Commentary Magazine

Pan-Arabism on the March?: Israel Weighs the New Challenge

Responsible Israelis take a generally calm view of the recent Arab mergers, according to an Israeli commentator writing from Jerusalem.





The recent moves toward Arab unification, though generally thought to have placed Israel-Arab relations on a new footing, have in reality changed very little. To be sure, the proclamation of a full union between Egypt and Syria on the first day of February, followed by the formal establishment of the “United Arab Republic” by plebiscite three weeks later, had a mixed reception in Jerusalem. But then Israel’s attitude to the whole question of Arab unity has never been clearly and authoritatively formulated—largely because the Arab countries themselves have never taken the subject very seriously.

Inter-Arab discords, which the creation of the Arab League in 1945 did nothing to alleviate, are more deep-rooted and linked to interests more vital than is generally admitted. The rise of Egypt as a rival to Iraq in the struggle for ascendancy in the Arab world—a development dating back as recently as the mid-40’s—merely sharpened these differences. The Arab states’ concerted invasion of Palestine in 1948 not only failed to achieve any tangible results, but, quite typically, produced an even more pronounced split between Egypt and the countries of the Fertile Crescent, especially the two Hashemite kingdoms of Iraq and Jordan. Yet Israel has gained nothing from her neighbors’ rivalries, since whenever their rulers wanted to demonstrate their loyalty to Pan-Arabism, all they had to do was to step up their anti-Israel propaganda—or so they thought. These rivalries have thus resulted in the strengthening of anti-Israel sentiment in both Arab camps, who keep trying to outdo each other in bellicose statements directed against the Jewish state.

It is in this light that one has to consider the somewhat sympathetic initial Israeli pronouncements on the recent unions. At the same time, the less publicized reaction was one of dismay not unmixed with anxiety. What Israel has been telling the Arabs—mainly in her new Arabic-language broadcasts—is that she is in favor of any Arab move for unity, as long as the Arabs make it of their own free will. This has been said in perfect sincerity. The contention is that, so long as such a union aims at constructive and positive results, the Arabs will eventually come to realize that peace can be as beneficial to them as it would be to Israel. The theme most favored by Israelis addressing their neighbors is that peace and cooperation in the Middle East would lead them along the road to the solution of their own economic and social problems, instead of concentrating their main efforts on acquiring arms at the expense of their well-being—not to speak of involving the whole area in increasing world-bloc tensions. As seen in Jerusalem, however, the new Egyptian-Syrian union cannot be considered a consummation of the Arabs’ presumably age-old aspiration for unity. On the contrary, it is an artificial and forced merger whose long-term repercussions are likely to prove harmful.

The lack of territorial contiguity between the two “provinces” of the United Arab Republic is in itself sufficient to cause some concern, although no immediate threat to peace is seen where Israel is concerned: it is believed that Cairo will not, at least for the time being, embark on an anti-Israel adventure, for not only has Israel proved her ability to strike back effectively when and if the need arises, but it is now realized in Cairo and Damascus that an attack on Israel would certainly lead to Western intervention of some kind. But this is not the only danger. Quite apart from the fact that the lack of a rational basis for the Egypt-Syria union can easily lead Nasser on the road of subversion in other Arab territories, there is a crucial historical factor which makes for more inter-Arab tension and bitterness: Iraq has always viewed Greater Syria—Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and the Lebanon—as her natural sphere of expansion. The original Pan-Arab concept, which originated in the so-called Arab Kingdom promised to the Sherif Hussein of Mecca by the British government in the First World War, excluded Egypt from any possible Arab union. Now, by virtually annexing Syria, Egypt has in fact dealt a blow to the cause of Arab unity as it has for decades been understood this side of Suez. Dr. Fadhil el-Jamali, a former Iraqi Prime Minister, not surprisingly described the new federation as an “act of defiance,” pointing out that its chief aim was “to tear Syria away from Iraq.” This “act of defiance” was naturally not taken lightly in Baghdad, and the goal of Arab unity now seems farther removed than ever.



