History of Israel

THE BEGIN ERA

In the May 1977 elections, the Labor Party's dominance of Israeli politics ended. The Likud Bloc--an alliance of Begin's Herut Party, the Liberal Party, and other smaller parties formed in the aftermath of the October 1973 War--formed a ruling coalition government for the first time in Israel's history. Likud gained forty-three seats, Labor dropped to thirty-two seats, down by nineteen from the 1973 figure. Likud's supporters consisted of disaffected middle-class elements alienated by the series of scandals, many new immigrants from the Soviet Union, and large numbers of defecting Oriental Jews. Begin appealed to many because he was viewed as incorruptible and untarnished by scandal. He was a strong leader who did not equivocate about his plans for a strong Israel (which he believed included the occupied territories), or about his willingness to stand up to the Arabs or even the superpowers if Israel's needs demanded. Begin also attracted some veteran Labor Zionists for whom his focus on Jewish settlement and self-reliance was reminiscent of an earlier unadulterated Labor Zionism.

Begin's vision of Israel and its role in the region was deeply rooted in the Revisionist platform with which he had been associated since the days of Jabotinsky. He strongly advocated Israeli sovereignty over all of Eretz Yisrael, which in his view included Jerusalem and the West Bank, but not Sinai.

The Peace Process

The international climate at the time of Begin's rise to power in May 1977 leaned strongly toward some type of superpowersanctioned settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute. New United States president Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Brezhnev both advocated a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement that would include autonomy for the Palestinians. On October 1, 1977, in preparation for a reconvened Geneva conference, the United States and the Soviet Union issued a joint statement committing themselves to a comprehensive settlement incorporating all parties concerned and all questions.

Nevertheless, the idea of a Geneva conference on the Middle East was actively opposed and eventually defeated by a constellation of Israeli, Egyptian, and powerful private American interests. Begin proclaimed that he would never accept the authority of an international forum to dictate how Israel should deal with its territory, especially because, aside from Washington, the Israelis would lack allies at such a meeting. Inside the United States, the Jewish lobby and anti-Soviet political groups vehemently opposed the Geneva conference idea. Sadat also opposed a Geneva conference, seeing it as a way for Syria, supported by the Soviet Union, to gain leverage in an Arab-Israeli settlement. Sadat realized that if an international conference were held, Egypt's recovery of Sinai, which was his primary objective in dealing with Israel, would be secondary to the Palestinian issue and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

To stave off an international conference and to save Egypt's rapidly collapsing economy, Sadat made the boldest of diplomatic moves: he offered to address the Knesset. Begin consented, and in November 1977 Sadat made his historic journey to Jerusalem, opening a new era in Egyptian-Israeli relations. Although Sadat expressed his commitment to the settlement of the Palestinian issue and to that issue's centrality in Arab-Israeli relations, his main interest remained Israel's return of Egyptian territory. Begin's acceptance of the Egyptian initiative was based on the premise that Sinai, but not the West Bank, was negotiable. He foresaw that exchanging Sinai for a peace treaty with Egypt would remove Egypt from the Arab-Israeli military balance and relieve pressure on Israel to make territorial concessions on the West Bank. President Carter, who had been a major advocate of a Geneva conference, was forced by the momentum of Sadat's initiative to drop the international conference idea. Subsequently, he played a crucial role in facilitating an Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement.

Following nearly a year of stalled negotiations, Begin, Sadat, and Carter met at Camp David near Washington, D.C., for two weeks in September 1978. The crux of the problem at Camp David was that Begin, the old-time Revisionist who had opposed territorial concessions to the Arabs for so many years, was reluctant to dismantle existing Sinai settlements. Finally, on September 17 he consented, and the Camp David Accords were signed. On the following day, Begin obtained Knesset approval of the accords.

The Camp David Accords consisted of two agreements: one dealt with the future of the West Bank and the other with the return of Sinai. The sections on the West Bank were vague and open to various interpretations. They called for Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and "the representatives of the Palestinian people to negotiate about the future of the West Bank and Gaza." A five-year period of "transitional autonomy" was called for "to ensure a peaceful and orderly transfer of authority." The agreement also called for peace talks between Israel and its other Arab neighbors, namely Syria. The other part of the accords was more specific. It provided for "the full exercise of Egyptian sovereignty up to the internationally recognized border," as well as for the Israeli right of free passage through the Strait of Tiran and the Suez Canal. The agreements were accompanied by letters. A letter from Begin to Carter promised that the removal of settlers from Sinai would be put to Knesset vote. A letter from Sadat to Carter stated that if the settlers were not withdrawn from Sinai, there would be no peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. It was also understood that to make the agreement more palatable the United States would significantly increase aid to both countries.

