After several military defeats, the largest and strongest Arab state, Egypt, signed a historic peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The defection of Egypt from the anti-Israel Arab alliance largely neutralized the option of a large conventional attack on Israel, improving Israel’s overall strategic position.
Yet Cairo refrained from developing normal relations with the Jewish state. A “cold peace” evolved, underscoring the countries’ common strategic interests but also the reluctance of Egypt to participate in reconciling the two peoples.
Jordan followed suit in 1994, largely emulating the Egyptian precedent. Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel also reflected common strategic interests, but was commonly referred to by Jordanians as the “king’s peace,” indicating a disinclination for interactions with the Jews west of the Jordan River.
The Arab world’s reluctance to accept Israel should not come as a surprise. Muslims seem to have good theological reasons for rejecting the existence of a Jewish state. Moreover, education systems in Arab countries have been indoctrinating students with anti-Semitic messages and hatred toward Israel for decades. Sadly, the negative portrayal of Jews and Israel in Arab schools and media outlets has hardly changed over the years.
This is also why the peace camp’s euphoria in the 1990s, prompted by the “peace process” with the Palestinians, was unwarranted. In fact, the peace process was a miserable failure. The process did, however, hand the Palestinian national movement a foothold in the West Bank and Gaza. Today, when a large part of the Arab world is occupied with its own deep socio-political crisis and another part fears the Iranian threat, it is the Palestinian national movement and the Islamists that carry on the struggle against the Zionists.
The Palestinians are at the forefront of the war on Israel, despite not having tanks or airplanes. They have terrorism, and they pay the terrorists captured by Israel as well as their families. They applaud attacks on Jews and put dead terrorists on a pedestal of martyrdom. They launch missiles at Israel’s civilian population, and the only reason their firepower is limited is because of Israeli efforts to cut off their weapons supply.
The Palestinian national movement denies the historic links of the Jews to Israel, and particularly to Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority has demanded an apology from the U.K. for the 1917 Balfour declaration, which recognized the Jewish link to Israel. There are endless examples in Palestinian schools and in the media proving that the Palestinians are not ready to make peace.
Moreover, the PA cannot maintain a “cold peace” with Israel, as Egypt and Jordan do. Both Egypt and Jordan take their commitment to preventing terrorism from their territory very seriously, but in the West Bank, the PA — established on the premise that it would fight terrorism in exchange for territory — refuses to honor its part of the bargain. It encourages terrorism by providing subsidies to jailed terrorists and by eulogizing “martyrs” and honoring them. Meanwhile, in Gaza, the ruling party, Hamas, formally refuses to give up armed struggle against Israel.
The Oslo process in the 1990s was an attempt by Israel to push the Palestinian national movement into a statist posture and to eventually adopt a rationale along the lines of Egypt’s and Jordan’s, which led them to a “cold peace” with Israel. But the religious and ethnic dimensions of the conflict with Israel have overcome any underdeveloped statist Palestinian instincts. The ethno-religious impulses of the Palestinians nurture their continuation of violent conflict.
So far, no Palestinian leader who adopted an agenda prioritizing state-building over other Palestinian aspirations has garnered popular support. Salam Fayyad, who was admired in the West for his attempts to reform the PA’s bloated bureaucracy, seemed to lean in this direction. But his level of support among the Palestinian public never rose above 10%.
Palestinian society is becoming more religious and radical, much like other Arab societies. This trend benefits Hamas, which is becoming more popular. Hamas’ growing power further feeds hostility toward Israel. A drive to satisfy the quest for revenge and ultimately destroy Israel — constituting historic justice in the eyes of the Palestinians — overrides any other consideration.
A renewal of negotiations leading to Israeli withdrawals is extremely unlikely to result in a durable and satisfactory agreement any time soon. Israel will need to maintain a strong army for many more decades to deal with the challenges posed by the Palestinians. Moreover, changes within neighboring states can be rapid. Unexpected scenarios, such as a return of the Muslim Brotherhood to the helm in Egypt or the fall of the Hashemite dynasty, could result in a re-emergence of a large conventional threat. Keep in mind that the Iranian nuclear specter is still hovering over the Middle East.
Israel must remain vigilant and continue to prepare for a variety of warlike scenarios. The understandable desire for peace should not blur the unfortunate likelihood that Israel will live by its sword for many years to come.
Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum