ROLE AND OBJECTIVES OF THE SUPERPOWERS IN RELATION TO EVENTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
The geographical position of Palestine has always made it a strategic target. Its southern boundary lies across the land bridge between Asia and Africa, blocking access by land between the continents (and in ancient times between the great river civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt). Control of its coastline is an important element in securing the eastern Mediterranean; and its proximity to the Suez Canal and to the oil fields of the Middle East is of critical strategic importance.
In 1914, as the First World War began, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Western Arabia were part of the Turkish Empire. As Turkey joined Germany and the Axis powers during the war, Britain and France saw the opportunity to gain new spheres of influence in the Middle East.
In the peace settlement which followed the war, France gained a Mandate over Syria, including Lebanon, and Britain was granted a Mandate over Iraq as well as a Mandate over Palestine on the basis of the Balfour Declaration. Together with its protectorates on the south Arabian coast, the new possessions now reinforced British command of the critical sea routes of the Middle East, on the way to India, Asia and Australia. Then, as oil became the world’s central economic and strategic asset, access to the oilfields of the Persian Gulf became paramount.
It was in this context that the Jews of Europe faced the rise of Nazi Germany as Britain sought to maintain its influence in the Middle East.
The Post-World War II period
The period immediately following the Second World War was a time of “de-colonisation”, with the exhaustion of the Western European powers after the war.
Nevertheless Britain was still determined to maintain its imperial network in the Middle East, and in particular its oil interests in Iraq and Iran and its special relationship with Egypt and the coastal countries of South Arabia. Jewish pleas for the immigration into Palestine by the survivors of the Nazi death camps therefore coincided with Britain’s last ditch effort to maintain its power and influence in the region, and Britain's response was a categorical refusal to permit any substantial Jewish immigration.
However, with British military resources exhausted by war and stretched to the limit by colonial independence movements, Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine in the face of the Jewish resistance eventually became inevitable.
Another feature of the time was the emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the major “super-powers” engaged in a “cold war” competition for new spheres of influence. For Russia in particular, as the immediate northern neighbour of the Middle East, there was both the geographical need and the opportunity to promote its power and influence in the region, which was strongly opposed by America.
The United Nations' Partition Resolution of 29th November 1947, which provided for the establishment of a State of Israel, received the support both of the Communist bloc and the United States. The Soviet Union had been fiercely anti-Zionist since the revolution, with Zionists exiled to the forced labour camps of Siberia from the beginning. Nevertheless the Russians saw the post-war situation as an opportunity to increase Soviet influence at Britain's expense by the creation of a socialist Israel.
At the same time the US supported the Partition Resolution partly in order to relieve pressures for large scale immigration of the Jewish survivors to America.
However, when the actual partition and the inevitable conflict approached, the US government had second thoughts, as the intensity of Arab opposition and the corresponding threat to US oil interests in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf became apparent. In the UN Security Council the US representative called on the Jewish provisional government to postpone its declaration of independence. The US call was rejected by two votes in Israel’s provisional cabinet, in the face of serious doubts by Israel as to the outcome of the expected war.
Israel’s early years
In the 1948 war which followed the establishment of Israel, Britain sought to maintain its influence in the region by providing support in the war against Israel to the Arab Legion, the elite military force in Trans-Jordan under the command of the British Major-General Glubb.
The United States, with close ties to both Britain and Saudi Arabia, found it necessary to refrain from open support of Israel. It sought both to protect its oil interests and to develop military alliances to counter Soviet influence in the region. The US therefore refused to allow arms to be legally supplied to Israel.
The Soviet Union, on the other hand, arranged for Czechoslovakia to supply arms, and these supplies were critical to Israel’s survival during the War of Independence. However, after 1949 Israel’s early socialist governments were firmly committed to western democracy, and opposed to any alliance with the communist bloc. By the 1950’s Russian support for Israel was completely reversed.
All this was in the context of a period of revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East, reflecting the ideologies of the de-colonisation process which followed the war. In 1953, King Farouk of Egypt was deposed in an army coup, and in 1954 Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser established a government based on principles of socialism and pan-Arab nationalism. In the same year the Ba’ath party in Syria, espousing similar principles, gained effective power. Both countries, while firmly opposed to Communism, now looked towards Russia to balance Western influence; and an essential element of the new relationship was Russian support in the campaign against Israel.
One Western response was the Baghdad Pact of 1955, comprising Iraq (under Faisal II), Iran (under the Shah), Turkey, Britain and Pakistan. It was a relationship which required US abstention from support of Israel. On the other hand when the “non-aligned movement” of newly independent states met at Bandung in Indonesia in 1955 (with Soviet and Chinese observers), arrangements were made for Soviet arms supplies to Egypt.
Shimon Peres, then Director-General of Israel’s Defence Ministry, appealed to France, which had lost Syria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia to independence movements, and was faced with a full-scale revolt in Algeria. The French, anxious to establish an independent foreign policy image, responded to Israel’s call for help with diplomatic support and arms contracts.
The Suez Crisis
The constellation of great power influence altered dramatically with the Suez crisis of 1956. When Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, Britain and France, the joint owners who had financed the Canal in the nineteenth century and depended on it for access to the East, now had a community of interest with Israel, which was denied the right to pass either through the Canal or through the Straits of Tiran (see Maps), and continued to suffer Egyptian attacks across the Sinai border. Australia also had an interest as a potentially blocked destination, and Australia’s Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies played an active role in negotiations with President Nasser of Egypt.
