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Cold War and the Middle East


Israel and the superpowers

Throughout much of the twentieth century there was a bitter argument between Jewish and Arab people over control of the area of the Middle East originally known as Palestine. Until the First World War the territory was part of the Turkish Empire. It was then controlled by the British.


After the Second World War the United Nations decided to set up a Jewish state, called Israel, in part of Palestine. As British forces left the area in May 1948, Jewish leaders declared the existence of the new state. Israel was immediately attacked by the neighboring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Fighting came to an end in January 1949 with Israel victorious but this was not the end of the dispute. The two superpowers soon took sides in this conflict. Israel became strongly pro-American, while the Soviet Union became hostile towards Israel.



There was an upsurge of Arab nationalism in the 1950s supported by the Soviet Union. In 1952 a passionate Arab nationalist called Gamal Nasser took power in Egypt. He turned to the Soviet Union for help in developing the country. In 1956 Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal from the Western powers of Britain and France.


In October 1956 Britain, France and Israel attacked the Suez Canal area. The government of the USA was unhappy about the invasion of Egypt and forced Britain and France to pull out. The Americans got little credit for their actions and radical Arabs increasingly looked to the USSR for assistance. After Suez there was increased Soviet involvement in the Middle East.


War and peace

War broke out again between Israel and the Arab states in 1967 and in 1973. Israel won both these wars and gained control of substantial lands inhabited by Palestinian Arabs The success of Israel was a blow to the USSR. The Soviets had supplied Egypt and Syria with their weapons but they had lost. Israel was a small country but, with American help, the Israelis had defeated their hostile neighbors.


After 1973 the USA was much more successful than the USSR in influencing events in the Middle East. A new Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, broke off relations with the Soviet Union and established a good relationship with the USA. With American help and encouragement the states of Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979.


In the 1980s the Americans tried to bring Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians together. After many years of American pressure the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, signed a peace treaty with the Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1993. By this time the Soviet Union had fallen apart and the Soviet leaders did not play a significant part in the Middle East peace treaty.