The Middle East: The Origins of Arab-Israeli Wars

Avi Shlaim

in Ngaire Woods, ed., Explaining International Relations since 1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 219-40.

The Middle East has been one of the most volatile and violent subsystems of the international political systems since the end of the Second World War. Postwar history in the Middle East has been punctuated by an unusually high number of full-scale, inter-state wars. The aim of this chapter is to explore the underlying causes of the largest category of Middle Eastern wars, namely, the Arab-Israeli wars. Wars which are not directly related to the Arab-Israeli conflict, like the Yemen war of 1961-64 and the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, lie outside the scope of this chapter. Within the scope of this chapter are all seven major Arab-Israeli wars: the 1948 Palestine war, the 1956 Suez war, the June 1967 Six-Day War, the 1969-70 War of Attrition, the October 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon war, and the 1991 Gulf war. It is the origins of these wars which will be examined here in an attempt to see whether any general patterns emerge.

The Level-of-Analysis Problem

    In dealing with the origins of wars, as with any other class of international events, it is important to be clear about the level of analysis. J. David Singer, in a famous article, identified the two most widely employed levels of analysis in International Relations: the international system and the national sub-systems. The first level of analysis focuses on the international system and its impact on the behaviour of states. The second focuses on domestic influences on states' behaviour vis-א-vis other states. The first level of analysis has the advantage of giving generalizable and parsimonious explanations of the external behaviour of states whereas the second level calls for richer detail, greater depth and more intensive portrayal of the domestic roots of international events.[1]

    Another well-known treatment of the level of analysis problem in International Relations is the book by Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State and War. This book is more directly relevant to the present inquiry than J.David Singer's article because it deals specifically with the causes of war. Waltz discusses the contribution which classical political theory makes to our understanding of the nature and causes of war. He does so by identifying three principal themes or images of international relations: war as the consequence of the nature and behaviour of man, as the outcome of the internal organization of states, and as the product of international anarchy.[2]

    In Waltz's analysis the state is the most important actor in international politics and the principal cause of war in the international system. All three images are concerned with influences that incline the state to go to war: the first image stresses the personality and beliefs of the leader as a cause of war; the second image stresses domestic political forces as the cause of war; while the third image stresses the regional and international power game as the cause of war. Waltz's conclusion is that the first two sets of influences are relatively unimportant whereas the third set of influences is critical. In other words, states do not resort to war because of the personality of the leader or because of their domestic political structure or ideology but because of pressures emanating from the international environment.

    Waltz's three images of international relations constitute a useful analytical framework for thinking about the causes of war. One of the strengths of the framework lies in its universal applicability. The framework can be employed to analyse the causes of a single war or a series of wars in any region at any period in history. The post-1945 Middle East is no exception. If applied to the outbreak of Arab-Israeli wars, this framework would suggest three lines of inquiry: the psychological factors rooted in human nature, the organizational and ideological factors rooted in the domestic environment, and the systemic factors rooted in the international environment. The framework would also suggest that systemic factors are much more important than the other two sets of factors in explaining the outbreak of Arab-Israeli wars.

    Yet, precisely because it is so broad and all-encompassing, Waltz's analytical framework is less than ideal for the purposes of this particular chapter. In the first place, there is no justification for assuming a priori that systemic factors connected with the regional and international power-game are more important than the other factors in motivating states to go to war. This is an empirical question which can only be answered after reviewing the relevant empirical evidence. Secondly, the relative weight of individual, domestic, and systemic influences is likely to vary from one Arab-israeli war to another. Thirdly, these three sets of influences cannot always be fitted into neat and separate categories because they intermingle and shade into one another.

    A different analytical framework is therefore proposed here, a framework tailored to the particular circumstances of the Middle East. This framework identifies three central factors that contribute to the outbreak of wars in the Middle East: the Arab-Israeli conflict, inter-Arab relations, and the involvement of the Great Powers in the affairs of the region. Like Waltz's framework, this alternative analytical framework involves a three-fold division. But whereas Waltz's three levels are the individual, the state and the international system, this framework focuses attention on three sets of interaction between states. States are the principal unit of analysis in this framework. The states in question are Israel, her Arab neighbours and the Great Powers: Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union. These states dominated the international politics of the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War. And it is the policies and actions of these states which are assumed to be the principal cause of war in the region. A word of explanation about the three factors that make up this framework of analysis may therefore be in order.

Israel, the Arab States and the Great Powers

    The conflict between Israel and the Arabs is one of the most profound and protracted conflicts of the twentieth century and the principal precipitant of wars in the Middle East. There are two major dimensions to this conflict: the Israeli-Palestinian dimension and the Israeli-Arab dimension. The origins of the conflict go back to the end of the nineteenth century when the Zionist movement conceived the idea of building a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. This project met with bitter opposition on the part of the Arab population of the country. The upshot was a clash between two national movements for possession of Palestine. There were two peoples and one land, hence the conflict.

    The neighbouring Arab states became involved in this conflict on the side of the Palestinian Arabs in the 1930s. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, the main weight of the conflict shifted from the local or inter-communal level to the inter-state level. In 1967 the conflict was further complicated by Israel's capture of the West Bank from Jordan, the Golan heights from syria and the Sinai peninsula from Egypt. From this point on, these states had a direct territorial dispute with Israel quite apart from their commitment to the Palestinian cause.

    On the root cause of the conflict there are widely divergent views. Most Arabs maintain that the root cause of the conflict is the dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian Arabs, an original sin which was compounded by Israel's subsequent territorial acquisitions. In their view, Israel is an inherently aggressive and expansionist state and the real source of violence in the region.[3]  Most Israelis, on the other hand, maintain that the root cause of the conflict is not territory but the Arab rejection of Israel's very right to exist as a sovereign state in the Middle East. According to this view, the basic Arab objective is the liquidation of the State of Israel while Israel acts only in self-defence and in response to the Arab challenges.[4]  But whatever one's view of the origins and nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there can be no doubt that this conflict has been a major cause of wars in the Middle East.

    A second source of tension and instability which at least on one occasion, in June 1967, helped to tip the balance in favour of war, is to be found in the relations among the Arab states. In theory all Arab states subscribe to the ideal of Arab unity but in practice inter-Arab relations are characterized more by conflict than by co-operation. Israel is widely held to be one of the few solid pillars propping up Arab unity, the one issue on which all Arabs, whatever their other differences may be, can agree. Opposition to Israel follows naturally from the belief that the inhabitants of the various Arab states, including the Palestinians, form a single nation and that Israel has grossly violated the sacred rights of this nation.

    A distinction needs to be made, however, between the rhetorical and the operational levels of Arab foreign policy. Whereas at the rhetorical level the Arab states were largely united in their commitment to oppose Israel, at the operational level they remained deeply divided. The conservative states tended to advocate containment of the Jewish state, while the radical states tended to advocate confrontation. For this reason, the conventional wisdom on Israel's role in inter-Arab relations is not entirely convincing. As a number of scholars have pointed out, the conflict with Israel has imposed enormous strain on the inter-Arab system.[5]  Far from serving as a goad to unity,the question of how to deal with Israel has been a serious source of dissension and discord in inter-Arab politics.

    A third source of instability and war in the Middle East is the involvement of the Great Powers in the affairs of the region. Two features of the Middle East help to account for the interest and rivalry it has evoked among the Great Powers in the twentieth century: its geostrategic importance and its oil reserves. Great Power involvement is not a unique feature of the Middle East but one that affects, in varying degrees, all regions of the world. What distinguishes the Middle East is the intensity, pervasiveness and profound impact of this involvement. No other part of the Third World has been so thoroughly and ceaselessly caught up in Great Power rivalries. No other sub-system of the international political system has been as penetrated as the Middle East.[6]  

    The dominant Great Powers in the Middle East were the Ottoman Empire until its dissolution in 1918, Britain and France until, roughly, the Suez war of 1956, the United States and the Soviet Union from Suez until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the United states on its own since 1991. So much stress has been laid on the role of these external powers that the history of the modern Middle East, in the words of Malcolm Yapp, has often been written as though the local states were `driftwood in the sea of international affairs, their destinies shaped by the decisions of others.'[7]  Yet this is a false picture, popular as it is with Middle Easterners and outsiders alike. From Yapp's detailed historical survey it emerges quite clearly that the dominant feature in the relations between international and regional powers is the manipulation of the former by the latter.[8] A perceptive survey of the period 1955-1967 by Fawaz Gerges reaches the same conclusion: the superpowers were rarely able to impose their will on the smaller states of the Middle East.[9]  Although the local states depended on their respective superpower patrons for diplomatic support, economic aid and the supply of arms, they managed to retain considerable freedom of action. Yet no account of the origins of Arab-israeli wars would be complete if it ignored the role played by outside powers.

    When the role of the Great Powers is considered alongside the other two factors - the Arab-Israeli conflict and inter-Arab relations - we begin to get some idea as to why the international politics of the Middle East are so complex, endemically unstable, and prone to violence and war. Against this background what is surprising is not that seven full-scale Arab-Israeli wars have erupted in the postwar period,but that some of the other crises in this volatile region did not end up in war. Our next task is to assess the relative weight of these three factors in the origins of each successive Arab-Israeli war, bearing in mind that these factors often interact in complex and curious ways.

The 1948 Palestine War

    The 1948 Arab-Israeli war was the climax of the conflict between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements which had been three decades in the making. As the mandatory power in Palestine, Britain had repeatedly tried and failed to find a solution that would reconcile the two rival communities in the country. In February 1947, the British cabinet decided to refer the problem to the United Nations and the struggle for Palestine entered its most critical phase. The United Nations, on 29 November 1947, passed its famous resolution which proposed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews accepted the partition plan; all the Arab states and the Palestinians rejected it vehemently. The Palestinians launched a campaign of violence to frustrate partition and Palestine was engulfed by a civil war in which the Jews eventually gained the upper hand. At midnight on 14 May 1948, upon expiry of the British mandate, the Jews proclaimed the establishment of an independent state which they called Israel. The following day the regular armies of the Arab states intervened in the conflict, turning a civil war into the first full-scale Arab-Israeli war, a war which ended in defeat for the Arabs and disaster for the Palestinians.

    Arab solidarity in the struggle for Palestine was more apparent then real. The Arab states, loosely organized in the Arab League, loudly proclaimed their solidarity with the Palestine Arabs and promised to provide money and arms. But behind the rhetoric of solidarity, the reality was one of national selfishness and dynastic rivalries, notably between King Farouk of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. King Abdullah who had reached a secret agreement with the Jewish Agency to partition Palestine at the expense of the Palestinians, was reluctant to play the part assigned to him in the Arab League's invasion plan. The Arab League's invasion plan was designed to prevent the creation of a Jewish state whereas his plan was to let the Jews have their state and annex to his kingdom much of territory assigned by the UN to the Arab state.[10]  Divisions of this kind go a long way to explain the failure of the Arab states to coordinate their diplomatic and military strategies in the battle for Palestine.

