A cease-fire in Syria brokered by the USA and Russia may hold for a bit, or it may have been thoroughly broken by the time you read this. Any optimism has to be tempered in the light of experience. The Middle East has been in a state of war for a very long time. Even if this negotiated cease-fire holds, there is still ISIS to be dealt with in Iraq and Syria. War continues in Yemen. Turkey continues to resist the creation of a coherent Kurdish state, and, in consequence, Turkish Kurds continue to engage in violent opposition or, if you please, terrorism. No outside power, neither the U.S. nor Russia, nor indeed the NATO alliance, is going to commit ground troops in any sizable number to the region. No political settlement seems possible. The Iraqi government is too weak and probably too corrupt to restore order. In Syria, President Assad talks of regaining control over his whole war-shattered country, but this is bluster. His regime has shown that, thanks to its Russian and Iranian allies, it is too strong to be overthrown, but it is nevertheless far too weak and battered to regain its prewar dominance. The Syrian tragedy, like the Iraqi one, drags on, and there is no likelihood of the curtain coming down in the near future.
There are no winners in the Middle East, but Israel, or more properly the Israeli government, is arguably the only beneficiary of the continuing turmoil. It has served as a distraction from the even longer-running Palestinian question—a question that is now a hundred years old. Contrary to the expectations of some, neither the so-called Arab Spring (remember that?) nor the Syrian war across Israel’s border has provoked another intifada. There are sporadic terrorist acts, but Israel’s security hasn’t been seriously threatened, and there is little danger that it will be. On the contrary, Israel has tightened its hold on the West Bank. New settlements continue to be built on Arab land, and Palestinians’ movements are ever more strictly controlled. The fabled two-state solution, which seemed possible a generation ago at the time of the Oslo Agreement, is further away now, as far away as it has ever been. Nobody is pressing Israel to work toward it, and no matter whether the next American president is Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, nobody is going to do so.
It is, as I say, a hundred years now since the British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour issued that declaration promising a national home for Jews in the Holy Land; a national home, not a state. It was one of these rash promises made in a time of war, made irresponsibly because it was then a promise that Britain was not in a position to fulfill. Jews had been immigrating—returning—to Palestine for at least thirty years, but Palestine was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1914–15 the government of that empire had foolishly allied itself with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). Britain then financed and armed the Arab Revolt, and in 1918 the centuries-old Ottoman Empire collapsed. Turkey became a republic; Kemal Ataturk made it a secular one. Arab kingdoms were established in Jordan and Iraq. The League of Nations granted France a mandate over Syria, Britain a mandate over Palestine. The British mandate would last a quarter of a century, and the British tried, with only intermittent success, to hold the balance between the Jews and Arabs. Jewish immigration after the Nazi takeover in Germany made this increasingly difficult.
After 1945, after the Holocaust, Balfour’s “national home” no longer satisfied Jewish aspirations, understandably. They wanted a Jewish state, the only means of guaranteeing Jewish security. A combination of Jewish terrorism, Britain’s postwar exhaustion and indebtedness, and American hostility toward European imperialism led the Labour government in Britain to throw in its hand and pass responsibility for a settlement to the United Nations. The first two-state solution was then enforced: the creation of the state of Israel, with the West Bank becoming part of the kingdom of what was then Transjordan, and Jerusalem a divided city. An immediate Arab attempt to destroy the new state of Israel was defeated. Many Arabs fled the new Israel, or were expelled, losing homes and property; their descendants still claim a “right to return,” unlikely ever to be granted.
This settlement held for almost twenty years. Then in 1967 Arab states, still refusing to grant Israel legitimacy, made another attempt to destroy the Jewish state. The Six-Day War resulted in a crushing Israeli victory, the occupation of the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, and the Sinai Peninsula. At this time public opinion in the U.S., Britain, and Western Europe was firmly pro-Israel. The perception was of gallant little Israel, the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, defying Arab monarchies and dictatorships seeking to destroy it. Israel was on the right side in the Cold War; the Arabs, looking to the Soviet Union for aid and arms, on the wrong one.
This perception held, pretty securely, throughout the Cold War. It has withered in the past quarter century. Israel retains many staunch defenders, and defense of Israel seems to many even more necessary because of the rise of fanatical Islamism (though there is little evidence of this among the Palestinians). On the other hand, the Palestinian cause has been adopted by many in the West, mostly, though not only, on the left. There are boycotts of Israeli academics and some Israeli products, though these appear to have little effect. It’s fair to say that many now regard what was once “gallant little Israel” with dislike and disapproval; it is often described as “an apartheid state” imposing intolerable restrictions and hardship on the subject Palestinians. Israel may appear dominant, but there is a siege mentality there. The two-state solution lacks credibility and will continue to lack it until the Muslim world unequivocally accepts Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist. So there is no movement. Things remain frozen and will certainly remain frozen so long as Israel is confident that in the last resort it will have the support of the United States.
Why, you may ask, rehearse all this history, some of it now ancient? And what has it to do with the wider condition of the Middle East, with the wars in Syria and Iraq, the aspirations of the Kurds, the uncertain future of Turkey, and the fears and ambitions of Iran?
Well, first we should always realize and remember that political actions have unintended consequences. Britain had no intention of fostering a Jewish state when the Balfour Declaration was made. It may seem obvious now that the promise of a national home for the Jews must lead to demands for a Jewish state. But things looked different, and were seen differently, a hundred years ago. It was still the age of empire, and imperial powers like Britain and France were accustomed to ruling territories in which different national and religious groups lived side by side. Indeed the collapsing Ottoman Empire, parts of which Britain and France were taking over, had been an example of such diversity; it was a polity in which different peoples cohabited. So it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that Jews and Arabs might find a means of living together, or side by side, under the impartial rule of the British Mandate.
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