ISRAEL'S ENDLESS QUEST

We have become so accustomed over the past several decades to seeing Israel portrayed as the primary aggressor in the Middle East that it seldom surprises us anymore when the country is described as such. Over the past month, Israel's government has been accused of spoiling for a fight with Syria, while pushing the Palestinians to the brink of resuming their intifada. "The Israelis are at it again," is the media's not so subtle message." Warmongering comes naturally to them."
    History teaches otherwise. Through 48 years of Arab-initiated wars, terrorism, economic boycott, diplomatic hostility, and a refusal (until recently) to recognise Israel's very existence, the Israelis have done everything short of commit national suicide in their yearning to live in peace with their neighbours.

"WE EXTEND the hand of peace and good neighbourliness to all neighbouring states and their peoples and call for their cooperation with the independent Jewish nation in its land. The state of Israel is prepared to contribute its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East."

With these words, Israel declared independence in May 1948, immediately offering the hand of friendship to its neighbours - despite the fact they had rejected the United Nations decision to partition Palestine, were sponsoring violent acts against the Jewish population, and were on the verge of invading the fledgling state.

Following the 1948 war (which saw Israel attacked by five Arab armies), disengagement talks deadlocked. But Israel resumed secret meetings with the Jordanians in a bid to reach a peace treaty. Arab pressure on Jordan, however, scuppered that initiative.

Egypt's blocking of the Suez canal and Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping led to the 1956 Suez crisis, but Israel continued to seek dialogue. Terrorist incursions and shelling from Jordan and Syria notwithstanding, the Jewish state remained committed to this goal. As Prime Minister Levi Eshkol told the BBC in 1963: "We have been carrying on a monologue about peace for the past 15 years and before. I wish it were in our power to turn it into a dialogue."

Arab belligerence led, four years later, to the Six Day War, which saw Egypt, Jordan and Syria swiftly lose control over the Sinai peninsula, Gaza Strip, Judea-Samaria, eastern Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

Although Israel had acted in self-defence against states which had vowed to annihilate the Jews, and although the territory it won had been used to launch Arab aggression, Israel pressed on towards rapprochement. Following the war, it welcomed the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 242, which affirmed the right of all Middle East nations "to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries, free from threats or acts of force". The resolution also called on Israel to withdraw from "territories occupied in the recent conflict". The drafters purposefully did not specify the extent of such a withdrawal, as they recognised that Israel's pre-1967 borders were indefensible.

Tensions escalated in the early 1970s, with a "war of attrition" on the Egyptian border, stepped-up PLO terrorism against Israelis, and Soviet diplomatic and military support for the Arab states. In 1971, Prime Minister Golda Meir reiterated Israel's desire for peace: "...[W]e shall spare no effort to achieve the conclusion of peace treaties with each of the Arab states bordering on Israel."

It was not to be, however. In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jews' holiest day, Yom Kippur. Nine other Arab states contributed armaments, men and money. After two difficult days of defensive fighting, Israel succeeded in taking the battle deep into Syrian and Egyptian territory. The UN finally stepped in.

Disengagement agreements between Israel, Egypt and Syria followed. Although Israel continued to reel under Arab terrorism (including the murder of 16 Israeli schoolchildren at Ma'alot in 1974 and the Entebbe hijacking in 1976), Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin could still tell Newsweek in December 1976: "For me, peace means ... an agreement to end the state of war and to open the borders to movement of people and goods and to the meeting of minds."

Six months later, newly-elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin publicly invited the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and Syria to meet him, "to discuss the establishment of true peace between their countries and Israel. Let us put an end to the bloodshed that is abhorrent to us ..."

After similar calls by five of his predecessors, Begin succeeded in persuading Egypt's Anwar Sadat, who signed a peace agreement with Israel in March 1979. Israel returned the captured Sinai, and the two countries established diplomatic relations. (Seventeen years later, Egypt remains a cold and distant peace partner.)

In 1991, initiatives by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and US shuttle diplomacy resulted in the Madrid peace conference. Bilateral negotiations began between Israel and Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestinians in the territories.

Rabin's final term in the prime minister's office led to a breakthrough in September 1993, when the first of the controversial Oslo Accords was signed with the PLO. Whatever the accords' failures, no-one can accuse Israel of not taking immense (many would say foolish) risks for peace. A comprehensive peace treaty with Jordan followed, the result of many years of hard work by a string of Israel leaders to persuade King Hussein that his security rests in an alliance with Israel.

A comparison of these steadfast efforts and pleas by Israelis since 1948 to the actions and rhetoric of Arab leaders, must lead the reasonable observer to the conclusion that the aggressor in the Middle East is not - and never has been - Israel.

Stan Goodenough
Middle East Intelligence Digest

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