Thucydides and the Arab League: for Want of a Lesson



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The struggle for Palestine is both one of the most contentious and one of the longest lasting conflicts of the modern era. The initial battle to settle ownership between the Jews and the Arabs living in the region, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, is an event that has been the backdrop of Middle Eastern relations within its own boundaries as well as within the international community. Rogan and Shlaim (2001) consider the outcome of this war to be the “defining moment for the region as a whole” (1). However, the outcome, the near devastation of the Arab armies at the hands of the Israelis, was avoidable had only the Arab leadership learned the lessons taught by Thucydides (1954) in his “History of the Peloponnesian War.” Indeed, Nye and Welch state that “Thucydides’ account of Sparta and Athens fighting the Peloponnesian War 2,500 years ago reveals eerie resemblances to the Arab-Israeli conflict” (2010, 2).

Thucydides, while narrating the history of the war between Athens and Sparta, provides useful advice, or at least “lessons learned”, on governance, conduct in time of war, and the expected reactions of ordinary people to war-time events.

Just as Thucydides tells the background of the Athens-Sparta relationship prior to the Peloponnesian War; it is important to explore the background that led to the first Arab-Israeli war. The history of the conflict over the Palestinian region begins in 1882 with the arrival of Jewish immigrants dedicated to the renewal of a Jewish state. Almost immediately, officials of the Ottoman Empire placed restrictions on this immigration (Sachar 1979, 32). Land sales were restricted and finally forbidden to Jews at the urging of Arab notables in Jerusalem. Additionally, occasional riots broke out in Jerusalem, between Muslims, Jews, and Christians during religious holidays (Marcus 2007, 43).

The leader of the political Zionist movement, Theodore Herzl, corresponded frequently with the Arab head of Jerusalem, Yusuf Khaldi, between 1896 and 1902. Based on their individual interpretation of that correspondence, each reached an erroneous conclusion. Khaldi believed that the Jews would eventually realize that they would never be a majority in the land and would never obtain political power. Herzl believed the Arabs would eventually compromise and allow the rebirth of the Jewish state. Each believed the other would do whatever it took to avert violence (Marcus 2007, 50). Both were wrong.

World War I (WWI) brought about upheaval in the Arab world. The British vaguely promised Arab independence to Sharif Husayn (Hussein) in return for his assistance in defeating the Ottoman Empire (Lewis 1995, 341). However, the British, at about the same time through the Balfour Declaration, also pledged to assist in the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Palestinian region. This declaration was incorporated into the League of Nations Palestinian Mandate (Lewis 1995, 348). Husayn declared himself king of the Arabs and, eventually, Caliph. This event gave cause to Ibn Saud (a ruler of a portion of the Arabian Peninsula and main political foe of Husayn) to attack and defeat Husayn, thereby uniting the majority of the Arab peninsula. Ibn Saud renamed the region Saudi Arabia in 1924. In 1922, The British divided the Palestinian Mandate, naming that 80 percent of the land on the east side of the Jordan River Transjordan and placing a son of Sharif Husayn, Abdullah (Great-grandfather of the current ruler of Jordan) on the throne of the newly created state. Another son of Sharif Husayn, Faisal, was placed on the throne of Syria. However, after being deposed early in his regime, the Faisal was placed on the throne of Mesopotamia, later renamed Iraq.

The years between WWI and World War II (WWII) saw the British performing a balancing act between Arab and Jewish interests in the remaining 20 percent of the original Palestinian Mandate. Both Arabs and Jews wanted independence and sole control of the region. Both these entities, along with the British, were involved in acts of violence against each other. However, with the commencement of WWII, the Jewish leadership realized that it would be better to assist Britain in the conduct of the war (Segev 1999, 450-451) while the Arab leadership, aside from the occasional moral support for the Axis powers (Lewis 1995, 351) (Segev 1999, 462), stayed on the sidelines. The act of Jewish alliance was demonstrated by the formation of a Jewish division in the British army (Laqueur 1976, 451-452). This action proved advantageous as the nascent Israeli state’s army would have a cadre of trained soldiers. Had the Arab leadership listened to Thucydides as he quoted Archidamus, “The ones who come out on top are the ones who have been trained in the hardest school” (1954, 85), they would have had their soldiers undergo British training during WWII, in preparation for the inevitable regional war.

The British, failing to come to a solution for the Palestinian problem, turned matters over to the United Nations (UN). In 1947, the UN voted to partition the Palestinian Mandate into two states; one Jewish and the other Arab. The British indicated that they would leave the Mandate on May 14, 1948 (Sachar 1979, 264-314).

At the end of WWII, the Arab states, urged by the British (for the purpose of influencing and controlling the Arab states), formed the Arab League. The initial purpose for the formation of the League was to coordinate common political objectives (Lewis 1995, 352). A main point of agreement was to do all that was possible to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state within the Palestinian Mandate (Pappe 1994, 70). After Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, the Arab armies from each of the Arab League states attacked the new state (Hadawi 1979, 87).

