Israel in its current form was born in 1948; her first war with her Arab neighbors began almost immediately; myths about that war came soon after.
Most Americans know that the United States was the first nation to grant diplomatic recognition to Israel. From there, the myth goes that Israel, all on its own with little but American cheerleading, smacked around their Arab enemies and humiliated them.
That’s not quite how it happened. For starters, there was the role of the other superpower of the time – the Soviet Union. Joe Stalin saw Harry Truman grant recognition to the Israelis . . . and followed suit two days later. In fact, his minions in Czechoslovakia actually contributed arms to the Zionist cause.
This shouldn’t really surprise. Israel’s leader were of a heavily socialist bent, and whether the Isreali people were native Jews to the Palestinian mandate, those who had reached it before World War II, or those who came after the war, few of them witnessed the painful experience of Soviet occupation of eastern Europe. As for Stalin, this was when he was still hoping all of Europe would thank the Red Army for defeating the Nazis and choose the Communist way.
The point is this: the Arab states (Jordan, Egpyt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and North Yemen) were going up against a state backed by both superpowers, with one providing weapons. One other factor to keep in mind: two of the Arab states in question were just decolonized (Syria and Lebanon), while three (Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq) were moving away from satellite states of Britain. This was as new to them as it was to Israel.
Finally, we all know that Israel won the war, not only because it survived, but also because it expanded into what are now the “1967” borders. Since Israel won, the Arab lost, right?
Well, that depends on which Arabs you mean. See, not a single Arab state lost any territory in the 1948-49 war. In fact, Jordan and Egypt actually gained territory in the war’s aftermath: Egypt took the Gaza Strip, and Jordan took the West Bank. Arab “Palestine” ceased to exist, and Israel now had two hostile neighbors inside the old British mandate.
So while Israel certainly won, it would be hard to call Egypt and Jordan losers. Nor could Israel call itself secure with the 1949 armistice. It had the unusual support of both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., something that just about everyone in the region knew wouldn’t last.
It didn’t. When Egypt’s monarchy fell in 1952, the nationalist president Gamal Abder Nasser quickly sought to play the superpowers against each other. Meanwhile, the concern about the Communists getting footholds in the Middle East led American and British diplomats to build alliances with Jordan, Iraq, and the Saudis (among others), three of the nations that had put men into battle against Israel, whose position began to look increasingly problematic from a geopolitical perspective.
In time, though, Nasser ensured that Israel did have friends. Britain was aghast at Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, while France was alarmed at Nasser’s support for the independence movement in Algeria (which France considered part of itself). Both were looking take action against Nasser, while Israel was watching its Suez shipping constantly harrassed by Egypt. In 1951, monarchist Egypt was condemned for this by the United Nations Security Council (Soviets included), but Nasser had ensured that the Soviets take no such position by 1956.
So, for various reasons, Israel, Britain, and France all wanted to take action against Egypt, although the British and French would austensibly intervene as neutrals merely to “protect” the Suez Canal from turmoil. On the ground, it all went as planned: Israel quickly took the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt and an Anglo-French force controlled the canal. Meanwhile, the other Arab states largely sat 1956 out militarily, although they raised holy h*ll diplomatically.
It was the reaction of the superpowers that revealed a world changed. Nikita Krushchev all but declared Israel a colonialist throwback and threatened Soviet military intervention if the UK, France, and Israel didn’t withdraw. More quietly, Eisenhower leaned hard on the UK and France (including refusing to back fill a Saudi oil embargo of them until they withdrew from Egypt), and established himself as the only American president to ever oppose Israel in wartime.
The trouble for Israel was this: Ike was only the second American president she had seen, and it was clear he was not fond of her.
In the aftermath of the second war, Israel was very isolated and alone. Forced by the UN in 1957 to go back to the 1949 boundaries, she had no reason to believe that her Arab neighbors would allow her to remain in them for a month, let alone for a decade. as the world had united against her.
As it was, Israel’s would be conquerers were beset with internal turmoil and (in Egypt’s case) intra-Arab ambition. Iraq succumbed to a military coup in 1958; Syria dissolved itself into Egypt under the United Arab Republic, which freaked out Jordan and Lebanon – in part because both had pro-Nasser factions within.
Yet for Israel in 1960, all of this just seemed a temporary argument over who would lead the Arab charge against them – and even worse, Nasser was winning.
At this point, Israel had fought two wars, and while she had militarily won both, none of her enemies suffered actaul losses. Jordan had gained the West Bank; Egypt had first picked up Gaza and then Syria, while Lebanon and Iraq had lost no territory. Meanwhile, internal turmoil meant a more hostile regime in Iraq, while Egypt’s star was rising in the Middle East. Add to this Soviet support for the Arabs and American suspicion of them (to the point where Eisenhower essentially endorsed Nasser’s Arab nationalism as the way of the future in 1958), and Israel looked to be in a very, very precarious position.
If anything, the 1950s should explain why Israelis are so worried today. The decade showed them that allies are fleeting (they lost both superpowers in less than five years), military success can be taken away by political pressure, and that was was in their best interest meant nothing to the rest of the world. The boundaries that now are considered so certain and permanent seemed highly fluid and likely to change – and not to Israel’s favor – just over fifty years ago.
As we’ll see in Part 2, the 1960’s led to dramatic change in the region, and led to the myths that many attach to it today.
Cross-posted to Bearing Drift