There will be plenty of rejoicing next week, all with very good reason, as the Jewish state turns 70 while celebrating unprecedented prosperity fueled by demographic vitality, social mobility, diplomatic legitimacy and commercial reach of which our founding fathers could only dream.
Less festive, but no less meaningful, will be this week’s other birthday – the Arab-Israeli conflict’s.
Yes, the conflict’s roots are much older than 70. Ideologically, they hark back at least 113 years, when Lebanese nationalist Naguib Azouri wrote in his The Awakening of the Arab Nation that the Jewish and Arab national movements are destined to fight each other until one of the two wins.
Politically, too, the conflict is much older than 70, having begun at the latest in 1921, when the Palestinian Arab Executive Committee stated: “Either us or the Zionists! There is no room for both... the laws of nature require that one side be defeated.”
And in terms of violence, the conflict flared at the latest in 1929, when Palestinians stormed Jews throughout British Palestine, if one sets aside the 1921 riots, whose anti-Zionist focus is less clear.
Still, these early beginnings were harbingers only of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.
The organized enlistment of the entire Arab world against the Zionist project began with the launch of the Arab League boycott in 1946 and the following year’s struggle at the UN against the Partition Resolution, but was dramatized with the non-Palestinian, Arab invasions of 1948.
THE PA N-ARAB assault on Israel began hours after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s establishment, involving multiple armies: Egyptian infantry, artillery and armored battalions, canopied by fighter bombers, rolled northward from Gaza before splitting in two, one column heading to Tel Aviv, the other to Jerusalem, soon reaching Kibbutz Ramat Rahel; at the same time, Jordan’s Arab Legion charged west, climbing to Ramallah and descending unopposed on the fields south of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, while three Iraqi divisions attacked Kibbutz Gesher at the Jezreel Valley’s threshold, and Syrian armored columns emerged at the Golan Heights’ foothills and immediately began pounding Kibbutz Ein Gev.
Asked to assess the approaching showdown’s results, Hagana commander Yisrael Galili told Ben-Gurion that the odds were even, but the enemy’s numerical advantage was decisive. That judgment proved overly pessimistic. Uncoordinated, under-motivated, under-supplied and often also poorly trained – the invaders were repelled within half a year.
However, the strategic precedent set by a pan-Arab invasion would now dictate Israel’s strategic thought, dominate its national budgeting, and feed its citizens’ fears.
Arab League secretary-general Azzam Pasha’s warning in 1947 that the impending Arab-Israeli clash will be “a war of extermination and momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades” proved exaggerated, but for decades every Israeli adult and child assumed that any day “the Arabs” might suddenly emerge from the horizon.
Indeed, whereas the invasions of 1948 deployed hardly 50,000 Arab soldiers, in June 1967 some 250,000 Arab troops converged on Israel’s borders. In the Yom Kippur War the numbers were even larger and included thousands of quality tanks, cannons, missiles and jets, as well as thousands of Arab troops that traveled from Saudi Arabia and even as far afield as Morocco.
We have since come a long way.
THE ARAB world that during Israel’s first decades repeatedly confronted it in the battlefield has effectively abandoned that course.
Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel, and trade with them is growing, slowly but steadily. Israeli vessels routinely cross the Suez Canal. Israeli and Jordanian colonels stationed on both sides of the Jordan regularly meet and coordinate their activities. Israeli and Egyptian intelligence cooperate in fighting terrorists in the Sinai Desert, while Israeli and Saudi spies reportedly compare notes on Iran. An Israeli trade office operates in Dubai; thousands of Israeli tourists visit Morocco; and Israeli passengers en route to Ben-Gurion Airport overfly Riyadh.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has shrunk to its pre-1948 dimensions, when the physical showdown was between the Promised Land’s Jews and Arabs, with the rest of the Arab world making do with cheering the Palestinians from afar.
Yes, panacea remains distant. Syria and Iraq, though currently busy with internal strife, remain hostile; the Arab armies’ threat has been succeeded by the Iranian threat; and the Palestinians, who once let the rest of the Arabs lead the military war on Israel, have returned to attack Israel by themselves.
Worst of all, Arab governments’ creeping acquiescence with Israel’s existence has yet to trickle down to the Arab masses.
Ignorance, prejudice and demonization still shape average Arabs’ attitudes toward Israel; Muslim clergy often follow in the footsteps of medieval Christianity; and Arab filmmakers, journalists, academics and literati habitually take pages from Henry Ford, Richard Wagner and Joseph Goebbels, too.
The night he declared Israel’s establishment, an ever-sober Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “There is happiness and rejoicing throughout the land, but I am like a mourner among celebrants.” One might say that ever since that somber moment, Arab enmity to Israel has shrunk in its hardware but intensified in its software. They hate us.
WHAT WILL happen to this hatred over the next 70 years? Will it shrink, grow, or – God willing – vanish? No one can predict, but one precedent must be borne in every Jewish and Arab mind.
The precedent is Catholicism’s curing of its anti-Jewish disease, a process that began with a theological retreat in 1965; evolved by 1994 to full diplomatic relations with Jerusalem; and by 2000 landed Pope John Paul at Ben-Gurion Airport, where he faced an IDF honor guard and a row of Israeli flags while standing attention to the sound of the Israeli anthem, before visiting Israel’s president in his home, chatting with Israel’s chief rabbi in his office, and joining Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall.
If this could happen to the faith that defamed and pursued the Jews for centuries when they were homeless, it can also happen to the enemy that confronted the Jews for decades as they returned to their ancient home.