Even before the State of Israel came into existence, Arab leaders accused Zionists of seeking to establish a state that would cover most of the Middle East. This notion of a Greater Israel, quite distinct from the one understood by Zionists, eventually became so routinized and accepted, it by now serves as the conventional wisdom in all the Arabic-speaking countries and Iran. However fantastical, the fear has real significance, virtually guaranteeing misunderstanding, poisoning attitudes toward Israel, and making resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict more difficult. Although a distant and difficult topic for Americans to deal with, it deserves U.S. government attention as part of the general effort to forward Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.
Proofs: A Coin, a Flag, and a Map
On May 25, 1990, the United Nations Security Council left its permanent quarters in New York City and moved its representatives and staff all the way to Geneva, Switzerland, just so Yasir Arafat, who had been prohibited from entering the United States, could address the Council. And what did Arafat have to say on this momentous occasion? One of the subjects he chose to highlight for this august body was his proof that the Israeli government sought to expand far beyond its present borders. "Please allow me to show you this document," he told the assembled diplomats. "This document is a ‘map of Greater Israel' which is inscribed on this Israeli coin, the 10-agora piece." Producing a map, Arafat elucidated in detail the boundaries of Israel purportedly represented on the coin: "all of Palestine, all of Lebanon, all of Jordan, half of Syria, two-thirds of Iraq, one-third of Saudi Arabia as far as holy Medina, and half of Sinai."
This was hardly the first time Arafat had displayed such a map. Indeed, throughout 1990 he made a practice of carrying 10-agora coins in the shirt pocket of his uniform. On occasion he would hand them out. "Look, look," he would exclaim, taking out a coin,
This is a 10-agora piece. It is a new Israeli coin. And what does it show? The Jewish seven-branched candelabrum against the background of an incredible map: an outline shows the region which goes from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, from the Red Sea to the Euphrates. It is a glaring demonstration of Zionist aspirations.
Sometimes, Arafat claimed that these boundaries showed the map of Israel after the immigration of a further 3.5 million Jews. Except to someone predisposed to find clues of Zionist expansionism, the 10-agora piece has only the vaguest resemblance to a map of the Middle East. It was closely patterned after a coin issued in 37 b.c.e., during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, by Mattathias Antigonus II, the last Hasmonaean king. According to Professor Ya'acov Meshorer, head of the antiquities section of the Israel Museum, the artist Nathan Karp used only the general outline of the ancient coin in his design of the 10-agora piece. "Karp was astounded," said Meshorer, "that anyone could see the coast of the Land of Israel there."
Arafat rejected this explanation. As further proof of his assertion, he produced a second document, a map from a scholarly article titled "Developing Perspectives Upon the Areal Extent of Israel: An Outline Evaluation." Despite its jargon-laden title, this article by Dr. Gwyn Rowley of the University of Sheffield in England, contained a diagram of spectacular utility for Arafat's argument: a map of the Middle East with a superimposed outline reaching from the Sinai peninsula to the Iraq-Iran border. (See Map 1.) According to the legend accompanying the map, it provides "The areal dimensions of Israel according to the current (1989) Israeli 10 Agorot coin." Arafat rested his case on the basis of Dr. Rowley's scholarship.
In another, yet more imaginative argument, Arafat discerned a hidden symbolism of expansionist intent in the Israeli flag: its two horizontal blue lines represent the Nile and Euphrates rivers, he told a Playboy interviewer, "and in between is Israel." (In fact, the blue lines derive from the design on the traditional Jewish prayer shawl.)
The claim for a Greater Israel also asserts that Israel's parliament, the Knesset, contains an inscription or map asserting Israel's right to rule from the Nile to the Euphrates. Leaders such as Syria's president, Hafiz al-Asad, and its defense minister, Mustafa Tallas, as well as Iran's president have all claimed that "The Land of Israel from the Euphrates to the Nile" is chiseled over the Knesset's entrance. That no one has yet laid eyes on either does not stop the rumors; to a witness who tours the parliament building without seeing the map, the reply comes that it was removed in anticipation of his visit.
As ever, Arafat showed special creativity. Addressing the Jerusalem Committee of the Arab League, he noted that the Knesset's inscription had been gone for thirty-two years but went back up in 1990:
Last year  they stamped on its face the Israeli menorah, directly under which there is the map of Greater Israel. This has attracted our attention, especially since talk about Greater Israel had commenced with the establishment of Israel, when they put a sign on the entrance of the Israeli Knesset that said: "This is your land Israel, from the Nile to the Euphrates." This sign remained for ten years. They were advised to remove it, but now they have put it back up. They have returned to it following the agreement of the two giants in Malta [a reference to the Bush-Gorbachev summit of December 1989].