    Of the Great Powers Britain was most directly involved in the lead up to the Palestine war. Britain's policy during the twilight of the Palestine mandate is a subject of some contention. Pro-Zionist writers have assigned to Britain a large share of the blame for the outbreak of the Palestine war, claiming that Britain armed and encouraged her Arab allies to wade into Palestine and destroy the Jewish state at birth. There is no evidence, however, to sustain this charge, and considerable evidence to suggest that Britain tried to persuade the Arabs not to resort to war.[11]  

    On the other hand, Britain refused to assume responsibility for implementing the UN partition plan on the grounds that the use of force would be required. So the real charge against Britain is not that she plotted war against the infant Jewish state but that her abdication of responsibility at the critical moment allowed Palestine to slide into chaos, violence and bloodshed.

    America played a less central but equally controversial role in the events surrounding the Palestine war. American policy was a series of swings of the pendulum between the pro-Zionist White House and the pro-Arab State Department. In the fall of 1947, against the advice of the State Department, President Harry Truman decided to support partition. In March 1948, the State Department concluded that partition was impracticable and submitted instead a proposal for a United Nations trusteeship over Palestine. Both Truman and the State Department later urged the Jews to delay their declaration of independence and undertake on-the-spot negotiations in Palestine. But when the Jews proclaimed their state, Truman, without consulting the State Department, accorded it immediate de facto recognition.

    If America was first to accord de facto recognition to the State of Israel, the Soviet Union was first to accord de jure recognition. The Soviet Union supported partition and the creation of a Jewish state chiefly in order to weaken the British position in the Middle East. In early 1948 the Soviet Union permitted the emigration of Eastern European Jews and sent a shipment of 10,000 rifles and 450 machine-guns. During the summer of 1948, in violation of the UN embargo, the Jews received more substantial shipments of arms from the Eastern bloc which helped to tip the military balance against their opponents.

    The critical factor in the outbreak of the Palestine war was thus the dispute between the Jews and the Arabs. The Palestinian attack on the Jews provoked the civil war while the Arab invasion in May 1948 provoked the official war. Inter-Arab rivalries contributed much less to the outbreak of this war than they did to the subsequent military defeat. None of the Great Powers wanted war in Palestine but Britain lost control of the situation while support from Washington and Moscow encouraged the Jews to proceed to statehood by force of arms.

The 1956 Suez War

    If in 1948 the Great Powers played only a limited role on the Middle East stage, in 1956 the reverse was true. The war which broke out in October 1956 pitted Britain, France and Israel against Egypt. One of the many paradoxes of this war was that Britain and Israel, despite the bitter legacy of the past, joined arms to attack an Arab state which had long been associated with Britain. Another paradox was that Britain and France, old sparring partners in the Middle East, found themselves on the same side in this war.

    The motives which produced this unlikely alliance are not difficult to fathom. Britain was the primary mover. After the Free Officers' revolution of July 1952, Britain came under growing pressure to withdraw its forces from the strategically important Suez Canal base. With Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser as President, Egypt became the standard-bearer of radical pan-Arab nationalism. Prime Minister Anthony Eden regarded Nasser as the chief enemy of the British presence in Egypt and as the chief threat to the entire British position in the Arab world. Comparing Nasser with Hitler, Eden was convinced that the right response to this challenge was confrontation, not appeasement. For Eden, Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956 was the last straw. He concluded that Nasser would have to be removed from power if Britain were to maintain her position as a Great Power in the Middle East. The French also regarded Nasser as an enemy, not least because of his arms supplies to the Algerian rebels, and they too firmly set their face against appeasement. To the Israelis Nasser was a bitter and dangerous foe and they were particularly troubled by his actions in closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping and in sending fedayeen units across the border into Israel. But it was the Czech arms deal of September 1955 which began to tip the balance in the Israeli cabinet in favour of a preemptive strike against Egypt.

    Thus the three countries had their own reasons for wanting to go to war with Egypt. But although their war aims were not identical, they were all united by the determination to knock Nasser off his perch. The French took the lead in mediating between Israel and Britain and in organising the secret meeting on 22 October 1956 at which the infamous collusion took place. At this meeting a plan of action was agreed and embodied in what became known as the Protocol of Sטvres. The tripartite attack on Egypt a week later proceeded broadly in line with this plan. Collusion led directly to the collision at Suez.

    One of the distinguishing characteristics of Suez was that it was the result of a war plot. Indeed, while conspiracy theories are common, especially in the Middle East, Suez is one of the few genuine war plots of modern history. Britain, France and Israel deliberately, carefully and secretly planned their joint attack on Egypt. The Arab world was deeply divided in the mid-1950s between the radical states led by Egypt and the conservative monarchies led by Iraq but this division was not a direct cause of the Suez war. Similarly, the Soviet Union and the United States, though increasingly involved in the affairs of the Middle East, played no direct part in the events that led to war. Once the war broke out, the Soviet Union scored some cheap propaganda points by threatening rocket attacks against the attackers while the real pressure for halting the attack came from Washington. The crucial factor in the origins of the Suez war was the convergence of British, French and Israeli plans to inflict a military defeat on Egypt and to bring about the downfall of Nasser.

