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June 18, 2020 7:01 am

The Palestinian Issue Is Not the Crux of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


Jewish worshippers visiting Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Reuters/Ammar Awad.

In 2020, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other pro-US Arab countries base their national security policy on issues that substantially transcend the Palestinian issue. These issues include lethal threats posed by Iran’s ayatollahs, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, Turkey’s Erdogan, the spillover of the wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, the potential implosion of Arab countries, and more.

In 2020, these countries view Israel’s posture of deterrence as a most valuable asset in the face of the aforementioned lethal threats. They value Israel as a productive resource to diversify their economies and enhance their standard of living.

At the same time, they consider the proposed Palestinian state a potential rogue regime, which could add fuel to the Middle East fire. At the moment, they are expanding their defense and commercial ties with Israel in an unprecedented manner, in defiance of Palestinian protests and irrespective of the paralysis of the Palestinian issue.

In 1979 and 1994, Egypt and Jordan respectively concluded peace accords with Israel in order to advance their national security — not as a gesture toward Israel, and regardless of Palestinian threats and protests. Notwithstanding occasional anti-Israel Jordanian talk, the Hashemite kingdom’s walk (militarily and commercially) reflects a realization that Israel makes an irreplaceable and critical contribution to the survival of the kingdom in the face of domestic and external threats. Against the backdrop of these threats, the establishment of the proposed Palestinian state would be the straw that breaks the kingdom’s back.

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Arab countries have showered Palestinians with cuddling talk, accompanied by a cold/negative walk. This reflects Arab concern about the Palestinians’ systematic track record of association with rogue elements and engagement in intra-Arab subversion and terrorism. Therefore, Arab countries have not flexed their military muscle — and barely their financial muscle — on behalf of the Palestinians.

Nor did Arab countries assist the Palestinians during the latter’s military confrontations with Israel (e.g., the 1982/83 war in Lebanon, the first and second Intifadas, and the three wars in Gaza). Never did the Arabs fight Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.

For example, the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war was not launched — by Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon — on behalf the Arabs in Gaza, Judea, and Samaria. It was launched in order to advance the interests of the various Arab countries. Therefore, they did not share the spoils of the war with the Palestinians. Thus Iraq occupied Samaria (the northern West Bank) and transferred it to Jordan, not to the Arabs of the area. Jordan occupied Judea and the eastern part of Jerusalem and proceeded to annex these areas, in addition to Samaria, in April 1950, naming it the “West Bank.” And Egypt occupied Gaza and did not transfer the area to its Arab inhabitants.

In fact, both Jordan and Egypt prohibited any Palestinian national activities in their occupied areas, imposed frequent curfews, and punished and expelled violators of the prohibition. Moreover, the Arab League established the All-Palestine Government in 1948, rendered it completely impotent, and transferred its headquarters from Gaza to Cairo until its dissolution in 1959. The Arab states’ prime goal was to advance their particular geo-strategic postures, while undermining those of their Arab rivals.

Jordan’s Hashemite king aspired to expand his territory beyond the Jordan River toward the Mediterranean in order to bolster his claim for intra-Arab leadership. Iraq, which was ruled in 1948-49 by the Hashemite monarchy, collaborated with the Jordanian wing of the Hashemite family, while aiming to gain control over the 585-mile oil pipeline from Kirkuk in Iraq to Haifa on the Mediterranean. Egypt was not ready for the war logistically, but rivaled Jordan and Iraq for intra-Arab leadership, and therefore joined the attack on the newly-born Jewish state. It deployed troops in the Jerusalem region in order to check the Jordanian advance. Syria entered the war in order to conquer parts of “Southern Syria,” which extended from the Egyptian border through British Mandatory Palestine and Jordan.

Irrespective of the Palestinian issue, the 1956 Sinai conflict was triggered by the pan-Arab leadership aspirations of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who concluded a mega arms deal with Czechoslovakia, and formed a joint Egypt-Syria-Jordan military command against Israel and Arab rivals (e.g., Saudi Arabia). In the process, he nationalized the British-French-owned Suez Canal, backed the Algerian uprising against France, blockaded Israel’s southern (oil) port of Eilat, enticed Gaza-based anti-Israel terrorism, and planned the occupation of parts of the Negev in southern Israel.

Unrelated to the Palestinian issue, the 1967 preemptive Six-Day War erupted due to Soviet-supported Egyptian radical aggression: blockading the port of Eilat, violating the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, reestablishing the joint anti-Israel Egypt-Syria-Jordan military command, and advancing its expansionist design (e.g., deploying troops to Yemen in order to topple the Saudi regime).

Regardless of the Palestinian issue, the 1969-70 Egypt-Israel War of Attrition along the Gulf of Suez was an extension of the 1967 War. Notwithstanding the Palestinian issue, the 1973 Yom Kippur War was launched by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq with the aim of destroying the “infidel state” and advancing their own intra-Arab and domestic interests.

The negative/indifferent Arab walk with regard to the Palestinian issue was demonstrated during Israel’s war against PLO bases and headquarters in Lebanon. The war was launched on June 6, 1982, and the PLO was expelled from Beirut on August 30, but the Arab League did not convene until September 9, 1982. Arab unwillingness to shed blood on behalf of the Palestinians and the low priority accorded to the Palestinian issue by the Arab states were reinforced during the 1987-1992 and 2000-2003 waves of Palestinian terrorism (intifada) against Israel, and the 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 wars on Gaza-based Palestinian terrorism. These confrontations triggered lavish pro-Palestinian Arab talk, but no Arab military involvement and minimal Arab diplomatic and financial gestures.

Erroneous assumptions produce erroneous policies, as evidenced by the litany of Western peace proposals, which were based on the fallacious conventional wisdom that the Palestinian issue was the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the crown jewel of Arab policy-makers. Will the Western foreign policy establishment learn from history by avoiding — or repeating — past errors?

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A US-Israel Initiative.

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