It’s popular to assert that the Middle East has always been a bloodbath, but it’s not true. Indeed, when the 1973 Yom Kippur War ended, a period of peace set in (interrupted, of course, with bouts of violence). It lasted nearly thirty years.
Israel’s relations with its neighboring Arab states were dominated by dynamics of peace, not war. Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel in the 1977–1979 period. A strange state of theoretical war that was really peace operated on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. Lebanon collapsed into a horrendous civil war largely instigated by Yasser Arafat and his PLO, and first Syria and then Israel let themselves get sucked into the infernal brew, with Syria getting by far the better of it. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Arab Gulf states all enjoyed peace, and all of them except Egypt prospered. Even in Egypt, there were welcome decades of peace and development in striking contrast to the heroic but hysterical and ruinous adventures of Nasser’s era.
Below is an article on Middle East Wars based on research from Martin Sieff.
Overview of Middle East Wars
Americans and Israelis in particular in the decades since the dramatic Israeli victories in the 1967 Six-Day War have widely embraced the myth that Arabs can’t win wars. This attitude appears to have been shared by Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their handpicked advisors when they sent the U.S. armed forces sweeping into Iraq in March 2003 and thought they could redraw the political map of the country at will.
In fact, the military history of the twentieth century shows that not only can Arabs fight, but they can do so very well. The Arab Middle East was one of the last areas of the world to resist conquest and colonization by the great European powers. Britain and France got their hands on it only when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed after a long, tough, bitter fight in late 1918. It should be noted that most of the soldiers who surrounded, trapped, and ultimately captured the Anglo-Indian army at Kut in 1915 were Arabs recruited by the Ottomans from within the region. And they were among the very first to drive out the British and French. By 1948 every major Arab nation except Algeria independent, and by 1958 every one of them had successfully ejected all British and French influence over their affairs. This was not the record of nations of cowards, incompetents, or defeatists. It is true that Israel has won all the major conventional military wars against its Arab neighbors, often against formidable odds. But the Israelis were almost always fighting for their survival. Mass conscript Arab armies were sent into wars far from home, like the luckless Egyptian armies Nasser sent into Yemen in the 1960s and those destroyed by the Israelis in 1948, 1956, and 1967.
But the performance of the Iraqi army against vastly numerically superior Iranian forces during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War was excellent. The Iraqis had brave and excellent field commanders—until Saddam Hussein, murderous and witless as ever, killed the best of them himself— and ordinary Iraqi soldiers fought long and bravely with great discipline. Most important of all, they won.
In conventional wars, whenever Arab soldiers have been equipped, trained, and armed to fight modern Western armies on anything like equal terms, especially in defense of their homeland, they have usually fought bravely and well. The Israeli troops who fought the Jordanian and Syrian armies in 1967 and the Syrians and Egyptians in 1973 have testified to the toughness of their opponents. It was true that U.S. forces quickly annihilated the Iraqi conventional forces in the 1991 and 2003 Gulf Wars. But that wasn’t because they were fighting Arabs. It was because weak, underdeveloped nations usually can’t stand up to major industrial states, let alone superpowers, in quick, straightforward campaigns.
But when it came to guerrilla war, Muslim Arab nations proved to be some of the toughest foes in the world in the second half of the twentieth century. The National Liberation Front of Algeria proved far more ferocious and ruthless than even the Vietnamese in their eight-year war of independence against France from 1954 to 1962. The Israelis have yet to destroy Hezbollah, whose forces eventually drove them out of southern Lebanon. The mujahedin guerrillas in Afghanistan eventually drove out the Soviets after another eight-year war. And the Sunni Muslim guerrillas in central Iraq, at the present time, have yet to be operationally defeated or destroyed by U.S. and coalition forces. That is a pretty impressive record by anybody’s standards. Over the past sixty years, the nations of Continental Europe, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa cannot begin to compete with it.
The Ba’ath Party’s socialist roots
Even opponents of the Iraq War admit that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, and his Ba’ath Party was a totalitarian oppressor. What you won’t find the Left admitting is this: Ba’athism has its source in the idealistic pipe dreams of elite, educated Marxists.
Throughout the past four decades, Syria and Iraq, the two great Arab nations of the Fertile Crescent, have been ruled by the Ba’ath Resurrection (Arab Socialist Party). Ba’ath rule brought endless economic stagnation, wars of foreign aggression, support for murderous terrorist organizations, apparently endless dictatorships, secret police tyrannies, massacres of tens of thousands of civilians in rebellious populations, and thousands of hair-raising examples of sadistic torture in underground dungeons.
Yet the Ba’ath Party was founded by misty-eyed, romantic revolutionaries (one might even call them innocents) who foresaw nothing but a bright golden age of peace, prosperity, and understanding for the Arab world under their enlightened rule. Provided no one got in the way, of course. It was the story of the Young Turks and their Committee of Union and Progress all over again. Like the Young Turks, the idealists of the Ba’ath Party proved the wisdom of British political philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin: every attempt to create a perfect utopia on earth is guaranteed to create hell on earth instead.
