We have just witnessed, over a one-month period, four major anniversaries of watershed, historic events that shaped the story of the rise of the modern State of Israel.
One hundred years ago on October 31, 1917, Australian troops charged the Ottoman lines at Beersheba, setting in motion the beginning of the end of that Empire and its control over much of the Middle East, including what is now Israel. Two days later, on November 2, 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour issued what has become known as the Balfour Declaration, committing to support a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.
Seventy years ago, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. Finally, 40 years ago, on November 19, 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his historic visit to the Jewish state, leading to a peace treaty that secured Israel’s place in the region.
Had any of these events not occurred, or occurred differently, Israel as we know it today – a thriving, strong, democratic, hi-tech nation – might well not exist.
The charge at Beersheba is a particular source of pride for both Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel in Australia. At a time when the outcome of the Great War was far from assured, and against all odds, 800 light horsemen stormed the Ottoman trenches, riding as cavalry rather than mounted infantry, with bayonets in place of sabres. The town and its strategically crucial wells were secured in an afternoon and the victory paved the way for allied forces to capture Jerusalem six weeks later.
It was fitting that the one hundredth anniversary of this key battle – one of Australia’s most impressive wartime successes – was marked with both Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in attendance. While in Israel, Turnbull also announced closer ties in defence industry and cyber security to bring our two nations closer still, following up Netanyahu’s ground-breaking visit to Australia earlier this year.
Indeed, so strong is the symbolism of the Battle of Beersheba to our two nations, that the annual Australia-Israel Be’er Sheva strategic dialogue AIJAC helps to facilitate, co-hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (BESA), bears its name.
The Balfour Declaration, issued two days after the famous victory at Beersheba, gave the Zionist movement momentum at a crucial time and was a key part of the chain of events which led to the Jewish people finally realising self-determination in their ancestral homeland.
While sometimes presented as an act of Britain alone, the declaration actually reflected a consensus among the allied nations of World War I, as noted elsewhere in this edition.
Yet critics of the declaration label it an imperialist act, blaming it for the situation the Palestinians find themselves in today. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah tweeted last month, “Britain should apologise for the historic injustice it committed against Palestinians and correct it” – starkly contradicting the PA’s claims to have recognised Israel and its right to exist.
But it is often forgotten that it was not just the origins of the Jewish state that were being put in place after the First World War. This was part of a larger process which saw the victorious allies also mid-wife the birth of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Yemen out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. A Palestinian state could also have arisen, if not for relentless Arab rejectionism.
After a period where Arab revolts saw British authorities limit Jewish immigration time and time again, closing the door even as the looming Holocaust saw millions needing to escape Europe, finally, on November 29, 1947, after years of stagnation, the Zionist dream gained momentum again. UN Resolution 181, known as the “Partition Plan”, proposed, finally, the establishment of a Jewish homeland, alongside a new Arab state.
It should be a matter of pride for Australia that this was another juncture in which our country played a leading role in helping create a Jewish homeland, thanks to the principled and canny statesmanship of then-Minister for External Affairs Herbert “Doc” Evatt in shaping the partition plan at the UN.
While the UN offer was less than what the Zionist movement had hoped for, they accepted it without hesitation. The Arabs rejected it out of hand and started a war aimed at the new Jewish state’s annihilation – a war that Israel won. The Zionist dream of self-determination was realised – and the Palestinian Arabs could have achieved the same dream if only they had accepted the UN decision. Sadly, that missed opportunity has represented a repeated theme in Palestinian history.
Yet the Jewish homeland was constantly under threat, and wars in 1967 and 1973 saw Israel fighting for its very existence. That all changed on November 19, 1977, when Egyptian President Sadat, the leader of the largest and most populous Arab nation, flew from Cairo to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport to bring a message of peace. The peace treaty signed in 1979 brought calm and security to Israel’s western border, a peace that has held since, and has fundamentally and positively transformed Israel’s strategic outlook. Peace with Jordan would follow in 1994.
These four anniversaries outline an amazing story – perhaps the twentieth’s century’s most successful and inspiring story of self-determination and an ethnic people building a thriving new nation-state. That story is not yet over – Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive, Iran has risen as a major threat, and still much of the Arab world, despite increasingly significant clandestine and even public dealings with Israel, has not yet extended official recognition. But current trends are such that there is every reason to hope the future will present new, game-changing positive developments, creating additional new anniversaries to celebrate in years to come.