Understanding Arab strategy towards Israel

Published date12 October 2021
Publication titleIsrael National News (Israel)
Habib Bourguiba

Habib Bourguiba, president of Tunisia from 1957-87, fired the first political shot for a staged approach to vanquish the Jewish state of Israel. Here was an Arab personality proposing, in 1965, a peace plan based initially on the United Nations and international legitimacy. Resolution 181 from 1947 would leave Israel with less territory than her post-'48 borders; and Resolution 194 from 1948 would inundate Israel with hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees. If Israel would reject these steps for conflict-resolution, then the Arab stance would earn global vindication. Israel's political and legal legitimacy would erode.

While the inception of the PLO in 1964 awakened a call for revolutionary guerrilla warfare, Bourguiba offered a pacific solution with a vision of Arabs and Israelis living in harmony. His was a reasonable plan, eschewing demagoguery, and abandoning war. The Arab world, led by President Nasser of Egypt, resounded with horror at the mention of peace with Israel, denouncing Bourguiba for recommending that "we [Arabs] should respect stages." Drawing upon his own personal and national experience in the long and successful Tunisian struggle for independence, and the expulsion of French colonialism, Bourguiba concluded that the dissolution of Israel required time and patience.

After the Six Day War in June 1967 with the Arab loss, Cecil Hourani, a former adviser to President Bourguiba, developed the theme of containing, Arabizing, and Orientalizing Israel as the optimal strategy. A combination of foreign and domestic pressures would convince the Jews to prefer a return to their status under Arab rule rather than pursue the impossible dream of a secure and recognized Jewish state in Palestine. In 1974, Boutros Ghali, Egyptian academic who was subsequently appointed Minister of State for Foreign Affairs under Sadat, considered Israel's defense of its sovereignty to be "a very stiff attitude."


We shall examine three cases of the strategy of stages in the context of the prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict, highlighting the primary Arab personalities who exhibited sophistication and creativity, with no small dose of duplicity. The common thread is the realization that rational analysis must replace emotional exhilaration, or deep despair, in choosing politics over war at least in the initial stage of the undertaking.

Anwar Sadat

Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt from 1970-81, chose diplomacy in 1977 after attacking Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

In the 1970s, various intellectual, cultural, and political figures in Egypt introduced the new thinking into the Israeli-Arab issue. Mohammad Sa'id Ahmed began his book When the Guns Fall Silent with a challenging statement: "The time has come to think about what we dared not to think." He argued in favor of adopting peace with Israel as a method based on the model of superpower détente for which the culmination is not the resolution of conflict as such. The final goal, Sa'id Ahmed wrote, is "the extinction of the Zionist enterprise with the absorption of Zionism in the Arab expanse." Incrementalism and struggle, international pressure and Israel's withering from within, serve as the signposts for achieving a peace that would not signal the end of the conflict—but the end of Israel.

Other noteworthy Egyptian personalities who dangled the idea of peace with normalization of relations with Israel included Naguib Mahfouz and Ali Salam, but they really seemed to intend full acceptance of Israel. Rage, boycott, and assault, burst forth against this betrayal of an Arab consensus that negated the right of a Jewish state in the midst of the Arab world. Sadat, however, had other thoughts in mind, while his beguiling persona radiated with the aroma of political theatre.

Sadat traveled to Israel in November 1977 and launched his so-called "peace initiative" to chart a novel course in Middle East political history. His strategy, when unraveled, encompassed a stratagem that could trap Israel into submission.

Sadat had intimated in private conversations with fellow-Arabs, that he would sign a peace treaty—as he did in 1979—if that was the only way to recover the Sinai peninsula. Moreover, the Camp David Peace Treaty included a plan for Palestinian Arab autonomy in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza [soi-disant West Bank and Gaza Strip], which would serve as the political route toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. The essential purpose of such a state is the platform provided for irredentist disruption, invasion, and destabilization in Israel. Sadat referred in his Knesset speech in Jerusalem to the need for Israel withdrawing back to the June 4, 1967 lines, and to the need for a resolution of the...

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