minister solemnly denounced it as “a historic mistake.” For several years he had warned against the Iranian nuclear project.
Thirty-eight years after the departure of the Shah and the outbreak of the Shiite Islamic Revolution, the West turned a new page with the Ayatollahs of Iran. But the Middle East remains in turmoil with the daily terror sowed by the Islamic State. Western air strikes do not put an end to the apocalyptic ambitions of the Islamic State, nor to the wave of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. The strengthening of the Russian military presence on the Syrian coast along with the support of Iran could weaken the role of the West’s influence, particularly of Americans.
The entire Middle East region thus plunges into the unknown. For now, the disintegration of Syria and Iraq is a sad reality, and it may spread to Lebanon and Jordan, very much weakened by the influx of refugees and especially the threat of the Islamic State which recognizes no borders.
One hundred years after the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the end of the First World War, the countries that were under the mandate of Great Britain and France remain unstable. The borders of Syria and Iraq for example, are crumbling before our eyes.
Notes and Observations
- Note that the Arab-Israeli conflict began long before the creation of the State of Israel. It was indeed documented as a local conflict among others which existed since the Mandate period and was caused due to the impact of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Over the years, the Middle East has become an arena of confrontation between the two superpowers, deepening the divide between the antagonists continuing to destabilize of the region.
- Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the Arab-Israeli conflict has seen many wars, commando operations and large-scale military operations. Mentioned below are the most significant to date:
- Israel’s War of Independence (1948-1949)
War of survival against seven Arab armies. Israel managed to extend the frontiers beyond those set by the 1947 partition of Palestine. Many Palestinians fled. Israel failed to conquer east Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion region. (6,007 Israelis killed).
- Suez War (1956)
Israeli-British-French preventive war against Nasser’s Egypt. Ended with the intervention of the Soviet Union and the United States in the region. (232 Israelis killed).
- Six Day War (1967)
Preventive war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Ended with Israel’s resounding victory and the conquest of territories including east Jerusalem. (785 Israelis killed). Note that during the decade preceding this bombardment, 985 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks and military operations.
- War of Attrition (1968-1973)
Regular daily warfare along the Suez Canal leading up to the Yom Kippur War. (During this long period, over 2,000 Israelis were killed).
- Yom Kippur War (1973)
First Arab surprise attack. The deadliest and most distressing of Israel’s wars since the 1949 armistice agreements (2,676 Israelis killed).
- First Lebanon War (1982)
Israeli preventive war against the PLO in Lebanon. For the first time in the history of the conflict, the IDF occupied an Arab capital, Beirut. (657 Israelis killed).
- First Gulf War (1989)
Israel adopted a policy of restraint: it did not participate in the coalition against Iraq but suffered bombardment from 40 Scud missiles on Israeli cities. They caused considerable damage, but only one mortality. In 2003, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the outbreak of the Second Gulf War, no missiles were fired against Israel.
- First Intifada (1987-1990)
First “War of Stones” and popular revolt in the territories. (57 Israelis killed and more than 3,500 injured).
- Second Intifada (2000-2005)
Wave of terrorist attacks and Palestinian suicide bombers. (1,036 Israelis killed); Operation Defensive Shield and the siege of Arafat’s headquarters.
- Second Lebanon War (2006)
First guerrilla war against Hizbullah. For the first time, a large part of the population in the Israel’s north was evacuated. The firing of rockets and missiles transformed the civilian rear into a combat zone.
- Operation Cast Lead (2008)
First large-scale operation in Gaza lasting 22 days.
- Operation Pillar of Defense (2012)
This operation was contained to air raids and did not involve a ground incursion.
- Operation Protective Edge (2014)
Major operation against the Gaza Strip that lasted more than 50 days. Hundreds of Hamas rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.
Aborted Plans and Peace Treaties
Narrative of Events
Since the end of the Six Day War and especially since the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, many initiatives have been taken to promote the peace process with the Arabs.
As per Resolution 242 of the UN Security Council, adopted on November 22, 1967, the Secretary General of the United Nations appointed Swedish diplomat Gunnar Jarring as special representative to the Middle East. Jarring had previously played a decisive role in the peaceful solution to the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan. This was the first attempt to settle the Israeli-Arab conflict following the Six Day War.
The numerous visits Gunnar Jarring paid to the region and his many trips between Damascus, Cairo and Amman failed to end the conflict. The Arabs insisted that Israel evacuate all the occupied territories, refusing to negotiate directly and sign a comprehensive peace treaty. The Israelis demanded direct negotiations without preconditions and refused to specify the borders according to the definition in Resolution 242 of “secure and recognized boundaries.”
After the failure of the Jarring mission, the Soviet Union and the United States decided to take the initiative: in February 1969, their representatives met in New York to reach a settlement. These talks were unsuccessful because Israel and Egypt refused any solution imposed upon them by the Great Powers. It was then that the Soviet Union proposed a six-point plan. The Egyptians accepted, but the Israelis categorically refused. In the meantime, Golda Meir tried, through British and Romanian envoys, to establish direct contact with Egypt, but Nasser outright refused.
Yigal Allon, Deputy Prime Minister, developed a peace plan based on a compromise, taking into account territorial concessions but excluding the withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. According to the Allon Plan, the Jordan River would be the line of Israel’s defense, and the evacuated territories would become demilitarized. This plan was not formally approved by the various Israeli governments.
In December 1969, the US Secretary of State, William Rogers, offered a new peace plan with an almost total withdrawal from the territories and a future withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh. According to Rogers, the basis for each negotiation should include three main elements: peace, security and the withdrawal from the territories.
Jerusalem rejected the plan despite the risk of jeopardizing its relations with Washington, and instead proposed a partial agreement with Egypt, a condition of which was Israel’s withdrawal from the Suez Canal, opening it to international traffic, particularly Israeli shipping. This agreement was also rejected by the Egyptians, who were unwilling to engage in peace with the Jewish state.
The U.S. administration was disappointed with the diplomatic failures it found itself facing in these new regional crises, including the civil war in Jordan, and the famous Black September which led King Hussein to expel the Palestinian leadership from his territory. The Americans feared a Syrian invasion of Jordan, and felt that the sharp increase in Russian military presence in Egypt, with more than 15,000 technicians and soldiers, encouraged the destabilization of the Arab monarchies. The United States strengthened its naval force in the Mediterranean, reassuring Israel against any Soviet intervention.
The Yom Kippur War and the U.S. arms airlift, along with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s visits led to the meeting of the first peace conference in Geneva on January 18, 1974. Following bilateral negotiations through the United Nations and supported by the Great Powers, a disengagement agreement was established with Egypt, and on May 31, 1974, with Syria.
These agreements were not peace treaties, nor did they mark an end to hostilities, but they were an important first step towards a just and lasting peace in accordance with the Security Council’s Resolution 338 of October 22, 1973.
In September 1975, a few months after the implementation of the disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria, Henry Kissinger and Yigal Allon signed a memorandum in which the United States pledged to oppose any initiative of the Security Council which would change the objectives of the First Geneva Peace Conference of 1974, or modify the Resolutions 242 and 338.
Over the years, the co-chairmen of the Geneva Conference, the USSR and United States tried to revive the peace process through various initiatives, all unsuccessful however in yielding concrete results.
On October 1, 1977, just weeks before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, Andrei Gromyko and Cyrus Vance published a joint declaration on the Middle East and for the first time proposed a “solution for the legitimate right of the Palestinian people.” This statement was rejected by Begin and Sadat. The latter preferred to come in person to Jerusalem to negotiate directly with the Israelis.
Following the peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt in March 1979, the Palestinian problem was on the agenda at all international meetings.
In Venice, on June 13, 1980, the heads of state and governments of the nine countries of the European Economic Community published a statement which provided “a comprehensive peace and self-determination for Palestinians.” They also noted that “settlements in the Arab territories are illegal under international law.”
On December 28, 1982, following the First Lebanon War, Israel engaged in peace talks with Lebanon under the auspices of the United States. Five months later, on May 17, 1983, Israel and Lebanon signed a peace treaty that would end the state of war between the two countries. This peace treaty with Lebanon – Israel’s second following that with Egypt – was not to last even 93 days. The Lebanese government annulled it, following strong Syrian pressure and the assassination of president-elect Bachir Gemayel.
After the First Gulf War and following a number of visits from Secretary of State James Baker, a peace conference opened in Madrid on October 30, 1991. Seventeen years after the Geneva Conference, unprecedented direct negotiations were initiated with the Arabs. An Israeli government crisis on modalities triggered early elections, leading to the victory of the Israeli Labor Party.
In great secrecy and for the first time, the Rabin-Peres government engaged in direct talks with the leaders of the PLO. A few months later, they created the principles of the Oslo Peace Accords.
On September 13, 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed on the lawn of the White House. This was an agreement regarding an interim five-year period of Palestinian autonomy and a future plan concerning various stages of negotiations. In May 1994, the requirements for Palestinian autonomy in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area took effect. In September 1995, the two parties signed an interim agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian Authority and the redeployment of the IDF in stages as part of a division of the West Bank into three zones (A, B, C).
On November 10, 1995, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
On June 18, 1996, after winning the elections against Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu formed his government and committed to respecting the agreements signed with the Palestinians. At the White House on October 23, 1998, in the presence of President Clinton and King Hussein, Netanyahu and Arafat signed a new memorandum regarding Hebron, the Wye River Memorandum. It specified the timing of future stages of the redeployment of the IDF, including the withdrawal from Hebron. Early elections were again called, and the Labor candidate Ehud Barak became prime minister.
In May 2000, Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon, and intensive talks with Arafat and Assad in Syria were initiated separately by President Clinton in Washington and Geneva. These negotiations would not lead to tangible results, despite the determination of Clinton and important concessions made by Ehud Barak. With the Palestinians, the agreement would have seen a withdrawal from 90 percent of the West Bank, with administrative arrangements remaining in Jerusalem and in a group of Israeli settlements. With the Syrians, it saw a partial withdrawal from the Golan Heights with security arrangements and subsequently the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
However, Arafat rejected the terms and triggered a Second Intifada. Hafez al-Assad died after he ceded power to his son Bashar.
Ariel Sharon, who succeeded Ehud Barak in 2001, did not attempt to renew negotiations with Arafat, nor with the Syrians.
On September 17, 2003, the Quartet on the Middle East (established in 2002 by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN, following the Second Intifada) published a “roadmap” to the peace process with the Palestinians.
To counter the surge in terrorist attacks, Israel found itself obliged to erect a security barrier between pre-1967 Israel and the West Bank.
During his tenure in office, Sharon reinforced his dealings with Egyptian President Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah, and on April 14, 2004, obtained a commitment from President George W. Bush for “defensible borders and the retention of settlement “blocs” on the West Bank. On August 15, 2005, Sharon took the initiative to disengage from the Gaza Strip, removing 8,000 Israelis from their homes and destroying their settlements.
Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, also began direct talks with Mahmoud Abbas. Despite Olmert’s proposal to withdraw from 94 percent of the West Bank and establish a functional arrangement on Jerusalem, it was rejected by Abbas, thus following the example of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
On June 14, 2009, three months after the inauguration of his government and ten days after a meeting at the White House with President Obama, Netanyahu delivered a speech at Bar-Ilan University on the creation of a Palestinian State employing the phrase “two states for two peoples.”
On December 9, 2009, a tripartite meeting between Obama, Abbas and Netanyahu was held in Washington. The Israeli Prime Minister agreed to freeze construction in the settlements for 10 months. This freeze and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians did not lead to the conclusion of a viable agreement. The tireless efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry also failed; the entire process was in a stalemate.
In January 2011, the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia created a domino-effect in the Arab world with popular rebellions known as the “Arab Spring” following in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The regimes of Mubarak, Gaddafi and Ben Ali fell. The Middle East plunged into total uncertainty.
Violent incidents occurred in Egypt and Syria. Unwilling to be actively involved in the region, the United States allowed a vacuum in the region that was effectively filled by Russia. The Russians were based at the Syrian airport of Latakia in a new military base. It would strengthen the already existing naval base of Tartus, which became a logistical and operational support for the larger Russian presence in the Mediterranean.
In May 2011, before the deadlock in the peace process, the Palestinian Authority decided to proclaim the creation of a Palestinian state at the UN. Since then and to this day, a delegitimization campaign of the Jewish state and a boycott of Israel have been launched by Palestinians in all international forums and bodies.
In this context, it is clear that the Arab-Israeli conflict will not end if there is no willingness to make concessions, and if some factors are not taken into account:
- The Arab countries and terrorist organizations should understand that they cannot defeat Israel on the battlefield;
- The Jewish state exists and will continue to exist within the Arab world;
- The existence of Israel within secure borders is recognized by the UN and by the overwhelming majority of the world;
- Only a negotiated peace through direct discussions with each Arab state and with the Palestinians will be the best formula.
Within the complexities of the Middle East, it is clear that the peace process is also important and that only direct negotiations resulted in agreements. Note, of course, that the spectacular gesture of President Sadat flying to Israel broke the psychological barrier between peoples. The peace treaty with Egypt, and later with Jordan, are persuasive examples that remain viable and robust despite various local conflicts and military operations against Hizbullah and Hamas.
The great difficulty remains in the internal divisions with the Palestinians and the fact that their uncompromising claims have not changed since the rejection of the 1947 Partition Plan.
Notes and Observations
- None of the conventional wars between Israel and the Arab armies have led to a peaceful settlement and an end to hostilities. The peace treaty with Egypt was signed five years after the Yom Kippur War only after a dramatic and very bold gesture by President Sadat. The first preventive war in Lebanon focused exclusively on the Palestine Liberation Organization, and did not involve the Druze or Shiites. Similarly, the Oslo Accords did not seriously take into account Hamas’ rise to power, their opposition to any agreement with the Jewish state and their refusal to recognize the Palestinian Authority.
- The Oslo Accords paved the way for the signing of the peace treaty with the King of Jordan and the brief diplomatic relations with Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania and Qatar, but they ignored rivalries within the Palestinian leadership and the difficulties on the ground. In rushing to settle this agreement, the White House indulged the hopes of the Israelis and Palestinians. The great optimism for peace in the region had quickly turned into a bitter diplomatic failure, a frustrating anguish shared by both sides.
- Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba was the first Arab ruler to call for the recognition of the Jewish state. On March 3, 1965, two years before the Six Day War, he made the declaration in a speech during an official visit to Jordan in the presence of King Hussein. Since then, and until Sadat’s spectacular visit to Jerusalem, no Arab peace initiative was taken. On October 5, 1981, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince presented a peace plan which “confirms the rights of all countries of the region to live in peace,” requiring Israel to withdraw from all the territories and establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. This plan was revived ten years later by Saudi Arabia and became “the Arab peace initiative.” Although there were many positive points in this plan, including the recognition of Israel by all Arab and Muslim countries, the Israeli government could not accept two terms: the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes and the division of Jerusalem.
- Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem and the peace treaty signed in March 1979 resulted in the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League. Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians were bitterly hostile to a separate peace treaty with the Jewish state, despite the early withdrawal of the IDF from the Sinai Peninsula and the evacuation of settlements and oil wells. The Europeans and the USSR were not made aware of the ongoing peace negotiations and reacted coolly to Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. The day of his visit, French President Giscard d’Estaing kept quiet. France remained reserved, claiming it was merely a separate peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Since the 1975 opening of a PLO diplomatic office in Paris, France chose to put the Palestinian issue as a priority over future relations between Israel and the Arab states.
- Since the 1949 Armistice Agreements, no UN mission managed to achieve an end to hostilities nor sign a peace treaty between Israel and the Arabs.
