While the struggle between the Western and Soviet blocs occupies the center of the world stage, another drama of co-existence is taking place in microcosm in the Middle East. Four hundred miles of fluid boundary separate Israel and the neighboring Arab states. Hardly a night passes without bullets flying across that border, and last week the two hostile camps come to the verge of full-scale war when Israelis and Egyptians fought a hit-and-run battle in the Egyptian-held Gaza strip. The immediate danger of a new Arab-Israeli war seems to have passed for the moment, primarily because the Arabs are not yet ready to fight and the Western powers are still pledged to maintain the status quo in the area. But as the immediate threat of war recedes after the Gaza incident, so does the hope of a permanent settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The real peace which Israel needs for her survival is farther away than ever.
Israel's position in the Middle East today is almost as precarious as it was in 1948, when her armies fought desperately to keep the new state from being pushed into the Mediterranean. Arab leaders all over the Middle East talk with increasing passion of a coming "second round" and the final defeat of Israel, the "cancer in the body of the Arab world," as Egypt's General Naguib phrased it. At present Israeli military strength is probably sufficient to repay any Arab attack with interest. The balance of military power in the Middle East may be shifting slowly toward the Arabs, however. In addition to their obvious advantages in manpower and resources, the Arab states are steadily modernizing their military forces and war industries. Already they are spending more for military purposes alone than the Israelis do for all governmental expenses. As the Arabs grow stronger, the temptation to seek another military showdown with Israel may become irresistible. And the densely-populated Israeli coastal strip, between the Mediterranean and the Jordan border, has an average width of less than twenty miles.
Despite great advances, Israel is still in a critical economic condition. Her natural markets and sources of raw materials in the Middle East have been destroyed by a boycott which the Arabs promise will last as long as Israel does. Her annual trade gap with friendly countries is still about two hundred million dollars. Her financial stability is completely dependent on aid from the world Jewish community, loans from the United States, and German reparations, but none of these sources can be expected to keep flowing indefinitely. Unless Israel can solve her economic problems, the Arabs will have won at least half their battle without fighting. Diplomatically, the Israelis fear that they are fast becoming isolated. An alliance with the Soviet bloc is out of the question, but entrance into present Middle Eastern defense arrangements is apparently also impossible as long as relations with the Arab states remain what they are. And the Israelis have lost much of the good-will of world opinion because of incidents like the Gaza affair.
Even history, in a sense, seems to conspire against Israel's future. Viewed in a historical context, Israel may be regarded as a delayed climax to the overseas expansion of European peoples into non-European areas. And almost everywhere else in the world the rise of native nationalism has checked that advance and in areas like Indo-China, thrown it into headlong retreat. As a technologically advanced Western nation, Israel could successfully establish itself as a bridgehead in the Arab world. But in an age of spreading nationalism, the hatred of neighboring Arab peoples for Israel may grow rather than decrease with the passage of time. The presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees in neighboring countries can be counted on to keep popular sentiment against Israel at a high pitch. For the Arabs, Israel is likely to remain "Palestine Irridenta," even though there is simply no place else for the Israelis to go.
It is difficult to see how Israel can find a lasting solution to her problems in the near future. A negotiated peace seems to be unthinkable for the Arabs. Some elements in Israel have urged a preventive war. But even if Israeli soldiers marched to Damascus or Cairo, they could not expect to wipe out the opposition of the Arab world. War would only multiply further the legacy of hatred among the Arabs. The present divisions among the Arabs may seem to offer the Israelis a chance to politick for possible ententes with disaffected Arab states. It is doubtful, however, that any Arab state would risk popular outrage by seeking closer relations with the Israelis. And a "Balkanization" of the Arab states, if it did occur, would hardly promote stability in the area. In the absence of real peace, the Israelis can only prepare for the worst and hope that they can ride out a storm. For if the storm breaks, it will be a violent one.