Days later, Arafat substituted an alternate conclusion: "They were advised to remove this plaque, [which they did], but they have engraved this map on this coin under the menorah." On another occasion he added that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has "published maps on this issue," though again no one has laid eyes on them.
Whence comes this wild notion of Greater Israel, and what, if any, validity does it have? It has five main sources. First, and by far most important, the Jewish Bible contains two passages which point to Israeli domination of the Middle East. In describing God's covenant with Abraham, Genesis 15:18 reads: "To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the river Euphrates." Even more ominously, Moses announces to the Jews in Deuteronomy 11:24, that "Every place where you set the soles of your feet shall be yours. Your borders shall run from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea."
Second, some Westerners expected modern Israel to recapitulate the ancient state's borders; the British ambassador in Istanbul, for example, predicted as early as 1910 that "The domination of Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, who forced the Jews to build the Pyramids, is part of the future heritage of Israel."
Third, early Zionist leaders referred to an Israeli intent to rule large territories. Around 1900, Theodor Herzl and Isidore Bodenheimer routinely referred to Jewish settlement in "Palestine and Syria," as did organizations like the Jewish National Fund and the Zionist Congress. In 1898, Herzl planned to ask the Ottoman sultan for a territory stretching from the Egyptian frontier to the Euphrates. Four years later he spoke of settling Jews in Mesopotamia.
Fourth, later Zionist figures leaders are quoted making ambitious claims. Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism, was quoted in 1935 stating "We want a Jewish empire." Moshe Dayan's visit to the Golan Heights soon after its capture by Israeli troops in 1967 has become the stuff of legends. According to Hafiz al-Asad, Dayan announced that "the past generation established Israel within its 1948 borders; we have established Israel within the 1967 borders; and you have to establish a Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates." An Iraqi writer recounts the speech somewhat differently: "We have taken Jerusalem . . . and are now on our way to Yathrib [Medina] and Babylon"—two other cities of ancient Jewish habitation. Whatever the specifics, Arabs agree that Dayan spurred a new round of Israeli expansionist fervor. Prime Minister Menachem Begin was later quoted, supposedly, to the effect that the Bible predicts the Israeli state will eventually include portions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kuwait.
How valid are these arguments, and how accurate these quotes? The second and third sources—statements by European Christians and early Zionists—clearly have only limited importance. External predictions can hardly serve as authoritative sources for the Zionist movement. Territorial musings before the Balfour Declaration of 1918 were uttered when the Zionist movement was still embryonic; in any case, Herzl did not in fact request the Nile-to-Euphrates region from the Ottoman king or anyone else. As for the bellicose statements attributed to Jabotinsky, Begin, and Dayan; they are all second-hand and at best somewhat dubious. In all probability, opponents simply invented them. The first was quoted by Robert Gessner, a hostile writer; the second by enemy leaders of proven unreliability; and the third by a friendly source (the American television evangelist Jerry Falwell), yet the claim to the Sudan and Kuwait strains credulity.
The passages in the Bible are a more complex matter. Three considerations have to be taken into account to understand what they mean:
First, the "River of Egypt" almost certainly refers not to the Nile, but to Wadi al-Arish on the north coast of the Sinai Peninsula. The lack of parallel between the two formulations, "the Great River, the river Euphrates" and "the River of Egypt" seems to corroborate this interpretation. In any case, the principal Jewish commentaries on this text, notably that of Rashi, identify the River of Egypt with Wadi Al-Arish. These commentaries, it bears noting, have for centuries accompanied the Biblical text itself in published editions of the Bible, and thus predisposed Zionists to understand "the River of Egypt" along these lines.
Second, the rules of Biblical exegesis hold that specific laws always take precedence over general laws. Accordingly, the detailed, and geographically far more constrained, delineation of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) in Numbers 34:1-12 ("It shall then turn from the south up to the ascent of Akrabbim and pass by Zim, and its southern limit shall be Kadesh-barnea. . . . ") and Ezekiel 47:13-20 supplant the much vaguer ones in Genesis and Deuteronomy. For this reason, Jewish tradition has long viewed the Genesis statement as non-operational.
