(May 27, 2011) The world’s dependence on Israel’s enemies is dwindling.
‘We cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace,” President Barack Obama said Sunday, referring to the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow. Delay will undermine Israel’s security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.”
President Obama has it backwards. Time is very much on Israel’s side. In 10 years, the free world’s dependence on Israel’s enemies will likely have lessened immensely and the extraordinary challenges facing Israel will likely have diminished immensely. Peace will then have a chance.
Much of the world now sides with the Palestinians and not Israel. Some do so because they believe the United Nations was wrong to establish a Jewish state on what they viewed as Arab lands after the Second World War. Some do so out of sympathy for the millions of Palestinian refugees who remain homeless decades after Israel was established. Some believe Israel has treated Palestinians badly. Some sympathize with the underdog. Some simply are anti-Semitic.
And most, I submit, hold their views in good part because they are afraid. They believe the West must reach an accommodation with an often violent Islamic world. And they know that Islamic countries have an outsized influence over world energy markets and directly affect them whenever they fill their car up at the gas station.
In the decades after the United Nations established the state of Israel, Israel was popular in the Western world, seen as a plucky little country that, against all odds, had defeated the combined armies of eight invading Arab nations. The Academy Award winning 1960 movie, Exodus, starring Paul Newman, portrayed Israel heroically, as generally did the Western press. The U.K.’s Guardian, now anti-Israel, was early on a fierce supporter. So, too, were most other European and North American media outlets. Among the most influential of writers was one Robert Kennedy, Middle East correspondent for The Boston Post and a passionate defender of Israel’s cause. His ongoing support for Israel, and his influence in liberal circles, would make him the first U.S. casualty of Arab terrorism — he was assassinated in 1968 by Palestinian Sirhan Sirhan while campaigning to be president. Kennedy had promised that, if elected, he would supply Israel with 50 fighter jets to ensure its continued survival.
The West in those first decades following Israel’s creation did not blame Israel for the many Palestinian Arabs kept in refugee camps — it blamed Israel’s Arab neighbours for refusing to take them in, unlike Israel which had welcomed the almost one million Jewish refugees who had been expelled from Muslim lands.
The West then also did not blame Israel for the Arabs’ continued belligerence against Israel, whose UN-established borders Arab nations refused to recognize. The West saw Israel as a democracy and as an idealistic member of the Socialist International; it saw the major Arab countries as backward military dictatorships, allied with the communist Soviet Union and overtly hostile to Western interests.
Israel lost its reputation as an underdog on June 5, 1967, when in six days it defeated the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It did not lose its popularity with the public and the press, however. In 1969, when president Charles De Gaulle tried to regain France’s former influence in the Arab world by reversing France’s long-standing military support for Israel, “De Gaulle came under stinging attack for his anti-Israel policies from the once subservient French press,” Time magazine reported. “In an unprecedented demonstration of unanimous scorn, French newspaper reporters boycotted the Information Ministry’s regular Wednesday briefing in what amounted to a direct snub of the general himself.”
Israel’s loss of popularity would come four years later, after a surprise attack by Egypt and Syria known as the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel survived that war, the fourth Arab-Israeli War in 25 years, but its popularity didn’t. The Egyptian-Syrian strategy included an agreement with Saudi Arabia to use the “oil weapon” — an embargo of oil shipments to the West. This embargo, begun during the war and now known as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis, led to skyrocketing oil prices that hit Western consumers at the pump and at home — oil was then commonly used in home heating.
Popular opinion in Europe soon swung decisively against Israel. The 1979 OPEC oil crisis, which saw further dramatic price increases, deepened the West’s sense that it was dependant on Middle East oil and furthered the swing. By then, the West had other reasons, too, to feel burdened by its relationship with Israel. The Arabs of the region had a charismatic new leader — Egyptian-born Yasser Arafat — and a new identity as a people — the newly coined “Palestinians” — and a new organization to represent them — the Palestinian Liberation Organization. (Before then, the Arabs in Palestine, overwhelmingly immigrants from neighbouring Arab lands or their children, hadn’t seen themselves as a nation. As the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations told the UN General Assembly in 1947, in arguing against the creation of either a Jewish or an Arab state in Palestine, “Palestine was part of the Province of Syria… the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity.”)
Under Arafat, a motivated PLO became the world’s pre-eminent terrorist organization, hijacking planes, taking hostages and killing Westerners when its demands weren’t met (among its demands was the release of Sirhan Sirhan, whom some believe killed Kennedy on Arafat’s’s direct orders). Adding to the burden, numerous other terrorist agencies soon followed its path, among them al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and various Muslim states such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In Europe, especially, the desire to appease the Muslim world became strong. There in the past decade, and now in the United States under the Obama administration, the belief has grown that an end to turmoil throughout the Middle East, and thus the secure energy supply that Western economies need, depend on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
That belief will likely soon wane for a number of reasons. Chief among them, as I will argue next week, will be an emerging new world energy order, Israel’s pre-eminent role in that new order, and the effect on global security of that new order.