Begin's limited view of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank became apparent almost immediately after the agreement known as the Treaty of Peace Between Egypt and Israel was signed in March 1979. The following month his government approved two new settlements between Ram Allah and Nabulus. The military government established civilian regional councils for the Jewish settlements. Finally, and most provocative, autonomy plans were prepared in which Israel would keep exclusive control over the West Bank's water, communications, roads, public order, and immigration.

In effect, the acceleration of settlements, the growth of an increasingly militaristic Jewish settler movement, and Israel's stated desire to retain complete control over resources in the territories precluded the participation in the peace process of either moderate Palestinians, such as the newly formed National Guidance Committee composed of West Bank mayors (the PLO refused from the beginning to participate in the peace process) or King Hussein of Jordan. No Arab leader could accept Begin's truncated version of autonomy. Hussein, who had initially withheld judgment on the accords, joined hands with the Arab radicals in a meeting in Baghdad that denounced the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty and ostracized Egypt. Sadat protested Israeli actions in the occupied territories, but he was unwilling to change his course for fear that doing so would leave Sinai permanently in Israeli hands. President Carter objected to the new settlements but was unable to force the Begin government to change its settlement policy. Although ambassadors were exchanged; commercial, trade, and cultural ties were established; and Sinai was returned in May 1982, relations between Israel and Egypt remained chilly.

The Occupied Territories

During the June 1967 War, about 1.1 million Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem came under Israeli rule. Immediately after the war, East Jerusalem was occupied and reunited with the rest of Israel's capital. Its Arab inhabitants--about 67,000 after the war--became citizens of Israel with the same rights as other Israeli Arabs. The West Bank, ruled by Jordan since 1948, was economically underdeveloped but possessed a relatively efficient administrative infrastructure. Its 750,000 people consisted of a settled population and refugees from Israel who had led during the 1948 War. Both the refugees and the settled population were Jordanian citizens, free to work in Jordan. Most of the leading urban families and virtually all the rural clans had cooperated with Hussein. The Gaza Strip, on the other hand, was seething with discontent when Israeli forces arrived in 1967. Its 1967 population of 350,000--the highest population density in the world at the time--had been under Egyptian rule, but the inhabitants were not accepted as Egyptian citizens or allowed to travel to Egypt proper. As a result they were unable to find work outside the camps and were almost completely dependent on the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. In the Gaza Strip, Israel implemented harsh security measures to quell widespread unrest and root out the growing resistance movement.

Labor's settlement policy in the occupied territories was based on a plan formaulated during the summer of 1965 by Yigal Allon, deputy prime minister of the Eshkol government. The plan, primarily dictated by security concerns, called for rural and urban settlements to be erected in a sparsely Arab-populated strip twelve to fifteen kilometers wide along the western bank of the Jordan River and the western shores of the Dead Sea. Labor governments sought to interfere as little as possible in the day-to-day lives of the Arab inhabitants. Political and social arrangements were, as much as possible, kept under Jordanian or pro-Jordanian control, the currency remained the Jordanian dinar, the application of Jordanian law continued, and a revised Jordanian curriculum was used in the schools.

Another aspect of Labor's occupation policies was the integration of the territories into the Israeli economy. By the mid-1970s, Arabs from Israel and the territories provided nearly one-quarter of Israel's factory labor and half the workers in construction and service industries. Moreover, the territories became an important market for Israeli domestic production; by 1975 about 16 percent of all Israeli exports were sold in the territories.

The final element of Labor's occupation policies was economic and social modernization. This included the mechanization of agriculture, the spread of television, and vast improvements in education and health care. This led to a marked increase in GNP, which grew by 14.5 percent annually between 1968 and 1973 in the West Bank and 19.4 percent annually in Gaza. As a result, the traditional elites, who had cooperated with Hussein during the years of Jordanian rule, were challenged by a younger, better educated, and more radical elite that was growing increasingly impatient with the Israeli occupation and the older generation's complacency. In the spring of 1976, Minister of Defense Shimon Peres held West Bank municipal elections, hoping to bolster the declining power of the old guard Palestinian leadership. Peres wrongly calculated that the PLO would boycott the elections. Instead, pro-PLO candidates won in every major town except Bethlehem.