Third, in the Biblical account, Abraham's "descendants" include not just the Jews through Isaac, but also their "cousins," the Arabs through Ishmael—in which case the covenant was long ago amply fulfilled.
Then, to assess the contemporary importance of the Biblical injunctions, a number of points need to be kept in mind:
— Greater Israel is an inexact translation of Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah, Hebrew for "the Integral Land of Israel." The English term implies a geographical expansion not present in the original.
— Early Zionists considered a wide range of lands for Jewish colonization, including Cyprus, Sinai, Mesopotamia, East Africa, and Argentina. In addition, the Soviet regime made Birobidzhan, a distant region of Siberia, into its version of a Jewish homeland. These territories should be understood as alternatives to, not extensions of, Palestine.
— For decades, the Zionist debate centered on what emphasis Jewish control over the whole of Eretz Yisrael should have. Labor Zionists thought this less important than other objectives (such as establishing a sovereign Jewish state) but Revisionist Zionists made it their first priority. In nearly all cases, it bears noting, Revisionists lost out to their Labor rivals.
— The Israeli government has not adopted the Bible as a policy document. The Saudis call the Qur'an—or Koran—their constitution and virtually every other Arab state derives some of its legislation from the Qur'an. Fundamentalist Muslims all agree that "Islam is the solution." So it is reasonable to imagine, as does Vice President ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam of Syria, that "Zionist ideology is based on the Jews' Torah." Reasonable maybe, but certainly not accurate; Israel was founded by secularists inspired by nationalist and socialist goals, not religious ones. And really, isn't it faintly preposterous to assume that passages dating from three millennia ago would guide the actions of modern democratic polity?
— While Revisionist Zionists did claim Jordan and parts of Lebanon and Syria as a part of Eretz Yisrael during the Mandatory period, no Zionist ever laid claim to or sought to control Egypt, Sudan or Iraq, much less Mecca and the Persian Gulf.
— The notion of Eretz Yisrael subsequently shrank, to the point that today it includes just the territory of Mandatory Palestine. As proof, note that Revisionists in recent decades viewed the Sinai, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and southern Lebanon in strategic terms only, not historic ones. This confirms that they now see these areas outside of Eretz Yisrael.
— No Israeli political party today (not even Meir Kahane's Kach) aspires to Israeli rule over all Eretz Yisrael; rather, Revisionists only demand now that Israel not give up any part of Eretz Yisrael already under its control.
— Difficulties with less than two million Muslims in the West Bank and Gaza surely put to rest the grandiose notion of four million Jews ruling a Muslim population twenty-five times larger. How would the Israel Defense Forces handle an intifada in Cairo?
— The Israelis did have a chance to choose their ideal borders in June 1967, and they stopped far short of the Nile and the Euphrates. Had they plans to expand to those rivers, they could have done so with virtual impunity at that time.
— The Israelis thrice won part or all of the Sinai peninsula (in the 1948-49, 1956, and 1967 wars) and thrice returned captured territories to Egypt. How can this fact be reconciled with supposed plans of wanting to rule from the Nile to the Euphrates?
The whole idea of a Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates has to be dismissed as groundless fantasy. But fantasy or not, leading politicians from the major Muslim states of the Middle East (with the important exception of Turkey) volubly express themselves on the subject of Greater Israel. Here are some statements, both typical and extravagant:
King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Sa‘ud of Saudi Arabia (who ruled between 1902 and 1953), seems to have been the first important politician firmly to believe in Greater Israel. He expected a Zionist invasion of his kingdom, as he confided to a retired British diplomat in October 1937: "the Jews contemplate as their final aim not only the seizure of all Palestine but the land south of it as far as Medina. Eastward also they hope some day to extend to the Persian Gulf." Why as far as Medina, the second holiest city of Islam? The Saudi king recalled the Jewish presence in that city during the Prophet Muhammad's lifetime; and he assumed they wanted to return to what he called "their old stronghold."
Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt then picked up this theme and spread it through the Middle East. He argued tirelessly that Israelis sought a Greater Israel to include the whole central Middle East and thereby to turn the Arabs into "a horde of refugees." The Israelis would never give up this aspiration: "Even if they do not expect to realize their talk today or tomorrow about an Israeli state or a Kingdom of Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates, they will persevere in this goal until they find an opportunity [to attain it]." At times he agreed with the Saudi king and declared that "the Jews intend to conquer Mecca and Medina," or that they planned to annihilate all Arabs. Abdel Nasser's aide, Hasan Sabri al-Khuli, went one further and portrayed Greater Israel as a way to implement "Zionist aspirations for world domination."
