The state of Israel has long suffered a difficult relationship with its Arab neighbours and a look at its history provides a clue as to the reason why. The Balfour declaration of 1917 marks a significant turning point. The declaration favoured the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. That declaration was made without reference to the wishes or views of the overwhelmingly Arab population of the region.
In 1945 the United States president Franklin Roosevelt assured the Arabs that the United States would not intervene in Middle East affairs without consulting both the Arabs and Jews in the region. The British, who held a colonial mandate for Palestine at the time, was opposed to the creation of both a Jewish state and an Arab state in the region. The British also opposed unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees in the region.
Such immigration had a powerful emotional content given that the Jewish population of Europe had suffered enormously under the Nazis who ruled Germany from 1932 to 1945. The Jewish population of Poland had suffered tremendous losses during the war and with the Communist takeover of Poland in 1945 there was broad sympathy for their cause.
The death of Roosevelt in 1945 led to a change in the American position. His successor, Harry Truman, was more sympathetic to the Jewish wish to establish a homeland in Palestine. Truman established a committee in 1946 charged with the responsibility of discerning the future of Palestine. On May 20 1946 Truman announced his approval of the admission of 100,000 displaced persons into Palestine, overwhelmingly Jewish. In October of that year Truman publicly declared his support for the creation of a Jewish state. In that decision he was heavily influenced by the powerful Jewish lobby and the power it held in both the House and the Senate.
The matter also came before the fledgeling United Nations which in 1947 recommended the partition of Palestine into both a Jewish and an Arab state. On 29 November 1947 the United Nations adopted resolution 181 (known as the Petition Resolution) aimed at dividing the British mandated property into a Jewish and an Arab state. The resolution was to come into effect in May 1948 when the British occupation of Palestine was scheduled to end. Jerusalem was intended to maintain a separate status under international administration controlled by the United Nations.
On 14 May 1948 David Ben Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. On the same day Truman decided to recognise the State of Israel, contrary to what had been Roosevelt’s plan. It marked the beginning of what may fairly be described as a special relationship between the United States and Israel that persists to the present day. Israel receives the unwavering support of the United States in the United Nations Security Council, that is protecting it from what would otherwise be the natural consequences of its behaviour.
That behaviour includes a record of unmatched aggression against its neighbours. The following is a summary of that behaviour which began in 1948 with the establishment of the State of Israel and continues to the present day with Israeli attacks upon the State of Syria despite there being no declaration of war.
- 1948 Arab-Israeli war November 1947 to July 1948.
- Palestinian insurgency 1950s and 1960s.
- October 1956 The Suez Crisis when Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt following Egypt’s decision of 20 July 1956 to nationalize the Suez Canal. The USA and USSR forced Israel to retreat.
- July 1967 The Six Day War. This was between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The result was a significant expansion of Israel’s territory (the West Bank including East Jerusalem from Jordan, the Golan Heights from Syria, Sinai and Gaza from Egypt.
- The War of Attrition 1967-1970 between Israel and Egypt.
- October 1973 The Yom Kippur War. Israel won, but there were no significant territorial changes.
- 1982 Israel invaded Lebanon to expel the PLO from the territory. The PLO were expelled from Lebanon and the latter established an Israeli security zone in southern Lebanon.
- 1987-1993 The First Intafada with a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
- 2000-2005 The Second Intafada.
- 2006 The Lebanon War. The result was a stalemate.
- December 2008-January 2009 Operation Cast Lead. Israel withdrew from Gaza.
- November 2012 Israel attacked Gaza.
- July-August 2014 Another Israeli military offensive against Gaza.
- 2021 Ongoing conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Of these multiple confrontations with its neighbours, perhaps the one of most significance is the conflict with Syria. During the 1968 war Israel seized the Syrian territory of the Golan Heights. It is a fundamental principle of international law the land captured in a battle may not be retained by the occupying power once the conflict is ended.
Israel has been in violation of that principle and thanks primarily to United States support in the United Nations does not feel under any pressure to vacate that territory. The Trump administration came very close to recognising the permanency of Israel’s illegal occupation of the Golan Heights. His successor, Joe Biden, shows absolutely no preference for pressuring Israel to vacate the stolen land it has now occupied for 53 years.
The other violations of Syrian sovereignty are the bombing of targets in Syria by the Israeli Air Force. Again, this is a fundamental breach of international law. One of the most interesting developments has been evidence that Russian tolerance of that bombing has reached the point where it is no longer prepared to look the other way.
The Syrian defence system has been very successful in intercepting the rockets fired by Israeli planes, commonly from over Lebanese territory. That air defence system has been supplied by the Russians. Russia has recently made it clear to the Israelis that this bombing is unacceptable from multiple points of view, not least their blatant disregard for international law.
It will be interesting to see whether the Russians take their displeasure at this blatant aggression by the Israelis a step further and mount some form of retaliation. That will create a very interesting situation in the region. The hope is that the Russian warning will be sufficient to deter the Israelis from extending their campaign.
There remain a number of unsettled issues in the region, and the return to Syria of its Golan Heights territory is high on the agenda. The apparent withdrawing of Russian tolerance for Israel’s behaviour may be the catalyst of some long overdue changes in the region.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based former Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.