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A Research Of The Arab-Israeli Conflict In The XX Century

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During the XXs century, the Middle East has been the actor of multiple conflicts, most of the time with the intervention of the international community. In this geographical area, the intrusion of the Northern countries was only because they had interests there such as oil, and because they wanted to extend their influence. In all of the history’s complexity of the region, I will focus on the Israel-Palestine conflict as it has been through a lot of changes and disagreements. This cultural and religion clash is not proper for the last century. The territory has been covered by the Catholics, the Jews and the Muslims for almost 3 millenniums. Judaism and the Hebraic Bible have been created in this area, that they claim is Israel, and in 630 After Christ, the territory called Palestine has been conquered by the Arabs. We end up with the land occupied by two different cultures and religion. The Jews in this area are in a minority as the middle east is mainly Muslim and has an Arabic culture. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the area has been under the rule of the United Kingdom, one of the biggest actors in international politics. The impact of a foreign European state has changed the dynamic of the territory. 

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This conflict is very diverse, and a lot of international relations theories can apply to it. However, I am going to look at it through the lenses of Realism, one of the main international theory, as it seems to be the most relevant theory to explain this conflict. To provide an analysis of the on-going dispute, I will, first of all, dig into the role of the international community since the beginning of the XXs Century, and then I will determine how the role that the global world has played, and the consequences that followed, can be explained through Realism. 

Israel and Palestine’s territory: the beginning of the conflicts 

To understand the beginning of the creation of the conflict, it is interesting to go back to the First World War (1914-1918). As the Entente (France, United Kingdom, and the Russian Empire) was very confident about winning the war, two diplomats from the United Kingdom (Sykes) and France (Picot) decided to make a secret agreement between them about how to dispatch the Ottoman Empire between them after their loss in the war. The Ottoman Empire used to go from our actual Turkey to Iraq. Seeing that they might be losing the war, they saw an opportunity to extend their power to the Middle East. This attitude from the two countries could be explained by the Realist vision that states are always looking to maximize their power. Morgenthau (1904-1980) argued that: ”all of international politics is a power struggle”. By having those territories, France and the United Kingdom could be present in another geographical area and spread their influence and power. They already were powerful in Africa with their colonies but were not based in the Middle East. As a result, in 1916, it has been agreed that France will have the actual area of Syria and Lebanon, and the United Kingdom Iraq, Palestine and Jordan. It was officialized during the Versailles Treaty in 1918 after the end of the war. This beneficial agreement also permitted to France and the UK to create new economic links with the new region they had access to, especially since the purpose of having those territories was not to make them colonies but to help to lead them into being independent. We can argue that the Realist theory of states looking forward to increasing their power is the best theory to explain the French and the British attitude since, at that time, they were part of the most powerful countries in the world and wanted to continue to be part of them. They were not looking for an economic interdependence with those countries, as the Liberal theorists would argue, but wanted to control them. The British government, to make the population of the middle east agreeing to their presence in the area, made different promises to all the actors already present in the region. They started by assuring the creation of an Arab country to unite the region. At the same time, they also promised to the Rothschild’s family (one of the most powerful family at that time, also Jewish) that the Jew community will have, in the territory of Palestine, a peaceful and secure homeland. Both Jewish and Arab population were looking forward to those promises because it was advantageous for them and their seeking of power. However, the distinction between having a national home and a country itself is important. The Balfour government, aware of the tragic on-going fate of Jews in Europe, favorized their immigration in the territory of Palestine. As explained previously, this land has always been considered, for the Jews, as the sacred land. However, it is not a territory that is proper to the Jewish people. Muslims and Catholics all share big symbols of their religion in the area. At that time, it was mostly considered as a Muslim country. 

The Jewish immigration to Palestine 

At the beginning of 1920 with the Zionism phenomena (the belief that the Jews belong in Israel, their country), and the growth of antisemitism in Europe, the immigration towards Israel started to become more and more massive. The Palestinians and the other Arabs were seeing it as a threat. As explained by Norman Lowe (2005) in Mastering Modern World History (4th edition), Jewish immigration was encouraged by the United States. As a result, the Palestinians were feeling forgotten and knew that they were going to lose their country. It was making the Arabs countries, insecure because they were seeing in this immigration a kind of colonisation. The Jews started to buy lands, houses, began their business and called the country they were living in Israel, as it was the original name of the territory according to them. The Palestinian power in the land started to decrease because the Jewish one increased. Realism would argue that every time a state becomes more powerful, other’s decrease. This theory is best to explain this feeling of the Palestinians towards Jewish immigration because the world is anarchical, and people (and state) can do whatever they want to do if it is in their interests. It was in the Jewish interest to move in Israel, to be safer and to try to have a country of their own. As a response to this unwanted threat: the Palestinians built houses in front of the wall of lamentation (a Jewish religious place) as a sign of protesting the massive immigration. This event, previously explained by realism’s idea, can also be seen through the lenses of Liberalism’s main security assumption arguing that states need to be secured using the military power. However, it is not relevant in this case because the Palestinians and the Israelis did not have an army yet. Palestinians still used the physical force to face the Jewish threat. It marked the first tension between the two populations. It is important to remember that the British government in 1922 confirmed that there will be no interference between the two populations. This was not a military attack against the Jews living there, as the often-used term “conflict” refers most of the time, but it touched one of their most important symbols. We can argue that this was a cultural conflict linked to the Jew’s security and safety in the area. Seeing a growing conflict in the area, the UK government closed its eyes, thinking that it might fade away with time. In 1936, a few years after Hitler was German’s new chancellor (1993), the Jews in Europe started to be afraid of living there and immigrated more and more to Israel for their security. That same year, we counted 36% of Jews in Palestine. They were perusing their life interest by moving in Israel thinking that it would be more peaceful than in Europe with the growth of Nazism and antisemitism. 

