SINCE early March the Arab world has been shaken by an angry clash of views about its relations with Israel. Arab thinking on this subject had long been governed by what Whitehead once called "inert ideas"-that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized or tested or thrown into fresh combinations. This inertia was suddenly broken by two closely related events. The Federal Republic of Germany sought the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, in conscious rejection of Arab pressure. And the President of Tunisia challenged the official Arab dogma about Israel's place in the Middle East. In statements which had a broad international resonance, Mr. Bourguiba indicated that Israel was a solid and entrenched reality with which the Arab nations would have to come to terms. To dream of sweeping Israel away in a torrent of violence was, in his view, sheer delusion.

The German initiative and the Tunisian pronouncements are, of course, important events. But they do not in themselves explain the volcanic emotion which spread from Cairo across the Arab world. Germany, after all, is not the first but the 95th government to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. In none of the 94 previous occasions did Arab governments go beyond a routine expression of grievance. And President Bourguiba's calm but reluctant vision of Israel as a "reality" is less heretical than Cairo spokesmen would have us believe. Indeed, President Nasser himself often gives eminent visitors the impression that his belief in Israel's disappearance is far from immaculate. The leading Egyptian publicist, Hassanein Heikal, recently told his readers that the modern world was no longer congenial to decisive local wars. An Arab-Israel conflict would, in his judgment, be followed by international intervention; and the forces opposed to Israel's liquidation were not confined to Israel alone. These sober words were written more than a year ago. Why, then, do President Nasser and Mr. Heikal now react to cautious statements about Israel's permanence like medieval theologians confronted for the first time by the suggestion that the earth may, however regrettably, turn out to be round?

If world opinion finds it hard to probe such anomalies it is because the official Arab attitude toward Israel has no point of reference in other international conflicts. In all other political tensions today the adversaries face each other from a basis of mutual recognition. Each may seek to impose its views or interests on the other. But none seeks victory in terms of the other's disappearance. The Indonesian claim to eliminate Malaysia may be an exception to this rule. But it is instructive that Indonesia finds it impossible to advocate the disappearance of a sovereign state while herself remaining within the political and conceptual framework of the United Nations system. The Arab governments which advocate Israel's disappearance find no such difficulty.

It is customary to describe the idea of Israel's liquidation as a whim of Arab emotion. Nobody, least of all in Israel, should ignore the intense rancor with which the Arab mind has been trained to react to Israel's very existence. But it is not a matter of emotion alone. The dream of Israel's submergence is nourished by a certain rationality capable of being exposed to the analysis of reason. To do this is no mere academic exercise. It is a deep therapeutic necessity. If we can explain why Arabs have believed that Israel would disappear, and why for 17 years this has not even begun to happen, we may open the way to a new Arab understanding of the present and future power-balance in the Middle East.


The Arab refusal to acknowledge Israel's permanence is nourished by a constant appeal to the Middle Eastern map. Here the power relationship between the two parties seems to be marked by a vast disparity. Arab independence stretches through 13 sovereign states across 4,000,000 square miles with a total population of 100,000,000. Israel is a single sovereignty established in a small area of 8,000 square miles with a population of only 2½ million. The Arab preponderance is thus reflected in territory, population, mineral wealth, strategic importance and a formidable capacity for diplomatic man?uvre, especially in international organizations where numbers count. From this multiple advantage many Arab leaders draw the simple logic that Israel's survival depends on Arab consent, while the Arab nation stands in no corresponding need of peace with Israel. The appeal to geography is sometimes reinforced by a reference to the laws of history. Writing in these pages 13 years ago, Dr. Charles Malik affirmed that "history has not known an instance of a nation at permanent enmity with its immediate world. . . . I do not know of a single other instance in the world where there is such radical existential discontinuity across national frontiers." More recently Arab radicalism has taken heart from its successes in other fields. "Only yesterday," writes Muhammad Jamil Baihum, "we thought it difficult . . . to expel France by force from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria . . . or to expel Great Britain from Egypt. . . . But what was difficult became easy when the will was there and the circumstances were propitious."