Long after Abdel Nasser's death, and through years of Egypt's peace with Israel, his acolytes continued to warn against Greater Israel. General Saad El-Shazly flatly asserted that Ariel Sharon would "aspire to conquest over an area greater even than the biblical dreams of a land from the Nile to the Euphrates" and saw air power as Israel's means to this ambitious end. A 1990 editorial in Al-Akhbar held that the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel would lead to the expulsion of Palestinians from the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip—"an important step toward fulfilling the old dream of Greater Israel, stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates."
The Libyans, ever short of water, brought a different sensibility to the issue, transforming the Biblical injunction into a hydraulic dream of "dominating water sources in the region, from the Euphrates to the Nile." Jews covet the Nile and Euphrates Rivers, Mu‘ammar al-Qadhdhafi asserted, "to control Arab waters," and are ready to settle millions of Jews in the Arab countries. Controlling the sources of these waters would take the Israelis from Turkey to Central Africa. Thus fired up, Qadhdhafi conjured up the greatest Greater Israel of them all:
The Israelis have said their home is from ocean to ocean, from the Indian Ocean to the straits of Bab al-Mandib, straits of Hormuz, the Red Sea . . . to the Atlantic Ocean together with the straits of Gibraltar and the Mediterranean.
Qadhdhafi imagined an Israel headquartered in Cairo stretching from Pakistan to Spain, from Turkey to Yemen! In his most paranoid moments, he presented Greater Israel as a joint Zionist-American plot "to occupy the Arab world and the Islamic world," with special emphasis on the control of Mecca and Medina. In other words, Greater Israel will serve as an instrument to eliminate Islam.
After 1985, Hafiz al-Asad of Syria often raised the Greater Israel theme, presenting it as an imminent danger which he single-handedly stopped and calling on the Arabs to mobilize "to prevent the establishment of Greater Israel." Along these lines, Syria's Defense Minister Mustafa Tallas told a military audience that, "Had it not been for Hafiz al-Asad, Greater Israel would have been established from the Nile to the Euphrates." As if that were not achievement enough, he claimed that Asad's forces "prevented Israel from occupying the sources of oil." Asad even portrayed the attainment of Greater Israel as a Jewish religious duty and accused Israelis of "talking mildly to deceive world opinion." The Syrians brought Greater Israel into their diplomacy, too. In January 1992, during the peace process negotiations, the Syrian delegation displayed a map of Greater Israel and claimed it represented the Jewish state's territorial goals. Needless to say, the Israeli delegation quickly rebutted this absurd assertion.
Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iranian propaganda has strongly emphasized the threat of Greater Israel, often in connection with accusations of Jewish plans to control the world. A 1985 Tehran reprint of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion included a map, the "Dream of Zionism," which purports to show Greater Israel's ideal boundaries. It showed within this Israel the whole of inhabited Egypt, Saudi Arabia down to Medina, all of Syria, Iraq, and Kuwait, the oil-producing region of Iran, and a good-sized slice of Turkey. To make matters complete, the boundary is drawn in the shape of a snake; and the scales are represented by a Freemason's Eye drawn repeatedly along the snake's back.
The Iranian media deprecates Israel by referring to it as a "tribe" which "considers its geographical boundaries" to extend from the Nile to the Euphrates. A 1990 newspaper report warned that because of Greater Israel, "six Arab countries around Palestine will be destroyed, or their inhabitants will be reduced to refugees." Rafsanjani noted the emigration of "millions of Jews from all over the world" (foremost the U.S.S.R., but also Argentina and other countries), and interpreted this in terms of a Greater Israel "from the Euphrates River to the Nile River." Included in this vast area, he speculated, would be the north of Saudi Arabia and a large section of the Red Sea coast. The Zionists hoped to settle 10 to 12 million people, Jews and others, to make Israel "a mighty and invincible state." Rafsanjani portrayed the last major advance toward this goal taking place in 1967, while bringing the border zone of Lebanon under Israeli control provided a finishing touch.
Arabs in others states, not always government officials, occasionally echo these statements. Just weeks before the Iraqi invasion a Kuwaiti newspaper accused the Zionist movement of planning to reach the Nile River, which it termed "the southern border of the Torah's Israel." This subject, understandably, has not been broached again in the Kuwaiti media.