- Europe did not propose a rational and viable peace plan. It did not actively participate in the peace conference in Geneva in 1974, nor that in Madrid in 1991. France was absent from the development of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but witnessed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 regarding the Palestinian problem. Europe, and especially France, usually intervened after the failure of an American mission. Sometimes Europe was associated with international initiatives such as the Quartet’s involvement in the “roadmap” but sometimes it acted alone, always in accordance with UN resolutions.
- Europe was content in all the declarations of the need to create a Palestinian state without going into detail or insisting upon its long-term viability. European declarations were identical; they still condemned colonization and returned to the hackneyed phrase “withdrawal from territories to secure and recognized boundaries” without specific mention whether these borders were truly defensible or taking into account the new geopolitical situation. The concerns of Europe, including that of France, regarding the security of the State of Israel were incompatible with the policy on the ground and the decisions taken. They were usually accompanied by moral lessons and warnings. These were characterized on the eve of the Six Day War by an arms embargo and a destructive apathy during the Yom Kippur War.
- Europeans, especially France, were indifferent and refused to encourage the peace agreement between Israel and Lebanon, signed just after the First Lebanon War. Note that this deal would not last long after the massacre by the Phalangists in the Sabra and Shatila camps, and after the assassination of Lebanese President Bachir Gemayel.
- Russia did not propose any real peace plan and has never taken the initiative to send a special envoy to mediate under its aegis in Moscow. This too is the case with China.
- The recent return of Russians to Syria and the Mediterranean bases of Latakia and Tartus concerned Americans, and the Israelis especially feared a recurrence of incidents along the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition in the years preceding the Yom Kippur War. The fight today against ISIS by the Russians in coordination with Iran was just an excuse and was part of a broader strategy in the Middle East especially against the United States.
- Note that unlike the military operations in various international conflicts, NATO and the Americans in particular, did not intervene to oppose the Arabs fighting Israel.
- The Palestinian refugee problem has not been solved since the First Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49. During the fighting, some 600,000 Arabs fled to neighboring countries. Some states, such as Jordan and Lebanon, allowed them to enter their territory but categorically refused to include them in social and economic life. The UN agreed to address this issue and founded UNRWA (The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).
- To this day, this UN agency works with a budget of $1.4 billion dollars a year. According to UNRWA, displaced Palestinians and their descendants total “some 5 million Palestine refugees [who] are eligible for UNRWA services.”
- The West has failed to resolve the humanitarian problem at its source, as they have failed to find a solution to the Syrian crisis and the influx of refugees to Europe. The blame also lies with rich Arab countries that refuse, like in 1948, to accept the integration of refugees into their own territories.
Significant Missed Opportunities since 1967
22 November 1967
Mission of the Special Representative to the Middle East, Gunnar Jarring, to negotiate the implementation of Resolution 242 of the Security Council.
20 January 1969
Peace plan of Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon.
U.S.-Soviet talks in New York, Soviet Six-Point Plan.
Rogers Plan, named after the U.S. Secretary of State, outlines an almost total withdrawal from the territories and future departure from the Gaza Strip and Sharm el-Sheikh.
18 January 1974
Peace conference in Geneva following the Yom Kippur War. It ends May 31 with a disengagement agreement with Egypt.
1 October 1977
Andrei Gromyko and Cyrus Vance publish a joint declaration on the Middle East for the first time suggesting a “solution to the legitimate right of the Palestinian people.”
13 June 1980
Venice Declaration: the nine countries of the European Community include “a comprehensive peace and self-determination for Palestinians.”
5 October 1981
Fahd Plan (named after the Saudi Crown Prince) followed in 2001 with a peace initiative adopted by the Arab League.
1 September 1982
Peace plan of President Ronald Reagan.
17 May 1983-5 March 1984
Peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon.
11 April 1987
Peres-Hussein London Agreement.
14 March 1988
Peace initiative of Secretary of State, George Shultz.
14 May 1989
Peace plan of the Secretary of State, James Baker.
30 October 1991
Peace conference in Madrid.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s mission for a peace accord between Yitzhak Rabin and Hafez Assad.
13 September – Oslo Accords: Statement on the interim period of five years of Palestinian autonomy and a future plan of the various stages of negotiations.
Opening of an Israeli liaison office in Rabat, Morocco (closed in September 2000); an interest office in Tunis Tunisia (closed in September 2000); an interest office and then an Israeli embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania (closed in 2007).
Interim agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian Authority and the gradual redeployment of the IDF into three zones (A, B, and C) in the West Bank.
Missions of the Special Envoy to the Middle East, Miguel Moratinos.
23 October 1998
Wye River Memorandum signed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat on the timing of the redeployment of the IDF.
3 January 2000
Shepherdstown WV talks convened by President Clinton for a new round of talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara.
Talks initiated by President Clinton and Arafat in Washington and Assad of Syria in Geneva. Chirac’s initiative fails in Paris between Arafat, Barak and Madeleine Albright.
4 June 2003
Red Sea Summit in Aqaba (Jordan): Bush-Sharon-Abbas-Abdullah.
17 September 2003
Roadmap for Peace published by the Quartet.
Condoleezza Rice’s mission to Jerusalem and Ramallah.
8 February 2005
Sharm el-Sheikh Summit: Sharon-Abbas-Mubarak-Abdullah.
27 November 2007
Annapolis Conference. Mahmud Abbas refuses Ehud Olmert’s offer.
3 March 2009
Hillary Clinton’s mission extended until July 2012 with envoy George J. Mitchell.
9 December 2009
Meeting between Obama-Abbas-Netanyahu in the White House.
Special Envoy Tony Blair’s missions.
2 September 2010
Meeting in Washington: Obama-Mubarak-Netanyahu-Abbas-Abdullah.
20 March 2013
Official visit of Obama to Israel.
9 April 2013
John Kerry’s mission lasting 10 months.
6 October 2013
Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech on a Palestinian state.
12 October 2014
International Conference on the Reconstruction of Gaza, without the participation of Israel.
13 October 2014
Mission of Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General.
30 December 2014
The Security Council rejects a draft Palestinian resolution. France votes in favor.
21 June 2015
French initiative. Visit of Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to Jerusalem and Ramallah.
22 September 2015
French initiative. Holland-Abbas meeting at the Élysée Palace, the President’s residence.
1 September 1975
Memorandum signed between Henry Kissinger and Yigal Allon: the United States agree to oppose any initiative in the Security Council which would change the objectives of the Geneva Peace Conference and Resolutions 242 and 338.
14 April 2004
President Bush’s commitment to Israel for “defensible borders.”
Two successful peace treaties
26 March 1979
Peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
25 July 1994
Peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
A Century after Sykes-Picot:
Strategic and Geopolitical Aspects
by Yossi Kuperwasser
The rationale behind the plan produced by British diplomat and Middle East expert Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, Francois George-Picot, and the international agreements that followed it regarding the future of the Middle East after World War I, was a mixture of British and French interests with some basic and limited understanding of the characteristics of the Middle East at the time. The new order created by the agreements had split the real control over the area (formerly part of the Ottoman Empire) between the international powers, while promoting a benign version of Arab nationalism and dividing the territory between loyal Arab leaders along borders drawn by the foreign powers. At the same time, the agreements reconstituted the national homeland of the Jewish people over what was to be mandatory Palestine. The fact that 100 years later the division is still relevant is quite amazing, considering the vast changes that have occurred both politically and ideologically. There is, however, no reason to be surprised when this somewhat obsolete order is being put under such extreme pressures that threaten to redraw the map that was the product of the Sykes-Picot Agreement as a result of the turmoil in the region.
The Sykes-Picot order has faced a variety of inconsistencies with prevalent characteristics of the region, many of which were known or should have been known to the British and the French right from the beginning. Nevertheless, they were given limited consideration in order to enable British strategic goals at the time, foremost of which was to protect India and keep it out of Russian reach.
The pillars that were supposed to provide stability to this order according to the Sykes-Picot logic were:
- Arab nationalism – this concept was introduced by the British on the basis of the common identity of many of the residents of the Middle East. Sykes himself invented the four colored Arab national flag. This concept gave insufficient weight to the role of religion, affiliation to the tribe and region, aspirations of other nationalities in the region and basic resentment towards foreign ideas.
- The idea of dividing the region between several nation states under autocratic rule. This has turned into an ongoing story, though the attempt to put Sharif Hussein’s sons in power failed in Syria and Iraq.
- The expectation the Arabs would submit themselves to the rule or influence of foreigners in a way that will serve Western interests.
- The belief that in the long run, with proper guidance and training, it will be possible to establish a Western-like political system.
The British and foreign powers that later succeeded them as dominant players in the region, were quite skeptical regarding the extent to which they could really rely upon those pillars. They knew pretty well that Arab nationalism was too weak to enable the establishment of functioning modern states, and they were aware of all the other deficiencies that prevented the Arab states from closing the gap from the West. Yet, as the imported ideologies (nationalism, socialism etc.) replaced each other, two elements of the regional landscape remained more or less unchanged and enabled a certain status quo. The first was the commitment of the ruling elites to the new borders that evolved into a popular support for them and for the local nationalities they represented. The second was the autocratic nature of all the Arab regimes that made sure that any leadership change will immediately produce another autocratic regime whose defining characteristic was the commitment to the state borders just as its predecessor and the suppression of any opposition to this British-French imposed order.
This was the case on the surface until the beginning of the Arab uprising in early 2011. The autocratic systems in non-monarchic states collapsed, as the lid over the volcano of religious and primordial loyalties could not withstand the eruption of these powerful forces anymore. This was the result of the corruption of the autocratic regimes, their lack of a mobilizing ideology and their latent consent to the strengthening of anti-Sykes-Picot ideologies inside that volcano, in an effort to avoid confrontation with their mass constituencies.
Following the upheaval, the new Middle East is characterized by competing approaches to the fate of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and its legacy, which reflect the rivalry between the major political trends in the region. The greatest challenge to the legacy comes of course from “Radical Islam.” All the factions of Radical Islam deny the idea of nationalism in general and of local nationalism in particular. They believe in reviving the Islamic Ummah (nation) as one political entity that governs according to Islamic law (Shariah). Whereas all radical Islamists reject the Western culture and its attempts to dominate Moslem culture and territory and are all committed to the need to establish a Caliphate over all of the Moslem-populated areas and later on over the entire world, they differ in their understanding of the way and the timing of this inevitable revolution. The “Ultra-Radicals” emphasize the need to move towards establishing the Caliphate in as much territory as possible and as soon as possible. They are represented on the Sunni side by the “Islamic State” and to a little bit lesser extent by “Al Qaeda;” and on the Shiite side by the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran and “The Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” who export the “Islamic revolution,” and boast that Iran already controls vast areas of the Middle East, including parts of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
The “Realists-Radicals” share the same goals of the Ultra-Radicals but believe that time is not ripe yet to establish the Caliphate, that some local national identity may actually help in mobilizing activists and that while the West is continuously losing power, it is not yet weak enough to be defeated. Yet, the West is weak enough to deliberately rely on the Realist-Radicals to protect it against the threat emanating from the Ultra-Radicals. This is an unfortunate situation, because it enables the Moslem world to gain time and the Western cooperation needed to complete the preparations for the expected changes in the region and beyond it. The “Moslem Brotherhood” (including Turkey under Erdoğan, Qatar and many other factions) on the Sunni side cooperate with the West intensively and so does the Shiite Realistic-Radicals, led by Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani. Their major achievement is the Western readiness to free them from all the obstacles on their way to acquire a nuclear weapons arsenal in 10-15 years and meanwhile to intensify their regional influence and efforts to threaten Israel.
On the other hand, the Arab pragmatists are the main supporters of preserving the existing boundaries and state structure in the Middle East. They favor promoting an Arab-Moslem culture that integrates some elements of Western culture, in spite of their basic resentment of that culture. These states include the allies of the West such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf Emirates and, of course, Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (and Israel).
A major challenge to the Sykes-Picot status quo comes from frustrated sects and peoples whose aspirations for self-determination and self-rule were not met by the agreement and the arrangements that followed. First among these are the Kurds who are moving steadily towards independence, at least in the areas they control in Iraq and Syria.
Today, the Western powers have lost their appetite to dominate the region the way they saw as necessary during the Cold War or following the deconstruction of the Soviet Union. The United States emerged as the sole superpower and for a short time it sought to impose a Pax Americana in the region (that also facilitated the Oslo Agreements and peace agreement between Israel and Jordan) (not a full sentence with when). Today’s lack of appetite mainly reflects weakness, frustration, confusion, and dominance of a world view which combines a strong feeling of guilt towards the way the West treated Moslems in the Middle East in the past and optimism regarding the ability to solve all remaining disputes through diplomacy and restoration that would lead to forgiveness from the Moslems.
This approach explains the West’s hesitant policies towards protecting the existing boundaries. On the one hand, the West is profoundly committed to this goal. In this context it strongly opposes the Islamic State attempt to wipe away these borders, stands firmly against the Kurds’ efforts to promote their independence and continues to refer to the states in the region according to former boundaries. In this respect it continues, for example, to treat the Assad regime as the legitimate regime in what it continues to refer to as Syria, in spite of the harsh criticism of its behavior and the fact that he controls merely 20 percent of the territory known as Syria. Assad therefore keeps the seat of Syria in the United Nations and has the authority to issue Syrian passports, even though he does not control most of the border crossings between Syria and its neighbors.
On the other hand, the West is not ready to put its “boots on the ground” in an effort to preserve the former order. It is apparently not a high priority for the West to achieve this goal, and even after it became clear that refraining from action may encourage huge movement of population from the Middle East to Europe, this policy has not changed. As a compensation for its lack of readiness to fight, the West is ready to support the Realist-Radicals, hoping that they will do the “dirty work,” building upon their temporary commitment to the existing state order. This obviously is a dangerous policy, since those Realist-Radicals are no friends of the West and have no interest in securing Western interests in the medium and long run, or even in the short run as many of them have other priorities. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the limited assistance given to the Sunni elements will be sufficient to deal with the Ultra-Radicals.
One thing is clear, Western confusion and hesitancy pave the road for Russia to become a much more influential power in the region since it has no ambiguity in its policy and it is ready to get directly involved to protect its clients. From the point of view of the endurance of the Sykes-Picot order, Russia has become the most influential force that helps to protect and preserve it.
From Israel’s point of view this new situation is extremely challenging and dangerous, even though most of its own borders are agreed upon, well demarcated and relatively well protected, including with security fences that constitute a clear divide with a border security system.
The instability and the uncertainty that characterize the current state of affairs is best exploited, as mentioned before, by the most prominent enemies from the Radical Islamic camp – both Iran and its surrogates and the Sunni Radicals. They take advantage of the growing chaos and the inability of the former states to exert their sovereignty and monopoly over the use of force in the territories that nominally are part of the state in order to carry out attacks against Israel. This phenomenon may grow significantly in the future if they manage to keep eroding the pragmatic regimes control of their territories.
Moreover, as the Radicals widen their influence they may threaten the stability of the monarchies, which survived the first round of the upheaval mainly because their political system is based on the primordial loyalty that is much stronger than the artificial loyalty that was created in many of the republics. If this happens it may create new threats to Israel and put its peace agreements under pressure.
Another source of concern is that with this new situation the Radical terroristic elements will be able to acquire much better weapons and capabilities. The ranges, payload, precision and quantities of the rockets possessed by terror groups is growing consistently but this phenomenon is also true regarding other weapons such as missiles of all kinds and special operations capabilities. This is going to happen while a nuclear arms race may develop following the agreement between Iran and the world powers regarding its nuclear program.
Finally, Israel should be concerned about the world view difference that has widened between itself and the West in general and the United States in particular and about the perceived weakness of the United States in the eyes of regional players. It should also worry about the wave of Moslem immigrants to Europe that may make the West even more sensitive to what it considers to be essential concerns of the Moslem world in the Israeli context.