This theme recurs constantly both in the propaganda and in the self- persuasion of Arab nationalism. A wave of history is destined to sweep all non-Arab elements out of the Middle East, restoring the region to its "existential continuity."

To those who see the scales of geography and history in these terms, the experience of the past 17 years can yield nothing but astonishment and frustration. The plain truth is that Arab nationalism emerges from nearly two decades of uncompromising anti-Israel struggle in total strategic defeat. The map, with its "self-evident" picture of Israeli impotence, has somehow failed to assert itself. Arab policy, directed from Cairo, has pursued a series of clearly defined objectives: to prevent Israel's physical existence; to reduce her territory; to flood her with a wave of hostile refugees; to uproot Jerusalem from her midst; to thwart the development of her diplomatic relations; to bar her from international organizations; to prevent her growth as a trading unit with access to world markets; to frustrate her irrigation projects; to discredit her in world opinion; and, above all, to banish her from affirmative contact with the new world of liberated Africa and Asia.

Not one of these aims has been attained. None of them is even remotely in sight. Israel exists in growing strength and numbers. Her territory as defined in the 1949 Arab-Israel agreement is intact. She has not been swamped by Arab refugees. Jerusalem is an integral part of her national structure. She has a broader network of diplomatic relations than is usual for so small a state. Her flag flies in all the institutions which express the growth of world community. The Arab boycott has won some tactical successes, but has not prevented Israel from establishing commercial links with a hundred states or from expanding her exports by more than 1,000 percent in 17 years. The Huleh marshes have been drained and the waters of Lake Kinneret are irrigating southern fields. World opinion overwhelmingly supports Israel's rights to her independence and integrity which are, indeed, sanctioned by the law of nations and by specific commitments of friendly powers. And the majority of the emerging states maintain strong and intimate ties with her. These links go beyond diplomatic courtesies. They touch the central interests of the awakening countries in their quest for accelerated development.

Something appears to have gone wrong with the superficial testimony of the map. Nobody in Israel should assume that past success is a guarantee of future victory. But nor will Arab leaders approach self-understanding until they come face to face with the lesson of these years. There are manifestly forces at work in the history of our times and in the life of our region which balance, and even outweigh, the factors on which Arab nationalism has relied in its dream of Israel's eclipse. If the forces which have determined Israel's consolidation for the past 17 years can be presumed to endure for the next 17 years-and beyond-then Arab leaders can hardly evade the sort of intellectual adjustment which one of them, at least, has begun to undergo. T. S. Eliot once wrote that "Human kind cannot bear very much reality." But surely there is also a limit to the allegiance which men will give to unreal assumptions which fail, year after year, to vindicate themselves in any perceptible degree.

I now come to define the factors which refute the myth of inevitable Arab victory. The first of these is Israel's capacity to deter and contain the regional hostility by maintaining a balance of military strength. The commitment of two million Israelis to their own defense is more absolute and far more passionate than is the commitment of 100,000,000 Arabs to Israel's destruction. For Israel, survival is a necessity. For the Arab nation, with its own survival assured on an almost imperial scale, Israel's submergence is, at best, optional. To this crucial issue of morale we must add the reinforcement of technology. In modern strategy the value of numbers tends to decline in comparison with the value of technical and scientific skills. As military technology develops, the quantitative element loses its decisive importance. The possibility of a small community holding its own against heavy demographic odds becomes increasingly tangible. This is not to say that it is preferable to be small. But it is at least a tolerable destiny. In Israel's national memory David's victory over Goliath was a result not of his smallness but of his compensating agility and talent for improvisation. Whatever has enabled Israel to succeed in deterrence and containment during the past decade seems certain to be operative for the next decade and beyond.

Moreover, the maintenance of a local equilibrium of security in the Middle East responds to broad international interests. The crises of our times usually have their origin in small nations which lack either internal stability or a local equilibrium of strength. Viet Nam, the Congo, Cyprus, Yemen and the Dominican Republic illustrate this truth. In each case a vacuum or imbalance of security in a small country draws the world community into perilous involvement. A local tension becomes an international peril. This experience helps to explain why there is more overt and effective support today than formerly for the maintenance of a prudent security equilibrium in the Arab-Israel area.