Two Damascus schoolteachers—Michel Aflaq, a Christian, and Salah ad-Din al-Bitar, a Muslim—co-founded the Ba’ath Party in 1940. They wanted to end hatred and distrust between Christians and Muslims. They wanted to create a single, unified Arab nation across the Middle East founded on peace and social justice. They wanted to abolish poverty. They were all in favor of freedom and democracy and, of course, all for socialism. They hated tyranny in every form—or thought they did. But far from uniting the Arab world, the Ba’ath movement shattered it.
Far from establishing freedom and democracy, it established the longestlasting, most stable, and bloody tyrannies in modern Arab history. The contrast with King Abdullah and King Hussein in Jordan, or with King Abdulaziz and his successors in Saudi Arabia, could not be greater. Far from joining together, the two nations where Ba’ath parties took and held power—Syria and Iraq—were the most bitter rivals and enemies for generations, each of them claiming to be the only heir and embodiment of true Ba’athism while the other was evil heresy. In the year 1984, two ver- sions of Big Brother that George Orwell would have recognized only too well were alive and ruling in Damascus and Baghdad. They would stay there for decades to come.
Arab tyrants: Assad and Saddam
After its humiliating defeat at Israel’s hands in the 1947–1948 war, through 1970, Syria changed governments faster than a revolving door swings. There were at least twenty-five different governments in twentytwo years. The Syrian republic became a laughingstock throughout the Middle East, and its armed forces were a byword for passive incompetence.
The Syrian army played no role whatsoever in the 1956 Israeli-Egyptian Sinai war. In 1967, after their air force was destroyed on the ground in the first hours of the war, they sat passively until Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan was able to amass overwhelming forces to take the Golan Heights from them. But in the thirty-eight years since 1970, the Syrian government has not fallen once. The only change in its leadership came in 2000, when tough old President Hafez Assad died in his bed at the age of sixty-nine after thirty years of uncontested supreme power. His surviving son Bashar took over immediately as president and not a whisper of dissent was heard against it.
Assad also left behind as his lasting legacy the toughest military force in the Arab world, one that had faced the Israeli army in full land combat more often and performed more effectively against it than any other. Assad’s achievement contrasts not only with Syria’s past, but also with the fate of his fellow and rival Ba’ath dictator, President Saddam Hussein, in neighboring Iraq.
Both men came to power at almost the same time. Assad seized power in Damascus in 1970, determined to erase the humiliation and shame his nation, its armed forces, and most of all his air force had suffered at Israel’s hands in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1968 Saddam became the number- two man and real power behind the throne in the Second Ba’ath Republic led by President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr.
Assad and Saddam were both merciless tyrants who routinely employed torture on an unprecedented scale. Both of them waged wars of aggression and conquest against their neighbors. And neither of them hesitated to slaughter many thousands of their own citizens whenever they felt it necessary or expedient to do so. Both of them looked to the Soviet Union for weapons and support, and both of them hated the state of Israel like poison. Ironically, through the 1980s, it was Saddam who was seen in American eyes (especially those of Reagan administration policymakers) as by far the more moderate of the two. Saddam was battling the Shiite Islamic fanatics of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran from sweeping across the Middle East. Assad, by contrast, was forging a long-term alliance between Syria and Iran.
American policymakers saw Syria, not Iraq, as directing and protecting the most dangerous terrorist forces in the region through the 1980s. In 1983, Shiite Hezbollah suicide bombers backed by both Iran and Syria killed more than 250 U.S. Marines and more than 60 French paratroopers as they slept in their barracks on the outskirts of Beirut. But it was Assad who died in his bed, with his son surviving to rule as his heir and his regime and formidable army securely in place.
Saddam, who had inherited a far larger and more populous nation with the second-largest oil reserves on earth and a far larger and more powerful army—the fourth largest in the world by 1990—squandered all those assets before dying on December 30, 2006, at the end of a hangman’s rope. Assad’s lasting success remains ignored or underrated by U.S. and Israeli policymakers to this day. But there are sobering lessons to be learned from why he succeeded where Saddam and Nasser did not. The fearsome Sphinx of Damascus was a study in contrasts. He commanded the Syrian air force in the worst defeat in its history, yet used that defeat as a springboard to power. He inherited an army regarded as a bad joke throughout its own region and within three years made it formidable. It remains so to this day.
Assad led an Arab nationalist regime, yet he slaughtered Islamic believers and fundamentalists more ruthlessly and on a far wider scale than Saddam ever dared to. He held power for thirty years through the use of torture and terror and he came from a tiny ethnic and religious sect traditionally distrusted by his nation’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim majority. Yet he appears to have enjoyed real support and respect, and his son has ruled relatively securely since his death. Assad was the most dangerous enemy the State of Israel had after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Yet he forged a lasting bond of respect with one of Israel’s greatest leaders: Yitzhak Rabin, whom he never met in person. He championed the Palestinian cause passionately, but he hated and despised the man who was the living embodiment of that cause: Yasser Arafat.