The Six-Day War

    Whereas the Suez war had been the result of deliberate planning, the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967 was the result of a crisis slide. President Nasser appeared to challenge Israel to a duel but most observers agree that he neither wanted nor expected a war to take place. What he did do was to embark on an exercise in brinkmanship which went over the brink. On 13 May 1967 Nasser received a Soviet intelligence report which claimed that Israel was massing troops on Syria's border. Nasser responded by taking three successive steps which made war virtually inevitable: he deployed his troops in Sinai near Israel's border, he expelled the United Nations Emergency Force from Sinai, and, on 22 May, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. On 5 June Israel seized the initiative and launched the short, sharp war which ended in a resounding military defeat for Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

    The decisive factor in triggering the crisis that led to the Six-Day War was inter-Arab rivalries. It may sound perverse to suggest that the war owed more to the rivalries between the Arab states than to the dispute between them and Israel, but such a view is supported by the facts. The Arab world was in a state of considerable turmoil arising out of the conflict and suspicions between the radical and the conservative regimes. A militant Ba'th regime rose to power in Syria in February 1966 and started agitating for a war to liberate Palestine. President Nasser came under growing pressure to stop hiding behind the skirts of the United Nations and to come to the rescue of the embattled regime in Damascus. Nasser suspected his Syrian allies of wanting to drag him into a war with Israel while they suspected that, if push came to shove, he would leave them to face Israel on their own. Nasser's first move, the deployment of the Egyptian army in Sinai, was not intended as a prelude to an attack on Israel but as a political manoeuvre designed to deter the Israelis and to shore up his prestige at home and in the Arab world. This move, however, started a chain reaction which Nasser was unable to control.

    In early May 1967 the old quarrel between Israel and the Arabs seemed almost irrelevant. As Malcolm Kerr observed in The Arab Cold War, the Arabs were more preoccupied with one another than they were with Israel. Even when the Israelis first appeared on the scene, they were merely there as a football for the Arabs, kicked onto the field first by the Syrian hot-heads and then again by Nasser. The Israelis, however, took a different view of themselves. It became a case of the football kicking the players.[12]

    The superpowers did very little to prevent the slide towards war. The Soviets fed Nasser with a false report about Israeli troop concentrations and supported his deployment of Egyptian troops in Sinai in the interest of bolstering the left-wing regime in Damascus and in the hope of deterring Israel from moving against this regime. Their subsequent attempts to restrain Nasser had very little effect. They probably hoped to make some political gains by underlining their own commitment to the Arabs and the pro-Israeli orientation of American foreign policy. But they seriously miscalculated the danger of war and they were swept up in a fast-moving crisis which they themselves had helped to unleash.

    America features very prominently in Arab conspiracy theories purporting to explain the causes and outcome of the June war. Mohamed Heikal, Nasser's confidant, for example, claims that Lyndon Johnson was obsessed with Nasser and that he conspired with Israel to bring him down.[13]  Such explanations, however, are transparently self-serving in that they assign all the blame for the war to America and Israel and overlook the part played by Arab provocations and miscalculations.

    In fact, the American position during the upswing phase of the crisis was hesitant, weak and ambiguous. President Johnson initially tried to prevent a war by restraining Israel and issuing warnings to the Egyptians and the Soviets. Because these warnings had no visible effect on Nasser's conduct, some of Johnson's advisers toyed with the idea of unleashing Israel against Egypt. Johnson himself was decidedly against giving Israel the green light to attack. His signals to the Israelis amounted to what William Quandt termed `a yellow light' but, as for most motorists, the yellow light amounted to a green light.[14]

The War of Attrition

    The March 1969-August 1970 Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition was a direct result of the problems created for the Arab world by the Six-Day War. Israel had not only won a resounding military victory but ended the war in possession of large tracts of Arab land - the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai peninsula. UN Resolution 242 of 22 November 1967 called on Israel to withdraw from these occupied territories in return for peace with the Arabs but the Israelis and the Arabs interpreted Resolution 242 rather differently and Israel's position progressively hardened. Israel became attached to the new territorial status quo and was confident of her ability to maintain this status quo indefinitely. Her strategy was to sit tight on the new case-fire lines until the Arabs had no alternative but to accept her terms for a settlement.

    For a short period the Arabs closed ranks against the common enemy and the bitter consequences of defeat but the old divisions gradually reasserted themselves. The main division was between the advocates of a political settlement and those who believed that what was taken by force could only be recovered by force. At the summit conference held in Khartoum in late August 1967, these divisions were papered over by means of a resolution which was dubbed the three `noes' of Khartoum - no recognition, no negotiations and no peace with Israel. The conference demonstrated the uselessness of pan-Arabism as a framework for deciding a realistic policy towards Israel. The political option was rejected even at a time when an Arab military option palpably and painfully was not available. While Arab unity was preserved at the declaratory level, at the practical level each Arab state was left to decide for itself how to go about recovering the territory it had lost.

    President Nasser adopted a strategy which fell into three phases: the purely defensive phase of re-equipping and reorganizing the Egyptian armed forces, leading to the second phase of active deterrence, which would be followed finally by the liberation of the territory that had been lost. Nasser's central aim after the 1967 defeat was to lift the Middle East dispute from the local level, at which Israel had demonstrated its superiority, to the international level. He therefore set out to involve the Soviet Union as deeply as possible in the Middle East problem. If a satisfactory political settlement could be reached with Soviet help, that would be fine, but if a political solution could not be found, the Soviet Union would be under some obligation to help Egypt develop a military option against Israel.[15]

    The Soviet Union stepped up considerably its material and military support to Syria and Egypt after the 1967 defeat and it also became deeply involved in the diplomacy of the Middle East dispute. Although it was opposed to the resumption of all-out war, it supported the Egyptian commando raids across the Suez Canal which developed, by March 1969, into what became known as the War of Attrition.

