(This article first appeared in the November edition of the Near East Report, which can be found here.)
World War I famously ended with a ceasefire signed at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Remarkably, 100 years later, some of the war’s effects in the Middle East are still unsettled.
Due to the Ottoman decision to ally with Germany—the losing side in World War I—the most significant immediate regional outcome of the war was the collapse and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. That empire had controlled much of the Middle East for more than four centuries. The new League of Nations awarded mandates over Palestine and Iraq to Great Britain, while creating a French mandate over Syria and Lebanon. Despite the persistent efforts of external actors like Great Britain and the United States, the borders of some of these territories have not been settled to this day. This is particularly true of the former British Mandate for Palestine, the focus of this article.
Permanent Border with Jordan
Britain occupied from the Ottoman Empire the territory comprising today’s Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1917-1918. In 1920, the League of Nations—the United Nations’ predecessor—awarded Britain a mandate over what became the British Mandate for Palestine. Under the terms of the mandate, Britain was to help establish a national home for the Jewish people in this territory. This was a pledge that London had previously made in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
The British Mandate experienced its first major territorial adjustment in 1922. Upon the official confirmation of the mandate, the League of Nations approved Britain’s proposal to exclude the territory comprising today’s Jordan from the area in which the national home for the Jewish people was to be established. Britain awarded this area to the Hashemite Emir Abdullah—the great-grandfather of today’s King Abdullah II of Jordan—as an autonomous territory within the Mandate for Palestine. Abdullah renamed the territory as the Emirate of Transjordan. The League of Nations ratified this change in 1922. The British Mandate for Palestine officially came into effect in 1923.
The second major change occurred in 1946, when Jordan was detached from the mandate, formally gained independence, and was renamed the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, still under Abdullah’s rule. Soon there was a third change: Transjordan occupied the West Bank during Israel’s War of Independence (1947-1949). In 1949, Transjordan signed an armistice agreement with Israel. The armistice lines between Israel and Transjordan—explicitly not final borders, given Transjordan’s refusal to accept Israel’s existence in any borders—left the West Bank and East Jerusalem under Transjordanian control. King Abdullah then renamed his country the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which remains its name to this day. Jordan’s 1950 annexation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was recognized only by Britain and Pakistan. A Palestinian nationalist assassinated Abdullah in 1951.
Abdullah’s grandson, King Hussein, ruled both sides of the Jordan River until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But King Hussein formally acknowledged the loss of these areas only in 1988, when he officially renounced all Jordanian claims to the West Bank. That acknowledgment made possible the signing of the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, which delineated the permanent border between the two countries without having to agree on the West Bank’s final disposition.
Permanent Border with Egypt
The territory of the British Mandate for Palestine west of the Jordan River, where the national home for the Jewish people was to be established, remained unchanged until the termination of the mandate and Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948. At the end of the fighting in 1949, Israel and Egypt signed an armistice agreement. Under the agreement, the armistice demarcation line tracked closely the previous international border between Egypt’s Sinai and the British Mandate for Palestine’s Negev—which had also been the border between British-controlled Egypt and Ottoman-controlled Palestine until World War I. The armistice agreement placed the Gaza Strip under Egyptian control, but Egypt refrained from annexing Gaza.
The Israeli-Egyptian boundary was temporarily altered twice: by the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1967 Six-Day War. But in each case, after capturing Sinai, Israel ultimately returned to the previous international border. Israel and Egypt consecrated this border in the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Unfinished Borders with Syria and Lebanon
There are no peace treaties between Israel and its two other neighbor states—Syria and Lebanon—hence no final borders with them.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Syria invaded the Golan and temporarily occupied more than half of the area. But by the end of the war, Israeli forces had not only regained control of the Golan but moved deeper into Syria. Under a 1974 disengagement agreement, which is still in effect, Israel retreated from the area beyond the Golan and ceded to Syria a small border area it had formerly held. In 1981, Israel extended Israeli law and administration to the Golan, but neither Syria nor any foreign government has thus far recognized the legitimacy of this move. Israel was willing to return most of the Golan to Syria in peace talks in 1994-2000, but the talks ended in failure. Indirect talks with Syria about the Golan in 2008 broke down as well. Given the current instability in Syria, a peace treaty seems unlikely for the foreseeable future. A permanent, internationally recognized border between Israel and Syria has yet to be concluded.
The same is true of Israel’s border with Lebanon. An armistice line between the two countries was established in 1949. It held until 1982, when Israel captured southern Lebanon during its war against the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had set up a terrorist base in the area. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 to a line that was confirmed by the U.N. as representing a full withdrawal from the area it had held until 1982. But under de facto Hezbollah control, Lebanon has made claims to areas in northern Israel and the Golan. A peace treaty—hence an official and internationally recognized border—between Israel and the weak and divided Lebanon is not on the horizon.