In Jordan, Sultan al-Hattab, editor of the newspaper Sawt ash-Sha‘b wrote that "Greater Israel means Jordan, Syria, and Iraq as an immediate target and the entire Arab homeland as Israel's Lebensraum." The Israelis are said to see Lebanon as a no-man's land to intend to annexed it up to the Wadi at-Tim, north of Sidon. Even the all-but-nonexistent government of Lebanon occasionally felt compelled to stir the pot from time to time. President Ilyas al-Hirawi declared in early 1990 that a plot existed for Soviet Jews emigrating to Israel to settle in Lebanon, where they would further the Greater Israel aspiration. Muhammad Fadlallah, Hizbullah's spiritual guide, feared the same prospect.
An article in the Egyptian magazine on tourism asserted that Israelis visiting Egypt "talk all the time about . . . Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates." In fact, the reverse approaches the truth: fear of Greater Israel is common coin on the Arab street. When tens of thousands of Palestinians participated in May 1990 in a "march of return" (a walk to Jordan's border with Israel), they inevitably chanted slogans against Greater Israel. So widespread is talk of Greater Israel, it need not even be spelled out. When a Jordanian sought to blame Jerusalem for sedition at Yarmuk University in December 1989, he merely blamed plotters "who plan day and night to ruin this nation and to extend their country from the Nile to the Euphrates." Everyone knew exactly who he had in mind.
These fears also infect scholarship. Muhsin D. Yusuf, a historian at Birzeit University concludes a 1991 article implying that Jerusalem has territorial ambitions to a Greater Israel stretching from the Sudan to Kuwait.
The idea has even spread outside the Middle East. Patrick Seale, a British journalist of considerable reputation, has flatly asserted that "some nationalist Israelis (especially those in the Herut Party) dream of Jewish state extending "from the Nile to the Euphrates." Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson of France in 1983 called the division of Lebanon between Greater Syria and Greater Israel "our nightmare."
On the other hand, Palestinians living in Israel show caution, at least in public, about endorsing the notion of Greater Israel. ‘Abd al-Wahhab ad-Darwasha, a leading Israeli Arab politician, sidestepped a question from an Arab journalist asking him if most Israelis supported a Nile-to-Euphrates Greater Israel, mumbling instead about Israel's the lack of constitution and the disagreement about Israel's final borders. While no friend of Zionism, Darwasha knew first-hand the falseness of claims about a Greater Israel.
Contradictions abound in the Greater Israel argument. To begin with, the borders keep changing. The eastern frontier, for example, ranges anywhere between central Iraq and Pakistan. The same speaker might offer different borders. In late April 1990, Arafat announced that the Zionists aspired to (among other territories) the whole of Lebanon, three-quarters of Iraq and the majority of Sinai. Less than two weeks later, his Greater Israel included just two-thirds of Iraq and no part of Lebanon or Sinai.
In March 1989, Damascus was even less consistent. Asad defined a conventional Greater Israel extending from the Nile to the Euphrates, in March 1989. A month later (April 12, 1990), Radio Damascus reduced this to a country merely "double the size of the Zionist entity." But years before, Prime Minister ‘Abd ar-Ra'uf al-Kasm had told a Turkish audience that Israelis intend to occupy everything "from the sources of the Nile [in Ethiopia and Uganda] to the sources of the Euphrates [in central Anatolia]. . . . Greater Israel includes Turkey, Iran, and Africa." And in 1992, Asad declared that Israel "wants to extend wherever there are Jews." Which is it?
Arabs also contradict themselves about their future under Israeli rule. Sometimes they see themselves dominated and exploited, sometimes expelled so that Greater Israel becomes a place "where only Jews can live." Sometimes they foresee a single giant Jewish polity, other times they expect today's Arab states to be replaced by "illegitimate cardboard entities" which would eventually accept the existence of Israel.
So confused is this whole issue, Arab leaders even trip over their own nomenclature. Taha Yasin Ramadan, the Iraqi first deputy prime minister, postulated on one occasion that "Greater Israel" implies "a new expansionist policy much more serious than the past slogan, ‘From the Nile to the Euphrates.'" In fact, the two expressions are synonymous.