The first secret of Hafez Assad’s success was that he ruled according to Niccolo Machiavelli, not James Madison. He would have regarded the second Bush administration’s obsession with creating instant full-scale Western representative democracy and freedom throughout the Middle East not only as threatening his own power, but as a contemptible joke for ignoring the power realities of the region, its history, and political and military realities.
In the late 1990s, future Bush administration policymakers and intellectuals, led by David Wurmser, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief Middle East advisor, openly described nations like Iraq and Syria as “failed states,” ignoring the fact that they had been around as distinct national entities since the early 1920s. And Saddam in Iraq and Assad in Syria both solved the problems of chronic instability that had plagued both nations for the twenty years before either of them took power. Assad, heeding Machiavelli’s counsel, regarded being feared as vastly more important than being loved. But though he killed widely, he did not, as Saddam did, kill continually or indiscriminately. In Iraq the wives and even children of those who crossed Saddam, even by contradicting him or one of his murderous sons in a conversation, were tortured, raped, mutilated, and murdered. Assad did those things only to his enemies, although there were enough of them.
In 1982, Assad crushed a popular uprising on behalf of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in the western Syrian city of Hama by annihilating the entire city. Tanks and heavy artillery were sent in to pulverize the remains. When U.S. intelligence analysts compared before and after photographs of the city from surveillance satellites they could not believe their own eyes. The death toll of civilians is generally estimated at 20,000, and it may even have been much higher. Rifaat Assad, Hafez’s brother and longtime secret police chief, later claimed to U.S. journalist Thomas Friedman that the death toll was really 38,000. Not even Saddam ever authorized killing against his own people with such intensity. But where Saddam killed endlessly, and appears to have had a psychotic need to do it, Assad killed only when it clearly served his interests.
The domestic nature of the two regimes was very different. Saddam ran a grim, utterly totalitarian state that survivors of Josef Stalin’s 1930s terror would have recognized all too well. Every public utterance on anything had to be in total conformity with the decrees of the Great National Leader, otherwise the torture chamber, the firing squad, or the hangman beckoned. In Syria, by contrast, those who stayed out of politics and public discourse could expect to live their own lives and even modestly enjoy their own private property.
The foreign policies and patterns of aggression of the two regimes were very different. Assad craved to control Lebanon, as more ineffectual Syrian rulers before him had, just as Saddam was determined to reincorporate Kuwait as the nineteenth province of Iraq, as Iraqi nationalists before him had.
Both of them did it, but Saddam openly and brutally invaded Kuwait in July 1990 and brought the entire military might of the United States and its allies down on his head only six months later. Assad craftily encouraged dissent, civil war, and chaos in Lebanon before sending in his army—supposedly to restore order—in 1976. He was able to stay there for six years until the Israelis drove him out. Saddam was mercilessly invincible in Iraq for thirty-five years from the establishment of the second Ba’ath Republic in 1968, where he held the real power for eleven years before ousting the ineffectual figurehead al-Bakr. (He had Bakr murdered by being pumped full of insulin three years later.)
But Saddam knew nothing about the world outside Iraq, and he miscalculated catastrophically every time he provoked it. Assad never did. He retained the strong support of the Soviet Union and later Russia from beginning to end. The Sphinx of Damascus defied the United States and undermined its influence successfully for decades, then came to a kind of accommodation with Washington during the Clinton administration when he had to. He even hosted two U.S. presidents on visits: Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. ‘Assad’s relations with Israel were extraordinary in their achievements and complexity. Within three years of taking power, he unleashed the Syrian army to take the Jewish state by surprise in the first hours of the Seven Days War.
The Israelis eventually turned the tide against overwhelming forces in the Golan fighting against Syria and drove back to within artillery range of Damascus when a cease-fire was finally imposed. But although the Israelis could probably have taken the Syrian capital and could certainly have leveled it had the war continued, they never succeeded in routing the Syrians or in surrounding them, as Ariel Sharon was able to do against the Egyptian Third Army on the west bank of the Suez Canal. As guerrilla attacks, especially from Hezbollah, grew in 1982 after the Israeli military conquest of southern Lebanon, Assad was able to win back through guerrilla war and diplomatic skill what he had lost in direct war.
By 1984 Israel was forced out of most of southern Lebanon except for a buffer region north of its border. Some sixteen years later, Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak pulled out of there too. Hezbollah was able to establish a state within a state in the southern part of the country, and Syrian military forces and intelligence organizations moved back in to dominate much of the country for almost the next quarter-century. Saddam, by contrast, had been unable to hang on to Kuwait for more than six months.
