EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel just celebrated its sixty-ninth anniversary. Its citizens can be proud of its many impressive achievements, and particularly the building of a very strong military that has withstood many tests. Yet acceptance by all its neighbors has not been attained. Israel is still at war.
After several military defeats, the largest and strongest Arab state, Egypt, signed a historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The defection of Egypt from the anti-Israel Arab alliance largely neutralized the option of a large-scale conventional attack on Israel, improving Israel’s overall strategic position.
Yet Cairo refrained from developing normal relations with the Jewish state. A “cold peace” evolved, underscoring the countries’ common strategic interests but also the reluctance of Egypt to participate in reconciling the two peoples.
Jordan followed suit in 1994, largely emulating the Egyptian precedent. Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel also reflected common strategic interests – but was commonly referred to by Jordanians as the “King’s peace,” indicating a disinclination for people-to-people interactions with the Jews west of the Jordan River.
The inhibitions in the Arab world against accepting Israel should not be a surprise. Muslims seem to have good theological reasons for rejecting the existence of a Jewish state. Moreover, the education system in the Arab countries has inculcated anti-Semitic messages and hatred toward Israel for decades. Unfortunately, the dissemination of negative images of Jews and Israel has hardly changed in Arab schools and media.
This is also why the euphoria of the 1990s elicited by the “peace process” with the Palestinians, and propagated by the “peace camp”, was unwarranted. Indeed, the peace negotiations failed miserably. The process did, however, allow the Palestinian national movement a foothold in the West Bank and Gaza. As a large part of the Arab world is in deep socio-political crisis and another fears the Iranian threat, it is the Palestinian national movement and the Islamists that carry on the struggle against the Zionists.
The Palestinians are at the forefront of the war on Israel, despite their lack of tanks and airplanes. They use terror, and pay the terrorists captured by Israel as well as their families. The use of force against Jews is applauded, and killed perpetrators are awarded the status of martyrs. They use missiles against Israel’s civilian population. The limits on their firepower are the result of Israeli efforts to cut off their supply of armaments.
The Palestinian national movement denies the historic links of the Jews to the Land of Israel, and particularly Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority (PA) demanded of the UK that it apologize for the 1917 Balfour declaration, which recognized Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel. There are endless examples in Palestinian schools and media to sustain the conclusion that the Palestinians are not ready to make peace.
Moreover, the PA cannot conclude a “cold peace” like Egypt or Jordan. Those two countries take their commitment seriously to prevent terrorism from their territory. In the West Bank, the PA – established by Yitzhak Rabin on the premise that it will fight terror in exchange for the transfer of territory – refuses to honor its part of the bargain. It encourages terror by subsidies to jailed terrorists and by innumerable steps to eulogize the “martyrs” and honor their “heritage.” The ruling Palestinian elite in Gaza, Hamas, formally refuses to give up armed struggle against Israel.
The “Oslo process” was an attempt by Israel to push the Palestinian national movement into a statist posture and to eventually adopt a statist rationale along the lines of that of Egypt and Jordan, which led them to a “cold peace” with Israel. But the religious and ethnic dimensions of the conflict with Israel have overcome any underdeveloped statist Palestinian instincts. The ethno-religious impulses of the Palestinians nurture their continuation of violent conflict.
So far, no Palestinian leader who has adopted a statist agenda, prioritizing state-building over other Palestinian aspirations, has garnered popular support. Salam Fayyad, who was admired in the West for his attempts to reform the PA’s bloated bureaucracy, seemed to tend in this direction. But his level of support among the Palestinian public never rose above 10%.
Palestinian society is becoming more religious and radical, similarly to other Arab societies. This trend benefits Hamas, which is becoming more popular. The ascendance of Hamas further feeds hostility towards Israel. A drive to satisfy the quest for revenge, and, ultimately, to destroy Israel – which would be an historic justice in the eyes of the Palestinians – overrides any other consideration.
A renewal of negotiations leading to Israeli withdrawals is extremely unlikely to result in a durable and satisfactory agreement any time soon. Israel will need to maintain a strong army for many more decades to deal with the Palestinian challenge. Moreover, changes within neighboring states can be rapid. Unexpected scenarios, such as a return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the helm in Egypt or the fall of the Hashemite dynasty, might take place, and a large-scale conventional threat might reemerge. Finally, the Iranian nuclear specter is still hovering over the Middle East.
Israel must remain vigilant and continue to prepare for a variety of warlike scenarios. The understandable desire for peace should not blur the discomforting likelihood that Israel will live by its sword for many years to come.
Efraim Inbar, professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (1991-2016), is a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum.
BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family