While the world’s attention has been focused on the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, what has been happening in Israel and the wider Middle East?
The nation of Israel has been widely condemned for failing to join most of the Western world in sanctioning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. But Israel finds itself in a tight spot, because it relies on Russia in a way that the rest of the world does not. That reliance is not based upon oil, gas, or any other service or commodity, but rather upon Russian acquiescence to overflights of Syria by the Israeli Air Force. These flights are an effort to discourage Iranian interference in Syria and Lebanon.
Iran, as it happens, is the paymaster and arms supplier to Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in the area, which, along with Hamas—the governing party in Gaza—want to see the nation of Israel completely destroyed. Syria is a staging post for the delivery of weapons to Iran’s clients; hence, the Israeli Air Force seeks to destroy those armaments before they can be delivered.
The Russian Air Force and its flight systems control Syrian air space, and it is only with Russian tolerance that the Israeli Air Force can operate in such an environment. This is why Israel has had to tread very carefully throughout Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But the Russian campaign in Ukraine is not the only challenge facing Israel. The Russian invasion overlapped the Islamic festival of Ramadan (April 1–May 1, 2022), as well as celebrations of Easter and the Passover earlier this year. This aligning of religious events inevitably creates tension on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or Haram, as it is known to the Arab world—tension that persists even now. The al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest places, sits on the southern end of the Temple Mount and is a focus for Islamic worshippers during Ramadan. As the invasion of Ukraine unfolded, the world’s attention shifted from the Middle East to Eastern Europe, and Palestinians became eager to do anything they could to bring attention back to their cause. As a result, repeated clashes have since occurred on the Temple Mount between Islamic worshippers at the al-Aqsa Mosque and Israeli police who seek to keep order on the mount.
On the wider international scene, the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, has insisted that Israel should be declared apartheid. Speaking earlier this year to a meeting of the Palestinian Heads of Mission throughout Africa, Pandor equated the Palestinians’ cause to that of black South Africans before 1994. Pandor wants the United Nations to establish a Human Rights Commission to examine the situation and, as a result, officially declare Israel an apartheid state. This is an approach that Palestinians have been actively promoting.
Within the state of Israel, Palestinians participate in what is widely recognized as the most democratic system of any Middle Eastern nation, having their own elected representatives in the Knesset. But Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank have a very different experience. With the Palestinian leadership in both those areas implacably hostile to Israel’s very existence, there is little chance of a peace deal between the two parties.
In Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) operates alongside Hamas in seeking to wage war on Israel. Supplied with missiles from Iran, PIJ’s sponsor, the group fired an estimated 1,100 rockets at Israel in a brutal August assault—but almost a quarter of the rockets fell within Gaza, destroying the very people PIJ seeks to support. The cause of the attack? Israel’s capture of PIJ’s military head and numerous other operatives in Jenin and surrounding West Bank towns, along with its subsequent assassination of PIJ’s southern commander. Before Egyptian mediators brokered a truce, Israel had also assassinated PIJ’s northern commander in Gaza.
United States President Joe Biden subsequently waded into Pandor’s argument, denying that Israel is an apartheid state. But despite Biden’s support, Israel faces hostility in the academic, political, and religious spheres of the U.S. and other Western nations.
Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) is a program currently waged against Israel “to end international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” Drawing on activists’ lessons from opposing South African apartheid in the 1980s, BDS has gained support from many U.S. campuses and churches. It has also been supported by many progressive Jewish groups in the U.S., and even finds a voice in the U.S. Congress. In Britain, the Methodist Church has voted to continue support for BDS. Essentially, and certainly at its extremes, BDS activities are a straightforward expression of anti-Zionism—opposition even to the existence of the state of Israel.
With enemies like that, what about your “friends” at home?
With those come the fragile nature of Israel’s government. In April of this year, a coalition government of eight parties, largely formed to keep Benjamin Netanyahu out of power, fractured when the Arab party, Ra’am, threatened to withdraw its support of the coalition over the clashes on the Temple Mount. By June 20, it had collapsed because of its inability to pass legislation, especially a budget. When the Knesset dissolved a week later, Israel was a nation without an operating government and budget—and with a record of five general elections within four years. The tiny nation with Jerusalem at its heart appears to be a stumbling block even to itself.