The imbalance created in inter-Arab relations by the establishment of the United Arab Republic was thus a real one, and neither Jordan nor Iraq could possibly sit idle and see their respective positions imperiled by the Pan-Arab ambitions of the Egyptian regime. The rejoinder came promptly. On February 14, less than two weeks after the announcement of the Egypt-Syria merger, an agreement was signed in Amman by King Faisal II of Iraq and King Hussein of Jordan, announcing the establishment of an Arab Federation (“Al-Ittihad Al-Arabi”), a new state merging the two Hashemite kingdoms. The agreement was fairly comprehensive, and as a counter to Cairo’s move the rival Federation could prove quite effective: it has at any rate saved Hussein’s throne, if not his neck. Short of merging the two thrones (and relinquishing one of their United Nations delegations), unification is complete. The two countries are to have one government, one army (the “Arab Army”), one economy, and one flag; the Federation’s capital is to alternate between Baghdad and Amman every six months; and Hussein, who is to preserve his throne, will periodically take the place of Faisal, who was proclaimed head of the new state. That the Jordanians got quite a fair deal—far better than the Syrians did from Egypt—is illustrated by the fact that an equal number of Jordanian and Iraqi deputies are to be chosen for the Federation’s legislature, though Jordan’s population is just below a quarter that of Iraq.

Iraq’s membership in the Baghdad Pact was, however, bound to prove a stumbling block. The proclamation of the Egypt-Syria union, following hard on the heels of the Baghdad Pact council’s meeting in Ankara in the last week of January, had aggravated Iraq’s sense of isolation within that wholly non-Arab alliance. On the eve of the meeting, in fact, there were rumors that Iraq was contemplating leaving the Pact altogether, should her demand for a “solution” of the “Palestine question” in accordance with the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 be rejected. Nuri es-Said, Iraq’s strong man who led his country’s delegation to the Baghdad Pact parley, arrived in Ankara two weeks before the meeting opened, but apparently failed to prevail upon the Turkish government to back his demand for an enforced settlement of the Arab-Israel dispute. (His other pursuits, including the talks he held with exiled Syrians about possible ways of toppling the existing pro-Soviet regime in Damascus, equally proved dismal failures.) The Iraqis’ inability to give the Baghdad Pact an “Arab” look completed their isolation from the rest of the Arab world. This isolation had started in December 1955, when the Egyptian radio (and Saudi Arabian gold) combined to foil Britain’s rash attempt to bring Jordan into the Baghdad Pact. Now, for Jordan to enter a full union with Iraq—Baghdad Pact and all—would have been decried by the eager Pan-Arab propagandists in Cairo and Damascus as the highest of treasons. Accordingly, a convenient formula was found when it was agreed that any international treaty, alliance, or convention which either state had signed before entering the Federation did not commit the other member. It is not clear how this condition can be met when one of the signatories finds itself in a state of war as a result of previous commitments, seeing that the two armies will henceforth be merged into one.

On the whole, however, the Arab Federation seems a more plausible enterprise than the United Arab Republic. Unlike the latter, the Iraq-Jordan merger is based on territorial contiguity, and the Iraqi economy will complement, rather than compete with, Jordan’s non-viable structure. More significantly, Iraq will be in a position, should she so desire, to use to advantage the enormous manpower and labor potential of the masses of Palestine refugees now idling away in squalid refugee camps on the Jordan’s west bank. This prospect opens the way for the solution of problems that for a long time seemed insoluble, and the refugees, who have been the main source of peril to Hussein’s throne, may conceivably find their way to a decent settlement in Iraq where they can help in the country’s ambitious development projects.

Yet, in political terms, the effect of the Iraq-Jordan union on inter-Arab relations has tended to intensify rather than ease the existing tensions. With two Arab mergers accomplished in the space of two weeks, real unity is no nearer. Following a polite message of congratulation sent by Nasser to King Faisal on the day of the signing, Cairo and Damascus promptly began to attack the new merger, while Nasser himself now calls on Iraq and Jordan to “free themselves of all imperialist fetters,” including the Baghdad Pact and the Eisenhower Doctrine. In Syria, especially, the Federation has come under concentrated fire, on the ground, among other things, that it is “artificial,” whereas Syria’s own merger with Egypt is presumably natural and logical. With Syria now in the front line of the Iraqi-Egyptian struggle for leadership of the Arab world, the pro-Iraqi elements in Damascus may yet prove a headache for their Egyptian overseers. It is well known that an influential section of Syrian opinion is opposed to the complete surrender of sovereignty to Egypt, despite the voting figures published after the plebiscite of February 21.



The precise implications for Israel of the two rival mergers in the Arab world are not as yet clear. Initial pronouncements from either camp were uniformly bellicose and hostile, especially those emanating from Damascus and Amman. In his announcement of the merger with Syria, Colonel Nasser contented himself with remarking that the Arabs must attain unity “so that we can avoid a repetition of the Palestine tragedy”; but in later utterances he was to become progressively more hostile. Anwar el-Sadat, the most active of Nasser’s associates, spoke of the opening of “a campaign to avenge our spilt blood in Palestine.” In Damascus, the then Prime Minister, Sabri el-Assali, declared that the union would prove “a crushing blow to Israel and Imperialism”; and Akram el-Hourani, leader of the Pan-Arab “Socialist” Ba’ath (Resurgence) party, and speaker of the Syrian chamber of deputies, thought the union constituted “the most fitting start for restoring Palestine.” Equally bellicose remarks accompanied the proclamation of the rival Arab Federation. King Hussein gave a solemn pledge that “we will never lay down our arms until we attain our legitimate rights and the purloined land of Palestine—or die”; while Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Burhan ed-Din Basha’yan, declared that the union with Jordan was “realistic” chiefly because “it transfers Iraq’s borders to those of Israel.”