On the other hand, the new picture of the region also presents Israel with some opportunities. First it raises the chances of developing security cooperation with pragmatic elements in their efforts to confront the radicals, including Iran. Secondly, it makes it easier for Israel to explain that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the most important struggle in the region and that it has genuine security concerns that justify its insistence on having secured and defensible borders both on the Golan Heights and along the Jordan River. It also makes it easier for Israel to convince the West of its strategic value in defending the West itself.
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Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research and Analysis and Production Division of IDF Military Intelligence.
A Century after Sykes-Picot: Legal Aspects
by Alan Baker
In a media interview given by a spokesman/fighter for the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” named “Abu Safiyya” as reported by Los Angeles Daily News in July 2014, Safiyya slammed the “imaginary borders” established by Western powers in the early 20th century. The clip was entitled “The End of Sykes-Picot.”
The article goes on to summarize the issue as follows:
In terms of national borders, the Middle East we know today was largely created in 1916, when two diplomatic advisers — Britain’s Sir Mark Sykes and France’s Francois Georges Picot — got together in secret, looked at a map, and made plans for the region, which they hoped to win from the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
There were plenty of French and British experts who might have known something of ethnic identities, tribal cultures, and theological divisions in the Middle East. Sykes and Picot were not those experts. And their goals in dividing the territories had less to do with establishing peaceful, stable Arab nations and more to do with furthering their own nation’s ambitions and strategic interests. Britain was particularly interested in access to petroleum in Iraq. France, for their part, wanted access to Mediterranean harbor cities like Beirut.
Their secret map, known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement or the Asia Minor Agreement, established the geography of French and British colonial rule and influence. And it established national borders.
The reverberations have been felt in the region since.1
In a similar vein, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Fareed Zakaria referred to the Sykes-Picot Agreement in a New York Times blog in 2014 as follows:
If you had looked at the Middle East 15 years ago, you would have seen a string of strikingly similar regimes — from Libya and Tunisia in the west to Syria and Iraq in the east. They were all dictatorships. They were all secular, in the sense that they did not derive their legitimacy from religious identity. Historically, they had all been supported by outside powers — first the British and French, then the superpowers — which meant that these rulers worried more about pleasing patrons abroad than currying favor at home. And they had secure borders.
Today, across the region, from Libya to Syria, that structure of authority has collapsed and people are reaching for their older identities — Sunni, Shiite, Kurd. Sectarian groups, often Islamist, have filled the power vacuum, spilling over borders and spreading violence. In Iraq and elsewhere, no amount of U.S. military power can put Humpty Dumpty back together.
And now we have ISIL creating a new map. They say they want to undo the legacy of Western colonialism, but they sure are wreaking a lot of havoc in the process.2
Indeed, in light of today’s havoc in the Middle East it is perhaps pertinent as well as propitious to examine the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and to consider its place and its continued relevance, if at all, in the unfolding saga in the Middle East.
However, any such analysis cannot ignore the prominence given by international law and practice to historic borders, determined by international agreement, and their binding and still-valid nature.
The issue of borders between states is, by definition, the delimitation of their sovereignty and thus a central component of international law and practice. As such it is the ultimate determining factor in the inter-relationship between neighboring sovereignties. This is particularly in the context of the territorial application of their respective laws. It also delimits the practice of their governmental prerogatives and jurisdiction to govern and to act within their territories vis-à-vis those persons and properties present or resident in their territory. In light of this centrality and importance, the stability and permanence of borders established by international treaties is considered paramount. This state of permanence enjoys in international law priority and preference which go far beyond possible temporal political and territorial changes.
As such, a border that has been determined and agreed to in an agreement remains in effect even when the very agreement or treaty that brought about its establishment is no longer valid or relevant.
Thus any new state or sovereign entity that may be established within the territorial confines or in place of a former state or sovereign entity is obliged to inherit the same border originally determined by the international treaty. This principle is set out in article 11 of the 1987 International Convention on the Succession of States in Respect of Treaties, according to which:
A succession of states does not as such affect a boundary established by a treaty or obligations or rights established by a treaty and relating to the regime of a boundary.
This principle emanates from the need, developed over the years, to ensure international stability and to prevent confusion and conflict in regard to the regime of international borders. The principle, termed “uti possidetis,” even goes so far as to require that new states maintain prior borders, including internal borders determined within the colonial entity from which the new state or states developed and realized their sovereignty.
While this principle was first developed in the context of the former colonial boundaries of Latin America, it was later adopted in respect of colonial borders in Africa. It has achieved the status of contemporary customary international law binding on all states, following a judgment of the International Court of Justice at the Hague dated 1986 Burkina Faso and Mali frontier Dispute, ICJ Reports (1986) p. 554, and by the Yugoslav Arbitration Commission in 1992 (31 ILM 1499, 1500 (1992) and the Libya/Chad boundary dispute in 1994.
As summarized by Prof. Malcolm Shaw in his treatise International Law, in discussing uti possidetis and its implications:
Where there is a relevant applicable treaty, then this will dispose of the matter completely. Indeed, once defined in a treaty, an international frontier achieves permanence so that even if the treaty itself were to cease to be in force, the continuance of the boundary would be unaffected and may only be changed with the consent of the states directly concerned.3
Thus, despite passage of time, the evident lack of logic, the lack of current political and demographic relevance of any particular mandatory boundary, and the lack of relevance of the considerations that served to influence the major powers in their original determination of such boundaries – especially the Sykes-Picot boundaries – the principle of uti possidetis dictates that it remains valid, unless altered by agreement between the states concerned.
Even in the legal history of Israel’s own borders, the Egypt-Israel Treaty of Peace concluded on March 26, 1979, defined the international boundary between Egypt and Israel, in Article II in terms of “the recognized international boundary between Egypt and the former mandated territory of Palestine.”
The exact location of the boundary points became the subject of the Egypt/Israel 1988 Taba Arbitration. The Egyptian position, accepted by the arbitrators, was based on the principle according to which:
The preference for the boundary as it has been established by an agreement is in conformity with the principle of uti possidetis juris, recently considered by the Chamber of the International court of Justice in the Burkina Faso/Mali Frontier Dispute case (1986): “Its first aspect, emphasized by the Latin genitive juris, is found in the pre-eminence accorded to legal title over effective possession as a basis for sovereignty.”4
It is the legal and lawful1906 line which deserves protection for the sake of stability and permanence.5
Peace negotiations with both Syria and Lebanon that took place between 1991-1993 in Washington, DC within the framework of the post 1991 Madrid Middle-East peace conference, failed to achieve progress, inter alia on the issue of potential bilateral borders. This was principally in light of the inter-dependence of both potentially new boundaries, on the single historic border established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1922. This old border covers the entire area separating the French mandated territories of Syria and Lebanon from the British Mandatory Palestine. It was determined mostly on the basis of the colonial interests and local preferences of both Britain and France, and not so much on substantive demographic or other considerations. Hence any new bilateral border to be negotiated between Israel and Syria on the one hand, and Israel and Lebanon on the other, will require some element of reference to, or reliance on the Original Sykes-Picot line.
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Amb. Alan Baker, Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
* * *
3 Malcolm Shaw “International Law” Fifth Edition, pp 448-9
4 http://legal.un.org/riaa/cases/vol_XX/1-118.pdf at para. 19
5 Ibid at para 49 https://francais.rt.com/international/8076-budget-pentagone-obama-defense-daesh-syrie-ukraine
A century after the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the division of the Middle East, diplomats are still attempting to better understand the historic developments of this fought-over region.
Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East has been a hotbed of permanent crises, repeated conflicts, unstable regimes, coups and foreign interventions. Some observers, including Henry Kissinger, note that the causes of conflict in the region are reminiscent of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. That battle for power between Protestants and Catholics disregarded the nation-state before the Westphalia Treaties were signed on October 24, 1648. Note that most international borders were drawn without asking the opinion of the local population. The European idea of the homogeneous nation-state, where state boundaries should match the territory of a people, was overlooked by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The disappearance of the Ottoman Caliphate after four centuries of absolute rule ended the hopes of devout Muslims. The defeat and humiliation was so great that no Arab Muslim country has managed to fill the void and become the undisputed leader of the Sunnis.
In 1926, only 10 years after the collapse of the Turks, the first attempt was made with the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, its purely religious and Islamist vocation along with the British presence in the region, would prevent them from replacing the Ottomans with a caliphate. The Mufti of Jerusalem also tried something similar but did not succeed despite his alliance with Hitler. Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser who dreamed of Pan-Arabism and secular nationalism dismissed the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, putting its leaders in jail. Sadat too, took this stance, and today, the current president, Abdel Fatah Sisi, vigorously pursues this policy.
In the 1970s, the Taliban in Afghanistan managed to defy the Soviets (and then the Americans), but it was not until 1979 with the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini, that the Islamic revolution was exported by the Shiites, dreaming of a caliphate and challenging the West. The creation of Al-Qaida by bin Laden and the founding of ISIS, and to some extent Erdoğan’s AKP Islamic party in Turkey, revived the vision of a new Sunni caliphate in the Middle East.
Regarding the different streams of Islam, it must be noted that two major Muslim countries in the Middle East, Shia Iran and Sunni Turkey, are not part of the Arab world. Sustainable peace in the region cannot be achieved if we do not find an acceptable solution to these countries as well, specifically regarding the future of east Jerusalem and a viable interfaith arrangement on the Temple Mount, Haram El Sharif for Muslims. The status quo was shaken by extremists, and it is imperative to rule out any attempt by them to provoke a war of religions.
Various internal disagreements, rivalries, animosities and border conflicts have created a sharp split in the Arab-Muslim world. It has triggered a bloody confrontation between the two main denominations of Islam, Shiites and Sunnis.
After the signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and the division of the Middle East between Britain and France, this region was marked by a series of treaties and international conferences, often contradictory and rarely strictly observed and respected. The rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, the control of natural resources, gas and oil, the arms race, arms supplies and freedom of navigation in the Suez Canal prompted a power battle, and this area very quickly became the region for all confrontations.
We have discovered that the states remain “cold monsters” in the words of Nietzsche, leaders are still vulnerable, and only political and commercial interests dominate today.
The creation of the State of Israel in 1948, considered by Arabs as “a foreign body,” caused “the unity of the Arab nation” and triggered a difficult, complex and painful conflict which has not been resolved to date. However, the turbulence caused by the Arab Spring has completely shaken Arab unity and plunged the people of these countries into distress and chaos.
This conflict remains complicated and ongoing because the interests involved are varied and often contradictory, and mostly because the parties involved forcefully claim the same land by exercising exclusive historical rights. However, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the only outstanding issue. During the last six decades, 23 conflicts have been recorded, including the war between Iranian Shiites and Iraqi Sunnis, which upset military and strategic stability and caused more than a million casualties.
The domino-effect of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria has no direct or indirect link with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Note that all the unrest in the Arab world is internal, social, religious and tribal. It emerged as a result of corrupt leaders who for decades have benefited from the poverty and ignorance of their citizens; who have stolen from the national treasury by creating a police state and ruling by terror and a cult of personality. In the 1950s and 1960s, changes to the Arab regimes came about in the shadows, through coups d’état, overthrowing monarchs by megalomaniac colonels. Today, revolutions are carried out in broad daylight, by the overwhelming mass of unemployed youth. Google, Facebook and Twitter, mobile phones, television and communications satellites are now the new weapons to express the dissatisfaction and discontent to totalitarian regimes. The influx of Syrian and Kurd refugees into Europe reflects the despair and lack of hope for the future in our region. It all began with the mass departure of Eastern Christians still persecuted by fanatical Islamists.
Note that Islamism is a political force that emerged from the bottom of society through simple messages, propagated by local imams and conveyed by people across international borders. It is not a doctrine or ideology imposed by intellectuals and politicians. It is for this reason that Westerners are wrong in believing that they can amend ethnic traditions and customs and impose great changes on the regime through democratic and liberal values, just like in Europe.
Europeans and Americans have made serious mistakes contributing to the precipitous departure of two ally heads of state: The Shah of Iran and President Mubarak of Egypt. They have not guaranteed the stability of these countries nor ensured a pro-Western policy of their successors. Their hasty and unplanned departures from power left two Islamist and anti-Western regimes: Shiite Ayatollahs and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the reluctance of the West and the indifference of Americans with regard to General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the fall of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi was necessary to bring some stability and to give new life to the Egyptian economy. The West has not encouraged or supported Egypt in its fight against the Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula.
The hasty departure of the Americans from Iraq after it invaded in 2003 plunged the country into chaos. The civil war in Syria is also characterized by internal religious conflicts, creating further violence and terror perpetrated by the Islamic State (ISIS). The threat of terrorism remains a considerable strategic factor. This scourge is not only a tactical means of small-scale violence, but constitutes a strategic threat that must be categorically eradicated and not merely through the launching of air strikes. In the Syrian crisis, as in the fight against ISIS, Europe has proved that it no longer has the political, diplomatic, and especially military means to intervene and end the wave of terror sown so appalling by Islamic State, nor the ability to save those in distress, in particular Christians.
The threat of unconventional terrorism in the form of a “mega-attack” is terrifying, and since September 2001 has been ever-present in Europe, and even more so, in the Middle East.
The situation in the Middle East changed with the collapse of the Sykes-Picot borders. This geopolitical change contributed to the emergence of new regional powers such as Turkey and Iran, which are Muslim but not Arab states. The global situation also changed due to the powerlessness of the democracies and failure of the West to resolve conflicts. This disarray reinforced a new common and unavoidable threat, that of Russia, China and Iran.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, the United States has failed in its fight against the “axis of evil” and has not managed to find alternatives to totalitarian regimes. The training and support of the rebels in the Middle East and elsewhere and the reconstruction of the Iraqi army cost the US Treasury more than $85 billion.[i] All these schemes were major failures.
The idyllic view of a new Middle East naively advocated by some in Europe is unfortunately not a reality of tomorrow. The free world should be extremely careful and pragmatic to not be fooled by this vision. The demographic aspect is also a significant factor: note that in the 1960s, the population of the Middle East was only 100 million; today it has more than 420 million inhabitants.
In this gloomy Middle East, with the ongoing Iranian nuclear threat, the aggressive statements of Ayatollahs and their aspirations to see Shiite flags flying in Arab capitals, the nuclear agreement signed on July 14, 2015, in Vienna, should worry the free world even more.
The end of European influences and the failure of America to impose a pax Americana grants the Russians a carte blanche to intervene in the air and on the ground. The Moscow-Tehran axis is currently defying the West and risking the revival of a new Cold War. All these threats are real and undermine the moderate Arab regimes from Mauritania to the Persian Gulf via Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
In this context of uncertainty, a solution to the Palestinian problem will not ensure regional security and the establishment of a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs. Wars, terrorism, boycotts, sanctions and dictates will come to nothing; on the contrary, they will aggravate an already explosive situation.
With the collapse of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and despite the existing difficulties in international law (see the analysis of this subject by Alan Baker) only viable state lines, defensible borders, and adequate safety measures will ensure the stability of the Middle East and the sustainability of the peace process with the Palestinians. The international community, particularly the European chancelleries, has to take into consideration not only the objectives of the Arabs, but also the threats, vital interests and security of the Jewish state.
Since its establishment, Israel remains an exemplary democratic state sharing the universal values of the Western world. The country’s burning desire is to put an end to all hostilities with her neighbors and to achieve a lasting and sustainable peace. The Israelis want negotiations and are willing to make painful and important concessions provided that the other party supports an end to the conflict and agrees to Israeli demands for security and defense.