Why does Israel—and Jerusalem in particular—not have peace? Despite its widely proclaimed newfound relationships with some of the Gulf States and a cordial relationship with Saudi Arabia, Israel’s security is no better than it ever was. Why? An answer is found in a source that few bother to consider today.
Those who founded the modern state of Israel did so based upon historic connections to the land. But historic connections alone do not provide for peace and well-being. In May 1948, immediately before the end of the British Mandate administration of the land that would become modern Israel, key Israeli leaders drafted a declaration of independence to take effect the moment British rule ended at midnight on May 15, 1948.
As Israeli historian Martin Kramer notes in a series of articles on the Israeli Declaration of Independence, David Ben Gurion—the leader of the People’s Administration, who would soon be Prime Minister of the new state of Israel—wanted the declaration to be acceptable to the religious and the atheist alike. Hence, no direct reference to the God of Israel appeared in the final document. That Being was mentioned only once, and by a euphemism: “The Rock of Israel,” wording that appeared in the last section of the document, just above the place for signatures. The Declaration said that the nation would “be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” but no reference was made to the Torah, which underpins the writings of those prophets. The document’s only other vestiges of Israel’s religious heritage were the words used to describe Israel and the script used for the document, a script normally reserved for religious texts.
Despite these scriptural allusions, a vital element was missing. The declaration focused on the regathering of the Jewish people from the exile they had endured, yet their historical connection to the land is actually based on another element: a covenant established by the God of Israel with His people. The terms of that covenant were laid out by God, and the Israelites had to accept it in toto—no bargaining was permitted. This covenant was not referenced at all in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, but since exile from the land always occurred because of the terms of that covenant being broken, one would expect the people returning to the land to acknowledge their past failure and commit to rectifying it.
Yet, missing from the declaration was any language based on the original covenant under which the land had been given to modern Israel’s forebears. Ultimately, it was a secular document with a nod to the Orthodox community.
The founders of the state of Israel saw their nation in secular terms. It was to be a state based on European political and philosophic ideals, not on a covenant with the One who had given them the land in the first place—hence, a major problem Israel faces today. The covenant entered at Mount Sinai provided for peace with its neighbors if it were adhered to (Deuteronomy 28:7, 10), but it promised constant problems and wars if it were ignored (Deuteronomy 28:15–20).
Compare the modern situation with what happened more than 2,000 years ago, when the tribe of Judah returned to Judea in the days of the Persian Empire. Ezra and Nehemiah, as leaders of the Jewish people, recognized the centrality of the covenant to the success of their return from Babylonian exile. They reaffirmed their nation’s acceptance of God’s covenant (Nehemiah 1:5; 9:32–38).
Like the nation of Israel today, that fledgling state in the sixth century B.C. faced hostility from neighboring peoples—but adherence to the covenant relationship ensured their security despite the hostile environment they faced. Furthermore, the prophets acknowledged in modern Israel’s own declaration of independence wrote of a yet-future return that will be based on a covenant relationship with God. Jeremiah wrote that God’s covenant with Israel would one day be internalized by the people, not just acknowledged by a few verbal references to a document no one follows (Jeremiah 31:31–34). For the prophet Micah, the God of Israel was central to a peaceful existence in the land (Micah 4:6–13).
Failure to live by the terms of the Covenant brought about another exile from the land. And it is interesting that, in April of this year, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published a Hamas preacher Bassam Jarrar’s claim, believed by an estimated 73 percent of Palestinians, that the Quran contains a numerological prediction that a huge event this year will lead to Israel’s collapse. Though we know this prediction will fail—biblical prophecy shows that many significant events must occur before Gentile oppressors occupy the nation at the end of this present age—we can understand that, as long as Israelites neglect a covenant relationship with God, decline is bound to happen.
Israel faces continuing pressures from its enemies, especially those funded by Iran. Its foes want to see Israel destroyed. That battle will continue until Israel recognizes its need for a covenant relationship with God.