The official Israeli reaction to the two mergers was at the outset extremely guarded. A policy of wait-and-see was reputedly adopted at a Cabinet session held two days after the proclamation of the Arab Federation. No conclusions were at first formulated with regard to the many political and legal questions raised by the mergers, including the important one of Iraq’s legal position with regard to the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement. (Iraq signed no such agreement with Israel, although she took part in the Arab invasion of Palestine in 1948.) It should be recalled that in the fall of 1956 the Israeli government was not only firmly opposed to the entry of Iraqi troops into Jordan, but even threatened to take drastic measures in such an eventuality. Now that the armies of Jordan and Iraq are to be merged under a single command, public opinion in Israel has been quick to point out that the situation requires careful study. In the end, Israel’s official stand was made clear by Mr. Ben Gurion, who declared on February 26 that Israel reserved her right to take action should Iraqi troops approach the Jordan River.

The press was naturally in a better position than the government to comment on the mergers and their implications for Israel. Most papers drew attention to the fact that, though Israel should welcome any step toward closer cooperation between the countries of the Middle East, these mergers created serious problems. Davar (which is usually considered to reflect official opinion), while expressing the belief that a lot of water will flow down the Nile and the Euphrates before Arab union becomes a reality, held that recent events “have created a new political situation which calls for alertness and watchfulness on Israel’s part.” It also pointed out that Israel herself could have had a place in such a union, had it not been conceived in a spirit of hatred for Israel. Ha-aretz, recalling that in 1948 the armies of all the Arab states took part in the invasion of Israel, warned that it was always possible for them to come to an understanding with each other at the decisive moment in order to attack Israel in unison. The Jerusalem Post commented that every time there had been talk of union among the Arabs it was inspired “only by hostility to another nation—Britain in the past, France now, and Israel always.” The view that the new mergers were not calculated to strengthen the prospect of peace in the area was also shared by the Achdut Ha-avodah organ La-Merchav, while the optimistic Al-Hamishmar of the United Workers party (Mapam), asserted that since the Arabs could not overlook the fact that Israel is a living reality, “they will be unable for long to ignore the need to arrive at a peace settlement.”



On the whole, Israelis have confidence in the future. The average Israeli, who tends to be more politically-minded than his opposite number anywhere in the world, likes to recall that the Israeli army has consistently proved more than a match for the Arabs, whether separately or combined. Of Israel’s political parties, the right-wing Herut was alone in demanding a “firm policy” toward the mergers. The party’s leader, Menahem Begin, in presenting a motion in the Knesset, urged among other things that the Arab Federation meant the annexation by Iraq of parts of Palestine on the other side of the Armistice lines, while the United Arab Republic meant in effect Syria’s inclusion in Egypt. Most people on the contrary seem to feel that the mergers change very little in the situation that has existed since the Sinai operations in the fall of 1956, when Israel’s success in smashing Egypt’s elaborate military preparations in the Sinai peninsula brought about a change in the power balance and gave Israel a respite from Egyptian guerrilla raids and the constant threat of full-scale invasion. The pacification of Egypt’s borders with Israel, the stationing of an international police force in the Gaza Strip, and the opening of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping have given the country a badly needed opportunity to go ahead with constructive projects. But the Sinai campaign, though it brought immediate advantages, has really changed nothing in the basic facts of Israel’s position in the region. The Arab boycott is still in force, and the closing of the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping has remained; despite inter-Arab splits and differences—and also because of them—Arab spokesmen everywhere keep making the same threatening statements about Israel. The Arabs maintain that time is working in their favor and that, surrounded by 40 million Arabs on the march, Israel must sooner or later come to terms. The apparent plausibility of this view makes the wilder Arab dreams seem reasonable.