After Israel invaded the Sinai, and Britain and France landed troops at the Canal in November 1956, the U.S. and the Soviet Union both responded harshly. Russia bluntly reminded the French of their ballistic missile arsenal, and the Americans threatened Israel with economic sanctions. The result was expressed in a UN brokered peace, in which Israel withdrew from the Sinai in exchange for international guarantees of freedom of navigation through the Gulf of Akaba, but not through the Suez Canal, and the provision of a UN peacekeeping force in Sinai.
The Cold War and the Middle East Revolutions
During the ensuing years Soviet influence in the Middle East increased dramatically. After the U.S. refused to finance the Aswan Dam in Egypt immediately before the Suez crisis, Russia stepped in with economic and military aid.
In 1958 the monarchy of Faisal II of Iraq was overthrown by a military revolution. A Ba’ath (Arab nationalist and socialist) government was installed, and the Baghdad Pact was abrogated. Similar revolutions took place in the Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. Soviet trade and military relations with Syria intensified.
Central elements in the maintenance of Soviet influence were the provision of trade credits and arms supplies in the context of diplomatic and military support in the continuing campaign against Israel. It was nevertheless significant that the Arab states remained staunchly anti-communist, and were never interested in adherence to the Soviet bloc.
As France sought to re-establish its ties with Arabs following the settlement which resulted in Algerian independence in 1962, its support for Israel was reversed. (A farcical event occurred when the French refused publicly to deliver a number of torpedo boats built under contract for Israel, and the Israelis were compelled to “steal” them.) In fact the whole of Western Europe, generally dependent on Middle East oil supplies and anxious to develop trade (including lucrative arms sales) as Arab oil wealth increased, began to adopt publicly anti-Israel diplomatic positions.
The 1967 War
A feature of the months which preceded the “Six-day War” was the presence of Soviet military “advisers” in Syria and Egypt. The US, on the other hand, was careful to warn Israel that it could not count on American support. Indeed in May 1967, when Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, the "maritime nations", including the US, Britain and the Europeans, simply failed to enforce the guarantees of free navigation that had been given to Israel in 1956.
The changed situation that followed the 1967 war resulted both in improved security for Israel and intensified diplomatic pressure against it. A feature of the period was the emergence of an increasingly active PLO using terrorism against non-combatants as the weapon of choice, and working together with the international terrorist network which now appeared. The operation of this international network, including the PLO, was largely sponsored, financed and trained by the USSR.
Meanwhile after 1967, the United States, although careful to moderate its position in deference to Arab sensibilities, had now become Israel's sole major ally, providing substantial loans, aid and weaponry. The prevailing view was that in the context of the revolutionary dictatorships which now dominated the region, Israel as the one committed democracy, forced by circumstances to project military power, was a valuable strategic partner.
The primary stated aim of the US was the conclusion of a permanent peace, which would then remove the causes of instability which gave the USSR the opportunity to intervene and gain disruptive influence in the region.
The 1973 War
The “Yom Kippur war” of 1973 was followed by an oil embargo imposed by the Arab members (OAPEC) of the organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which had been established in 1960. Crude oil prices jumped threefold, with catastrophic effects on the world economy, and the oil producing countries of the Arab world enjoyed new power and confidence.The rationale for the embargo was that it was imposed as a penalty against those countries which had supported Israel in the war.
As a result Europe and Japan, both almost entirely dependent in Middle Eastern oil supplies, largely acquiesced in the international campaign against the legitimacy of Israel, organized by the Arab-Asian bloc at the United Nations. The Soviet Union, which had broken off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, played a central role in this campaign, and actually originated the formula "Zionism is Racism" adopted by the General Assembly in November 1975.
The Camp David Accords
Anwar Sadat’s historic journey to Jerusalem in 1977 and the Camp David peace accords which followed, effectively altered the balance of international power in the Middle East.
Although the move towards reconciliation originated between Egypt and Israel without outside mediation, and much to the surprise of the US, both parties thought it necessary to use the good offices of US President Carter to achieve the final peace agreement. Egypt, the most populous and developed of the “confrontation states”, was now firmly committed to the Western alliance. The main centre of Soviet influence was now Syria, which received a massive quantity of sophisticated Soviet weaponry.
Détente and Soviet Jewry
The accession of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Premier in 1985 resulted in an acceleration of “détente”, the process of reduction in Cold War tensions between the US and the USSR. One element in this process was a response to the international outcry against the persecution of Soviet Jews, and a dramatic easing of restrictions against their emigration to Israel between 1986 and 1989. Eventually over one million emigrants arrived in Israel from the former Soviet Union.
The Gulf War 1990 and the end of Soviet power in the Middle East
Theoretically the USSR was the joint convenor of the Madrid Conference of 1991. The reality was that there was no countervailing force to US influence, and the Arab states and Palestinian representatives for the first time acknowledged the existence of Israel as a negotiating partner. The end of Soviet influence was also an essential condition for the secret negotiation of the Oslo Accords of 1993, which took place as the Conference continued.
The Role of the European Union
One element in the developing economic integration and the political confidence of the European Union was a need to assert its independence in the foreign policy sphere. It was also regarded as important to develop European relations with the Arab world. Both these objectives were served by the public expression of anti-Israel policy positions.
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