But even while he was supporting tough, ruthless, and firmly effective guerrilla forces fighting the Israelis as Syrian (and Iranian) proxies in southern Lebanon, Assad ran no risks with provoking them on the Golan Heights, where troops of both nations continued to face each other. In the twenty-five years from the signing of the Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement in 1975 to Assad’s death in 2000, not a single Israeli or Syrian soldier died in any incident on the Golan front. The long peace lasted through the first seven years after his death, though there are now many indications it may not last for much longer.
Ford’s Middle East successes
If you believe your PC history books, there have been only three kind of Republican presidents since Lincoln: evil ones (Nixon and Hoover), dumb ones (Reagan and Coolidge), and Teddy Roosevelt. For the media at the time and mainstream historians these days, there was no choice but to stick Gerald Ford into the dunce category.
He was supposed to be a brainless, muddling, old football player and political hack who had received one blow to the head too many. Gerald Ford ranks with his fellow moderate Republican Warren G. Harding as the most underestimated American president of the twentieth century. And his Middle East record was possibly the best of any president.
Dwight Eisenhower “lost” Egypt to the Russians, and Ford, by his approval of Henry Kissinger’s most complicated, subtle, patient, and successful diplomatic maneuvers, brought it back into the American orbit as never before. He also guided the American economy through the worst aspects of the 1973–1974 quadrupling of global oil prices and stabilized the economy with some of the strongest, most courageous, and most unpopular leadership it had seen in decades. On both the home and foreign affairs fronts, the quiet, hardworking Ford provided decisive, successful leadership that was increasingly respected around the world. Only the American people, led by liberal pundits foaming at the mouth over Ford’s pardon for Nixon to end the long national nightmare of the Watergate scandal, couldn’t see it.
Kissinger, curiously, did far better running around the region as Ford’s secretary of state than he had as Nixon’s right-hand man. It might have been that Nixon kept Kissinger on a much tighter leash than anyone realized while Ford loosened the reins. It might also have been that the almost cataclysmic consequences of the Yom Kippur War—the threatened destruction of Israel and the risk of a thermonuclear showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union—followed by the OPEC embargo had concentrated U.S. policymakers’ focus on the region. For the first time, Kissinger was not dealing primarily with the Soviet Union, China, Pakistan, Iran, or the Vietnam War. The Middle East was the biggest issue on his agenda. In any case, with Ford backing him to the hilt, he did very well. First, Kissinger engaged in months of endless negotiations, charming, lies, flattery, bribery, and threats with Israel and Egypt to bring about the 1975 Sinai II Disengagement Agreement.
This proved to be one of the most successful, far-reaching, and overlooked diplomatic achievements in modern American history. It ended the apparently inevitable and endless cycle of wars between Israel and Egypt—five wars in twenty-five years to that point. It gave Israel a vital breathing space for recovery after its heavy casualties of the 1973 war but without paying anything like the price Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin had to pay for a full peace treaty with Egypt. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin won the far-reaching Matmon C arms package from the United States that forever changed the essential construction of the Israeli army. In paving the way for Matmon C, the disengagement agreement also laid the basis for the next thirty years of unquestioned Israeli security and military predominance in the region. Sinai II also prepared the way for Kissinger’s triumph of negotiating a similar armistice agreement between Israel and Syria, which proved just as successful and long-lasting. It even paved the way for an unlikely Israeli-Syrian strategic understanding that lasted for twenty-five years.
Finally, Ford grasped the opportunity with Anwar Sadat that Nixon had ignored after the expulsion of the Soviet diplomats in 1971: he started a long-lasting U.S. strategic relationship with Egypt. Sadat quickly knew the United States could give him far more than the Soviets had ever provided. And unlike Nasser, Sadat also realized that Soviet economic wisdom was the fast road to even worse poverty and destitution. U.S. economic aid and Western tourism were set to flood in to keep Egypt stable and afloat for at least another three decades. Given the huge rate of population increase during the same time, it was impossible to hope for, let alone achieve, anything more. Skillful and successful in their dealings with Egypt and Syria, Ford and Kissinger were also lucky in their experiences with Saudi Arabia.
In 1975, King Faisal, the most successful and formidable ruler since old Ibn Saud himself, was assassinated by a mentally disturbed nephew. His successor and half-brother, King Khaled, was a different kind of man— decent, cautious, and low-key. He in turn bequeathed effective power to his own heir and half brother, Crown Prince Fahd. And Fahd, while brilliant and forceful like Faisal, was profoundly pro-American. His takeover of effective power in Riyadh eased relations with the United States, took military confrontation with Israel off the front burner, and prepared the way for the strategic partnership between Saudi Arabia and the United States under Ronald Reagan that would play such a huge role in bringing down the Soviet Union.