How is Israel to counter these pressures? On the face of it, the prospect of being isolated in a vast Arab “sea” is serious enough. The policy of conciliation pursued since 1949 has proved unfruitful. Israel’s repeated offers of peace were not only rejected out of hand, but were taken as signs of weakness and as an added proof that the Arabs’ own estimate of the new state’s prospects was correct. For most of this period Israel’s policy was in fact based more or less firmly on a few time-honored assumptions inherited from the early days of socialist Zionism. These assumptions were that progress in the Arab world would eventually bring about a change of attitude; that the Jewish state could deal best with “progressive” Arab elements; and that as the existing feudal and autocratic regimes begin to crumble and the so-called enlightened strata take over, the prospect of a peaceful settlement with these countries will become real. Israel, it was maintained, could then take an active part in “emancipating” the Arab masses from their ignorance, poverty, and disease. Echoes of this attitude are still being heard today, e.g. in the Davar editorial mentioned earlier. There are sections of the Zionist movement which still engage in expounding this antiquated thesis and urging the government to act on it. The United Workers party (Mapam), for one, maintains that a sort of alliance between Arab socialist forces and their opposite numbers in Israel must and can be achieved for the good of the region as a whole. The editors of New Outlook, an Israeli monthly controlled by Mapam and “Peace Movement” enthusiasts—with the blessings, it is generally thought, of Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Zionist Organization—have been publishing lengthy dissertations on the theme of a “Middle Eastern Federation” that is to include Israel. In its February issue, this journal erected an entire theoretical structure on a statement alleged to have been made by Michel Aflek, a leader of the Ba’ath party in Syria, to the effect that he would be ready to enter into discussions with “Jewish” socialists on the basis of common action to establish a Middle East Socialist Federation “that would allow the separate nations autonomy in their internal affairs, but would reserve foreign affairs and defense to the Federal Government.” In actual fact Fenner Brockway, a British Labor M.P. and chairman of the “Congress of Peoples Against Imperialism,” had himself written the article. It was to him that Aflek’s remark was supposed to have been made, as reported by Mr. Brockway in a letter to the editor of the London New Statesman. In his New Outlook article, Mr. Brockway went so far as to claim that Dr. Goldmann’s appeals for a new approach (including such lofty aims as non-involvement in the cold war, the neutralization of the Middle East, etc.) have had “a profound effect” in Israel. He did not omit to mention that the so-called neutralization of the Middle East under a great power agreement “is also the policy of the British Labor party.”

Happily, however, this amateur textbook attitude toward Israel’s Arab neighbors is no longer official policy, although it is still detectable in all kinds of official and semiofficial utterances. Since the establishment of the Jewish state, considerable changes have taken place in the Arab world, and the results would not seem to justify such optimism. The young, “enlightened” Arab is not noticeably more liberal than his father; he is, if anything, more rigid and more lacking in scruples, and he possesses better means to assert himself and render his opponents powerless. Usually a young officer or an “intellectual” with long-standing grievances, he is not restrained by the age-old traditions which governed the actions of his elders. He is not even aware of them, his history textbooks having been completely distorted and his head being full of fantasies about the glorious national struggle for unity in 19th-century Germany, Italy, and Japan—plus dreams of a united Arab nation extending from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. How, then, is Israel, a country which in Arab eyes is an intruder and an aggressor, to deal with the modern Arab—an Arab who has freed his country from the “feudalism,” the “reaction,” and the “desert civilization” which have so far been considered the chief stumbling blocks in the way of Arab-Jewish understanding? One thing, at least, is clear: a nation’s entire future cannot be built on dogmatic assumptions and petrified slogans. Progressive or reactionary, young or old, left-winger or conservative, the Arab today has nothing but hostility and distrust for Israel. Other, more effective policies than one of waiting for the “enlightened” and Westernized Arabs to take over will have to be found.



The attempt has been made. Side by side with the policy of the outstretched hand, a search for more tangible long-term methods was always in progress. Looking beyond the chain of hostile lands all around her, Israel has been turning her attention to the countries of Asia and Africa lying on the periphery of the Arab world. A network of economic ties and friendly contacts has been established with some of these countries, and in a number of them Israel already possesses a considerable standing as a friendly country whose assistance is not accompanied by “strings.” The list is impressive, and the results so far achieved are fairly encouraging. About 25 per cent of Israel’s total exports and imports during 1956 ($107 million and $364 million respectively) were transacted in countries outside North America and Western Europe (including Britain). Israel, though unable to purchase oil in Iraq, meat in Jordan, or cotton in Egypt (in addition to being debarred from using the Suez Canal for her shipping) is now preparing, in the words of a British observer, “to take a leap over the besieging forces and look beyond the Middle East to Africa and Asia for goods she is denied nearer home.” Such countries as Burma in Southeast Asia; Ethiopia and Somaliland in East Africa; Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria in West Africa; Japan, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Turkey, now supply Israel with food and raw materials, and buy her industrial exports. Trade relations have also been established with South Africa, Australia, Southern Rhodesia, Ceylon, the Philippines, and Thailand. At the end of February, two Israeli Ministers were abroad on a series of visits in the Far East and in West Africa. Mrs. Golda Meir, the Foreign Minister, has visited Liberia, Ghana (where she represented Israel at the country’s first Independence Day celebrations), Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Dakar in Senegal. The Minister of Trade and Industry, Pinhas Sapir, on a round of visits in countries of the Far East, obtained a treaty of friendship with the Philippines and closer economic ties with Japan.