    Nasser decided to begin a war of attrition only after it became clear that diplomacy alone could not dislodge Israel from Sinai and after enlisting Soviet support for limited military action against Israel. The aim of the war was to bring about Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. The strategy adopted was that of a limited but prolonged war which would exact heavy casualties, exhaust Israel psychologically, and impose an intolerable burden on her economy. Israel's aim during the run-up to the War of Attrition and during the war itself was to preserve the territorial, political and military status quo created by the Six-Day War. In all other Arab-Israeli wars, the side that started the war did so in order to preserve the status quo. This was true of the Arabs in 1948 and of Israel in 1956 and 1967. In the War of Attrition, the side that started the war, Egypt, was not out to defend but to change the status quo.[16]

The Yom Kippur War

    The War of Attrition ended in a military draw between Israel and Egypt and it was followed by a deadlock on the diplomatic front which was not broken until 6 October 1973 when Egypt and Syria launched their well-coordinated surprise attack against Israel. The Yom Kippur War can be traced to three factors: the failure of all international initiatives for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute; the emergence of an Arab coalition which was able and willing to do battle with Israel; and the steady flow of arms from the superpowers to their regional clients.

    International initiatives for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict failed largely as a result of Israeli intransigence. After Anwar Sadat succeeded Gamal Abdel Nasser as President in September 1970, there was a distinct shift in Egyptian policy away from military activity towards the quest for a political solution. Sadat's public declaration in February 1971 of his readiness for a peaceful agreement with Israel was a significant turning-point in the generation-old conflict. But the deadlock over the implementation of UN Resolution 242 could not be broken because Israel flatly refused to return to the lines of 4 June 1967. On 4 February 1971, Sadat put forward his own plan for an interim settlement, based on a limited Israeli pull-back from the Suez Canal and the reopening of the canal for international shipping, but this plan, too, was rejected by Israel. Continued Israeli stone-walling persuaded Sadat, by November 1972, that a resort to force was essential in order to break the pattern of standstill diplomacy. From that point he started planning the military offensive which was code-named `Operation Spark'.

    Under the leadership of Golda Meir, Israel kept raising her price for a political settlement just when Egypt became convinced of the need for a historic compromise. Immobilism was the hallmark of Mrs. Meir's foreign policy. Holding on to the territories acquired in 1967 gradually replaced the quest for a settlement as Israel's top priority. Mrs Meir continued to proclaim Israel's desire for peace but this was a pious hope rather than a plan of action. Her actual strategy was to let Sadat sweat it out, with his range of options constantly  narrowing, until he was left with no choice but to accept Israel's terms for a settlement. The consequences of this strategy were to miss the opportunities for a peaceful settlement of the dispute and drive Israel's opponents to launch another round of fighting.

    Israel's intransigence gave the Arab states a powerful incentive to set aside their differences and formulate a joint strategy for the recovery of their territory. The early 1970s were an era of rapprochement and growing co-operation in inter-Arab politics. Relations between Egypt and Syria developed into an effective strategic partnership and the relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia also improved after Nasser's death. On the Arab side, Sadat was the main mover and planner on the road to war. His strategy was to mobilize all the resources of the Arab world, including the use of the oil weapon, for the forthcoming confrontation with Israel. It was he who took the lead in forging the alliance with Syria, in setting strictly limited aims for the joint operation, and in provoking the international crisis in which the superpowers, he believed, were bound to intervene in order to secure a settlement.

    Soviet policy in the period 1970-1973 was inconsistent and contradictory. The Soviet Union's overall policy of detente with the United States led it to behave with great caution in the Middle East. It was Moscow's refusal to give Egypt the weapons she needed to have a viable military option against Israel that prompted Sadat, in July 1972, to expel the Soviet military advisers from his country. By the beginning of 1973, however,the Soviets resumed arms supplies to Egypt in the knowledge that an offensive against Israel was being planned. The Soviets continued to urge their Arab allies to avoid war while supplying them with sufficient arms to enable them to resume hostilities.[17]

    The United States contributed to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War indirectly and inadvertently by supporting the Israeli policy of trying to maintain an untenable status quo. Republican President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, approached the Middle East from a globalist perspective and sought to keep the Soviet Union out of the area. They perceived Israel as a strategic asset and a bastion of regional stability. They embraced the Israeli thesis that a strong Israel was the best deterrent to war in the Middle East. In accordance with this thesis, they provided Israel with economic and military aid on an ever growing scale while declining to put pressure on her to return to the pre-1967 lines. Even after Sadat expelled the Soviet advisers, the Americans persisted in this standstill diplomacy which eventually drove Egypt and Syria not to accept Israel's terms for a settlement but to resort to war.

The 1982 Lebanon War

    The 1982 Lebanon war was the result of the unresolved dispute, or only partially resolved dispute, between Israel and the Arabs. The origins of this war can be traced back to the rise to power in Israel of the right-wing Likud Party headed by Menahem Begin in 1977. It was Israel's invasion of Lebanon in June 1982 which started the war in Lebanon and provoked the clash with the PLO and Syrian forces on Lebanon's territory. Officially the war was called `Operation Peace for the Galilee' to suggest that its purpose was purely defensive, to secure the Galilee against attacks from the PLO forces stationed in southern Lebanon. But the broader aims of the war were to create a new political order in Lebanon, to establish Israeli hegemony in the Levant and to pave the way to the absorption of the West Bank in line with the Likud's nationalistic ideology of Greater Israel. In this sense, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was only the culmination of a long process of Israeli intervention in domestic and regional Arab politics.[18]

    Internal political divisions in Lebanon and inter-Arab rivalries did not directly cause the war but they facilitated and encouraged Israeli intervention. Lebanon itself had no territorial dispute with Israel and had only half-heartedly participated in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. But the weakness of the Lebanese state and the fragmentation of Lebanese politics not only permitted but invited intervention by outside powers, notably Syria and Israel. Palestinian presence in Lebanon greatly added to this internal turmoil which in 1976 erupted into a civil war. Syria intervened in the civil war on the side of the Christian forces against the Lebanese left and the PLO. By maintaining a large military presence in Lebanon, Syria became the de facto arbiter of Lebanese politics. And this accentuated further the geopolitical contest between Syria and Israel for mastery in the Levant.[19]   

