The Middle East Conundrum – A Response to Blaming Israel

By: C. Zelman and Ethel Kamien – August, 2004

This column was prompted by a letter written by Mr. Andy Beresford, which appeared in the Letters to the Editor column in the July 2004 edition of The Valley Patriot.

Mr. Beresford points his finger at Israel as the source of problems in the Middle East and for high oil prices. He criticizes the United States government for supporting the only democracy in that region, and suggests that we should be more evenhanded in our Middle East policy.

Before blaming Israel and US foreign policy for these problems, one should know something of the history of the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries and what led to the situation that exists today.

There has always been a Jewish presence in Israel and there has been a Jewish plurality or majority in Jerusalem for centuries. European Jews began to move to what is now Israel in significant numbers during the 1880s. The area was then controlled by the Turks.

These Jews did not displace local residents by conquest or fear; they lawfully and openly bought land – frequently mosquito-infested swamps or barren desert, much of it thought to be nonarable – from absentee landlords. The Jewish settlers brought modern agricultural methods and sophisticated irrigation to the region and literally made the deserts bloom. Moreover, the Jews employed the local Arabs, leading to prosperity in the area. They also encouraged an influx of Arabs from the surrounding lands who were looking to better their economic situation.

Until World War I, there was no Hashemite Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, no Kingdom of Jordan, and no Kingdom of Iraq. All of these areas were part of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire. The Turks supported Germany in WW I. They were defeated by the Allies, who were supported by Arabs wishing to expel the Turks from Arab regions.

After World War I, the Arab Sheiks, at a conference in Damascus (depicted in the movie, Lawrence of Arabia), could not agree on how to govern those lands. The British, after being given a mandate by The League of Nations, divvied up control within their mandate between three Arab leaders thus creating present day Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq.

Between 1880 and 1967, virtually no Arab or Palestinian spokesperson called for a Palestinian State.

Instead they wanted the area that the Romans had designated as Palestine to be merged into Syria or Jordan. In fact, the Palestinians rejected the independent homeland proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937 because it would also have created a tiny Jewish homeland alongside it. During the period between WW I and WW II there were several massacres perpetrated by Arabs against Jews, promoted by Muslim clerics (similar to what is happening at the present time). Most noteworthy was the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El Husseini, who recruited an Arab Army to help the Nazis during WW II.

When the United Nations voted on November 29, 1947, to divide Palestine into two states – a large contiguous state for the Arabs, and a tiny, non-contiguous one for the Jews, the Arabs rejected the UN decision and started terrorist attacks on Jews and Jewish settlements (all previously legally established).

On May 15, 1948, when the Jews proclaimed their independence, naming their new nation ‘Israel’, six Arab countries collectively attacked the fledgling state. They agitated the local Arab population to fear their Israeli neighbors and urged them not to stand in the way of the attacking armies, but rather to leave, and go to the surrounding countries. They were told that, in a short time, the Arab armies would overcome the Jews, throw them into the sea, and then the Arabs could return and claim any property they wished. This propaganda was broadcast over radio from the surrounding Arab states. To counter this disinformation, the Israelis urged the Arab populace to remain in place and they would be safe. In spite of this, many Arabs fled the country. This was the genesis of the Palestinian refugee problem.

It is important to remember that, at this moment in time, rather than support the new Jewish state, the United States declared an arms embargo against Israel. To defend itself, Israel bought arms from Czechoslovakia.

After their attack failed, the Arabs requested a cease-fire and the UN imposed it on Israel – with a provision that peace talks would ensue. The Arab countries refused to even consider direct talks with Israel. The cease-fire left Egypt occupying the Gaza Strip and Jordan occupying the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. Jordan expelled all the Jews from the Old City, desecrated the Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, and declared the local Arabs Jordanian citizens.

So far, none of this history had anything to do with oil.

In 1967, the Arab countries surrounding Israel decided to have another go at it. With the help of the Soviet Union, which by then was providing enormous support by way of armaments and technicians, the Arab nations began building up troop concentrations along the Israeli border. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Israelis launched a pre-emptive strike, taking over most of the strategic areas that could be used to launch attacks on Israel. These included the Golan Heights in Syria (from where repeated artillery shelling had been directed against peaceful Israeli communities and villages), the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank.

Again, the forces against Israel were beaten, but the Palestinians said “no” to UN Resolution 242, which would have created a Palestinian State.

In 1970, the Palestinians living in Jordan tried to take over Jordan by force. They were defeated by King Hussein and expelled, thus adding to the refugee problems. None of the Arab countries made any effort to assimilate the refugees into their societies, but rather kept them in camps (subsidized by UNRWA, an agency of UN) and have since been used as political pawns in their fight against Israel.

