Israel and the Meaning of Independence

Many people are confused why the State of Israel seems to celebrate the anniversary of its establishment on a different date every year.   After all, the State of Israel came into existence after a declaration by the Provisional Council of State in Palestine, led by David Ben Gurion, on May 14, 1948.    But in the intervening 62 years, Israel Independence Day has been celebrated on May 14 only once.

The answer is that Israel marks its anniversaries by the Hebrew calendar, which means that from year to year, anniversaries, holy days and even birthdays, are often celebrated as much as a month apart from the dates to which they are attached in the Gregorian calendar.

But another fact that is often glossed over is that Israel did not actually achieve independence 62 years ago because there was nothing to claim independence from.  British suzerainty of Palestine had been mandated, not by the international body, The League of Nations, but under a resolution of the San Remo Conference (1920) which was later ratified by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). Both effectively recognized British conquest of Palestine and ended Ottoman rule.   In fact, the British Mandatory Authority, established thereafter, was not a sovereign body and was not universally recognized by all nations ( the United States being the most prominent among them).  Its legal legitimacy was in fact in question for 30 years.   So while the creation of the state in 1948 derived  its standing in international law from U.N. Resolution 181,  Israel’s declaration of “independence”  was no more than a dramatic means of  stating its formation as a contiguous and indivisible state.   But on May 14, 1948  it became independent of nothing.

Those might seem like picayune legal arguments, with no particular relevance to today’s politics or diplomacy.   Yet the importance of understanding the concept and meaning of independence is vital to appreciating how Israel sees itself today.

For the question of  the country’s independence  has been a determining factor in Israel’s survival until now and today is a deciding factor in how it proposes to deal with the menace arising to its existence from the  Persian Gulf .

History has some important things  to say about the matter.

In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower exerted enormous diplomatic pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Desert after its troops captured it in a two day lightning strike on Egypt during the Suez War.  At the time, Eisenhower, expressing pique at the way the joint British-French- Israeli action sought to reverse Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal without his involvement, made it clear that he would join with the Soviet Union in condemning Israel’s actions at the United Nations if there wasn’t a prompt withdrawal.  Eisenhower’s impetuous actions were to have devastating consequences for the region and the world as it handed Nasser a diplomatic victory at the expense of  Western unity and resolve.

To sweeten the bitter pill it forced the young country to swallow, the Eisenhower administration offered to guarantee the safe passage of Israeli shipping in the Red Sea and would use military force if necessary to do so.

Ten years later, when that agreement was put to the test, the United States was exposed as  impotent in upholding its end of the bargain.  In May,1967, the Egyptian government once again closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, forcing an enormous hardship on Israel.  This act of aggression, along with the repeated genocidal pronouncements of the Egyptian leader, placed Israel on a war footing.   President Lyndon Johnson sought to defuse the crisis by attempting to corral an international maritime force to break the blockade.  Only two nations responded to his call.   By June 5th of that year, recognizing that the American guarantee was worthless, Israel staged its now famous pre-emptive strike on Egyptian and Syrian airfields, which effectively ended the Arab offensive and determined the ultimate outcome of the Six Day War.

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 scud missiles at Israel, causing millions of dollars worth of damage to the country and 74 deaths.   Israel was asked not to retaliate by the United States in the hope of preventing the outbreak of a regional war.   But part of the bargain for  exercising restraint was the United States’ tacit agreement with the Shamir government  that the latter would receive an increase in aid to resettle the stream of Soviet  Jews pouring into the country as well as diplomatic space in dealing with the Palestinian rebellion known as the Intifada..

Yet rather than rewarding the Israelis for their stoicism and restraint in the face of these unprovoked attacks, the government of George H.W.Bush  withheld vitally important loan guarantees necessary for resettlement of Soviet Jews  and soon after the war placed inordinate pressure on the Israelis to attend a peace conference in Madrid without preconditions.  Hoodwinked by Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, the Madrid Conference initiated the series of events which  lead to the  1993 Oslo Accords, which in hindsight, served as the greatest diplomatic debacle in Israel’s history.

The train of misguided guarantees did not stop there.

On April 14, 2004 President George W. Bush, in a letter to then  prime minister Ariel Sharon, accepted that in exchange for Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and certain areas of the West Bank, the U.S. Israel would expect Israel to retain settlement blocs in the West Bank as well as maintain Jerusalem as a united city.  The wording of the letter ran thus:

” …… is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”

That sentence was regarded as another guarantee and committed Israel to a course of action that would ultimately bring into existence a terrorist run government on its southern border.

Both Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush have now left the political stage and Israel  is facing a new administration which shows no desire nor interest in honoring the previous administration’s written guarantees.  Instead it has turned on the Jewish state, describing Israel’s obstinance in holding on to settlements (and East Jerusalem!) as having  a deleterious impact on American interests in other parts of the region.

Taking this unhappy history into account, one can well imagine then the current Israeli prime minister, an avid student of history, possessing a thoroughly jaundiced view of American resolve.  He almost certainly recognizes that very little of what  the United States government has to say about guaranteeing or supporting the security of the state of Israel can be taken at face value.

And so we return to the issue of independence.  Like any modern state, Israel justly reserves the right of self-defense and to take independent action in order to execute that right.  Not only this, but the Israelis have consistently demonstrated over the past 62 years that they are willing to risk the ire of the United States and the condemnation of the world in order to provide for their national security.

All of which makes it increasingly likely that in the event the Obama administration fails to take concrete action to prevent Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power, Israel will feel unconstrained by U.S. warnings or offers of protection, and will proceed with a devastating strike against the Iranian regime.

This will be Israel’s ultimate declaration of independence.  For this country, which does not celebrate the anniversary of its creation on its fixed calendar date ,there is a pattern of challenge to orthodoxies and expectations.  In formulating its Middle East policies, the Obama administration would therefore be making a grievous error in judgment  in underestimating  the determination of the Jewish state to fill the vacuum left by American irresolution.

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