With the support of maps, tables, documents and a detailed chronology, we come to the conclusion that the explosive situation in the Middle East is mainly the result of clumsy Western politics and a legacy of colonialism. The study also reveals a misunderstanding of the Arab and Islamic world and an indifference to the fate of Israel. This document also shows that the Palestinian issue will not be fully resolved without a comprehensive conclusion of all other conflicts in the region.
Finally, the use of diplomacy is probably the best way to avoid war and to end the conflict, but it is essential to also negotiate knowingly and scrupulously, upholding a balance between all sides.
This study is a recap of historical facts and especially sheds new light on the many failures of the international community during the past century. Along with the comments and observations, it is a reminder to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Chronology of Events
May 1916 – Signing of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
2 November 1917 – Balfour Declaration for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.
9 December 1917 – General Allenby conquers Jerusalem. End of 400 years of Ottoman rule.
3 January 1919 – Signing in London of agreement between Emir Faisal and Chaim Weizmann.
21 April 1919 – San Remo Conference. The administration of Palestine is entrusted to the British Mandate.
1921 – Creation of Transjordan. Abdullah becomes emir.
29 November 1947 – UN resolution on the partition of Palestine and the creation of two states: one Jewish and one Arab. First phase of the War of Independence of Israel.
14 May 1948 – Proclamation of the State of Israel. End of the British Mandate. Invasion of Arab armies.
January-July 1949 – Signing of the Armistice Agreements in Rhodes.
1 September 1951 – Security Council resolution on free passage through the Suez Canal.
29 October 1956 – Outbreak of the Suez War.
10 March 1957 – Withdrawal of Israeli forces from Sinai.
28 May 1964 – Proclamation of the National Charter of the PLO.
5–10 June 1967 – Six Day War.
22 November 1967 – Resolution 242 of the Security Council.
July 1968 – Outbreak of the War of Attrition.
December 1969 – Rogers Plan.
January-March 1971 – Jarring Mission.
5 September 1972 – Terrorist attacks against Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich.
6 October 1973 – Outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.
21 December 1973 – Peace conference in Geneva, disengagement agreements with Egypt and Syria.
4 July 1976 – Operation Entebbe.
19 November 1977 – Historic visit of President Sadat to Jerusalem.
16 January 1979 – Fall of the Shah of Iran. Islamic Revolution.
26 March 1979 – Signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
13 June 1980 – Venice Declaration on the Middle East.
22 September 1980 – Outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war.
7 June 1981 – Bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant in Baghdad.
6 October 1981 – Assassination of President Sadat.
6 June 1982 – Outbreak of the First Lebanon War.
30 August 1982 – Departure of Arafat and his troops from Beirut to Tunis.
17 May 1983 – Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement.
9 December 1987 – Start of the First Intifada.
31 July 1988 – King Hussein gives the West Bank over to the PLO.
14 November 1988 – In Algiers, Arafat proclaims the independence of a “Palestinian state.”
20 August 1990 – Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. First Gulf War.
December 1990 – Madrid Peace Conference on the Middle East.
13 September 1993 – Signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House.
26 October 1994 – Signing of the peace treaty with Jordan.
10 November 1995 – Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
18 June 1996 – Benjamin Netanyahu forms his first government.
23 October 1998 – Signing of Wye River Memorandum.
1 May 2000 – Permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon.
17 September 2000 – Breakdown of talks with the Palestinians. Second Intifada.
11 September 2001 – Terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
30 March 2002 – Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank. Encirclement of Arafat’s Moukhata (Headquarters in Ramallah).
18 March 2003 – American invasion of Iraq. Fall of Saddam Hussein.
17 September 2003 – Publication of the Roadmap for Peace by the Quartet.
22 March 2004 – Assassination of Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas.
14 April 2004 – President Bush’s commitment to Sharon for “defensible borders.”
11 November 2004 – Arafat dies in a Paris hospital.
15 August 2005 – Withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
13 July 2006 – Second Lebanon War.
25 January 2007 – Hamas takes control in Gaza.
December 2007 – A nuclear site in Syria is bombed by the Israeli Air Force.
27 December 2008 – Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip.
4 June 2009 – President Obama’s Speech in Cairo.
14 June 2009 – Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University on the creation of a Palestinian state according to the notion of “two states for two people.”
27 May 2010 – The dramatic arrest of a Turkish flotilla to Gaza.
January 2011 – Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. Arab Spring.
18 October 2011 – IDF Soldier Shalit is released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
14 November 2012 – Operation Pillar of Defense.
29 November 2012 – Observer State status for the Palestinians at the UN.
14 September 2013 – During the civil war in Syria, partial dismantling of the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal.
8 July 2014 – Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip.
7 January 2015 – Attacks against Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket in Paris. 17 dead. Solidarity marches.
3 March 2015 – Netanyahu’s speech before the U.S. Congress on the Iranian nuclear threat.
14 July 2015 – Vienna Agreement on Iran’s nuclear project.
September 2015 – Beginning of Russian strikes in Syria against opponents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
1 October 2015 – Netanyahu’s speech before the General Assembly at the United Nations.
October 2015 – Daily clashes on the Temple Mount and a wave of attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank. IDF retaliates and arrests dozens of terrorists.
31 October 2015 – A bomb explodes on a Russian passenger plane over Sinai. 224 killed. ISIS claims responsibility.
9 November 2015 – Netanyahu-Obama meeting at the White House.
13 November 2015 – Terrorists from ISIS attack Paris. 130 killed and 300 wounded.
24 November 2015 – Russian Sukhoi Su-24 warplane is shot down by Turkey on the Syrian border. Vladimir Putin warns Ankara that its “stab in the back” will have serious consequences.
14 September 2015 ongoing – Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians.
Appendix: The Palestine Mandate July 24, 1922
The Council of the League of Nations:
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have agreed, for the purpose of giving effect to the provisions of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, to entrust to a Mandatory selected by the said Powers the administration of the territory of Palestine, which formerly belonged to the Turkish Empire, within such boundaries as may be fixed by them; and
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might 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; and
Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country; and
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have selected His Britannic Majesty as the Mandatory for Palestine; and
Whereas the mandate in respect of Palestine has been formulated in the following terms and submitted to the Council of the League for approval; and
Whereas His Britannic Majesty has accepted the mandate in respect of Palestine and undertaken to exercise it on behalf of the League of Nations in conformity with the following provisions; and
Whereas by the afore-mentioned Article 22 (paragraph 8), it is provided that the degree of authority, control or administration to be exercised by the Mandatory, not having been previously agreed upon by the Members of the League, shall be explicitly defined by the Council of the League Of Nations; confirming the said Mandate, defines its terms as follows:
The Mandatory shall have full powers of legislation and of administration, save as they may be limited by the terms of this mandate.
The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.
The Mandatory shall, so far as circumstances permit, encourage local autonomy.
An appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine, and, subject always to the control of the Administration to assist and take part in the development of the country.
The Zionist organization, so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognized as such agency. It shall take steps in consultation with His Britannic Majesty’s Government to secure the co-operation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish national home.
The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of the Government of any foreign Power.
The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.
The privileges and immunities of foreigners, including the benefits of consular jurisdiction and protection as formerly enjoyed by Capitulation or usage in the Ottoman Empire, shall not be applicable in Palestine.
Unless the Powers whose nationals enjoyed the afore-mentioned privileges and immunities on August 1st, 1914, shall have previously renounced the right to their re-establishment, or shall have agreed to their non-application for a specified period, these privileges and immunities shall, at the expiration of the mandate, be immediately reestablished in their entirety or with such modifications as may have been agreed upon between the Powers concerned.
The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that the judicial system established in Palestine shall assure to foreigners, as well as to natives, a complete guarantee of their rights.
Respect for the personal status of the various peoples and communities and for their religious interests shall be fully guaranteed. In particular, the control and administration of Wakfs shall be exercised in accordance with religious law and the dispositions of the founders.
Pending the making of special extradition agreements relating to Palestine, the extradition treaties in force between the Mandatory and other foreign Powers shall apply to Palestine.