Israel's settlement policy in the occupied territories changed in 1977 with the coming to power of Begin. Whereas Labor's policies had been guided primarily by security concerns, Begin espoused a deep ideological attachment to the territories. He viewed the Jewish right of settlement in the occupied territories as fulfilling biblical prophecy and therefore not a matter for either the Arabs or the international community to accept or reject. Begin's messianic designs on the territories were supported by the rapid growth of religious nationalist groups, such as Gush Emunim, which established settlements in heavily populated Arab areas.

The increase in Jewish settlements and the radicalization of the settlers created an explosive situation. When in May 1980 six students of a Hebron yeshiva, a Jewish religious school, were killed by Arab gunfire, a chain of violence was set off that included a government crackdown on Hebron and the expulsion of three leaders of the Hebron Arab community. West Bank Jewish settlers increasingly took the law into their own hands; they were widely believed to be responsible for car-bomb attacks on the mayors of Ram Allah and Nabulus.

Begin's policies toward the occupied territories became increasingly annexationist following the Likud victory in the 1981 parliamentary elections. He viewed the Likud's margin of victory, which was larger than in 1977, as a mandate to pursue a more aggressive policy in the territories. After the election, he appointed the hawkish Ariel Sharon as minister of defense, replacing the more moderate Ezer Weizman, who had resigned in protest against Begin's settlement policy. In November 1981, Sharon installed a civilian administration in the West Bank headed by Menachem Milson. Milson immediately set out to stifle rapidly growing Palestinian nationalist sentiments; he deposed pro-PLO mayors, dissolved the mayors' National Guidance Committee, and shut two Arab newspapers and Bir Zeit University.

While Milson was working to quell Palestinian nationalism in the territories, the Begin regime accelerated the pace of settlements by providing low-interest mortgages and other economic benefits to prospective settlers. This action induced a number of secular Jews, who were not part of Gush Emunim, to settle in the territories, further consolidating Israel's hold on the area. Moreover, Israel established large military bases and extensive road, electricity, and water networks in the occupied territories.

In November 1981, Milson established village leagues in the West Bank consisting of pro-Jordanian Palestinians to counter the PLO's growing strength there. The leadership of the village leagues had a limited base of support, however, especially because the growth of Jewish settlements had adversely affected Arab villagers. The failure of the Village League Plan, the escalating violence in the occupied territories, in addition to increased PLO attacks against northern Israeli settlements, and Syria's unwillingness to respond when the Knesset extended Israeli law to the occupied Golan Heights in December 1981 convinced Begin and Sharon of the need to intervene militarily in southern Lebanon.

Israeli Action in Lebanon, 1978-82
The precarious sectarian balance prevailing in Lebanon has presented Israeli policy makers with opportunities and risks. Lebanon's Christian Maronites, who under French tutelage occupied the most important political and economic posts in the country, were, like Israeli Jews, a minority among the region's Muslim majority. As early as 1954, Ben-Gurion had proposed that Israel support the establishment in part of Lebanon of a Maronite- dominated Christian ministate that would ally itself with Israel. During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-76), then Prime Minister Rabin reportedly invested US$150 million in equipping and training the Maronite Phalange Party's militia.

The instability of Lebanon's sectarian balance, however, enabled hostile states or groups to use Lebanon as a staging ground for attacks against Israel. The PLO, following its expulsion from Jordan in September 1970, set up its major base of operations in southern Lebanon from which it attacked northern Israel. The number and size of PLO operations in the south accelerated throughout the late 1970s as central authority deteriorated and Lebanon became a battleground of warring militias. In March 1978, following a fedayeen attack, originating in Lebanon, on the Tel Aviv-Haifa road that killed thirty-seven people, Israel launched Operation Litani, a massive military offensive that resulted in Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon up to the Litani River. By June Prime Minister Begin, under intense American pressure, withdrew Israeli forces, which were replaced by a UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The withdrawal of Israeli troops without having removed the PLO from its bases in southern Lebanon became a major embarrassment to the Begin government.

By the spring of 1981, Bashir Jumayyil (also cited as Gemayel) emerged as the Maronite strong man and major Israeli ally in Lebanon. Having ruthlessly eliminated his Maronite rivals, he was attempting to extend his authority to other Lebanese Christian sects. In late 1980 and early 1981, he extended the protection of his Maronite militia to the Greek Orthodox inhabitants of Zahlah, in eastern Lebanon. Syrian president Hafiz al Assad considered Zahlah, which was located near the Beirut-Damascus road, a stronghold that was strategically important to Syria. In April 1981, Syrian forces bombed and besieged Zahlah, ousting the Phalangists, the Maronite group loyal to Jumayyil, from the city. In response to the defeat of its major Lebanese ally, Israeli aircraft destroyed two Syrian helicopters over Lebanon, prompting Assad to move Soviet-made SAMs into Lebanon. Israel threatened to destroy the missiles but was dissuaded from doing so by the administration of President Ronald Reagan. In the end, the Zahlah crisis, like the Litani Operation, badly tarnished the image of the Begin government, which had come to power in 1977 espousing a hard- line security policy.