During the same period, Israel absorbed and settled about 850,000 Jewish refugees forced to leave the Arab countries where they had lived and contributed for centuries (not to mention many thousands of refugees from the Soviet Union). Israel toiled to settle these refugees and make them citizens while the Arab nations intentionally perpetuated the camps and the Palestinian refugee problem.

After the failed Jordanian coup, Palestinian militants coined the term “Black September” to memorialize the event. A so-called Black Septemberist group was organized and successfully attacked the Olympic Village during the 1972 Munich games. A number of Israeli athletes were seized and murdered. Also, it was during this period that a rash of airline hijackings occurred – TWA, SwissAir and Pan American.

Still, none of this had anything to do with oil.

In 1973, Egypt, Syria and Jordan (under pressure from the first two) attacked Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. The Arabs had been supplied with the latest and finest arms and military equipment by the Soviets, who wanted to gain a foothold in the Middle East. If it were not for the military victory by Israel, the Soviet Union would have turned the Arab countries into Soviet satellites.

Remember, at this time the Cold War was going full force and, had the Soviets prevailed, their control of Middle East oil might not only have had the Western World paying over $40/barrel of oil in the 1970s, but also, it is conceivable that the supply of oil from the Middle East might have stopped flowing altogether. Mr. Beresford chastises our nation’s effort then, for supporting the Israelis with arms and munitions to repel this invasion. In retrospect, to not have supported Israel then, would have been akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.

In 1981, Israel was universally condemned when it preemptively launched an air strike that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor outside of Baghdad. The installation, built with French assistance, was struck just before completion. It was to be powered by highly enriched uranium 235, also provided by the French. The facility was intended to give Saddam nuclear capability.

Today, it is clear that this strike probably saved the lives of thousands of Iranian, Kuwaiti and American soldiers who would otherwise have had to face a nuclear-armed Iraq.

More challenging tasks than setting up a small, independent Palestinian state have faced troubled peoples before. It took Mahatma Gandhi 20 years to liberate over 300 million people of the Asian subcontinent from under the yoke of British Colonial Imperialism. Once described by Churchill as a “half naked fakir”, Gandhi led India to independence by employing the doctrine of satyagraha – non-violent resistance. Much of his thinking was inspired by writings on civil liberties penned by the New England philosopher/essayist Henry David Thoreau.

Satyagraha admits of no violence under any circumstances whatsoever. To Gandhi, bloodshed was anathema; taking a life was unthinkable. This policy reaped results, and, as the last vestiges of the British raj faded into the sunset, bands played, and the flags of both powers waved in a dignified ceremony befitting the resolution of conflict between two civilized peoples.

In stark contrast, Arafat and his predecessors are no nearer establishing a democratic and independent Palestinian state today than they were 60 years ago. Could this have something to do with their negotiating style – in this instance, kidnapping, murder, mayhem and terror – practices continuously and relentlessly honed over the years, and nurtured by a hatred spawned from the cradle?

The Palestinians and Arafat have rejected offer after offer that would have resulted in their having a Palestinian State: most recently the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the Camp David/Taba negotiations in 2000-2001. In the 2000/2001 negotiations, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak shocked the world by offering the Palestinians virtually everything they had been demanding, including: a) a state with its capital in Jerusalem; b) control over the Temple Mount; c) a return of approximately 95 percent of the West Bank and all of the Gaza Strip; and d) a $30 billion compensation package for the 1948 refugees.

Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia urged Arafat to “take this deal” and issued a stern warning, “I hope you remember, sir, what I told you. If we lose this opportunity, it is going to be a crime.” Arafat committed that crime by rejecting Barak’s offer, walking away from the peace negotiations without even making a counterproposal. Prince Bandar was later to characterize Arafat’s decision as “a crime against the Palestinians – in fact, against the entire region.”

Arafat’s seemingly senseless and irrational position is better understood when one considers that the goal of the present Arab leadership has always remained the same: the elimination of the Jewish state and transferring Jews out of the area. Any peace proposal that would thwart this final solution was unacceptable then, is unacceptable now, and always will be unacceptable to these leaders.

Mr. Beresford passes by the barbaric practice of beheading prisoners without comment. He may be unaware of, and certainly does not acknowledge, what the Arab Islamic extremists are saying about conquering the West and converting it to Islam. He urges us to pursue a more evenhanded approach to the Middle East. How does one mediate between, or treat evenhandedly, two conflicting parties, one of which accepts no solution to the problem other than the death and destruction of the other?

Are you saying, Mr. Beresford, that the U.S. should treat savages who routinely launch suicide bombings against innocent civilians or who conduct kidnappings of innocent civilians and then videotape, for public exhibition, their gruesome executions, the same as we treat a civilized, democratic country that consistently seeks peace through negotiations and compromise?

C. Zelman and Ethel Kamien are Professors Emeriti at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell where he is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering and she is a Professor of Biological Sciences. They can be emailed at