Conflict Begets Conflict: the evolution of Arab attitudes, policies, and strategies in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Since its beginnings, the Arab-Israeli Conflict has been through several phases of distinctive characteristic foreign policies, political attitudes, and strategies. Through a number of monumental defining events—including the major wars—shifts in policies, strategies, and attitude took place, marking transition between these phases. In this essay, I argue that the climate of the Arab-Israeli Conflict can be characterized by four historic phases after an initial period of indecision: Arab Nationalism and Defiance, Resistance and Refusal, Palestinian Armed Resistance, and then a Phase of Contradictions, starring two Arab camps with a widening gap, one entering the Peace, Negotiation, and Reconciliation phase, and the other entering the Islamic Resistance phase.

Background: Setting the Stage

The Palestine Question was a concern to the Middle East and International Community since the 1920s. The Arab response to the Zionist movement wad under debate in the period, and was first solidified in 1948 with the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Arab War the next day.

Contending Visions

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Arab intellectuals responded differently to the Jewish immigration movement, Zionism, and news of the Balfour Declaration.

One camp of Arabs was the Hashemites, who had aspirations for a unified pan-Arab Kingdom. Faisal is a noteworthy example; writing that Arabs and Jews are “cousins in race”, and stating he “looks with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement.” (Friedman, 2000, p. 228) Furthermore, in Article III of the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement of 1919, Faisal, as the representative of the Arabs, agrees to the Balfour Declaration, and commits to the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, “provided the Arabs obtain their independence as demanded […]” (Smith, 2009, pp. 98-9).

Other Arab nationalists, however, viewed Faisal as a traitor for “abandoning Palestine”. Though Smith points out that Faisal’s agreement was based on the fact that “the Jews did not propose to set up a government of their own but wished to work under British protection to colonize and develop Palestine without encroaching on any legitimate interests.”  (Smith, 2009, p. 78) Indeed, Balfour’s vague statement promised the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, not to reconstitute Palestine as a Jewish state.

Still, other Arab Nationalists vehemently opposed such discourse with Zionists. Many clashes within Palestine took place between Arab and Jewish groups over considerations including land, freedom of religion, and an Arab belief that the Zionists and Jews were encroaching on their rights. Such clashes began with the Western Wall Riots of 1929 (Smith, 2009, p. 129).

Within Palestine, two distinctive families of urban notables lead public opinion. One such family with the Nashashibis, a wealthy and notable family of Jerusalem that included, amongst others, Raghib Nashashibi, who was the Mayor of Jerusalem between 1920 and 1934 (Jewish Virtual Library, n.d.). The Nashashibis were known to be friendlier to the Jewish communities and more flexible in terms of dealing with Zionism, compared to other groups (Smith, 2009, p. 113).

Another family is the Husseinis, of whom Hajj Amin Al-Husseini was the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Husseini opposed Nashashibi and was more anti-Zionist in sentiment. Husseini continued to drift away from Nashashibi’s attitude, eventually forging a relationship with German Nazi Leader Adolf Hitler, and adopting a similar, albeit more dilute, anti-Semitic rhetoric. (Smith, 2009, p. 176)

The Road to Consensus

As the situation progressed, it was clear that both Arabs and Jews rejected the status quo. The Zionists wanted a Jewish State and vehemently opposed one state solution proposals, including the British 1939 White Paper (Smith, 2009, p. 147). And, the Arabs were increasingly dissatisfied with Arab-Jewish conflicts taking place, culminating at the 1936 Arab Revolt in Palestine.

The concept of Partition was initially introduced in the Peel Commission Report of 1937, which “concluded that partition [is] the only possible solution to the Arab-Jewish strife and the conflicting promises the British had made” (Smith, 2009, p. 157). The recommendation, however, was rejected by the Arabs; all references to an “Arab state”, both in Peel and subsequent reports implied an Arab state under Hashemite leadership. This further explains Nashashibi’s support to the plan and Husseini’s rejection. By 1940, it was clear that the Arab Leadership rejects partition, in favor of defiance of the Zionist plan.

Solidification of Consensus (1948-1951)

After Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas of the Wafd party took office, he was determined to include Egypt in the Arab unity movements (Smith, 2009, p. 178). While the Hashemites were initially ahead in their Arab unity agenda, with “fertile crescent” unit schemes that specifically exclude Egypt, the tables soon turned. Conflicts within this camp, especially between Syrians on one side and Iraqis and Transjordanians on another, in addition to Saudi and Egyptian campaigns ultimately lead to the stagnation of these plans. Instead, Egypt emerged as the leading state that managed to impose its own version of Arab unity, first agreed upon in the Alexandria Protocol of 1944. The Palestine Question was made central to the protocol (Smith, 2009, pp. 178-9).

Though groups including the Hashemites initially opposed the Arab League idea, instead opting for a federal solution to Arab Unity, they reluctantly joined. With the creation of the Arab League in 1945, a unified stance towards Zionism and the Jewish statehood movement formed. After discourse took place in the Arab League on the issue, and the final consensus was clear: a rejection of Zionism as a solution to the Jewish problem in Europe, and defiance to the Jewish statehood aspirations in Palestine. In that spirit, the United Nations Partition Plane of 1947 was rejected by the Arabs.

One day after Israel’s declaration of independence, on May 15, 1948, Arabs moved their armies to retrieve lands claimed by the nascent Israeli state. The “general secretariat of the Arab League proclaimed a state of war exists between the Arab League nations and Palestine Jewry.” As such, an official Transjordanian communique announced that armies had moved to “liberate the Holy Land from Zionism”; Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese troops also entered Israel. (Schenectady Gazette, 1948)

Enter Nasser: Arab Nationalism and Defiance (1952-1967)

In 1952, Egypt’s Free Officers Movement successfully carried out a coup d’état against Egypt’s King Farouk, declaring Egypt a republic. While Egypt’s first President was Mohammad Naguib, General Gamal Abdel Nasser outmaneuvered Naguib and landed the presidency 1954 (Marsot, 1985, p. 108). The charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose Nasserist, Socialist Arab Nationalism ideology and rhetoric made him popular amongst the Egyptian proletariat, was quickly gaining momentum in popularity amongst all Arabs throughout the region. Nasser preached ideals of anti-Colonialism, anti-Westernism, and stronger Arab unity. Nasser’s abrasive tactics, especially utilizing Egypt’s “Voice of the Arabs” radio channel to “beam powerful message[s] to Arab lands, attacking […] [others] which did not endorse […] Egyptian policy”, (Marsot, 1985, p. 111) resonated with the disillusioned Arab masses. Through the Voice of the Arabs, Nasser’s escalated his rhetoric, turning it into a “violent condemnation of Israel” (Smith, 2009, p. 234). Nasser and Israel’s mutual hostility increased with numerous events, including the Lavon Affair, Gaza Raid, and the Czech Arms deal (Smith, 2009, pp. 237-8).

The seminal moment of Nasser’s career, his influence, and Arab Nationalism was the Nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956. The nationalization was seen as one of the first real exercises of sovereignty from foreign and colonial influence by any Arab leader. The nationalization of the Suez sparked the 1956 Tripartite War, an Israeli-French-British attack on Egypt, much to the dismay of other countries including the United States. The Tripartite War ended with an Egyptian military defeat but a large political victory for Nasser; the attack “provided many Arabs with clear evidence of continuing Western imperial collusion with Israel to seek to impose outside control on […] the Arab World. […] The […] crisis and Nasser’s defiance greatly enhanced his status as an Arab hero.” (Smith, 2009, p. 249)

After the Suez nationalization and showdown, Nasser’s momentum was threatening to other Arab leaders. In 1957, a failed coup d’état against Hussein of Jordan took place, almost displacing the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and leading the king to declare martial law. In 1958, a bloody coup d’état succeeded in Iraq, which resulted in the execution of Faisal II of Iraq and a Republic of Iraq under socialist Arab Nationalists. In Syria, pressure from Egypt lead to the creation of the United Arab Republic, an Egyptian-Syrian unified state under Nasser.