    Another major rift in the Arab world opened up when President Sadat signed the Camp David accords with Israel in 1978 and a peace treaty in 1979. Throughout the Arab world Sadat was denounced as a traitor and Egypt was drummed out of the Arab League. President Hafez al-Assad was one of Sadat's fiercest critics, arguing that the only way to negotiate with Israel is by maintaining a united Arab front. Sadat argued in self-defence that Egypt's peace treaty with Israel was only a first step towards comprehensive peace in the Middle East. The Likud government, however, exploited Egypt's disengagement from the conflict in order to press its strategic advantage against the rest of Israel's Arab opponents and especially against the Palestinians.

    The chief architect of Israel's war in Lebanon was defence minister Ariel Sharon. A ruthless and cynical politician, he was also a great believer in using force to solve political problems. Sharon's `big plan' had a number of objectives. The first objective was to destroy the military infrastructure of the PLO in southern Lebanon and thereby to break the backbone of Palestinian resistance to the imposition of permanent Israeli rule over the West Bank. The second objective was to help Bashir Gemayel, leader of one of the Christian militias, in his bid for power so as to bring about a new political order in Lebanon and one which was expected to be amenable to a peace agreement with Israel. The third objective was to defeat the Syrian forces in Lebanon and to replace the Syrian protectorate of the country with an Israeli protectorate. In short, the idea was to use Israel's military power in order to accomplish a politico-strategic revolution round Israel's eastern and northern borders. It was not the much-vaunted Israeli aspiration to peaceful co-existence with the Arabs that inspired this war but Sharon's relentless drive to assert Israeli hegemony over the entire region.[20]

    Israeli propaganda surrounding the invasion dwelt on the security threat posed by the PLO presence in southern Lebanon. But in July 1981 the United States had negotiated a cease-fire between the two arch-enemies, the PLO and Israel, and over the next year the border between Lebanon and Israel remained quiet. It was not the military power of the PLO but its growing political moderation that provoked anxiety in Jerusalem. The war party was simply waiting for a pretext to invade Lebanon and on 3 June 1982 a pretext arrived in the form of an assassination attempt against the Israeli ambassador in London. The attempt was ordered not by the PLO but by the renegade terrorist, Abu Nidal. But on 6 June, six Israeli divisions crossed the border into Lebanon, signalling that a full-scale war was intended rather than a small retaliatory raid.

    The United States played only a limited role in the events leading up to the war in Lebanon while the Soviet role was negligible. Neither superpower was particularly interested in Lebanon but they became involved in response to promptings by their local allies. Israeli propaganda charged the Soviet Union with aiding and abetting the PLO. But Soviet policy, as usual, was confused and contradictory. It is true that the Soviets enabled the PLO to stockpile large quantities of weapons in Lebanon but at the same time they were urging the PLO to suspend military action and to moderate its position so as to open the way to a political solution. The arms were given reluctantly to placate the PLO and enable it to negotiate from a position of relative strength.

    The United states was dragged into the Lebanese quagmire by her importunate Israeli ally. Republican President Ronald Reagan looked at the Middle East through Cold War spectacles and held decidedly pro-Israeli views. To secure American backing Israeli officials stressed that their plan would weaken the pro-Soviet forces in the Middle East: Syria, the PLO, and the radical factions in Lebanon. At a meeting in Washington  in May 1982, Secretary of State Alexander Haig told Ariel Sharon that the United States would understand a military move only in response to an `internationally recognized provocation'. Sharon chose to interpret Haig's convoluted statement as a `green light' to invade Lebanon. While the Reagan administration did not positively desire war in Lebanon, it had not done enough to prevent it. On 1 September 1982 President Reagan belatedly announced his plan for a Palestinian homeland in association with Jordan. It was a good plan but, like so many other plans for the peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, it foundered on the rocks of Israeli intransigence.

The 1991 Gulf War

    Iraq's invasion and annexation of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 provoked a protracted and tense international crisis which culminated in war on 16 January 1991. All the Arab states of the Middle East and the Gulf, Israel, Iran, Turkey, and the great powers were involved, in one way or another, in the Gulf crisis and war. By far the most important factor in precipitating this war, however, was the crisis in inter-Arab relations. The Gulf war even surpassed the Six-Day War as the nadir of pan-Arabism in the post-World War II era.

    The Gulf war had its origins in an Arab-Arab conflict which Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, tried, with only partial success, to turn into an Arab-Israeli conflict and which ended up as a conflict between the Western powers and Iraq - the first major conflict of the post-Cold War era.

    Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was the last chapter in the Iran-Iraq war. During this war, which was started by Iraq in 1980 and lasted eight years, the oil-rich Gulf states and the Western powers helped create a monster in the shape of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, they expected this monster to behave reasonably after the war, at least as far as their interests were concerned. But on 2 August 1990, Saddam suddenly turned against his makers by gobbling up Kuwait.

    Saddam accused Kuwait of stealing Iraqi oil by extracting more than its share from the Rumaila oil field, which straddles the border between the two countries,and of inflicting massive losses in oil revenue on Iraq by exceeding its OPEC production quota, thereby depressing the price. But Saddam's motives for annexing Kuwait went well beyond this technical dispute over oil quotas and oil prices. Saddam was a gambler playing for big stakes. He annexed Kuwait for both economic and geopolitical reasons. He was strapped for cash, so he went on a big bank raid. But he also wanted to improve Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf and to secure her dominance over the entire region. In 1990, as in 1980, he moved against a neighbouring country as part of the same drive for power, wealth, territorial expansion, and military aggrandizement. The second move, however, was a considerably more serious violation of international law than the first because it was an attempt to snuff out an independent state and a member of the United Nations.

