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The World’s Longest War

by David R. Carlin on Aug 8, 2006

David R. Carlin

Everybody recognizes by now that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a singularly intractable one. The current struggle between Israel and Hezbollah is the sixth episode in a 58-year-long war between Israel and its Arab neighbors that commenced in 1948 when the state of Israel was proclaimed. Fighting was renewed in 1956 over Suez, in 1967 in the Six-Day War, in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and in 1982 with the invasion of Lebanon. Only an incurable optimist will imagine that whatever “peace” agreement closes the current episode will bring anything like a permanent settlement.

Geologists speak of “fault lines,” like the famous San Andreas fault in California. Along these lines earthquakes are likely to occur, and nothing can be done to prevent them. For 2,500 years the world’s greatest geopolitical fault line has been the line dividing Europe from the Middle East. Israel, unfortunately, sits atop that line, a European nation in Middle Eastern territory. Because of this unhappy fact, it is unlikely that any truly permanent solution will be found for Israel’s problems with its neighbors. Wise diplomats, therefore, will not succumb to wishful thinking, dreaming of permanent solutions.

The 58-year Arab-Israeli conflict is but the latest manifestation of what may be called the world’s longest war – a 2,500-year struggle between the world of Europe and the world of Western Asia, the region now called the Middle East. The struggle began in the late 6th century B.C. when the Persian Empire demanded the submission of the Greek cities of Asia Minor, and it reached its first climax in the 480s when Xerxes, the “Great King” of Persia, invaded Greece with an enormous army. Greece survived, winning two crucial battles.

The next great climax came in the 330s and 320s B.C. when Alexander the Great, in the most brilliant campaign in military history, conquered the vast Persian Empire – a realm that included the lands on which are found such present-day “hot spots” as Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Persons familiar with the career of Alexander get a feeling of d vu when they read today’s newspapers.

Even the three great wars between Rome and Carthage were part of this Europe-vs.-Western Asia struggle. For Carthage, though its empire was located near the western end of the Mediterranean, was actually a Mid-Eastern society and culture, a colony founded by settlers from Phoenicia, which is modern Lebanon.

For the next 2,000 years the struggle between Europe and the Middle East continued on many battlefields: North Africa, Spain, France, Palestine, the Balkans, Asia Minor. Sometimes one antagonist flourished, sometimes the other. The sudden and dramatic rise of Islam in the 7th century consolidated and strengthened the forces of Western Asia in a remarkable way, permanently Islamizing the Middle East and tipping the balance in favor of Mid-Eastern supremacy for many centuries – just as, later, the rise of modern science and industry re-tipped the balance in favor of Europe. The see-saw nature of the long contest should remind us that the European upper hand of recent centuries is not necessarily fated to endure.

By the 19th century, the Turks and Arabs had fallen far behind the Europeans in economic and military development. Europeans, especially the British and French, were able to “colonize” much of the Arabic world. Among these colonists were European Zionists who settled in Palestine. They represented no great power, and they were the only European colonists who had burned their bridges behind them. They were absolutely determined to stay in Palestine, for if things went bad they, unlike the British and French, had no European homeland to retreat to.

In the aftermath of World War II, a Mid-Eastern counter-offensive against the dominance of Europeans advanced under the flag of Pan-Arabism; more recently it has proceeded under the banner of militant Islamism. Since the United States is now the principal “European” country, it is no surprise that the chief object of Mid-Eastern animosity is now America.

This is a pessimistic analysis, and it warrants a pessimistic prognosis. There is no realistic hope for anything like a “permanent” settlement of either the Arab-Israeli conflict or the larger conflict between the world of Europe and the Islamic world.. Neither side can expect total victory over the other. Sad to say, the best that diplomacy can aim at is a mitigation of the conflict and a minimizing of collateral damage when fighting breaks out again, as it surely will.

David R. Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island and author of "Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?"