Oil prices remained high, times in the United States remained relatively tough, and Khaled and Fahd were not disposed to reduce the oil prices and cut off the financial bonanza Faisal had provided for them. For that matter, neither did the shah of Iran. But when Gerald Ford left office in January 1977—quietly, gracefully, with good humor and head held high, the way no American president had left the Oval Office since Dwight Eisenhower’s departure in 1961—he left behind a stabilized Middle East, full of opportunity and hope for his successor. Jimmy Carter would reap the rewards of the good seeds Ford had sowed, but he also wrecked nearly all of it.
The key to Ford’s success, admittedly, was Henry Kissinger. A German Jew whose family fled the Nazis in World War II, Kissinger was a brilliant Harvard professor of diplomatic history with a remarkable gift for political intrigue. So skillful was he that during the 1968 presidential campaign he was a front-runner to become national security advisor with both main candidates at the same time—Republican Richard M. Nixon and Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey. When Nixon edged out Humphrey in a squeaker election, Kissinger got the job. In 1973, he rose still higher to serve as secretary of state under Nixon and then under Ford.
Kissinger specialized in realpolitik policies that accomplished moral goals while appearing utterly cynical and confounding apparent common sense. Before he entered the Middle East arena, it was universally assumed that you had to back one side or the other in the Israeli-Arab conflict, and if the United States backed Israel, it would continue to steadily lose power and influence across the Arab world.
Kissinger confounded this assumption. By maintaining and strengthening the U.S. role as Israel’s chief supporter, he made Washington the place Arab leaders had to go if they wanted any concessions from the Israelis. As Israel was dependent only on the United States, it followed that only the United States could bring pressure to bear. It all seemed so obvious once you started to think about it. Kissinger went on to displace and replace Soviet influence in Egypt with American. He also brought relative peace and stability to the region by selling arms to both sides in the Israel-Arab conflict. This was good news for major U.S. companies hurting from the quadrupling of oil prices in the 1970s. It also dramatically revived long-lasting U.S. influence in the region.
Kissinger and Nixon were by no means infallible when it came to dealing with the Middle East. They came up with the Nixon Doctrine to maintain security in the oil-rich Persian Gulf by building up the shah of Iran as a regional military power comparable to Israel. But the shah proved to be first an ungrateful and backstabbing ally, and then a giant with feet of clay. He played a crucial leading role in the cartel with Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in quadrupling global oil prices. Within another five years, he was gone entirely, toppled by a furious old Shiite Muslim cleric he had banished to Paris.
Kissinger also miscalculated in delaying crucial aid to Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He wanted Israel to survive the war but to be chastened by it, so its leaders would be more willing to compromise with the major Arab states on his terms. But the war moved so fast that the Israeli army risked running out of ammunition and weapons against the Egyptians. Desperate Israeli appeals to President Nixon finally convinced Kissinger to resupply. But Defense Secretary James Schlesinger played the key role in pushing through the organization of the famous C-5A Galaxy airlift that got the crucial supplies to the Israeli troops in time.
Still, Kissinger’s subtle, cynical, micromanaged, hyperactive, and self-glorifying diplomacy worked, launching the first real peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors and enemies. The 1975 Sinai II disengagement agreement he laboriously brokered between Israel and Egypt led, in little more than two years, to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s remarkable visit to Jerusalem and then to the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. And the disengagement agreement he brokered between Israel and Hafez Assad kept the peace on the Golan Heights for the next three and a half decades. For more than three decades, Kissinger’s record of achievement in managing the Middle East remains one that none of his successors ever neared. When it came to handling the region, he wrote the book.
Yitzhak Rabin: The dove who armed Israel
Yitzhak Rabin’s first three-year term as prime minister of Israel was vastly underrated. His second, far more famous one, was vastly overrated. Rabin’s first premiership launched a peace process with Egypt. His second launched a peace process with the Palestinians. Their outcome was very different, largely because Yasser Arafat was not Anwar Sadat.
In 1974 Rabin inherited the most ominous security situation any Israeli prime minister had faced since the first bloody struggle to establish the state. When Moshe Dayan became minister of defense in 1967, he knew he inherited the most powerful army and air force in the Middle East, fresh and poised to strike. But seven years later, Rabin inherited an Israeli army that had lost more than four times as many soldiers in the Yom Kippur war as had died in the Six-Day War. Three thousand Israeli soldiers had died out of a total population of only three million. This was proportional to the U.S. losing 300,000 dead in a war of only three weeks: three 1times the death toll of the Korean and Vietnam wars combined.
Also, the previously invincible Israeli army found that the tank and close air support strike forces that had served it so well in 1956 and 1967 were obsolete. The handheld, wire-guided, anti-tank missiles and handheld surface-to-air missiles supplied by the Soviet Union to Egypt and Syria had inflicted carnage on Israel’s elite, irreplaceable pilots and tank crews. Still massively outnumbered in manpower, Israel had lost the long-term tactical superiority it needed to survive.