    The Arabs were so deeply divided in their response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that not even the fiction of a unified Arab nation could be sustained. Sudan, South Yemen and the PLO sided with Iraq. Egypt and Jordan wanted to mediate, to work out an Arab solution to the dispute and to forestall outside intervention. Nearly all the other Arab states denounced the Iraqi invasion and some perceived it is a threat to their own security. The merger of Iraq and Kuwait would have been a formidable combination both in economic and in geopolitical terms. It was widely suspected that Saddam's next target would be the Saudi oil-fields just across the border from Kuwait. Syria was another potential target. Syria and Iraq were united by the same Ba'th ideology but divided by bitter enmity and there was a danger that Iraq would sooner or later seize the opportunity to settle old scores. Thus, some of the most conservative regimes in the Arab world found themselves on the same side as the more radical regimes in opposing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

    Israel's position in the Gulf crisis and war was distinctly anomalous. On the one hand, Iraqi aggression against a fellow Arab country seemed to support the often-repeated Israeli claim that much of the violence and instability in the Middle East is unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the other hand, by posing as the champion of Palestinian national rights, Saddam managed to mobilize a significant degree of Arab popular opinion, secular as well as Islamic, on his side. On 10 August 1990, Saddam shrewdly proposed a possible Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait if Israel withdrew from all occupied Arab territory. This proposal, though rejected outright by both Israel and America, created some sort of a linkage between the Gulf crisis and the Arab-Israeli crisis. For the remainder of the Gulf crisis, Israel tried to maintain a very low profile. Even Iraqi missile attacks on Israeli population centres, following the outbreak of hostilities, could not elicit military retaliation on Israel's part. This uncharacteristic Israeli forbearance ultimately defeated Saddam's efforts to turn an Arab-Arab conflict into an Arab-Israeli one.

    The Soviet Union, in the final stages of disintegration, was unable to play an independent role in dealing with the crisis and America was left to do all the running. The Iraqi annexation of Kuwait presented America with a series of challenges - to its interests in oil, to its interests in Saudi Arabia and to its prestige in the Gulf. It also challenged the old territorial order that Britain and France had imposed on the region after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Each of these challenges was serious enough; the combination ensured that Iraq's aggression would not go unanswered.

    America refused to negotiate, and took the lead in sending troops to the Gulf, building up an impressively large coalition, passing all the necessary resolutions in the United Nations and issuing an ultimatum to Iraq. When Iraq failed to comply, America and her allies launched Operation Desert Storm. The two aims of the operation were to eject the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and to restore the Kuwaiti government and these aims were quickly and easily achieved. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the villain of the piece, was not an official war aim but his survival in power certainly took some of the sheen off the allied victory.



    This brief survey of the origins of Middle East wars reveals a bewildering array of political forces operating in the region. The three factors identified at the beginning of this chapter - the Arab-Israeli conflict, inter-Arab relations and Great Power involvement - are unquestionably all important in explaining the causes of war. Yet the relative weight of each factor varies considerably from war to war. Naturally enough, in the majority of Middle East wars, the most salient factor was the Arab-Israeli conflict. Inter-Arab relations were a salient factor in the outbreak of the Six-Day War of June 1967 and the 1991 Gulf War. Great Power involvement is not as salient a factor as the first two but it did contribute to the outbreak of the Suez war and the Gulf war.

    Keeping in mind the three levels of analysis suggested by Kenneth Waltz helps us to make sense of the complex forces that culminated in seven full-scale Arab-Israeli wars. Far from leaving us with the impression of bewildering complexity, this analytical device helps us to pinpoint the salient factors in the making of each of these wars. Our empirical survey, however, illustrates not only the strengths but the limitations of this analytical device. Waltz suggests that level three (systemic factors) is much more important than level two (domestic factors) or level one (personality factors) in explaining why states go to war. Our survey suggests that the three levels of analysis intermingle and shade into one another. While systemic factors are indeed critical in shaping foreign policy, domestic and personality factors also play a part. It is too simplistic therefore to confine an account of the origins of a war to one level of analysis, however significant and revealing it might be. The other two levels of analysis also need to be taken into consideration and, just as importantly, the inter-relationship between the three levels needs to be explored.

    Britain's decision to attack Egypt in 1956, for example, cannot be adequately explained in terms of Britain's Great Power interests in the region; Eden's personal and highly subjective image of Nasser as another Hitler was a crucial ingredient in this decision. Similarly, Nasser's actions during the crisis of May-June 1967 were shaped much more by a desire to bolster his personal prestige at home and in the Arab world than they were by a desire to challenge Israel to a duel. Finally, Israel's decision to invade Lebanon in 1982 owed much more to the Greater Israel ideology of the Likud and to Ariel Sharon's incorrigibly aggressive instincts than to any external threat.

    To sum up, when discussing the origins of each Arab-Israeli war, the aim should not be to single out one factor but to assess the relative weight of various factors. Because there are so many factors at play, and because these factors are so closely related to one another, it is difficult to determine the precise causes of each Arab-Israeli war. But difficulty should not be confused with impossibility.