The international world involved in the conflict 

In 1947, seeing that the conflict in Israel was being worst and worst, the United Nations (created after the end of the Second World War) decided to propose to both Israeli and Palestinians a plan to share the territory between them. It was not a perfect share because Israel got a little bit more than Palestine. Regarding Jerusalem, since it is wanted by everyone, it will become an international city that does not belong to any country. The Palestinians rejected this offer, arguing that they want the full territory. The United Nations, by proposing this agreement, wanted to create two democratic countries because according to the Liberal theory, liberal states do not go to war against each other. This is not what happened because we could have assumed that an influent organisation such as the United Nations would have been able to find a peaceful solution to the on-going conflict, but they could not make the belligerent agree and put everything in place. To explain why Palestinians refused the agreement, we have to look at the realism of Machiavelli, arguing that agreements should only be made when it is in the interest of both states. In that case, we can see that this agreement was not in the interest of Palestine as they were seeing their territory shared with another population. The United Nations never found any solutions that were beneficial for the Jews and the Palestinians. The Liberal theories would have had assumed that international organisations are efficient to solve a conflict, but this is why the Realism’s anarchic vision of the world is best to explain the conflict that the most powerful international organisation failed to deal with. As a result, when the United Kingdom left the area in 1948, the state of Israel was claimed, leaving the Palestinians without a land. Fierke, a constructivism theorist would say that states take specific historical and cultural and political forms that are a product of human interaction in a social world. This does not apply with the claimed of Israel, because it is only the interest of the Jewish community to have the state that made them claimed it as their own, with no link to the social world. Palestinians had the support of other countries in the region such as Syria or Egypt. They were Israel’s main threats. They were so insecure about them that in June 1967, Israel launched an attack on Syria and Egypt as a preventive war: attacking them before they do. After the war, Israel won some territories in Egypt, Syria and Jordan. This war can be analysed with two realism theories. First of all, realists argue that states are always seeking to maximise their power. As we have seen earlier, Morgenthau explains that all of international politics is a power struggle. This is what Israel has done by gaining those lands. They were trying to be bigger and have a more important influence in the region. On the other hand, the world is in constant uncertainty. Raison d’état (the fact that a country can violate some international rules for its own sake) dominates foreign policy. We never know what our neighbours are going to do. This is showing that the world is anarchical. States can do whatever they want to do if they, and only them, are judging that it is the right thing to do. The consequences of this war created a lot of tensions and alliances in the region (mainly against Israel). One of the realist’s main approaches to international relations is that when one state starts becoming more powerful, other countries create a coalition against it. This is what they call the balance of power. After this war, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan decided to stick together against Israel, when Israel could count on its American and European allies. While witnessing all those tensions, the United Nations could not do anything as Israel has an alliance with the United States, member of the permanent council, that will never go against Israel’s actions. 

Israel’s role in the middle east after the Kippur war

Since the 1970s, when Israel started its nuclear weapon’s test, we can witness a rise in their power in the region. Thucydides, one ancient realist, argues that the reach of power comes from the development of new technologies, especially when it comes to military power. And Israel followed this vision when they tried to get the most destructive weapon at that time. We could have thought that the international world would start being anxious about it and try to make Israel drop its tests. However, the international world was silent about it. This can be illustrated with the realist assumption that says that what the states are doing at their level is irrelevant to the global world. The other states in the Middle East started to be afraid of Israel’s growing influence and military capacity, especially with the support of the United States. Israel’s main military threats are Iran and Saudi Arabia, two main countries in the region. Saudi Arabia always wanted to be the most influential Arab country, same for Iran. They have found one common enemy. Both of their powers and influences started to decrease. In the realist’s theories, we talk about security dilemma: ‘Policies which increase one state’s security tend to decrease that of others’ (Jervis, 1978). Some scholars have argued that it is one of the most important sources of conflict between state. Since every state is looking forward to being more powerful, when their influence decrease, they quickly become competitive with the other state and creates a conflict between them. In 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had Arafat to represent them. Their goal was to balance Israel’s power and create a Palestinian territory with Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem. This movement was highly supported by other Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria, Israel’s historical rivals. Israel refused to recognise a state of Palestine as it was not beneficial to maximise their power and influence in the region. After the Gulf War, some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia started to be more flexible with their diplomatic relations with Israel. This actor’s security strategy is supporting the realist’s argument that the international world is characterised by zero-sum conflict. This means that each state is balancing the gain and loss of the utility of their actions. By being diplomatically flexible with Israel, Saudi Arabia is hoping to be closer to the United States and create new alliances to be one of the most important countries in the region. 


The study of the Arab-Israeli conflict can be explained best with realism’s theories. This territory clash between two different populations has been led by international anarchy with the inability of the united nations to find a common agreement and, as a consequence, created conflict and uncertainty between Israel and the Arab countries in the region. This disagreement was also being understood with the security dilemma theory with the rise of Israel since the 1970s and the growth of their military power and the owning of the nuclear weapon. Moreover, the human nature of the state and the fact that their internal actions do not matter to the international world can also be argued. By analysing this conflict through the lenses of realism, we understood why peace failed and how the region is unstable because of this clash. Nobody in the international sphere can fix the relationship between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab countries in the region. Liberal theory is not able to get a full picture of the conflict as it is not highlighting the real issues of the tensions in the regions such as the seek of power. Securitisation cannot also examine the conflict well as all Israel, Palestine and the Arab countries are saying that the others are a threat. This is why I have shown that the Realist theory is the most relevant theory to analyse this conflict as it is clearly showing why the peace process between Israel and Palestine failed and might never get fixed. 


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10 Jun 2021

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