In this period, Arab defiance of Israel gains momentum, and becomes more and more coupled with military defiance. Then, an idea gained momentum: Palestine in its whole was Arab and had to be recovered. This formed the basis of the foundation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964. Many in the Arab world viewed the PLO as a threat; on the one hand, likes of Hajj Amin al-Husseini viewed it as a weak alternative to an all-out extermination of the occupier, on the other, the Jordanians, specifically Hussein, viewed this as an attempt to marginalize the Jordanian state, which included the West Bank, and 60% of its citizenship at that time were West Bank Palestinians (Smith, 2009, pp. 270-1). Needless to say, strong support from the ever-more-popular Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well as Nasserist Syrian and Iraqi allies ensured the creation of the PLO (Smith, 2009, p. 271).

In 1967, after tensions between Israel and states like Egypt and Syria, Nasser began escalations against Israel. By placing troops near the Israeli border in Sinai, removing UN peacekeeping troops from the region, and signing a mutual defense pact with Hussein of Jordan, Nasser felt ready to retaliate with war to any Israeli attack (Smith, 2009, pp. 280-1). Due to Nasser’s popularity, Nasser, in many ways, imposed the war on the region, along with his Syrian allies. But the war was fought and lost in six days. The result was catastrophic; Egypt lost the Sinai and Gaza Strip, Syria lost the Golan Heights, and Jordan lost the entirety of the West Bank, including Jerusalem (Smith, 2009, p. 286).

Resistance and Refusal (1967-1973)

In the wake of the decisive Arab defeat, Arab Heads of State convened in Khartoum, Sudan, for a conference on the ramifications of the war. The resolution of the Khartoum conference resulted in the historic “Three No’s”: No Peace, No Recognition, and No Negotiation with Israel. The Khartoum resolution was a compromise: One clause was supported by Hussein and Nasser, calling Arab states to “unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to […] ensure the withdrawal of […] Israeli forces from […] lands […] occupied since the aggression”; and another listing the three no’s as a condition with which the Arab states must abide by during their efforts (Smith, 2009, p. 303).

Nasser’s attitude after the 1967 war was a big shift compared to his attitude prior: he was prepared to give de facto recognition to Israel and pursue diplomatic means for Israel’s withdrawal. (Smith, 2009, p. 303) Still, the attitude of those Nasser influenced and inspired before the war, remained the same; hence the three no’s, and hence the period of Resistance and Refusal begins.

Islamic Movements Begin

With Nasser’s decline as an outspoken proponent of resistance and refusal, and with the disillusionment of the masses with Arab Nationalism and secularism, a new surrogate ideology for resistance and refusal was needed. “Islam is the Solution,” proclaimed many; returning to the pious and glorious status of the Islamic Umma seemed like a good strategy to many. Lisbeth Lindeborg claims that the “humiliation of the Six-Day War in 1967 [against Israel] gave rise to a repoliticization of Islam with “revolt against the West” as the leading train of thought”. Militant Islamic movements, including those of Sayyid Qutb, gained popularity. (Lindeborg, 2002)

The Muslim Brotherhood, being a grassroots organization entrenched into society with its social programs, had the capacity and the baseline popularity to grow with such trends. While Nasser largely succeeded in suppressing the Brotherhood between 1952 and 1967, the renewed interest in political Islam after the war led the Muslim Brotherhood to resume its growth.

Palestinian Resistance Gaining Ground

Resistance and Refusal did also continue in secular circles under the auspices of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, as well as other Palestinian guerilla factions. Indeed, Palestinian guerillas, known as the fedayeen began armed activity against Israel from Jordanian borders after the 1967 war (Smith, 2009, p. 306). The Resistance phase after the Six Day War turned into a phase of guerilla and paramilitary resistance against Israeli occupation, instead of formal political resistance by state actors.

In 1968, fedayeen activity in Jordan prompted Israel to retaliate with a sizable military action against the Jordanian town of al-Karameh in March, 1968. For the first time, Jordanian army and Fedayeen fought side-by-side. While Israel’s military objectives were indeed achieved, they had done so with considerable damage to their own army, and as such as seen as a victory. Yet, Joseph Massad argues that “depending on whose account one reads, both the Jordanian army and the guerillas minimized the role of the other […] and claimed victory for themselves.” Such contention in crediting one side for the victory marked the beginning of tensions to come (Massad, 2001, pp. 239-40).

The tensions of al-Karameh became the foundation for Black September, a conflict taking place between the Jordanian Army and the Fedayeen August-September 1970, which ended with the expulsion of Arafat and the PLO from Jordan. Hussein of Jordan, who was seen by the PLO and other guerillas as a threat to the Palestinian resistance, especially with his negotiation of a ceasefire after the Karameh battle. The aftermath of Black September was an entrenchment of fedayeen ideology with vis-à-vis the Palestine Question in the Arab street. (Smith, 2009, p. 313)

Arab Resistance Crashes

In 1973, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad attacked Israel in an effort to regain territories lost in 1967. The War can be best summarized as an Arab attempt to disturb the status quo in hopes for major power diplomacy that can yield gains to the Arab states. As anticipated even by the Arabs, the 1973 war did not end with Arab victory, but did allow the Egyptians to regain the Sinai Peninsula through major power diplomacy (Smith, 2009, pp. 320-4). The 1973 war, in many ways, marked the end of Arab Resistance as a state priority: the war both signaled Egypt’s move towards peace with Israel, and signaled the beginning of non-state actors as the major players of Armed Resistance against Israel.

Palestinian Resistance: Rootenization, Legitimization (1974-1991)

Continuing the trend of the legitimization of Armed Palestinian Resistance as the main Arab attitude and strategy towards the Palestine Question, members of the Arab League convened in 1974 in Rabat, Morocco, for a Summit of Arab Leaders. In the Rabat summit, the League passed a resolution recognizing the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians, in any Palestinian territory that is liberated.” (Smith, 2009, p. 326) Such resolution gave less weight to the Jordanians, whose King Hussein still claimed to represent the people of the occupied West Bank. Through Hussein didn’t immediately relinquish Jordanian claims over the West Bank, he was forced to acknowledge that any future Palestinian state had to be independent of Jordan (Bickerton & Klausner, 2002, p. 176).

 ‘Exit Egypt’

On November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat landed in Jerusalem, making a historic statement: “no more war”. The events of 1977 came after a new Likud government came into power in Israel for the first time. The new government changed Israeli policy with regards to withdrawal from the territories occupied in the 1967 war, as well as its views on Palestinian statehood. Though Sadat continued to call for a comprehensive peace agreement with all Arabs, and an Israeli commitment to a complete withdrawal to the 1967 lines, Israeli PM Menachem Begin’s response could only genuinely acknowledge a non-comprehensive bilateral agreement with Egypt. The visit led to an agreement to an effective end of hostilities between Egypt and Israel (Shlaim, 2001, pp. 360-1).

Camp David followed in 1978, and, in 1979, the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty was signed. For many Arabs, and especially the ever more dominant Palestinian fedayeen, the treaty marked the completion of Egypt’s move away from the Palestine cause; Egyptian hostilities with Israel ended without much consideration to wider Arab issues. This move caused Egypt to become ostracized in the Arab community, and led to its suspension from the Arab League between 1979 and 1987. With this, resistance became Palestinian Resistance, and non-state actors such as the PLO became the champions of this cause. Not Egypt, not Jordan. (Shlaim, 2001, p. 378)

The First Intifada

After the recognition of Palestinian guerilla resistance as the modus operandi of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the first major incident in the conflict took place in 1988: the first Palestinian intifada. The intifada was a popular Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation, where “stone-throwing Palestinian youth” expressed dissidence. Though initially “surprised by the strength, depth, and spread of” the intifada, the PLO “scrambled to coordinate the civil disorder”, and became a leader of the masses (Andersen, et al., 2011, p. 109).

The Intifada accelerated Palestinian sentiments in support a PLO-led independence. Finally, on July 31, 1988, in compliance with the Rabat decision of 1974, King Hussein of Jordan announced the “full legal and administrative disengagement from the West Bank.” The address resulted in Jordan’s de facto and de jure recognition of the PLO as the representative and administrator of the West Bank (Hussein of Jordan, 1988). Then, on November 15, 1988, Yasser Arafat proclaimed the independence of the Arab State of Palestine over the entirety of British Mandate Palestine. (Smith, 2009, p. 411)

The intifada soon became a global concern and prompted many countries to attempt to broker a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, or at least a peace that includes the Palestinian people and the PLO. Indeed, international peace efforts marked the end of the intifada, especially with the Madrid Conference of 1991 and the Oslo treaty of 1993.

Hamas is born: the Beginnings of Islamic Resistance

Trending from the rise of political Islam (see p. 4), the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt spread to Gaza. The Brotherhood in Gaza was led by Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, operated as a charitable organization even recognized by Israel (Tekuma, 2009). A group had broken off from the Muslim Brotherhood and taken an Islamic Jihad direction. Evidence now indicates that jihadi activists “had undertaken armed assaults on Israelis even before the Intifada began” (Smith, 2009, p. 410). Still, the birth of the Hamas Islamic Jihad movement, as an open armed resistance movement against Israel began with the Palestinian Intifada in February 1988, when Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin decided to “extend the brotherhood’s ideology into politics”. The Islamic resistance movement began through a cooperation with Arafat, Fatah, and the PLO, though things were soon about to change (Smith, 2009, pp. 410-1).

The First Hamas-Fatah Schism (1991-1993)

Although the Islamic Jihad movement “at first cooperated with Arafat and Fatah, they parted company once Arafat’s two-state policy became known.” (Smith, 2009, p. 410) Indeed the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 proved to be a pivotal milestone in the Arab-Israeli conflict, which marked a move by Fatah and the PLO towards moderation, and a schism with the Islamist movement.

The Peace Conference, involving the Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Jordanians, shifted the general attitude of Arabs and the PLO in favor of negotiations to reach a two-state solution. A two-state solution that was, in fact, contrary with Palestine’s own declaration of independence in 1988.

The Oslo Accord

On September 13, 1993, the Declaration of Principles for Palestinian self-government in Gaza and Jericho was signed in Washington D.C. by Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After failures of negotiation with Yitzhak Shamir’s outgoing government, Oslo was established as a secret back-channel negotiation (Shlaim, 2001, pp. 513-4, 517). Still, in many ways, it was a continuation of the Arab and Palestinian trend towards negotiation with Israel for a two-state solution to the Palestine Question.

Many Palestinian rejectionists, however, were infuriated by the treaty; “Arafat had done what they had always feared; he recognized Israel’s existence without gaining mutual acknowledgement of a Palestinian right to self-determination” (Smith, 2009, p. 434). Amongst these rejectionists were Hamas, and the entirety of the Islamic resistance movement. As such, as the PLO and Israel moved towards more negotiation, and as Palestine began to gain some autonomy and self-governance thanks to the negotiations, the schism between Hamas and Fatah was complete. The era of contradictions began.

The Era of Contradictions (1993—)

After Oslo, the Arab world was divided into two camps: the moderate camp included the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, with Syria on the fence. Meanwhile, the rejectionist camp included Islamists, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as states like Iraq and Yemen.

Within the territories, Palestine joined the ranks of the United States, United Kingdom, and Israel, and others, as a bi-polar bi-ideological system. One dominant ideology was that of the Arafat’s Fatah, calling for recognition of Israel, coexistence between an Arab and Jewish states in a two-state solution, and the principal of land-for-peace. Another dominant ideology is that of Hamas, calling for Islamic resistance and the liberation of ‘all of Palestine’. Resistance, as such, has been rebranded as ‘Islamic resistance’, with Hamas as the major player.

In this phase, which lasts until this day, the popularity and constituency of each ideology depends on their perceived effectiveness and outcomes. The days of Oslo brought the PLO to the mainstream and public opinion was strongly in favor of a two-state solution. Failures of the PLO in self-governance, as well as claims of Fatah corruption, however, swayed Palestinians away from the PLO.

Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and the beginning of Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister, the peace process was effectively stalled. This led Palestinian and Arab frustration with the peace process, and made the Arab street more sympathetic with the rhetoric of Islamists and rejectionists like Hamas. Indeed, in the Arab world, statements like “Islam is the solution” are hard to counter, especially given the failures of moderate, secular, and nationalist movements.

Closing Remarks

We can see how the climate of the Arab-Israeli conflict does indeed have separate characteristic phases: Nasser’s Arab Nationalism, Arab Resistance, Palestinian Armed Resistance, followed by two simultaneous phases: one of Islamic Resistance, and another of Reconciliation and Negotiation. These phases sometimes transition with a gradual change in ideologies, but are often triggered by major events in the conflict: the 1948 war, the Suez Crisis, the 1967 war, Black September, the 1973 war, the PLO’s recognition, Jordan’s disengagement, the first intifada, and the Madrid Peace Conference.

Today, it is often observed that there is no Israeli partner for peace. This is partially so because of the increased influence and popularity of the Likud; the Likud does not traditionally believe in a land-for-peace settlement of the conflict resulting from withdrawal from the West Bank. But this is also the case because Israelis are reluctant to negotiate and make concessions with Palestinians when rejectionist groups like Hamas have any power. The paradox being, the irresolution of the conflict enables Hamas’s continued existence, power, and popularity. Today, there is a growing gap between moderates and Islamist rejectionists. Such gap will only make Israelis more and more reluctant to commit to a peace treaty with the Palestinians, and without a peace treaty, such gap will continue to improve, and the moderates will continue to lose ground.

Conflict begets conflict. The only way to break the cycle is if a true negotiation and resolution is agreed upon for the conflict. Only then would rejectionists lose ground, and a peaceful coexistence of an Arab and Jewish state becomes possible. If a moderate, secular Palestinian unity is a precondition for negotiation, negotiation will not take place.

“If President Abbas succeeds in negotiating a final status agreement with Israel, Hamas will accept the decision made by the Palestinian people […] through a referendum monitored by international observers […] even if Hamas is opposed to the agreement.”
—Jimmy Carter; reading notes agreed upon by Carter and Hamas (Smith, 2009, p. 512)

Works Cited

Andersen, R. R., Seibert, R. F. & Wagner, J. G., 2011. Politics and Change in the Middle East. 10 ed. s.l.:Prentice Hall.

Bickerton, I. J. & Klausner, C. L., 2002. A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 4 ed. s.l.:Prentice Hall.

Friedman, I., 2000. Palestine, a Twice-promised Land?. 1 ed. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Hussein of Jordan, 1988. Address to the Nation. [Online]
Available at: http://www.kinghussein.gov.jo/88_july31.html
[Accessed 15 December 2011].

Jewish Virtual Library, n.d. Ragheb Nashashibi. [Online]
Available at: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/ragheb.html
[Accessed 14 December 2011].

Lindeborg, L., 2002. The Intellectual Roots of Islamic Fundamentalism. World Press Review, January, 49(1).

Marsot, A. L. a.-S., 1985. A Short History of Modern Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Massad, J. A., 2001. Colonial effects : the making of national identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schenectady Gazette, 1948. Arab Troops On Frontier Ready To Launch Invasion. Schenectady Gazette, 15 May, p. 1.

Shlaim, A., 2001. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Smith, C. D., 2009. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Tekuma, M., 2009. How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas. The Wall Street Journal, 24 January, p. W1.