Israel’s contact with Asian and African nations has a firm basis in the wider context of her foreign policy. The new orientation is definitely more than a passing phase or an opportunist attempt to gain the sympathy of these nations at a time when their political and moral influence is increasing both inside and outside the United Nations. Israel’s Afro-Asian ties can go a long way toward countering the Arab boycott and blockade. They can show the Arab leaders the ultimate futility of their present policy, since Israel can now find adequate outlets for her exports, and suitable markets for her purchases in non-Western countries. Moreover, these relations are not confined to trade alone. Cultural links are also being promoted, and several scholarships for study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have been granted to Asian students. Ben Gurion has even suggested that the University establish a chair for Indian Philosophy.

Does Israel’s foreign policy then have a definite orientation? In dealing with her Arab neighbors, Israel can hardly be said to have a well-defined policy. Ever since Egypt’s Czech arms deal in 1955 and the intensification of the cold war in the Middle East, Israel-Arab relations—and Israel’s Arab policy insofar as it existed at all—have been determined by great power moves in the area. When in 1955 the Soviet Union appeared on the scene in full force, it was to the West that Israel had to turn for help to restore the balance nearly upset by the flow of Russian arms into Egypt. The attempt to draw the West’s attention to the grave situation created by these arms supplies was, however, slow in producing results. The U.S. remained seemingly unmoved until the very end, and Israel’s requirements had to be covered elsewhere—especially in France. It was not long before France and Israel found it to their mutual benefit to achieve some sort of alliance. Both were threatened by Colonel Nasser’s Pan-Arab ambitions which envisaged a united Arab domain extending from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. For Nasser was backing these dreams by deeds. In Algeria he openly extended aid to the rebels in the form of arms shipments, and France resented this interference. Israel was even more vitally and openly threatened. The fedayeen raids, which often extended deep into the country, threatened the life of her inhabitants and disrupted the normal working of her whole civilian life. Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal Company hastened the process which culminated in the Sinai campaign. Although it is not yet possible to describe the extent of help provided by the French in the fateful weeks preceding the Sinai operations, there is no doubt that, in France, Israel has found a true ally. Numerous statements coming from French quarters since the Sinai campaign have been consistent in asserting the solidity of this friendship. The “alliance,” though as yet informal and unwritten, is viewed as something that French Cabinet changes, and the vicissitudes of the cold war, will not affect.

With the Arabs adamant in their refusal to talk peace, Israel has thus had to look for friends beyond her immediate neighbors. What has been called the Middle East orientation in her foreign policy was never a real possibility: repeated offers of conciliation not only proved ineffective, but produced unwelcome results. On the other hand, those Middle Eastern states that were not Arab were variously committed to defend—or appear to defend—Arab interests: Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan are all members of the Baghdad Pact and have to tread lightly where Iraq’s Pan-Arab complexes are concerned.



The truth seems to be, then, that Israel’s foreign policy has no particular orientation; indeed, it cannot afford to adopt a rigid course. Various people at various times have talked, and will no doubt continue to talk, about this and that orientation—Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, European, or Afro-Asian. Yet in Jerusalem the whole controversy appears somewhat academic. As far as can be seen, Israel’s foreign policy is empirical rather than dogmatic—which is really what every sound policy should be. Israel will not refuse to sign a settlement with the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan because their regimes are considered reactionary and feudal; she will readily cooperate with the United Arab Republic despite the latter’s undemocratic nature; and when her security considerations require it, she would enter a European alliance to safeguard her frontiers. The recent developments in Cairo and Damascus, or in Baghdad and Amman, are not likely to produce any deep change. The fact that all the parties to the new unions keep declaring that their aim is to destroy Israel naturally creates some concern. But then such declarations have become familiar. No new course of action is contemplated. As Ben Gurion told a group of foreign journalists recently, Israel’s policy “is to continue with our constructive work in our own state, consolidate our economy, educate our people and go on with business as usual.” Meanwhile the consolidation of new ties with various countries of Asia and Africa constitutes a partial reply to Arab threats of destruction. It is the only reply possible for the time being.



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