The Arab League was formed by Egypt, Transjordan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. However, rather than being a forum for Arab unity, the League became the background for the downfall of the Arab armies when they attacked Israel. As members of the League, each of the seven Arab states became political equals. This is another situation wherein taking heed of Thucydides would have been invaluable to the League:

So long as they have no central deliberation authority to produce quick decisive action, when they all have equal votes, though they all come from different nationalities and every one of these is mainly concerned with its own interests – the usual result is of which is that nothing gets done at all, some being particularly anxious to avenge themselves on an enemy and others no less anxious to avoid coming to any harm themselves. (Thucydides 1954, 120)

The Arab League became a mass of intrigue as a result of the severe conflicts of interests between the Arab states. Schlaim (1988, 112-113, 123) discusses Transjordan’s desire to prevent the formation of an independent Palestinian state in that it would prevent King Abdullah from linking his economy with the nascent Jewish state. To this end, Abdullah suggested to Golda Meir (a future prime minister of Israel, but then political head of the Jewish Agency) that it would be beneficial if the Mufti of Jerusalem (leader of the Palestinian national movement) could be made to disappear (Schlaim 1988, 114). Further, Abdullah refused to allow Iraqi troops to stage themselves in Transjordan to prepare for the eventual attack on Israel, even though the Iraqi regent was Abdullah’s nephew. Additionally, Abdullah was still being financially subsidized by the British because “Transjordan was seen as an essential element of Britain’s strategic position in the Middle East” (Bradshaw 2010, 235). This relationship with Britain was viewed through a negative lens by the rest of the members of the Arab League.

Egypt did not want to commit its regular army troops as it feared ensuing events might cause them to regret doing so. The Mufti of Jerusalem did not want any Arab troops entering into the region. He just wanted money and weapons to equip his own troops, for fear that once the war was won, the other Arab states, particularly Transjordan, would then continue to occupy the Palestinian region and carve it up amongst them (Schlaim 1988, 114). Syria was concerned that if Abdullah occupied the Arab portion of the partition, he would then attack Syria (Landis 2001, 190-191). Syria’s concern also worried Saudi Arabia and Egypt to the extent that they offered an alliance with Syria against Transjordan. Saudi Arabia went so far as to station troops on the Transjordan border (Landis 2001, 191).

Iraq, one of the Arab states farthest from the Palestinian region, was the loudest cheerleader for war and for an independent Arab Palestine. However, at the same time, Iraq was attempting to convince Transjordan that it supported Abdullah’s plan to absorb the Arab portion of the partition into Transjordan (Pappe 1994, 107-108).

The combined Arab force that attacked Israel was put together by these Arab allies who alternately feared and despised each other. The result was that the bulk of their armies never left their home territories. Those troops that did arrive had poor intelligence, “poor leadership, poor coordination, and very poor planning” (Schlaim 2001, 81). Had the Arab League heeded Thucydides, perhaps they would have put aside their fears in order to act for their greater good. In this regard, Thucydides counseled, “The power that deals fairly with its equals finds a truer security than the one which is hurried into snatching some apparent but dangerous advantage” (1954, 61).

Thucydides discusses the pitfalls of a coalition leadership, consisting of individuals of nominal equality, who are then more concerned with “occupying the first place” (1954, 164) – being the first among equals. With this concept as the primary goal, decisions are made to show the individual as great, rather than concentrating on the mission at hand, which is winning the war. The members of the Arab League failed to achieve its objectives because they failed to put aside their own nationalistic and private concerns in order to better focus on the task at hand; preventing the creation of a Jewish state on what Muslims consider holy Islamic land.

Jack Sigman is an MA candidate at American Military Academy.

Works Cited:

  • Bradshaw, Tancred. 2010. Israel and the West Bank, 1948-1951. Israel Affairs 16, no. 2: 234-250. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed August 20, 2011).
  • Hadawi, Sami. 1979. Bitter harvest. Delmar, NY: Caravan Books.
  • Landis, Joshua. 2001. Syria and the Palestine war. In The war for Palestine, ed. Eugene Rogan and Avi Schlaim, 178-205. Cambridge: Cambridge University
  • Laqueur, Walter. 1976. A history of Zionism. New York: Schocken Books.
  • Lewis, Bernard. 1995. The Middle East. London: Phoenix
  • Marcus, Amy. 2007. Jerusalem 1913. New York: Viking Penguin
  • Nye, Joseph and David Welch. 2010. Is there an enduring logic of conflict in world politics? Understanding international conflicts: An introduction to theory and   history, 8th ed. samplechapter/0205778747.pdf (accessed August 5, 2011)
  • Pappe, Ilan. 1994. The making of the Arab-Israeli conflict. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Rogan, Eugene and Avi Schlaim, eds. 2001. The war for Palestine. Cambridge: Cambridge University
  • Sachar, Howard. 1979. A history of Israel. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Schlaim, Avi. 2001. Israel and the Arab coalition in 1948. In The war for Palestine, ed. Eugene Rogan and Avi Schlaim, 79-103. Cambridge: Cambridge University
  • Segev, Tom. 1999. One Palestine, complete. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
  • Thucydides. 1954. History of the Peloponnesian war. Trans. Rex Warner. New York: Penguin Books.
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