Rabin’s solution was to look to the nation he had admired ever since studying and serving there as a young Israeli officer in the 1950s. President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger were putting enormous pressure on Israel to withdraw from the western sections of the Suez canal. Dayan had been ready to contemplate such a move after the Six- Day War, arguing in vain to Golda Meir that Israel should not keep its front line on the canal in any case. Rabin came to the same conclusion, but he decided to get something for the concession. Rabin’s price for signing the 1975 Sinai II disengagement agreement was a U.S.-Israeli arms deal quite unlike any seen before.
More than any arms deal Israel had signed before, the 1975 deal transformed the nature of the Israeli armed forces. The Israeli air force had served as flying artillery for the army, providing the kind of close tactical ground support that proved so decisive for the U.S., British, Soviet, and German armies in the great land battles of World War II. But the heavy losses to simple surface-to-air guided missiles from poorly trained Egyptian and Syrian combat soldiers during the 1973 war proved that those days were over. Israel would have to rely on real heavy artillery now that its fabled “flying artillery” arm had been broken. Ford, Kissinger, and Schlesinger provided that artillery—the heaviest there was. They supplied every caliber of artillery heavy gun the Israelis needed, including massive 155 mm ones. Before the 1973 war, Israel’s conventional artillery arm had been nonexistent. After the deal in 1975, it had the most powerful artillery in the Middle East. The gifts in the gigantic $900 million package (more than $3.5 billion in today’s dollars) also included a new generation of main battle tanks. In follow-up agreements, U.S. funding flowed to finance development and production of the Merkava (Hebrew for “chariot”), Israel’s own home-produced main battle tank. Ford also agreed to supply Israel with the finest combat aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.
The 1975 arms deal transformed the Israeli army in ways that continue to this day. It would no longer be the lightning-fast force of lightly armed elite troops attacking boldly by night, as envisioned by Orde Wingate and the blitzkrieg-influenced military commanders of the 1950s. It would now be a huge masse de materiel, more slow-moving but overwhelming in the firepower it could bring to bear. Rabin Americanized the Israeli army, and it remains so to this day.
Israeli pundits at the time and historians since have seen Rabin’s first premiership as a study in weakness and ineffectualness. They could not have been more wrong As the Jerusalem Post’s Philip Gillon presciently noted at the time, Rabin showed a determination and readiness to make hard, crucial decisions worthy of David Ben-Gurion himself. Ironically, it was the F-15 Eagles he so coveted for his country that brought Rabin down. In 1977, he held a proud ceremony at Israel’s Ben- Gurion Airport to welcome the first of the F-15s from the United States. But it was a Friday afternoon and the aircraft were flying behind schedule.
The ceremony stretched into the early hours of the Jewish Sabbath. Jewish religious parties Rabin depended on for his coalition majority in the Knesset pulled out of the government to protest the event running into the Sabbath. Their leaders expected the usually mild-mannered Rabin to simply practice business as usual and plead with them to come back. Instead, the infuriated prime minister resigned and called a general election. This led to the fall of his government and the end of the Labor Party’s three-decade-long control of the Israeli state. Rabin had boasted in the welcoming ceremony for the F-15s that they would usher in a vastly changed Israel. Even he did not dream how vastly changed it would truly be.
Did Jimmy Carter really bring peace to the Middle East?
In four short years, President Jimmy Carter taught the world and his presidential successors an unfailing formula to wreck the Middle East: focus obsessively on bringing peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as if God chose only you and your personal “experts” to do it, and force friendly governments to slit their own throats by installing full-scale American-style democracy immediately. It fails every time. Carter proved conclusively, as Britain’s Neville Chamberlain had forty years before him, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A personally decent, honorable, incorruptible evangelical Christian, he wanted nothing more or less than to bring eternal peace between the Children of Abraham, the Jews and the Arabs.
Thanks to Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, Carter came into office with an awful lot going for him. Even so, his bungling, rather than his skill, gave him his big breakthrough. In 1977, Carter wanted the Soviet Union to be the United States’ partner in running a Middle East peace conference or diplomatic initiative to settle the Israeli-Arab conflict. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat confronted the idea with understandable horror. He had risked his life and the future of his country to kick Nasser’s Soviet advisors out in 1971. The last thing he needed was some extraordinarily naïve U.S. president letting them come back, bound for revenge. So the man who had confounded all expectations by expelling the Soviets six years earlier announced that within days he was going to visit Jerusalem.
The move was astounding beyond imagination. Nothing like it had ever been seen in the history of the Middle East. Sadat was going to meet the (supposedly) most hard-line, ferocious, and implacable Israeli leader of them all: Menachem Begin, whose Likud bloc had finally won power in the 1977 general elections after he had endured six previous electoral defeats in a row as leader of the Herut and Gahal parties. Nor was Sadat just going to Tel Aviv, which would have been radical enough. He was going to Jerusalem, the city whose Islamic holy sites had been in Israeli hands for more than a decade, to the unending fury of the entire Arab and Muslim worlds.
Friends and enemies alike were stunned. General Mordechai Gur, the tough Israeli general who had led the forces that stormed the Old City in 1967, suspected a trap. Only Begin took the whole thing in stride. Thousands of reporters and television news teams flooded in from around the world. Bezeq, Israel’s justly reviled nationalized telephone company, which usually couldn’t install a simple phone in an apartment without a three-year delay, set up flawlessly working free global communications for all of them in less than a week. Sadat’s Jerusalem visit was the biggest thing of its kind since the Queen of Sheba had come to woo King Solomon. Sadat was less impressed. And there was certainly no love affair between Egypt and Israel to rival the famous biblical one. But they did share their hearts’ desire: peace between their two countries and, for Sadat, a demand that the entire demilitarized Sinai Peninsula be returned to Egypt.
What followed was more than fifteen months of long, exhausting, mean, and obsessive negotiations. Carter threw himself into the heart of them and obsessed over every detail. (Like Herbert Hoover, Carter, who personally planned the schedules for the White House tennis court, thrived on details, the more useless the better.) Eventually, it all came together at the 1978 Camp David peace conference, where Carter basically locked up the sovereign leaders of Israel and Egypt in what amounted to a luxury prison, with the Secret Service as their jailers, until they finally agreed on a peace treaty. The irony is that none of it was necessary, and that lasting peace between Israel and Egypt may well have been possible, on far more favorable terms for Israel, without it.
Sadat frankly refused to make peace without getting all of the Sinai back, but since Kissinger’s monumental Sinai II agreement in 1975, he had the reality of peace anyway. The eventual treaty hammered out at Camp David was made possible only with enormous annual payments of more than $4 billion from the American taxpayer to Israel and Egypt alike. Israel got a little more than Egypt in absolute terms, but as it had a much smaller population, vastly more in per capita terms. But by giving up the Sinai, Israel lost the strategic depth it would desperately need if it made any long-term agreement with the Palestinians. It also lost the territory it would ultimately need if it ever faced an implacable enemy determined to acquire nuclear weapons. The more Israel’s population was concentrated in the area of greater Tel Aviv, the more tempting it would be for any genocidal-minded maniac to wipe out the bulk of the population at a single stroke. By giving up the Sinai, Begin made that nightmare a lot easier to achieve.
Retaining much of Sinai would also have made it far easier to maintain control of the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians were adept, as the Viet Cong had been before them, in constructing endless arrays of tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt when the Israeli-Egyptian border was right beside them. And in sharp contrast to Gaza and the West Bank, Sinai was almost uninhabited. Far from bringing peace with its neighbors, there is a good argument to be made that Carter’s work enabled Begin to start a disastrous war that his country has been paying for ever since. Peace with Egypt in the south freed Begin to launch his army into Lebanon to the north in spring 1982.
But Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s grand design for Lebanon quickly went disastrously wrong. Israel suffered hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded before it finally withdrew from much of southern Lebanon after a broken Begin left office. Had Egypt remained essentially powerless and in the U.S. orbit, but without a final peace treaty with Israel, and had Israel maintained control of most of the Sinai, but forced to be on guard in the south, Begin would never have dared to open up an ambitious new front in the north.
He and Sharon might still have swept the PLO out of the large enclave it controlled in southern Lebanon, but they would never have dared to push on into the heart of Lebanon. Hezbollah, created by this series of maneuvers, proved a far more formidable and long-lasting enemy of the Jewish state than the PLO had ever been. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty also cost America the life of its most important and constructive ally in the entire Middle East. On October 6, 1981, Anwar Sadat proudly reviewed his armed forces as they marched past him in massed array. A small group of Islamic extremist conspirators in his own army, furious at Sadat’s peace with Israel, broke ranks as their unit marched by the reviewing stand and stormed it, their automatic rifles blazing. Sadat died instantly. His fate was sealed by the most enormous decoration he wore on his chest: the Star of Sinai. It was just too big and garish to miss.
Had the 1975 Sinai II disengagement agreement been allowed to define Israeli-Egyptian relations, Sadat would have lived and extreme Islamism would never have won its greatest assassination coup to date. But by then, the other supposed great ally of the United States in the Middle East had also fallen, even more a victim to Carter’s romantic and farcical sense of priorities. Carter’s “great achievement” of peace between Israel and Egypt came at a disastrous price: it resulted in Iran’s fall to Ayatollah Khomeini, launching a virulent new form of Islamist extremism hitherto inconceivable. From November 1977 through March 1979, Carter was so obsessed with achieving an Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that he ignored the increasing evidence that the shah of Iran’s position was crumbling with amazing speed.
Clinton: Carter all over again
At first glance, Bill Clinton’s dealings with the Middle East appeared the absolute opposite of the hapless Carter’s experience. And compared with many of the bungles the subsequent Bush administration would make, it arguably still looks good.
Under Clinton, peace and relative stability were preserved throughout the region, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process seemed to advance. Even Iran appeared to become more moderate, with the 1997 election of the remarkably moderate (at least by Islamic Republic standards) Mohammad Khatami. And oil prices until 1999 stayed astonishingly low. Compared to Carter’s nightmarish record of buffoonish incompetence, this was a welcome contrast indeed.
But as it turned out, Clinton repeated Carter’s basic mistake of focusing obsessively on the Israeli-Arab peace process. He shared Carter’s megalomaniacal delusion that he could forge the lasting peace that had eluded previous generations on either side. As a result, like Carter, Clinton and his top experts on the region ignored or catastrophically underrated the remorseless—but otherwise highly preventable—rise of a ferocious enemy that would kill more Americans in a single day than the Japanese navy did at Pearl Harbor. Clinton cannot take either credit or blame for the Oslo Peace Process. It was former Israeli super-hawk (now turned ultra-dove) Shimon Peres who laid that egg. And it was Rabin—haunted by memories of the death cries of his young comrades in the 1947 fighting for Jerusalem—who made the crucial decision to go along with Peres.
But once Rabin and Arafat held that famous meeting and shook hands on the White House lawn in 1993, Clinton and his team eagerly jumped aboard the “Peace at Last” express. Where Carter had obsessively thrown himself into every nook and cranny of the Israeli-Egyptian negotiations for eighteen months, Clinton did so for a full seven years. The climax came in July 2000 when, with the sands of time running out on his second term, Clinton convened a Camp David II peace summit with Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and the old and ailing Arafat.
Using Jimmy Carter as a model for anything, even for what still appeared to be his one undisputed great diplomatic achievement, should have given the Clinton team pause, but clearly it did not. The idea and driving force for the conference reportedly came from Barak, who capped a brilliant career as Israel’s top special forces commander (during which his exploits exceeded even those of Dayan and Sharon) with a short and utterly bungled premiership. But there is no doubt that Clinton and his top peace negotiators were exceptionally eager to make the effort. For such an ambitious endeavor, Barak and his team bungled the staff work for Camp David II abysmally. It is difficult to imagine that the man who had been the legendary commander of special forces and then a respected IDF chief of staff could have proven so sloppy in preparing for his greatest challenge as national leader.
But Barak, as his intimates later revealed, did not even do the basic diplomatic preparation of sounding out the Palestinians’ absolute bottomline terms for a settlement. What he offered was, from the Israeli perspective, immensely generous: more than 90 percent of the West Bank. But he didn’t yield on the right of return for the descendents of Palestinian refugees from the 1947 war, about which Arafat was insistent. He also insisted on maintaining total Israeli control over the entire city of Jerusalem, and on retaining the relatively small amount of territory beyond the 1967 borders on which 180,000 Israelis had built towns and settlements. This was 80 percent of the total Israeli settler population beyond the Green Line.
Over the previous seven years, Arafat had gained a vast amount for himself, and had made his first gains for his long-suffering people, by compromising for the first time in his life. But at Camp David II, when he could have won so much more, he turned it down. Demanding nothing but the entire cake, he lost the much larger slice of it he would otherwise have had. His decision was true to the patterns of bizarre behavior and logic that had governed his entire life. It also condemned Israelis and Palestinians alike to a new round of war and suffering greater than anything they had endured in more than fifty years.
For Clinton, the failure of Camp David II dashed his dreams of securing a lasting and secure peace for both sides. But worse by far, Clinton and his chief Middle East peace envoy, Dennis Ross, had forgotten the lasting wisdom of Henry Kissinger: when disputes are not resolvable, it is best to recognize what cannot be resolved and simply concentrate on improving the conditions that can be improved. Eventually, conditions and attitudes may change sufficiently to reconcile the previously irreconcilable, but trying to do too much too soon always backfires.
That was the consequence of Camp David II. When Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount in September 2000, an admittedly potentially incendiary move, Arafat used it to set off a new Palestinian intifada. The First Intifada had been fought with violent but non-lethal protests, because guns and explosives were not easily available on the West Bank and in Gaza after twenty years of effective Israeli control. The Second Intifada was far more lethal. Some 1,100 Israeli civilians died in the following four years of mayhem, and probably at least three times that number of Palestinians died from Israeli retaliation. Rabin’s idealism and Peres’s utopian visions had born bitter fruit.
The United States bore a worse and more direct price. In the years before Camp David II, and in the fevered months up to, during, and after it, Clinton and his top officials paid no attention to the mounting evidence that al Qaeda, a once obscure but increasingly formidable extreme Islamist terrorist group led by Saudi renegade Osama bin Laden, had become emboldened. Encouraged by its previous impunity from retaliation by the U.S. armed forces, it was now preparing a terrorist attack of unprecedented scale on the two of the greatest cities in the United States.
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