A New Way to Look at Israel and the Arabs
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A New Way to Look at Israel and the Arabs
It’s been an unsettling spring in Israel. A terrorist wave and riots in Jerusalem’s Old City have triggered searing memories of Yasir Arafat’s war against the Oslo Peace Process two decades ago. Most jarring was a March 29 B’nai Brak terrorist attack. Chilling videos showed a Palestinian murdering civilians, including one father whose body stopped the bullets whizzing toward his two-year-old son. But an Israeli-Arab police officer, Amir Khoury, and his partner stopped the terrorist, suggesting a more multicultural future than most non-Israelis imagine.
Khoury’s heroic death contradicts many caricatures of Israel and of Israeli history, just as the present realities in the larger Middle East undermine the narrative that continues to claim that the central stressor in the region is the showdown between Israel and the Palestinians. Diplomatic breakthroughs have Israel interacting with many Arab countries, no matter the heartbreaking outbursts of curated Palestinian violence.
The 75-year-old shorthand term used to describe the unresolved tensions in the region—“the Arab–Israeli conflict”—needs to be updated and made plural. In truth, there are several different conflicts. Some have been resolved; others persist. Most Israelis recognize this nuanced narrative, living as they currently do under a government propped up by an Islamist Arab party in the coalition for the first time. That understanding should now spread outward to the United States.
The heartening plotlines start internally with the Israeli-Arab community’s transformation from living under military rule until 1966 to becoming increasingly liberalized, mainstreamed, and middle class. The Covid crisis highlighted the fact that nearly one-fifth of Israel’s doctors and nurses are Arab, along with more than 40 percent of Israel’s pharmacists.
Outside its borders, we’ve seen Israel’s rise as a regional military power, its role as a high-tech and pharma superpower, and its centrality as a diplomatic power in the growing, mostly Sunni, anti-Iranian coalition comprising Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
The Abraham Accords are at the apex of this transformation. When Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu signed them at the White House on September 15, 2020, with the Emirati foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Bahraini foreign minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, they opened new opportunities for Israeli Arabs as tourists, translators, and business partners. The Accords are integrating Israel economically into the Middle East, with billions of dollars in deal flow—nearly $2 billion in 2022 alone. While rooted in much goodwill, they are cemented not by misty hopes of a happier future but by a shared fear of Iranian ambition and frustration with American fecklessness.
Israelis know that their new Gulf partners are not sister democracies. But Israelis also know that these shifts are revolutionary. Nevertheless, most American journalists—and many American Jews—keep downplaying these transformations. Still addicted to uni-dimensional, unidirectional, woe-is-me, Blame-Israel-first Palestinian propaganda, they remain mired in the old narrative of Israel being forever frozen in its forever war for existence.
Inevitably, bombs upstage breakthroughs like the Abraham Accords. The Gaza hostilities in the spring of 2021 attracted more media attention than the millions of investment dollars, the 200,000 tourists, and the immeasurable goodwill that overflowed in the Accords’ first year between Israelis and their new Arab friends.
Palestinian leaders accused their fellow Arabs of shaking hands with Israelis “on Palestinians’ blood-soaked soil.” But the Accords are the latest development in a peace-seeking process that began in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, after the Egyptian–Syrian surprise attack failed to crush the Jewish state.
Ever since Israel’s counterattack positioned Israeli tanks on the roads to Cairo and Damascus, none of Israel’s neighbors has again attempted any kind of conventional military assault. Few would have predicted it then, but when fighting ceased between Israel, Egypt, and Syria on October 26, 1973, the original Arab–Israeli conflict ended—although various Arab–Israeli conflicts continued. By 1979, Israel and Egypt had signed a peace agreement; Jordan signed a treaty in 1994.
While this first and seemingly monolithic Arab–Israeli conflict formally began with Israel’s establishment and the Arab invasion on May 14, 1948, it was rarely as coordinated as it appeared. Even during that first war, the Arab struggle to destroy Israel was a series of conflicts, not one unchanging, unending, intractable war.
Local Arabs protested the United Nation’s 1947 Partition Plan by launching guerilla attacks. After May 14, 1948, these local Arab irregulars—Jews were called “Palestinians” then as well—allied with standing armies from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. But there was no joint command; the agendas rarely aligned. The 1948 lineup was lopsided numerically in favor of the Arabs, but a united Jewish people faced down a fractured Arab world. The local Arab irregulars differed dramatically from Jordan’s professional Arab Legion or Lebanon’s token force. Few Arab soldiers felt they were fighting for their family’s home or their people’s existence.
The Arabs’ broader war of demonization obscured Israel’s victory. Israel’s establishment in 1948 provided the Arab world with the illusion of unity, gifting the Arab dictatorships with what every quarrelsome coalition needs—a common enemy. After 1973, the Arab League’s campaign to isolate Israel, the Saudi-led oil embargo, and the UN General Assembly’s 1975 Zionism-is-racism resolution all combined to make Israel look like a pariah. As many wondered what Israel did to deserve such hatred, America’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1975, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, reversed the indictment, asking “what’s wrong” with “the accusers,” not “the accused.”
Israel’s Camp David Peace Treaty with Egypt in 1979 formally ended the illusion of a united Arab diplomatic front. Four decades later, the Abraham Accords formally ended the united Arab propaganda front. The many UAE citizens cheering the Abraham Accords prove that many Arabs will no longer be held hostage by Palestinian intransigence. As other Arab states make peace, Israel will stop being the Arab world’s scapegoat.
Thanks to the obsessive demonization of Israel within the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international organizations, many Palestinians still hold to the fantasy that their diplomatic war has isolated the Jewish state. Yet 167 countries recognize Israel. Of the 27 holdouts, most are majority Arab or Muslim.
In short, Israel has won its conventional war to survive, its regional war to be accepted by at least some neighbors, and its global war to be recognized broadly.
But while these pillars of the traditional Arab–Israeli conflict crumble, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict persists. Palestinians frame their war as the centerpiece of an integrated, multifront Israel–Arab conflict. Any progress threatens their all-or-nothing approach. As Israelis replicate more of the resilient people-to-people peace they are enjoying with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, and as Israel’s interests align with more neighbors’ needs, Palestinian claims of genocide fall on ever-deafer ears.
The Israeli–Palestinian conflict may eventually break down itself into two: the Gaza conflict and the West Bank conflict. Although both the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority running the West Bank seek to eliminate the Jewish state, they cannot agree on much else. Their unity efforts keep blowing up.
The more narrowly defined each conflict becomes, the more solvable it is. “Peace Now” is a sweeping, Hail-Mary-pass kind of slogan, coined by Israel’s Left in the 1970s. “Peace More”—with Israel and its enemies chipping away at tensions, gradually adding goodwill and self-interested alliances—was the more realistic, and now vindicated, strategy. Computer programmers often solve knotty problems with “divide and conquer”—breaking them down into their constituent parts. For too long, too many American policy-makers—and presidents—sought to solve “the” Arab–Israeli conflict with one big, sweeping, treaty. Recognizing the half-dozen conflicts, leveraging progress on some fronts into progress elsewhere, is the best way to achieve Peace More, and maybe Peace Forever.
Sifting through these conflicts also disproves the Israel-Apartheid and Zionism-is-racism lies. Israeli euphoria following the Abraham Accords, though downplayed in the Western media, proves how desperately Israelis seek welcoming Arab neighbors.
Adding an “s” frees the conversation from the Palestinian grip. It shifts the conversation from the outdated “Peace Now” paradigm to the realistic “Peace More” approach. It also opens up new ways of understanding Israeli history.
Even the most ardent Zionists tend to tell Israel’s history through its wars. The most famous dates in Israeli history remain 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. This war-to-war story is now punctuated by peace processes and terrorism. But this narrow reading defines Israel only by the Arab–Israeli conflict. It is like building American history around the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam without the Jacksonian Era, the Gilded Age, Progressivism, the New Deal, or the Reagan Revolution.