The Arab summit conferences, it is true, have shown a certain military inventiveness on the tactical level. They have produced the Joint Arab Command and the "Palestine Liberation Organization." These, together with the threat to violate Israel's water rights as defined in the compromise Unified Plan of 1955, represent a tangible increase of tension and peril. But they do not testify to any serious thought about the strategic utility of the war which is evidently being planned. Would such a war really change the map? Nobody can doubt the fearful havoc and bereavement which it would inflict. But when it ended-probably in a short time-the loss, the ravage and the eruption of armies beyond the present frontiers would not have been on one side alone. It is not absurd to imagine Arab leaders ardently urging "a return to the frontier of 1966 or 1967," just as they now urge a return to the frontier of 1947 which they once set aside by force. Wars have always been inhuman. They are now, in addition, highly ineffective. The idea that any conceivable war in the Middle East would substantially change the political or territorial structure deserves a more critical scrutiny by Arab minds.

The political factor in Israel's stability is no less cogent than the military prospect. The international scene is today commanded by respect for the existing territorial structure. The United Nations Charter is based on the political independence and territorial integrity of member states. The great powers have reached a doctrine of territorial conservatism out of their experience with the nuclear weapon. Even territorial arrangements originally regarded as temporary improvisations now seem preferable to any attempt to change them without consent. The exchange of notes between Moscow and Washington early in 1964 established a broad consensus in favor of maintaining existing frontiers. And the small nations which form the bulk of the international community have a manifest interest in the principle of sovereignty and the integrity of existing territorial agreements. With 98 percent of the human race now living under sovereign flags the doctrines of territorial irredentism have lost their appeal.

Beyond local military deterrence and international respect for the existing territorial structure, there is a theme of world opinion which makes the cry for Israel's liquidation discordant. This is not an age of crusades. Together with the multiplication of nations there goes a new ecumenical spirit nourished by revulsion from war. Most people and governments find the present "existential discontinuity" in the Middle East preferable to its correction by war. Arab opinion would also do well to give heavier weight to the special associations which Israel evokes in the world conscience as a result of the Nazi holocaust. History is not a web woven by innocent hands. It would be rash to predict an end to organized inhumanity. But when a world which has seen six million Jews thrown into the furnace is now invited to see the central bulwark of Jewish survival "thrown into the sea," a shudder runs through whatever exists or remains of historic decency. The point is that the more bellicose Arab slogans about Israel affront the conscience as well as the higher interests of contemporary mankind.

Even less likely than Israel's liquidation by war is her elimination by the weight of regional solitude. The effects of Israel's isolation from the Arab environment are regrettable and serious. But they touch the atmosphere of her life rather than her prospect of survival. In the new age of swift communications, nations are less dependent on their regional context than in former times. Israel's markets, friendships, scientific contacts, intellectual links and international vocation can, if necessary, be found in Europe, the Atlantic community and amongst the developing states beyond the Arab fence. The modern world is assuming the character of a close-knit urban society whose several parts are mutually accessible. Affinity is now more important than vicinity as the driving force of international relationships. Moreover, Israel since the dawn of history has received and exercised her major influences across the Mediterranean world, in which she is far from isolated.

We may now summarize the elements on the credit side of Israel's stability which counteract the physical evidence of the regional map: a proven capacity for deterrence and containment; technical and moral factors which offset numerical inferiority; the dominant international respect for the established territorial structure of states; specific commitments by friendly powers to Israel's independence and integrity; opposition of world opinion to warlike solutions; a special revulsion of world conscience against further outrage to Jewish survival; the unfeasibility of a prolonged and one-sided Arab assault capable of altering the political map; Israel's special place in the trust and confidence of the developing world; and her proved capacity to transcend her regional isolation by self- reliance and by a world-wide economic and diplomatic initiative.

Not all these factors can be graphically portrayed on a map. But in the example and performance of 17 years they have shown their weight. It is not likely that they will soon lose their force.


