US Secretary of State John Kerry is leading yet another attempt to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The harsh reality is that like so many more before him he will probably fail to broker a lasting peace, due to the thicket of issues that surround the conflict. The dispute is a complex one, with short, medium term and longer term issues, all combining to make peace difficult to achieve, more so than in Northern Ireland. In this article I will aim to try and unravel some of those issues for those who know nothing about it, although it is not possible to fully comprehend a conflict of this magnitude in an article of this length.
A brief history of the conflict
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 had both long term and shorter term causes. In the longer term its creation lay in hundreds of years of persecution of the Jewish people, both the pogroms of Eastern Europe and legal discrimination in countries such as Britain. The conflict also has its roots in the 19th century Zionist movement, founded by Theodor Herzl, which campaigned for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The movement organised the emigration of European Jews to Palestine, and won an agreement from the British government that they would support the creation of a Jewish State- in the form of the 1917 Balfour declaration. In the shorter term its creation lay in the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust. Given their failure to prevent this crime against humanity, the Allied Powers felt that they had no choice but to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, and then to back that state to the hilt in the years afterwards.
Following its foundation, Israel fought major wars with its Arab neighbours in 1948, 1953, 1967, 1973 and 1982. The history of the Jewish state has been one of commando raids, air raids and other military incursions against those deemed to pose a threat to its existence. Despite their smaller numbers, their superior military capability courtesy of their American backers allowed the Israelis to see off the Arab threat to their existence. The result of this has been that for the last thirty years the Arabs have grudgingly had to accept that Israel is here to stay, and Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties.
One of the key shifts in the conflict in the last thirty years has been its switch from an ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs to a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims for control of what both view as their “holy land”. This means that it is well arguable that the conflict in 2013 is about the fact that both Jews and Muslims want all of the land all to themselves. There are many reasons for this switch from an ethnic conflict to a religious conflict. One is the increase in the religious Jewish population in Israel, due to their large families and the consequent rise in religious soldiers in the Israeli Army. Another is the 1979 Iranian revolution, which created a hard-line Islamic regime willing to support Anti-Israel Islamist forces throughout the world, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. This switch to a religious conflict has made the conflict much more difficult to solve because it means that each side is much less reluctant to give ground.
Another important issue in the conflict is the role of the worlds only superpower. Ever since Israel’s founding in 1948, the United States has been an ardent supporter of the Jewish State, although not always it’s most important ally- shown by the fact that Israel fought the Suez war with Britain and France not the United States. There have however been bad moments in the relationship, including Benjamin Netanyahu’s poor relations with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama but the overall trend has been for good relations. The Israeli Defence Forces have top-of-the-range American weapons and the state receives billions of dollars in aids each year.
Anti-Semites will tell you that America supports Israel because the Jews control the US government and media. This is of course absolute nonsense. America’s support for Israel lies in its view of the Jewish state as a trustworthy and reliable ally in the Middle East. The growing importance of Evangelical Christians in US politics has also had an impact on the relationship as they are typically strong supporters of Israel. As the Christian Right has become more organised, so politicians have been under more pressure to be supportive of the Jewish State. This is especially true of George W Bush who won a lot of support from very religious voters and felt obliged to support Israel unconditionally in return. In fact the Bush presidency shows the irrelevance of American Jews to US-Israel relations, because in both of his elections three quarters of Jews voted against him.
The important thing to note is that America could, if it wanted to, force the Israelis to come to an agreement. However the fear the loss of their biggest and most reliable ally within the generally hostile Islamic Middle East makes them reluctant to do so.