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A brief history of modern Israel

The state of Israel ends up in world news in a frequency well beyond what would make sense for a country the size of New Jersey. No matter the reason for this, it is important to understand the rather weird history of modern Israel to appreciate more accurately the possible solutions to what has proven to be a particularly difficult problem. Here is an attempt to provide the history of the modern state of Israel in a nutshell. Although I readily acknowledge my bias in favor of the Israeli Jews, I will do my best to be evenhanded in presenting the facts.

Let’s go back to the early 1900s. There’s a vague land area called Palestine, which is a sort of administrative outpost of the Ottoman empire. The Ottoman empire gets beaten in World War One and gets chopped up by the British and the French. The French hang out in Syria and Lebanon and the British get Egypt, Palestine, Iraq and a bunch of other areas. They each create a number of countries, which are essentially client-states of the respective European powers. Since each of the “states” had, since the 1500s or so until WWI, simply been Ottoman, each of these states are, to some degree, modern constructs. However, most of them contain people which are already a “nation.”

What constitutes a “people” or a “nation”? Typical hallmarks are common language, common culture, etc. For example, Turks are not ethnically Arab. That differentiates them from many other Muslims in the Middle East. Syria, Lebanon and Egypt each have distinct dialects of Arabic. The Muslims who lived in the area known as Palestine didn’t have a distinct identity as “Palestinian” at this time, but were, instead, Syrian (in the north), Iraqi (to the west) and so forth.

Britain doesn’t make the area called Palestine its own state. Instead, it engages in a little double dealing. In a document called the Balfour Declaration, issued in 1917, the British secretary of state declares that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may 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.” This Declaration, one of the culminations of Zionist lobbying of the British and other world governments, will go on to make the British wish they’d never heard of the stupid Middle East.

Then, in 1922, it thanks one of the leaders of the Hashemites (which is a tribe of Arabs said to be descended directly from Muhammad and which is in charge of the holy places of Islam) for helping the British in WWI by making him king of a new country called Trans-Jordan (later shortened to just Jordan), which comprises about three fourths of the area of Palestine.

OK, scene change. Shift to France in the late 1800s. In 1894, papers discovered in a wastebasket contain evidence that a French officer was providing secret information to the German government. Suspicion falls upon a Jewish French Army captain named Alfred Dreyfus, who, in a trial riddled with anti-Semitism, is eventually convicted and exiled to Devil’s Island. (He is later exonerated thanks in part to the novelist Emile Zola.) Covering the trial is a Viennese journalist named Theodore Herzl. Herzl is a non-religious Jew raised in the German-Jewish secular enlightenment of the time. He had dealt with the existence of anti-Semitism earlier in his career and wrote a pamphlet encouraging the Jews to assimilate into the population at large to reduce anti-Semitism. After the Dreyfus Affair, however, he changes his mind and decides that the problem is national — the Jews, although having the hallmarks of a nation (common language of Hebrew, common culture, common religion, etc.) are without a state and the only way anti-Semitism will cease to be a problem is if the Jews establish a state with the consent of the great powers and the dispersed Jews move there en masse. He publishes a book called The Jewish State in 1896.

Herzl was not the first guy to come up with a Zionist idea. On the contrary, Jews had been praying for a return to Israel since the great Jewish dispersal in 70 C.E. by the Romans. The final words of every Passover Seder are “Next Year In Jerusalem.” There had been attempts to rally support for a return to Israel several times throughout the centuries, but for some reason Herzl’s book caught fire. The Zionist idea picked up considerable support among the Jews of the time, especially in Eastern Europe, where Jews had been busy getting killed in pogroms by the czarist Cossacks for years and were getting a little tired of it. Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, where the purpose of Zionism was declared: “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” Herzl met with the Ottoman, German and British governments, among others and tried to get support for the concept.

The British proposed a counter-concept, a Jewish autonomous region in East Uganda. After seeing the catastrophic massacres and rapes of Jews in Russia during the Kishinev pogrom in 1903, Herzl proposed the Uganda solution to the Zionist congress as a temporary measure, making it clear, however, that it did not alter the ultimate Zionist aim, a Jewish state in Palestine. The Seventh Zionist Congress, after a fairly stormy debate, rejected the offer. The Jewish people had no connection to Uganda and it wasn’t Israel. Herzl died in 1904, but the modern Zionist movement now had a life of its own.

All this time, the Zionist Congress, along with some wealthy sponsor Jews, had been buying land in Palestine from the Ottoman caliphs who owned the land. In 1909 the first Kibbutz, Deganiah, was founded, as was the first all-Jewish city, Tel Aviv.

OK, now we’ve caught back up to the Balfour Declaration. Jewish leaders are a little cranky that only five years after the Balfour Declaration, the British created an Arab country out of 75 percent of the original Palestinian mandate land, but they get over it. Meanwhile, a little friction is beginning between the Arabs and the Jews living in the 25 percent remaining of Palestine. One of the main problems is that the Jews bought the land from Ottoman caliphs, who were essentially absentee landlords who didn’t really know or care if anyone was living, working or otherwise hanging out on the land they were selling to the Jews, who would come, deed in hand and discover that Arabs had essentially homesteaded the land the Jews had paid for. This led to friction, as the Jews had legal rights to the land, but the homesteading Arabs were understandably miffed about having their land sold out from under them. The practical object of their wrath were the Jewish settlements, which were attacked regularly by the Arabs.

Hitler comes to power in 1933 and initially “encourages” Jews to emigrate from Germany. Britain, meanwhile, is getting pressure from the Arab states to reverse its policy and, especially as World War Two approaches, access to Arab oil (along with some genteel anti-Semitic views popular in Whitehall) causes the British, under Neville Chamberlain, to publish the White Paper of 1939, severely curtailing Jewish immigration into Palestine, on the eve of the Holocaust.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, along with many of the other Arab leaders, sided with Hitler during WWII, finding common cause, in part, with Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. After WWII and the destruction of the majority of European Jewry, many of the survivors try to make their way to Palestine. The Jewish community of Palestine organizes agencies for immigration into Israel — the small number permitted under the White Paper and the vast majority, illegal, coordinated by the “Mossad Aliyah Bet,” which will evolve later into the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad. (The part of your Mossad Aliyah Bet representative will be played in the movie by Paul Newman.)

The British authorities, still under Arab pressure, intercept many of the Jewish refugees and send them to internment camps on Cyprus. Eventually, the British tire of the whole administration thing, throw up their hands and say to the U.N., “You figure it out, we’re leaving.” The U.N. votes in 1947 to partition the portion of Palestine that’s not now Jordan and create a Jewish state and an Arab state, motivated, in part, by the need to find a home for the refugees caused by the Holocaust. The Jews are not really happy with the solution — the proposed borders are difficult to defend — but they accept the offer.

The Arabs reject the offer and say that as soon as the British leave the land, they’re going to sweep down and push the Jews into the sea. The Grand Mufti, along with the leaders of the Arab states, exhorts the Arabs in the area to leave temporarily, so that they don’t get in the way of the glorious Arab armies in their sweep to the sea. Many Arab families leave their houses to go to temporary settlements out of the way of the attacks, secure in the knowledge that they will soon be able to return and will also get to share in the land and settlements that will be left behind by the soon-to-be dead Jews.

On May 14, 1948, the British officially resign their position as administrators of Palestine. The Jews promptly declare the state of Israel to exist, as permitted by U.N. resolution. The U.S. and Soviet Union recognize the new Jewish state within an hour. Five Arab states — Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon — immediately launch a coordinated attack against the new state. Unexpectedly for the Arab leaders and despite the significant quantitative advantage of the Arabs, the Jews win the war. Armistice agreements are signed with Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. (Iraq is still, to this day, technically in active hostilities with the state of Israel from the 1948-1949 war.)

The Arabs who left their land at the urging of the Arab leaders are now in a bit of a pickle. They can’t really return to the land they fled as it is now controlled by their hated enemies. So they remain in what were supposed to be temporary refugee camps in assorted Arab lands, mainly in Jordan (the “West Bank”) and Egypt (the “Gaza Strip”). The camps also can’t be turned into permanent settlements, because ceasing their status as temporary would acknowledge the fact that Israel is there to stay, instead of just a temporary annoyance. So they’re stuck in fairly wretched conditions.

At this point, Jordan controls the Old City of Jerusalem and what is known as the West Bank. All Jews are expelled, Jewish holy places are desecrated and Jews are forbidden to go to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.

[Ed. Note — the following was published as "Part II" of the series in the November 2018 print edition of the Charleston Mercury]

In 1965, the Palestine Liberation Organization is founded, constituting the first significant movement on behalf of distinctly “Palestinian” Arabs and agitating for an Arab state in “Palestine.” It is important to note that in 1965, this means only the land comprising the state of Israel, as no attempt is made to take any portion of Jordan, Syria or Egypt for the Palestinians, including the West Bank and Gaza, which belong, at this time, to Jordan and Egypt, respectively and the original PLO charter explicitly disclaims any portion of territory controlled by Jordan or Egypt.

Then comes 1967. Responding to military buildups and warlike moves on the part of Egypt and Syria, Israel launches preemptive strikes against them. Jordan joins Egypt and Syria and attacks Israel, despite Israel’s pleas to Jordan to stay out of it. Thanks mainly to extremely good intelligence, Israel wins the war in six days, taking control of huge amounts of territory belonging to Jordan, Egypt and Syria, including the Old City of Jerusalem and what’s known as the West Bank, the Sinai desert and the Golan Heights. Israel formally annexes the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Sinai, but in a stunning miscalculation, chooses to leave certain portions of the conquered territories under military administration, assuming that Jordan and Egypt will sue for peace in return for the conquered land and there will finally be peace. Unfortunately, the Egyptians and Jordanians are pretty happy not having to worry about the pain-in-the-ass refugees and screw up the plan by not doing so.