The question is whether and how a defensive stalemate can be transformed into a more affirmative relationship. The answer lies in the capacity of Arab minds to grasp the existential truth about the Near East as a region which can never be comprehended in Arab terms alone. The destination of this region lies not in an exclusive Arab unity, but in a creative diversity and pluralism. Three central issues must be resolved in Arab and Israeli thought before a new era can dawn: first, the image which the Arab world and Israel reflect each to the other; second, the tension between the idea of Arab unity and the more creative idea of Mediterranean coöperation; third, the idea of peace as a mutual necessity for both nations, and not as a gift of grace to be accorded by the Arabs to Israel.

The Arab obsession with an Israeli "threat" runs against all rational evidence. If the Arab nation were responsive to the truth of its recent history it would now be going forward in a thrust of hopeful energy. It has won its independence in 4,463,000 square miles. It is farfetched to believe that it cannot flourish without 8,000 more. Arab freedom in a subcontinent has been qualified, in a small area, by the liberation of another people which had centuries of Middle Eastern history behind it before the Arabic language or the Moslem faith saw the light of day. It has never been possible to convince world opinion that it is right for the Arab world to possess an empire-and wrong for Israel to exercise the peaceful possession of its tiny but cherished home. There is no greater fallacy than to regard Israel as a "colonial" phenomenon. No state in the world expresses the concept of nationhood more intensely than Israel. It is the only state which bears the same name, speaks the same tongue, upholds the same faith, inhabits the same land as it did 3,000 years ago. Recently a group of young Israelis near the Dead Sea came across some parchment scrolls written 1900 years ago. They are entirely intelligible to a young citizen of Israel today. Israel is not alien to the Middle East, but an organic part of its texture and memory. The long separation has had less effect on the region's history than the original birth and the modern renewal. Take Israel and all that has emanated from Israel out of Middle Eastern history-and you evacuate that history of its central experiences. Arab political and intellectual leaders have never made a serious effort to understand, even in reluctant mood, the tenacity, depth and authenticity of Israel as a national reality with deep roots in the Middle East. They would do well to ponder Ernest Renan's definition of nationhood: "A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. To share a common glory in the past, a common will in the present: to have done great things together; to wish to do them again-these are the essential conditions of being a nation."

There are so many common features in Arab and Israeli nationalism, both caught up in the tension between past memory and future hope, that their reciprocal alienation today has the mark of authentic tragedy. It is not enough for Arab leaders to recognize Israel as an unpleasant "fact." They cannot long avoid asking themselves why Israel's restoration is, in the eyes of most of mankind, an event which, despite all imperfections, has an inner splendor and nobility. At any rate, the Arab portrayal of Israel as a dark conspiracy or as a rapacious colonial adventure is regarded by the opinion of mankind as an unacceptable caricature. A decisive phase will have been reached when Arab intellectuals begin to study Israeli nationalism in anything like a clinical, objective spirit.

I am aware that the Arab-Israel dialogue is not distorted on one side alone. Hostility usually evokes an attitude in its own image. The Israeli vision of Arab life and culture has been eroded by years of separation. Israel must try, above the conflict, to see her neighbor as she has been in her greater moments-the heir and author of a rich culture, the bearer of a tongue whose echoes will always fill our region and without which a man is cut off from an inner comprehension of the Middle East.

Whether the Arab nations and Israel can reach an understanding of each other depends on how they conceive the nature and destination of the Middle East. For President Nasser and the main body of Arab nationalism, the dominant theme of the region's destiny is Arab unity. Much of Arab history is concerned with the tension between unity and regionalism. Union has been the exception, not the rule. There is, of course, a unifying energy in the Arab world which draws all men of Arab tongue together in a common identity. But there is also a strong tendency of Arab states to maintain their separate sovereignties against a claim to centralized hegemony from Cairo. Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and the North African states have never voluntarily acknowledged the political ukase of the Nile Valley.

For 12 years the efforts of Nasserism to impose a uniform control on the restless, varied stream of Arab life has led to uninterrupted crisis. Nothing has divided the Arab world more than the effort to unite it. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and now Yemen have been successive arenas in which Nasserism has come to grips with the desire of Arab states to be independent-not only of foreign control but of each other. Today diversity, pluralism and polycentrism are everywhere undermining the pretensions of monolithic blocs-from the Atlantic world to the Communist system, as well as across Africa and Latin America. It is doubtful if the Arab world with its deep-rooted diversities will tolerate a centralized control.

A Middle East in which separate Arab states could pursue their separate destiny, in a mood of tolerant variety, could more easily accommodate an Arab-Israel understanding than a homogenized Middle East convulsed by an Egyptian bid for centralized control. The Middle East is not an exclusive Arab domain. Its destiny lies in a pluralistic interaction of Asia, Europe and Africa. There are nearly as many non-Arabs as Arabs in the Middle East (the combined population of Israel, Iran, Ethiopia, Somalia, Turkey and Cyprus is 80,000,000); and the dream of a united Arab domain from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf offends the region's essential diversity.

There is a lesson to be learned from experiments in regional coöperation in other continents. In Western Europe the unity movement began from common interests, proceeding from coal and steel toward broader economic integration and free communications. Existing sovereignties are respected and the sensitive issue of political coördination is left until economic mutuality has been longer at work.

In the American republics the continental organization avoids racial or linguistic exclusiveness. It comprises every sovereignty within the defined region. Similarly, the new Organization of African Unity avoids centralization and hegemony. Neither in Europe, Latin America nor Africa has the federal principle yet won any notable victory. The formula is one of growing integration and harmony in relations between separate sovereign states.

The Arab union movement directed from Cairo seems to involve every difficulty which other union movements avoid. It emphasizes political structures, such as federations and leagues, before the basis of economic interest is secured. It is ethnically and linguistically exclusive, inspired more by reaction to "foes" than by a positive impulse of self- realization. And it is frankly disruptive of existing sovereignties and anchored in a concept of centralized hegemony.

The world has generously come to terms with Arab nationalism. The question is whether Arab nationalism can now come to terms with regional and international concepts broader than itself.

The most fruitful and natural regional concept is that of Mediterranean coöperation. The Mediterranean spirit, with the currents of thought and action which it has generated or evoked, lies at the origin of the technical and cultural transformation which has largely determined the cultural history of mankind. Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are Mediterranean nations, while Jordan is oriented by trade and history toward the Mediterranean world. The Hellenic and Latin worlds, Turkey and the island republics of Cyprus and Malta are washed by the same waters. Every point in this littoral is swiftly accessible to every other. Three continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, look out upon it with all their diversity of fate and outlook. Five great civilizations were born here-Judaism, Christianity, Hellenism, Rome and Islam. It is a central compact world, congenial to the free interaction of commerce and ideas and alien to exclusiveness. In no other part of the globe does a similar variety of conditions exist in such close proximity or in such intensity of mutual influence. It is here that man first considered himself in the light of eternity. It is here that science broke loose from empiricism in search of broad unifying explanations of the natural order. And it is here, amidst all the conditions for a new emergence of human vitality, that we find statesmanship held down in implacable conflict.

The issue is whether the Arab and Jewish nations, which have been primary agents in the Mediterranean adventure, can transcend their conflict in dedication to a new Mediterranean future, in concert with a renascent Europe and an emerging Africa. A new impulse of thought, similar to that which inaugurated the European Community 15 years ago, could open this prospect to early view.


Israeli leaders are often asked what Israel could contribute to a Middle Eastern settlement in return for what she would gain from the lifting of the siege. Although peace is not a condition of Israel's existence it clearly represents her highest interest. She is desperately hard pressed for territory. She is under no juridical obligation to reduce her area below the meager 8,000 square miles which she commands under the 1949 Agreements; these were concluded under United Nations auspices and cannot be modified without the consent of the signatory governments. For the first time since the dawn of history, large Jewish communities no longer exist in the Nile and Euphrates valleys, in the Arabian Peninsula and parts of North Africa. These half-million refugees have been absorbed in Israel and not thrown onto the charity of the world community as have the Palestinian Arabs who underwent a shorter and less drastic migration, for the most part from one part of Palestine to the other-from what is now Israel to the Palestine territory embodied in the Arab states of Jordan and Egypt. It is in the regional interest that Arab and Jewish populations should be integrated in environments akin to them in language, ethnic affinity and national sentiment. All refugee problems since the Second World War, in Asia and Europe, have been solved by this principle.

