Arab-Israeli Conflict

Since the declaration of statehood, armed conflict has defined Arab-Israeli relations. The following briefly describes these basic conflicts, noting which conflicts created specific issues at stake in searching for a framework for peace.

When the French built a canal across the Suez, they formed the foundation for much of the Middle East struggle. The canal generat ed enormous profits and created an opportunity for trade that the Middle East had not known before. The Canal's profits also gave the French an enormous hold over the Egyptian government. Subsequent British interest in the Canal also created a British c olonial interest in Egypt. By the end of the 1800's both the British and French had used the Canal to further their own colonial interests in the area. It was the "British Mandate" from which the UN eventually carved the Jewish State, for example. Thus , Israel's presence was irretrievably linked to the colonialism of the area that Arab states had long fought.

Egyptian independence inevitably led to a renewed interest in the Canal. In 1956, the new Egyptian government of Gamal Nasser nationalized the Canal, thus depriving the British and French of revenues they had enjoyed for almost a century. In a coordinat ed assault, the Israelis, British and French attacked Egypt in an effort to recover the Canal by force. The British and French concentrated on the Sea end of the Canal, while the Israeli army swept across the Sinai.

Eventually, intervention by the US government forced the British and French to withdraw and give up on the idea of repatriating the Canal. Continued diplomatic pressure on Israel forced its eventual withdrawal from the Sinai, as well.

In the Six Day War of June 1967, Israel defeated her most belligerent neighbors: Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Responding to what seemed l ike an impending Arab attack, Israel launched a blitzkrieg through the Sinai, coordinated with a surprise air attack which grounded most of the Egyptian Air Force. In the north, Israeli forces quickly swept in to the Golan Heights forcing the Syrian Army to retreat. And simultaneously, the Israelis attacked the Jordanian Army on the west bank of the Jordan River driving them across th e river into defensive positions. In one swift attack, the Israelis had established what they considered defensible borders to the north, south, and east. Those borders created the bulk of territorial issues involved in the Camp David Accords and ever s ince.

Stymied by failing diplomatic efforts, the Arab states bordering Israel mounted an attack designed to change the diplomatic balance in the area and possibly drive the Israelis from their occupied territories. In a prelude to their October attack, the Ara b states involved in oil production announced a 15% reduction in production schedules. The Arabs hoped the production cuts would get the attention of western industrial states primarily supporting Israel. In addition, the Arab states announced an embarg o on oil shipments to the United States and other western powers dealing with Israel.

The October War began with a broad frontal attack across the Suez Canal on 6 October 1973. The Egyptian army pushed the Isra elis back away from the Canal and into the Sinai. A combined force led by Syrians, but including forces from Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, attacked Israel in the Golan Heights. Within two days, though, the Israelis had launched effective counte r-attacks on both fronts. In the Sinai, the Israeli army crossed the Great Bitter Lake and drove ten miles into the heart of Egypt cutting the roads from Cairo to the two principal Egyptian towns along the Canal (Ismailia and Suez). In the north, an Isr aeli counterattack not only regained the Golan Heights but pushed an additional ten miles into Syria.

On 17 October 1973, in conjunction with the fighting, the oil producing Arab countries announced a further 25% reduction in oil exports, designed to bring increasing pressure on western economies. After considerable fighting, the Security Council of the UN called for a cease-fire.


The 1967 war left the Arab-Israeli conflict as the most intractable political problem on the world stage. Israel had conquered a good deal of land which it quickly transformed into areas for "new settlements." Strung throughout the West Bank, Gaza, an d the Sinai, these Israeli enclaves threatened to undermine peace prospects by tying Israeli domestic politics to keeping these conquered territory, despite UN Resolutions designed to make illegitimate any claims to land taken in war. The Arab states on the other hand had demonstrated a renewed military capacity, at least to damage Israel if not defeat her, in the 1973 sneak attack. In addition, their coordinated oil embargo produced a good deal of diplomatic attention. The Arab states, while not alway s unified, nevertheless seemed united in their desire to refuse Israel status as a nation. They refused to carry on direct diplomatic relations. Each of the two belligerents, therefore, had managed to seal themselves into what seemed like unavoidably di ametric and perpetually conflictual positions. Recurring war, which was the past, certainly seemed like the future, as well.

Go to Prelude: American Dimplomatic Efforts
Return to Prelude Table of Contents
Go to Prelude: Carter Administration Effort