Israel now has an interesting problem. Obtaining control over the West Bank gives them some much needed strategic land depth, as the original 1949 armistice agreements put Jewish population centers in some cases just nine miles from a hostile border, but Israel is now stuck administering the territories. A whole lot of Arabs are still in “refugee camps,” which have become basically cities with lousy plumbing. Israeli administration improves the conditions in the camps to some degree, but the Arabs are still stuck there under military administration rather than managing their own affairs.

There’s another conventional war in 1973 (begun by a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar), which doesn’t go very well for anybody, but the Israelis do eventually win. Meanwhile, the PLO and other Palestinian groups have, throughout this time, been engaging in terrorist attacks, including hijackings and other attacks on civilians, both inside and out of Israel. The popular image of the conflict begins to change in the view of the world and what used to be called the “Arab-Israeli conflict” now starts to be known as the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict.

In 1979, following Sadat’s courageous flight to Jerusalem to speak before the Israeli Knesset and the Camp David accords, Egypt and Israel sign a peace treaty, in return for Israel giving the Sinai back to Egypt. Egypt, incidentally, rejected the Gaza Strip. Jews begin to move into settlements and other portions of the territories, including the areas of Bethlehem, Hebron and other historically and religiously important areas to Jews.

In the 1980s, the first intifada starts in the territories, constituting the first extremely serious Arab uprising against the Israeli military administration. One of the reasons for the timing, it has been posited, is the aging to maturity of an entire group of individuals who have lived their entire life under the Israelis and at no time living under the rather untender mercies of the Arab states.

In 2000, Ehud Barak offered nearly 98 percent of the territories for a Palestinian state: This offer was rejected by the PLO and a new and reinvigorated intifada was initiated, including a lot of attacks against Israeli civilians, even within Israel proper. In 2005, Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli forces from Gaza and forcibly removed all Jews living in the Gaza strip. It didn't work out very well. Hamas destroyed almost all of the infrastructure Israel had built and left intact and took control of Gaza in elections. With Israeli forces gone, Gaza has become the source of many missile and, of late, fire bomb attacks on Israeli border towns. In the West Bank, we have the unpleasant situation of a group of Arabs who identify themselves as Palestinians who, while the Palestinian Authority has day-to-day authority over the Arab areas, ultimately remain under Israeli government administration. They view themselves, now, as distinct from Jordanians, Egyptians, or Syrians and they want a place to hang their hats.

What is the way forward? Ideological issues abound. The West Bank is now the home for many Jews and is the site of many historical events (biblical and otherwise) that should not be summarily dismissed. The Palestinians, now identifying as a people of their own, view themselves as displaced and disenfranchised. However, though ideological issues exist on both sides, it is likely the Palestinian narrative that is the largest barrier to a permanent agreement. A significant problem facing the peace process is the schism among the Palestinian Arabs themselves. Although the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority is generally recognized by Israel and the international community as the representative authority to negotiate on behalf of Palestinian Arabs, Hamas and other, more radical groups are still strong and Fatah, even were they willing to negotiate, does not have complete latitude to make a deal. Its ability to enforce agreements and ensure that Palestinians who may not agree do not violate the security guarantees that will be an inevitable part of any such deal is very low.

At this point, it remains an unfortunate stalemate. The conflict, previously a conventional state vs. state confrontation, has become a conflict consisting of the conventional Israeli army, bound by international norms of conduct and non-state adversaries such as Hamas and other irregular groups that engage in terrorist acts and guerilla warfare, mainly against the Israeli home front. Traditional “military decision” refers to the ability to prevent an enemy from continuing the fighting. Although it was possible to achieve at least some degree of military decision against the state actors during the earlier wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, it is difficult to achieve a military decision against non-state actors without the use of extreme disproportionate force, something that the international community views with disfavor, especially when it comes from Israel.

Absurdist claims that Israel engages in “colonialism,” “apartheid” and “genocide” by those who claim to be pro-Palestinian are not only fundamentally wrong and ahistorical, they significantly reduce the chances for any sort of peaceful settlement. Despite the bumper-sticker foreign policy prescriptions of those who airily advise the Israelis to simply “give the land to the Palestinians,” the Israelis hold both an ancient and modern legitimate claim to the land of Israel and from a practical standpoint, they will not simply endanger the lives of the six million people who live in the land of Israel. Unless and until the Palestinians can coalesce behind a unified leadership that can plausibly promise that the modern state of Israel is legitimate and can be secure, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can have the lives they deserve.

David A. Kaufman is a commercial real estate lawyer in New York. He also does stand-up comedy and is a proud member of the Friars Club, because his parents told him he needed something to fall back on if law didn’t work out.

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