In the Israeli conception the guiding motive of a peace settlement is not to change the character or structure of existing states, but to institute a dramatic and revolutionary change in the relations between them. The revolution of which I speak can best be expressed in terms of an Open Region. Israel's land is small but wonderfully central. It is a nodal point of communication. In peaceful conditions we could imagine railway and road communications running from Haifa to Beirut, Damascus and Istanbul in the North; to Amman and beyond in the East; and to Cairo in the South. The opening of these blocked arteries would stimulate the life, thought and commerce of the region beyond any level otherwise conceivable. Across the Southern Negev communication between the Nile Valley and the Fertile Crescent could be resumed without any change of political jurisdiction. What is now often described as a wedge between Arab lands would become a bridge. The Kingdom of Jordan, now cut off from its natural maritime outlet, could freely import and export its goods on the Israeli coast. On the Red Sea, coöperative action could expedite the port developments at Elath and Aqaba which give Israel and Jordan their contact with a reviving East Africa and a developing Asia.

The Middle East, lying athwart three continents, could become a busy center of air communications, which are now impeded by boycotts and the necessity to take circuitous routes. Radio, telephone and postal communications which now end abruptly in mid-air would unite a divided region. The Middle East with its historic monuments and scenic beauty could attract a vast movement of tourists and pilgrims if existing impediments were removed. Resources which lie across national frontiers-the minerals of the Dead Sea and the phosphates of the Negev and the Araba-could be developed in mutual interchange of technical knowledge.

Economic coöperation in agricultural and industrial development could lead to supranational arrangements like those which mark the European Community. The United Nations could establish an Economic Commission for the Middle East, similar to the Commissions now at work in Europe, Latin America and the Far East. The specialized agencies could intensify their support of health and educational development with greater efficiency if a regional harmony were attained. The development of arid zones, the desalination of water and the conquest of tropical disease are common interests of the entire region, congenial to a sharing of knowledge and experience.

The programs of technical coöperation maintained by Israel in 50 countries in America, Africa and Asia, and the flow to Israel of over 1,500 young trainees from the developing countries every year, are an augury of what could be achieved by technical interchange between the Arab States and Israel. Israel could contribute to a solution of refugee problems by accepting the burden of international loans to finance her compensation undertaking. The payment of compensation would advance the resettlement of the refugees in areas of the Arab world. Regional water development would become a focus of coöperation, instead of a source of conflict. A detailed review of the position on the frontiers with a view to minor and mutual adjustment could remove anomalies and ambiguities which provoke tension.

In the institutions of scientific research and higher education on both sides of the frontier, young Israelis and Arabs could join in a mutual discourse of learning. The old prejudices could be replaced by a new comprehension and respect, born of a reciprocal dialogue in the intellectual domain. In such a Middle East, military budgets would spontaneously find a less exacting point of equilibrium. Excessive sums devoted to security could be partly diverted to development projects.

Thus, in full respect of existing sovereignties and of the region's creative diversity, an entirely new story, never known or told before, would unfold across the eastern Mediterranean. For the first time in history no Mediterranean nation is in subjection. All are endowed with sovereign freedom. The problem is how to translate freedom into creative growth.

It may seem Utopian to project such a vision in the summer of 1965, when the urgent concern is to reinforce the deterrents against armed conflict and to avoid a mischievous violation of water rights. But there is such a thing in physics as fusion at high temperatures. In political experience, too, the consciousness of peril often brings about a thaw in frozen situations. In the long run, nations can survive only by recognizing what their common interest demands. "Great ideas," wrote Albert Camus, "come into the world as gently as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen closely, we shall hear amid the roar of empires and nations, a faint flutter of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope."

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now