In June 1981, Israel held Knesset elections that focused on the Likud's failure to stop the PLO buildup in southern Lebanon or to remove Syrian missile batteries from the Biqa (Bekaa) Valley in eastern Lebanon. To remove a potential nuclear threat and also to bolster its public image, the IDF launched a successful attack on the French-built Iraqi Osiraq (acronym for Osiris-Iraq) nuclear reactor three weeks before the elections. Begin interpreted widespread public approval of the attack as a mandate for a more aggressive policy in Lebanon. The Likud also rallied a large number of undecided voters by reducing import duties on luxury goods, enabling Israeli consumers to go on an unprecedented buying spree that would later result in spiraling inflation. Although Labor regained an additional fifteen seats over its poor showing in 1977 when it won only thirty-two seats, it was unable to prevail over Likud.

Begin's perception that the Israeli public supported a more active defense posture influenced the composition of his 1981 postelection cabinet. His new minister of defense, Ariel Sharon, was unquestionably an Israeli war hero of longstanding; he had played an important role in the 1956, 1967, and 1973 wars and was widely respected as a brilliant military tactician. Sharon, however, was also feared as a military man with political ambitions, one who was ignorant of political protocol and who was known to make precipitous moves. Aligned with Sharon was chief of staff General Rafael Eytan who also advocated an aggressive Israeli defense posture. Because Begin was not a military man, Israel's defense policy was increasingly decided by the minister of defense and the chief of staff. The combination of wide discretionary powers granted Sharon and Eytan over Israeli military strategy, the PLO's menacing growth in southern Lebanon, and the existence of Syrian SAMs in the Biqa Valley pointed to imminent Syrian-PLO- Israeli hostilities.

In July 1981, Israel responded to PLO rocket attacks on northern Israeli settlements by bombing PLO encampments in southern Lebanon. United States envoy Philip Habib eventually negotiated a shaky cease-fire that was monitored by UNIFIL.

Another factor that influenced Israel's decision to take action in Lebanon was the disarray of the Arab world throughout the early 1980s. The unanimity shown by the Arab states in Baghdad in condemning Sadat's separate peace with Israel soon dissipated. The 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980, and the December 1980 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan badly divided the Arab world. The hard-line countries, Syria and Libya, supported Iran, and the moderate countries, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states, supported Iraq. Moreover, Syrian president Assad's regime, dominated by the minority Alawi Muslim sect, was confronted with growing domestic opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, which Assad violently quelled in February 1982 by besieging the city of Hamah. Finally, early United States opposition to an invasion of Lebanon appeared to have weakened, following Israel's final withdrawal from Sinai in May 1982.

Israel's incursion into Lebanon, called Operation Peace for Galilee, was launched in early June 1982. After an attack on Israel's ambassador in London carried out by the Abu Nidal group but blamed on the PLO, Israeli troops marched into southern Lebanon. On the afternoon of June 4 the Israeli air force bombed a sports stadium in Beirut, said to be used for ammunition storage by the PLO. The PLO responded by shelling Israeli towns in Galilee. On June 5, the government of Israel formally accused the PLO of breaking the cease-fire. At 11 A.M. on June 6, Israeli ground forces crossed the border into Lebanon. The stated goals of the operation were to free northern Israel from PLO rocket attacks by creating a forty-kilometer-wide security zone in southern Lebanon and by signing a peace treaty with Lebanon.

The June 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the first war fought by the IDF without a domestic consensus. Unlike the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars, the Israeli public did not view Operation Peace for Galilee as essential to the survival of the Jewish state. By the early 1980s--less than forty years after its establishment--Israel had attained a military prowess unmatched in the region. The architects of the 1982 invasion, Ariel Sharon and Rafael Eitan, sought to use Israel's military strength to create a more favorable regional political setting. This strategy included weakening the PLO and supporting the rise to power in Lebanon of Israel's Christian allies. The attempt to impose a military solution to the intractable Palestinian problem and to force political change in Lebanon failed. The PLO, although defeated militarily, remained an important political force, and Bashir Jumayyil, Israel's major ally in Lebanon, was killed shortly after becoming president. Inside Israel, a mounting death toll caused sharp criticism by a war-weary public of the war of and of the Likud government.

Israel History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress