For events prior to 1973, see A Brief History of the Arab-Israeli Wars (1948 – 1973)
Peace with Egypt
In 1977, Menachem Begin, a former leader of the extremist paramilitary organization Irgun and founder of the right-wing political party Likud, was elected Prime Minister of Israel. This was the first premiership since Israel’s inception not under the left-leaning Labor Party, whose popularity had suffered from their oversights in the Yom Kippur War. Later that year, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made an unprecedented statement to the Egyptian parliament: “I am willing to go to the ends of the earth for peace. Israel will be astonished to hear me say now, before you, that I am prepared to go to their own house, to the Knesset itself, to talk to them.” Israel accepted, and Sadat made his landmark visit to Israel, welcomed by the cheers of Israeli citizens and waving Egyptian flags, to address the Knesset. With Israel and Egypt now in a direct conversation, a series of negotiations took place, brokered by United States president Jimmy Carter, that ultimately led to the return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty on March 26, 1979 in Washington, D.C. For three decades, Israel had been in a state of war with Egypt – every Arab coalition that invaded Israel was led by Egypt, and it was always Egypt that withdrew first while before its Arab allies followed. For their work in finally bringing this conflict to an end, Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat jointly received the Nobel Prize for Peace. On October 6 1981, Anwar Sadat would be assassinated by Islamist military members for that same reason.
1982 Lebanon War
In 1982, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) artillery in southern Lebanon opened fire on Israeli settlements in northern Galilee. This was the latest in a long series of PLO attacks on Israeli citizens, and Israeli forces were mobilized across the Lebanese border to destroy bases from which the PLO launched their attacks. Although the expulsion of PLO forces from southern Lebanon was quickly achieved within a few days, Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had greater ambitions to drive the PLO leadership completely out of Lebanon and install a Christian-Lebanese, Bashir Jemayel, as a pro-Israel president of Lebanon. Israeli forces would continue on to siege Beirut, and in doing so clashed with the Syrian army that was already embroiled in a civil war with the Christian Southern Lebanon Army for control of the country. Beirut was completely encircled, and Israeli artillery, air, and naval forces relentlessly bombarded the city and all known PLO strongholds until the PLO finally agreed to leave the city. During these operations, the Israeli Air Force shot down over 80 Syrian aircraft, without a single air-to-air loss, in the largest jet air battle in military history, involving over 150 aircraft.
On September 14th, following the depature of PLO and Syrian forces from Beirut, the now president-elect Bashir Jemayel was assassinated by a presumed Palestinian or Syrian muslim, incensing the Lebanese-Christian Phalangists. In vengeance, a Phalangist militia was sent to the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps under the pretense of sweeping for remnant PLO fighters. The resulting indiscriminate massacre resulted in over 2,300 Palestinian civilians dead (a number that is disputed but undoubtably high), to the horror of the Israeli public and the international community. Ariel Sharon, Menachem Begin, and the Israeli commanders were all accused of negligence in preventing this attack, and the United States immediately called for Israel’s withdrawal, which began on September 19th. On May 17 1983, an agreement was signed between Lebanon and Israel for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon. Syria refused to recognize the agreement, and Israel withdrew only partially, leaving an occupation force in southern Lebanon that would remain there until 2000. In the power vacuum of Israel’s initial withdrawal, the ongoing Lebanese Civil War increased in ferocity. The PLO was eradicated from Lebanon and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, formed by Muslim clerics during the Israeli invasion, would eventually rise to power.
The First Intifada to the Oslo Accords
The number of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza had been growing increasingly larger since Menachem Begin’s premiership, and Palestinian tensions along with them. On December 9 1987, four Arab workers from Gaza were run over and killed by an Israeli truck, inciting a wave of violence throughout throughout the Palestinian population that would be known as the First Intifada. Israeli soldiers were barred from entering Arab villages, and numerous protests involving stones, Molotov cocktails, and firearms took place throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. The Intifada grow increasingly violent over the next six years, causing the Israeli public to question the feasibility and ethical nature of the occupation. During this time, the Islamic militant organization Hamas was formed – their mission was to establish Islamic rule over the entirety of Palestine, rejecting any notion of a Jewish state or presence. Hamas declared itself an enemy of both Israel and the PLO, and was committed to using terrorism, against both Jews and Palestinian Arabs, as a means to achieve their goals.
In 1992, the Labor party regained control of the Knesset with the election of Yitzhak Rabin as Prime Minister, who ran on a platform of making peace with the Palestinians. A series of secret negotiations in Oslo, Norway began between Israel and the PLO, which culminated in the signing of the Oslo I Accords on September 13 1993 in Washington, D.C. The agreement called for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the city of Jericho, and the installation of an autonomous Palestinian government, headed by Yasser Arafat. In exchange, the PLO would recognize Israel’s right to exist and call for an end to Palestinian terrorism and violence. A year later, the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace was signed between Rabin and King Hussein I of Jordan, normalizing Israeli-Jordanian relations in exchange for debt forgiveness by the United States and the return of land and water access from the Jordan River by Israel. In the midst of an increasing number of Hamas-sponsored suicide bombings, Rabin and Arafat signed the Oslo II accords in 1995, extending Palestinian self-government to the West Bank. Public support for the accords grew increasingly thin, and there were frequent protests painting Rabin as a traitor to Israel that was giving away their land to the very Palestinians that were killing Israeli civilians on a regular basis. On November 4 1995, immediately after giving a speech at a peace rally, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish religious student.
The Camp David Summit, the Second Intifada, and Beyond
In the period following Rabin’s murder, Israel struggled with its change in identity from defenders of a homeland to an occupation force. Israel-Palestinian relations stagnated as both the Likud government under Benjamin Netanyahu, voted back in by an increasingly terrorized Israeli public, and Palestinian Authority refused to compromise on the illegal Jewish settlements and ongoing armed resistance to the occupation. In 2000, President Clinton invited Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to the presidential retreat at Camp David in Maryland to continue the momentum of the Oslo accords. However, a setback would come on September 28 of that year when Ariel Sharon, now the leader of the Likud, visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and seized control of the area after it was discovered that nearby Palestinian construction works were endangering important Jewish artifacts. Although Sharon did not enter the al-Aksa mosque (and was assured by the Palestinian Authority that there would be no issue if he did not), his presence near such a sacred site to the Palestinians sparked an uprising that would become the Second Intifada.
Nevertheless, progress was still being made at Camp David – a plan was drafted that would create a Palestinian state over all of the Gaza Strip and the majority of the West Bank, remove all Jewish settlements from Palestinian territory, grant a limited number of Palestinian refugees right of return to Israel, and start a $30 billion international fund to compensate refugees who could not return. But at the last minute, Arafat would not sign the plan. He demanded the full right of return – that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants, numbering several million, would be able to return to their pre-1948 homes in Israel, many of which no longer existed. It was an unreasonable demand, one that would destroy the concept of a Jewish state even if it were possible to grant, but Arafat insisted on it and the Camp David Summit ended without resolution. In Clinton’s memoirs, he recalls an instance when Arafat once gave him a compliment that “[he was] a great man.” Clinton replied, “I am not a great man. I am a failure, and you made me one.”
Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister in 2001, and under his leadership Israeli military forces were deployed to suppress the revolts and the Israeli West Bank barrier was constructed, which brought an end to the Second Intifada. During this time, President George W. Bush reinitiated the peace process with the announcement of the “Road Map for Peace,” a three-year plan mediated by a quartet of the United States, Russia, European Union, and United Nations to establish the beginnings of a Palestinian state. Under Sharon, Israel completed their unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip but yet again, a faction of the Likud party under Netanyahu opposed the concession of occupied territory. Unable to reconcile with his own party, Sharon founded the Kadima party on November 28 2005, which would remain committed to the peace process. However, less than two months after this initiative, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that would leave him in a coma that he would never recover from.
Within the Palestinian faction, there was an ongoing power struggle between Fatah and Hamas, starting with the Hamas legislative victory in 2006 and culminating in the armed takeover by Hamas of Gaza City in 2007 – this led to a de facto division of the Palestinian territories, with Fatah controlling the West Bank and Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip. From their headquarters in Gaza, Hamas relentlessly launched rockets onto Israeli civilian targets, triggering retaliatory military strikes and economic sanctions by Israel. These actions exacerbated the increasingly deplorable conditions of Gaza City, creating a fertile breeding ground for terrorism and Islamic radicalization, which, in turn, increased Israeli popular support for Likud. Above all, the rise of Hamas represented the theologization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the secular PLO had tangible demands that Israel could accommodate, but it is impossible to negotiate with an enemy that wants nothing short of the complete eradication of Israel. This irrational hatred of Islamic fundamentalism, and the stubbornness of the Likud under Netanyahu has turned what once was a promising chance of peace into an endless cycle of violence on both sides that continues to this day.