We might better tell Israel’s story through the decades, American-style.
After starting with Israel’s founding, we should quickly pivot to the 1950s—the decade of mass migration into Israel, as 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries began arriving, along with 70,000 Holocaust survivors. In the 1960s. Israel became the developing world’s poster child, the model of a successful post-colonial democracy with its own special social-democratic features, such as the communitarian Kibbutz ideal. In the 1970s, things became unstable and hyper-dramatic, as the sobering results of the 1973 war replaced Israel’s pre-war arrogance with postwar despondence, which was ended by the euphoria following the 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue and the 1978–79 Camp David Peace Accords with Egypt. Perhaps the turning point in Israeli political history, Menachem Begin’s 1977 victory, ends Labor Party hegemony, heralding a liberalized, individualized, and more capitalist Israel.
The 1980s were marred by a period of great inflation and intellectual midlife crisis, as the 40-year-old country starts questioning its founding principles. The 1990s featured Oslo optimism and the launch of the high-tech Big Boom, fueled in part by the immigration from Russia of well-trained professionals.
The 2000s began with Israel as a key target for terrorists and delegtimizers before it crushed the second intifada and began to be the Start-Up Nation. Finally, the 2010s was the period that caught Israel in all its contradictions, Western yet Middle Eastern, increasingly peaceful yet still fighting for its existence, more and more united socially and culturally yet still fragmented politically.
Even this telegraphic summary uncovers Israel’s seven ongoing miracles—one for each decade.
First is reestablishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland. Jews today take this revolution for granted, but the wandering Jews’ return home after nearly 2,000 years remains one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
Second is integrating 3 million immigrants since 1948 into an initial population of 600,000, especially Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, Ethiopian Jews, and Soviet Jews, while preserving civil liberties and free immigration as the Middle East’s only democracy.
Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming the Jews from the world’s victims to fellow actors on the global stage, spawn-ed great opportunities and complex dilemmas.
Fourth, building a hybrid, Western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. That mix works only because Jews are a nation, not just a community of faith. Israel is democratic enough to have Arab judges and politicians, but Jewish enough to celebrate Passover and Hanukkah publicly.
That political fusion sparked the fifth miracle, the social-cultural “altneuland”—old-new land of Theodor Herzl’s imagining—revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life while serving as a bastion of Western culture too, with a high quality of life.
This Jewish cultural revival would not have occurred without the sixth achievement, the resurrection of Hebrew as a living language. This bold act of linguistic mouth-to-mouth was also a Zionist act of national renewal.
Finally, the Jews’ good luck in their homeland has bubbled over, creating a proud Jewish Diaspora. The “New Jew” the Zionists imagined, hoping to exorcise the broken-down, cowardly shlemiel within, does not just live in Israel today. Israeli power and pride have been good for Jews worldwide, from encouraging many to assert themselves politically, to making Jews far more comfortable with their bodies, not just their minds.
Without negating war and peace, this new decades-based history puts Israeli history in context. It stirs debate about Israel culturally, socially, economically, and ideologically, not just politically, militarily, and diplomatically.
While the need for this new interpretation has been building for decades, the Abraham Accords helped break the stalemate. The resulting diplomatic, economic, cultural, and tourist reset invites a more subtle, multidimensional, and less Palestinian-centered understanding of Israeli history and of Zionism.
As Israel’s 75th birthday approaches, it’s time to put the Palestinian obsession to destroy Israel in proper perspective. It’s time to create a new periodization and new plotline for understanding Israel. And that’s why it’s time to add that “s” to the Arab–Israeli conflicts.
Recently designated one of Algemeiner’s J-100, one of the top 100 people “positively influencing Jewish life,” Gil Troy is the author of the newly-released The Zionist Ideas , an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society and a 2019 National Jewish Book Award Finalist.. A Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University,and the author of nine books on American History, his book, Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.
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Prof Gil Troy · 20 Derech Bet Lechem · Apt 2 · Jerusalem 9310925 · Israel