Protestors demonstrating against former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt – August 2012 The history of the region is long and complex. In the following pages, you will read about selected parts of this history. You will confront the same questions
facing U.S. policy makers:
Which interests and values should provide the basis for U.S. policy in the region?
How should the United States respond to the rise of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War?
How should oil reserves and the United States’ close relationship with Israel figure into policy calculations?
The creation of Israel in 1948 complicated U.S. efforts to retain allies in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the Jewish quest for a homeland gained support in the United States. But most Arab leaders opposed the creation of Israel because the country was carved out of lands where Muslim and Christian Arabs already lived. Saudi King Saud Ibn Saud even threatened to break his contract with ARAMCO to protest U.S. policy. Nonetheless, the United States played a key role in bringing the Jewish state into existence. The story of Israel’s creation starts in the late 1800s.
Zion is a Hebrew word for the land of Israel. Zionsim, the move-
ment for establishing the state of Israel, had its origins in Europe,
where Jews had long been subjected to persecution. At the end of
itself at odds with the aspirations of Palestinian Arabs seeking to forge a state of their own. British efforts to strike a balance between Palestinians and Jews failed to hold down the escalating tensions.
During World War II, Adolf Hitler sought to exterminate all the Jews of Europe. Six million Jews were put to death by the Nazis. After the war, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees saw immigration to Palestine as the only hope for rebuilding their lives. The Holocaust also won the Zionists widespread sympathy in the United States. President Truman (1945-1953) became personally committed to the Zionist cause.
In 1947, the British announced they would leave Palestine within a year, turning over responsibility for the mandate to the newly formed United Nations (UN). A plan to partition the mandate between Jews and Palestinian Arabs passed the UN General Assembly by two votes, thanks in large part to U.S. lobbying.
8.3 Creation of Israel Leads to Conflict
The Zionists viewed the UN partition plan as their best hope for a Jewish state, and accepted it. The Arab world did not, fearing that Arabs, who were in the majority, would become subject to a minority immigrant population. Some also felt that the creation of Israel would lead to instability in the region.
Knowing the British would pull their troops out the day the partition went into effect, Zionists began to take control of the territory allotted to them by the UN, including many predominantly Arab towns that had been included in the Jewish zone. As the date of the British departure approached, violence erupted as each side fought to extend its control. Fighting soon engulfed much of Palestine. This violence was intense; there were terrorist acts on both sides.
With the withdrawal of the last British forces in May 1948, Israel proclaimed itself a state and immediately won recognition from the United States and the Soviet Union. The Arab states refused to recognize Israel.
For some time, Palestinian Arabs had been supported in their fight by men and arms from neighboring Arab countries. The day after Israel declared itself an independent state, forces from Egypt, Syria, Transjordan (now known as Jordan), Lebanon, and Iraq invaded Israel.
Fearing just such an attack, Zionist leaders had been collecting weapons for
years. By the time a truce was reached in January 1949, the Zionists had seized
a large portion of the land that the UN had designated for the Palestinians. Israel
What was left of the former mandate was claimed by Transjordan (which
absorbed the West Bank) and Egypt (which held the Gaza Strip). Arab countries
refused to make peace with or to recognize the fledgling Israeli state. Without a
treaty, the cease-fire lines in effect became the borders between Israel and its
The animosity set the stage for decades of conflict. More than 750,000
Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes and became refuges. Those
President Truman (left) in the Oval Office receiving a menorah from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (center), and the Ambassador of Israel to the U.S., Abba Eban (right) on May 9, 1951. with skills, money, or connections fled to neighboring countries. The vast
majority were not so fortunate and neighboring countries were unwilling to take
them in. By 1950, nearly one million Palestinians lived in UN refugee camps in
Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. (In 2014, there were 1.5 million Palestinian
refugees living in fifty-eight UN camps). Israel, a new country, found itself
surrounded by countries that were hostile to its very existence. Security issues
were a top priority for Israel’s government.
Although the Truman administration approved a $100 million loan for Israel, U.S. policy remained torn. Within the State Department (the governmental body responsible for carrying out U.S. foreign policy), many officials advised against supporting Israel. They feared an Arab backlash against the United States. These fears were based in part on the United States’ need for oil from Arab nations, and also on the growing presence of the Soviet Union following World War II.
8.5 Palestinians Call for Statehood
With progress on negotiations stalled, Mahmoud Abbas requested in September 2011 that the United Nations recognize a Palestinian state. Israel insists that the Palestinians should achieve statehood through negotiations with Israeli officials rather than the United Nations, a position the United States supports. Palestinians argue that Israel has no intention of ever allowing such negotiations to succeed. In November 2012, the UN General Assembly granted Palestinians admission as a non-member observer state.
In the summer of 2013, the United States made a push to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his concern that time to reach an agreement could be running out.
“… I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting. I think we have some period of time—a year to two years—or it’s over.”
-Secretary of State John Kerry, April 2013
Palestinian women wait at an Israeli checkpoint near Ramallah, in the West Bank, to move from one town to another. These checkpoints limit Palestinians’ ability to travel to work and elsewhere. Months of negotiations led to no progress. In April of 2014, when Hamas and Fatah agreed to being reunifying their governments in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel ended its participation in the U.S. led talks. Two months later, fifty days of fighting between Palestinian militants and the Israeli Defense Forces led to the deaths of more than seventy Israelis and more than two thousand Palestinians. The costs were
not only in human lives. Israeli military strikes damaged roads, thousands of homes, and water and power supplies in Gaza, making life for people living there more difficult. President Abbas has said it will cost more than four billion dollars to rebuild Gaza’s infrastructure and housing.
In late 2014, Palestinian President Abbas called for the United Nations to set a deadline for the end of the Israeli occupation and joined the International Criminal Court—moves designed to create another pathway to statehood in addition to negotiations. Whether a peaceful resolution is possible, and what U.S. diplomatic efforts can achieve, is unclear. There are numerous unresolved issues that remain as obstacles to peace.
8.6 Unresolved Israeli-Palestinian Issues
Jerusalem: The status of Jerusalem is an important sticking point between Israel and Palestine. East Jerusalem has religious significance for both Muslims and Jews. Israel captured East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War of 1967. Prior to this, East Jerusalem and the West Bank were under the control of Jordan.
About 200,000 Israelis and 300,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem today. Israel claims complete control over Jerusalem and considers it the nation’s capital. The United States and most other countries do not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Palestinians want to establish their capital in East Jerusalem, where they represent a majority of the population. Many Palestinians claim that Israeli policies seek to push them out of the city. Palestinians in East Jerusalem face a severe housing shortage and have difficulty getting building permits, and Israeli authorities have seized and demolished Palestinian homes. From 1967 to 2008, Israel revoked the residency status of thirty thousand Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including many who had been born in the city. Without residency, Palestinians in East Jerusalem can be deported.