The Administration of Palestine shall take all necessary measures to safeguard the interests of the community in connection with the development of the country, and, subject to any international obligations accepted by the Mandatory, shall have full power to provide for public ownership or control of any of the natural resources of the country or of the public works, services and utilities established or to be established therein. It shall introduce a land system appropriate to the needs of the country, having regard, among other things, to the desirability of promoting the close settlement and intensive cultivation of the land.
The Administration may arrange with the Jewish agency mentioned in Article 4 to construct or operate, upon fair and equitable terms, any public works, services and utilities, and to develop any of the natural resources of the country, in so far as these matters are not directly undertaken by the Administration. Any such arrangements shall provide that no profits distributed by such agency, directly or indirectly, shall exceed a reasonable rate of interest on the capital, and any further profits shall be utilized by it for the benefit of the country in a manner approved by the Administration.
The Mandatory shall be entrusted with the control of the foreign relations of Palestine and the right to issue exequaturs to consuls appointed by foreign Powers. He shall also be entitled to afford diplomatic and consular protection to citizens of Palestine when outside its territorial limits.
All responsibility in connection with the Holy Places and religious buildings or sites in Palestine, including that of preserving existing rights and of securing free access to the Holy Places, religious buildings and sites and the free exercise of worship, while ensuring the requirements of public order and decorum, is assumed by the Mandatory, who shall be responsible solely to the League of Nations in all matters connected herewith, provided that nothing in this article shall prevent the Mandatory from entering into such arrangements as he may deem reasonable with the Administration for the purpose of carrying the provisions of this article into effect; and provided also that nothing in this mandate shall be construed as conferring upon the Mandatory authority to interfere with the fabric or the management of purely Moslem sacred shrines, the immunities of which are guaranteed.
A special commission shall be appointed by the Mandatory to study, define and determine the rights and claims in connection with the Holy Places and the rights and claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine. The method of nomination, the composition and the functions of this Commission shall be submitted to the Council of the League for its approval, and the Commission shall not be appointed or enter upon its functions without the approval of the Council.
The Mandatory shall see that complete freedom of conscience and the free exercise of all forms of worship, subject only to the maintenance of public order and morals, are ensured to all. No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Palestine on the ground of race, religion or language. No person shall be excluded from Palestine on the sole ground of his religious belief.
The right of each community to maintain its own schools for the education of its own members in its own language, while conforming to such educational requirements of a general nature as the Administration may impose, shall not be denied or impaired.
The Mandatory shall be responsible for exercising such supervision over religious or eleemosynary bodies of all faiths in Palestine as may be required for the maintenance of public order and good government. Subject to such supervision, no measures shall be taken in Palestine to obstruct or interfere with the enterprise of such bodies or to discriminate against any representative or member of them on the ground of his religion or nationality.
The Administration of Palestine may organist on a voluntary basis the forces necessary for the preservation of peace and order, and also for the defense of the country, subject, however, to the supervision of the Mandatory, but shall not use them for purposes other than those above specified save with the consent of the Mandatory. Except for such purposes, no military, naval or air forces shall be raised or maintained by the Administration of Palestine.
Nothing in this article shall preclude the Administration of Palestine from contributing to the cost of the maintenance of the forces of the Mandatory in Palestine.
The Mandatory shall be entitled at all times to use the roads, railways and ports of Palestine for the movement of armed forces and the carriage of fuel and supplies.
The Mandatory shall see that there is no discrimination in Palestine against the nationals of any State Member of the League of Nations (including companies incorporated under its laws) as compared with those of the Mandatory or of any foreign State in matters concerning taxation, commerce or navigation, the exercise of industries or professions, or in the treatment of merchant vessels or civil aircraft. Similarly, there shall be no discrimination in Palestine against goods originating in or destined for any of the said States, and there shall be freedom of transit under equitable conditions across the mandated area.
Subject as aforesaid and to the other provisions of this mandate, the Administration of Palestine may, on the advice of the Mandatory, impose such taxes and customs duties as it may consider necessary, and take such steps as it may think best to promote the development of the natural resources of the country and to safeguard the interests of the population. It may also, on the advice of the Mandatory, conclude a special customs agreement with any State the territory of which in 1914 was wholly included in Asiatic Turkey or Arabia.
The Mandatory shall adhere on behalf of the Administration of Palestine to any general international conventions already existing, or which may be concluded hereafter with the approval of the League of Nations, respecting the slave traffic, the traffic in arms and ammunition, or the traffic in drugs, or relating to commercial equality, freedom of transit and navigation, aerial navigation and postal, telegraphic and wireless communication or literary, artistic or industrial property.
The Mandatory shall co-operate on behalf of the Administration of Palestine, so far as religious, social and other conditions may permit, in the execution of any common policy adopted by the League of Nations for preventing and combating disease, including diseases of plants and animals.
The Mandatory shall secure the enactment within twelve months from this date, and shall ensure the execution of a Law of Antiquities based on the following rules. This law shall ensure equality of treatment in the matter of excavations and archaeological research to the nationals of all States Members of the League of Nations.
- “Antiquity” means any construction or any product of human activity earlier than the year 1700 A. D.
The law for the protection of antiquities shall proceed by encouragement rather than by threat.
Any person who, having discovered an antiquity without being furnished with the authorization referred to in paragraph 5, reports the same to an official of the competent Department, shall be rewarded according to the value of the discovery.
No antiquity may be disposed of except to the competent Department, unless this Department renounces the acquisition of any such antiquity.
No antiquity may leave the country without an export license from the said Department.
- Any person who maliciously or negligently destroys or damages an antiquity shall be liable to a penalty to be fixed.
- No clearing of ground or digging with the object of finding antiquities shall be permitted, under penalty of fine, except to persons authorized by the competent Department.
- Equitable terms shall be fixed for expropriation, temporary or permanent, of lands which might be of historical or archaeological interest.
- Authorization to excavate shall only be granted to persons who show sufficient guarantees of archaeological experience. The Administration of Palestine shall not, in granting these authorizations, act in such a way as to exclude scholars of any nation without good grounds.
- The proceeds of excavations may be divided between the excavator and the competent Department in a proportion fixed by that Department. If division seems impossible for scientific reasons, the excavator shall receive a fair indemnity in lieu of a part of the find.
English, Arabic and Hebrew shall be the official languages of Palestine. Any statement or inscription in Arabic on stamps or money in Palestine shall be repeated in Hebrew and any statement or inscription in Hebrew shall be repeated in Arabic.
The Administration of Palestine shall recognize the holy days of the respective communities in Palestine as legal days of rest for the members of such communities.
The Mandatory shall make to the Council of the League of Nations an annual report to the satisfaction of the Council as to the measures taken during the year to carry out the provisions of the mandate. Copies of all laws and regulations promulgated or issued during the year shall be communicated with the report.
In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions, provided that no action shall be taken which is inconsistent with the provisions of Articles 15, 16 and 18.
The Mandatory agrees that, if any dispute whatever should arise between the Mandatory and another member of the League of Nations relating to the interpretation or the application of the provisions of the mandate, such dispute, if it cannot be settled by negotiation, shall be submitted to the Permanent Court of International Justice provided for by Article 14 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.
The consent of the Council of the League of Nations is required for any modification of the terms of this mandate.
In the event of the termination of the mandate hereby conferred upon the Mandatory, the Council of the League of Nations shall make such arrangements as may be deemed necessary for safeguarding in perpetuity, under guarantee of the League, the rights secured by Articles 13 and 14, and shall use its influence for securing, under the guarantee of the League, that the Government of Palestine will fully honor the financial obligations legitimately incurred by the Administration of Palestine during the period of the mandate, including the rights of public servants to pensions or gratuities.
The present instrument shall be deposited in original in the archives of the League of Nations and certified copies shall be forwarded by the Secretary-General of the League of Nations to all members of the League.
Done at London the twenty-fourth day of July, one thousand nine hundred and twenty-two.
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