While Israel’s boundary with Hamas-controlled Gaza is not in dispute, its boundary with the Palestinian Authority’s (PA’s) partially controlled West Bank is far from final.
The West Bank: Nothing Has Been Settled
From 1967 until the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, Israel maintained full control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel never annexed the West Bank. It annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, but that annexation has not yet been recognized by any other country. Under the Oslo accords of 1993-1999, Israel ceded 40 percent of the West Bank to Palestinian self-government under the PA, while Israel continues to govern the remaining 60 percent, most of which is sparsely populated. Thus far, the PA, under both Presidents Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, has rejected all Israeli compromise offers, which would have given Palestinians control of almost all the West Bank plus land swaps (in addition to Gaza). The final disposition of the West Bank is still unknown.
The U.S. Role: Enforcer, Broker, Validator
In coordinated attacks in October and November 1956, Israel captured most of the Sinai and all of Gaza while British and French forces captured part of the Suez Canal zone. Intense American pressure forced Britain and France to withdraw by the end of the year and Israel by March 1957. None of the three countries achieved their war aims.
Whereas in 1956-1957 the United States applied heavy pressure on Israel to return to the 1949 armistice line with Egypt, in 1973-1979 it resorted to diplomacy to achieve the same result after Israel’s recapture of the Sinai in 1967. While pressure and diplomacy were equally effective in getting Israel to withdraw, diplomacy actually solved some long-term problems. Under President Richard Nixon, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy—coupled with financial incentives—produced two interim agreements between Israel and Egypt in 1974 and 1975. These agreements formed the foundations for President Jimmy Carter’s 1978-1979 diplomacy which achieved a durable peace treaty, yielding a permanent border between the two countries. When Israel completed its withdrawal from Sinai in 1982 under the terms of the U.S.-brokered treaty, it finally solidified—after several to-and-fros—the old border between the Ottoman Empire and British-controlled Egypt, 64 years after the empire’s collapse at the end of World War I.
Washington also played a significant role in the successful conclusion of Israel’s only other durable peace agreement: its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan. President Bill Clinton promised King Hussein that America would forgive Jordan’s debts in return for negotiating and making peace with Israel. Once negotiations began, Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin developed a close personal relationship; they succeeded in concluding the treaty with minimal outside involvement. Subsequently, the U.S. acted as validator, when Clinton witnessed the treaty’s signing ceremony and expressed strong support for the treaty. Thus, Israel and Jordan—two successor states of the Ottoman Empire—finalized their shared border with U.S. help 76 years after the empire’s demise.
Israel also signed, in 1983, a U.S.-brokered peace agreement with Lebanon. But less than 10 months later, Lebanon repudiated the treaty under heavy Syrian pressure. Growing control of Lebanon by the Iranian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah has prevented the resumption of peace talks between the two countries. One hundred years on, the border between the Ottoman Empire’s successor states of Israel and Lebanon is still in dispute. Intense U.S. efforts to broker a peace treaty between Israel and Syria have failed as well.
Under Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, the United States invested extraordinary efforts in seeking to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus far, all these efforts have failed. President Donald Trump’s administration too has developed a peace proposal, but even before its launch, the PA has announced it will not engage with any American plan. Polls show that fewer and fewer Israelis and Palestinians believe a peace deal—hence permanent borders—between Israel and the PA is in the offing. Thus, 100 years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and 95 years after the official start of the British Mandate, no final internal borders have been established.
After more than 400 years of relatively stable Ottoman rule in the eastern Mediterranean area, the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1918 at the end of World War I. These centuries of relative stability were replaced by a century of still-ongoing turmoil in the area, especially in what became the British Mandate for Palestine—today’s Israel, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza.
With U.S. help, two of Israel’s potential borders—with Egypt and Jordan—have become permanent and internationally recognized following the conclusion of formal peace treaties. The others—with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians—are still in dispute.
There is a lesson here: The United States can help resolve these issues only when stable Arab regimes are willing to sit down at the negotiating table and make peace with Israel, as did Egypt in the 1970s and Jordan in the 1990s.
Lebanon was too weak to withstand Syrian pressure to cancel its 1983 peace treaty with Israel; Syria’s President Hafez Assad was stable but unwilling to match Israeli compromises to make a peace treaty possible, while his son Bashar is too weak and dependent on Iran to make peace; and the PA’s elderly and ailing President Abbas is even weaker and has no say regarding the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Thus, despite the intensive U.S. efforts and Israel’s far-reaching efforts toward peace, some of the border uncertainties resulting from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the first World War—100 years ago this month—remain unresolved.
Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report