[1] J. David Singer, `The Level-of-Analysis Problem in International Relations', in Klaus Knorr and Sidney Verba, eds., The International System: Theoretical Essays (Princeton, 1961), pp. 77-92.
[2] Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York, 1959).
[3] See, for example, David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East (London, 1977).
[4] See, for example, Yehoshafat Harkabi, Arab Strategies and Israel's Response (New York, 1977).
[5] Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd al-Nasir and his Rivals, 1958-1970 (London, 1971); Michael C. Hudson, Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (New Haven, 1977); Fouad Ajami, The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice since 1967 (Cambridge, updated edn. 1992); and Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, 1987).
[6] L. Carl Brown, International Politics and the Middle East: Old Rules, Dangerous Game (Princeton, 1984), p. 4.
[7] M.E. Yapp, The Near East since the First World War (London, 1991), p. 3.
[8] Ibid., p. 438.
[9] Fawaz A. Gerges, The Superpowers and the Middle East: Regional and International Politics, 1955-1967 (Boulder, 1994).
[10] Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine (Oxford, 1988).
[11] Ilan Pappי, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51 (London, 1988).
[12] Kerr, The Arab Cold War, p. 126.
[13] Mohamed Heikal, 1967: Al-Infijar [1967: The Explosion] (Cairo, 1990), pp. 371-72.
[14] William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict since 1967 (Washington D.C., 1993), p.48.
[15] Mohamed Heikal, The Road to Ramadan (London, 1975), pp. 46 and 165.
[16] Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition, 1969-1970 (New York, 1980), p. 3.
[17] Mohamed Heikal, Sphinx and Commissar: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Influence in the Arab World (London, 1978), pp. 253-54; and Galia Golan, Soviet Policies in the Middle East: From World War II to Gorbachev (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 82-85.
[18] Kirsten E. Schulze, `The Politics of Intervention: Israel and the Maronites, 1920-1984' (D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford, 1994).
[19] Patrick Seale, Asad: the Struggle for the Middle East (London, 1988).
[20] For a fuller account see Avi Shlaim, `Israeli Interference in Internal Arab Politics: The Case of Lebanon', in Giacomo Luciani and Ghassan Salamי, eds., The Politics of Arab Integration (London, 1988), pp. 232-55.




29 Nov. 1947                        UN resolution for the partition of Palestine.
Dec. 1947-May 1948           Civil war in Palestine.
15 May 1948                        Proclamation of the State of Israel and outbreak of the Palestine war.
Feb.-July 1949                      Israel concludes armistice agreements with Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
May 1950                              Tripartite Declaration (Britain, France and the United States) on regulating the supply of arms to
                                               the Middle East.

July 1952                               Free Officers' revolution in Egypt.
Feb. 1955                              The Baghdad Pact concluded between Iraq and Turkey.
Sept. 1955                            The Czech arms deal.
Sept. 1955                            Military pact between Egypt and Syria.
July 1956                             Egypt nationalizes the Suez Canal.
29 Oct. 1956                       Outbreak of the Suez war.
March 1957                        Israeli withdrawal from Sinai.
Feb. 1958                            Syria and Egypt merge to form the United Arab Republic (UAR).
July 1958                            Revolution in Iraq.
Jan. 1964                        The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) founded on the initiative of the Arab League to represent
                                           the Palestinians.

Feb. 1966                            Left-wing coup in Syria followed by increased PLO activity against Israel.
5-10 June 1967                    The Six-Day War.
1 Sept. 1967                        Arab League summit at Khartoum: "The three noes".
22 Nov. 1967                        UN Security Council resolution 242.
March 1969-Aug. 1970        The Israeli-Egyptian War of Attrition.
Sept. 1970                            Jordanian civil war, "Black September".
28 Sept. 1970                       Nasser dies and Anwar el-Sadat succeeds.
Feb. 1971                            Israel rebuffs Sadat's peace overture.
July 1972                            Sadat expels Soviet military advisers.
6-25 Oct. 1973                    The Yom Kippur War.
22 Oct.1973                        UN Security Council resolution 338 calls for direct negotiations.
21 Dec. 1973                       Geneva peace conference.
18 Jan. 1974                        Israeli-Egyptian disengagement agreement.
31 May 1974                      Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement.
26-29 Oct. 1974               Arab League summit at Rabat recognizes PLO as "the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian                                             people".
4 Sept. 1975                        Israeli-Egyptian interim agreement, Sinai II.
1975-76                                Outbreak of the Lebanese civil war.
June 1976                            Syrian military intervention in Lebanon.
May 1977                            Likud defeats Labour in Israeli elections.
1 Oct. 1977                        Joint statement by the US and the USSR for reconvening the Geneva peace conference.
Nov. 1977                            Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem.
2-5 Dec. 1977                    Arab Front of Steadfastness and Opposition meets in Tripoli.     
6-18 Sept. 1978                The Camp David Accords signed by Israel and Egypt.
2-5 Nov. 1978                    Arab League summit at Baghdad denounces the Camp David Accords.
Feb. 1979                            The Iranian Revolution.
March 1979                        Treaty of Peace between Egypt and Israel signed in White House.
Nov. 1979                            Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Sept. 1980                            Outbreak of war between Iraq and Iran.
6 Oct. 1981                           Sadat is assassinated and Husni Mubarak succeeds.
April 1982                            Israeli withdrawal from Sinai completed.
6 June 1982                           Israel invades Lebanon.
1 Sept. 1982                        The Reagan plan for Middle East peace.
July 1985                            Israel withdraws from Lebanon, but forms "security zone" in the south.
Dec. 1987                            The Intifada begins.
2 Aug. 1990                        Iraq invades Kuwait
16 Jan 1991                        Outbreak of the Gulf War
Oct 1991                            Madrid Peace Conference
June 1992                            Labour defeats Likud in Israeli elections.
13 Sept. 1993                    Israel and the PLO sign the Oslo accord.
26 Oct. 1994                    Israel and Jordan sign peace treaty.