Do Arabs really believe what they say about Greater Israel? Yitzhak Shamir of Israel thought not, telling an interviewer in 1989 that Hafiz al-Asad knew this talk to be "sheer nonsense." But Patrick Seale, Asad's confidant, held that the Syrian president truly believes vast expansion to be the long-term Israeli goal. There is no reason to doubt Seale's verdict. (Indeed, the fact that Asad also believes that "Soviet Jews are the remains of the Khazars" confirms his general credulity on matters Jewish.) Shamir ignored the self-reinforcing impact of repetition; rulers and populations alike can eventually become convinced by their own propaganda machines.
Foreign reporters who encounter the Greater Israel mentality understand it to be genuine. Let's look at the Syrian case. The Wall Street Journal reports that, "Just as Israelis fear Damascus's old dream of a ‘Greater Syria,' encompassing Israel, Syrians believe that Tel Aviv craves an ‘Eretz Israel' stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates." Indeed, Mamdu‘ ‘Adwan, a leading Syrian poet, used almost these exact words in asserting that "We are as afraid of Greater Israel as they are of Greater Syria." According to Larry Cohler, an American journalist, Adwan is not alone: "most Syrians support these huge outlays [on the military] out of a genuine fear of Greater Israel." Cohler reports that he "encountered this fear repeatedly from people who earnestly believe that the Zionist goal is to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates." As his Syrian handler saw it, "Jews tend to lay claim to any part of the region they have dwelled in historically." One Syrian woman summed up the dangers of the Greater Israel accusation: "All the time we hear about Israel's claim, from the Nile to the Euphrates. How can we trust them when they act like that and say they want peace?"
This woman's fear has significant consequences. Belief in Israel's plan to expand from the Nile to Euphrates, and maybe beyond, makes the Jewish state's very existence a threat to the entire Middle East and increases the already substantial paranoia in the Middle East to still higher levels. Arab and Iranian leaders who entertain these delusions conclude that they must destroy Israel before it devours them. For Muhammad Fadlallah, the Lebanese fundamentalist leader, Greater Israel means the Arabs cannot live in peace with Israel. "Israel's ambitions to extend from the Euphrates to the Nile are known. . . . We can never have any security, whether military, economic, or political, so long as Israel is harboring its expansionist designs." The Greater Israel myth also justifies anti-Israel behavior as a defensive act. When Arafat asserts, "There will not be a Greater Israel," he legitimates almost any action against Israel.
These fantastical Arab and Iranian fears of Israeli expansionism prevent Middle Easterners from seeing Israel as a country with normal security concerns. In addition, they transform the Jewish state into something too threatening with which to coexist. Just as the demonization of Jews in Europe caused uncounted pogroms and culminated in the Nazi holocaust, so making the Jewish state out to be a menace to the whole Middle East creates a parallel danger of unremitting conflict which could someday terminate in nuclear warfare.
Only when Israel comes to be regarded as a state like any other is there a chance that its neighbors will deal with it in accordance with conventional diplomatic norms. There is little prospect of this happening soon, however, if wild claims about Israeli expansionism remain but integral to the fabric of its mainstream political life.
The Greater Israel calumny bounces back to harm Arabs, too. By exciting Arab hatred of Israel, it persuades many Israelis to hold on to the territories they won in 1967, and not take a chance on a peace treaties. Trading land for peace poses enough problems in its own right, without gratuitous Nile-to-Euphrates complications.
Nearly every polity's rhetoric contains statements of geographic grandeur that practical experience renders non-operational. It serves no one—least of all the Arab and Iranian populations—for their leaders to dredge out a religious pronouncement from three millennia back and transform it into a statement of aggressive intent.
Turning to the United States, reducing apprehensions about Greater Israel is good American policy. Americans agree it's in the their interest to end the Arab-Israeli conflict; because the fantasy of Greater Israel impedes resolution of that conflict, American diplomats and politicians should seize every opportunity to calm fears among their Arab and Iranian counterparts that Israel plans to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. Here are a few steps for U.S. officials to keep in mind:
Understand the importance of fears about Greater Israel. More than anything else, sophisticated Americans are bemused by Middle Eastern paranoia. How can a serious Western analyst or policymaker credit this kind of conspiracy theory? It just does not fit into his stolid mentality, and he has trouble believing it fits into anyone else's either. But to ignore these fears is to base U.S. policy on faulty premises which can lead to grave mistakes.
Indeed, American psychocentrism has sometimes led U.S. diplomacy astray. For example, Americans inadvertently did just about everything to confirm Iranian fears of plots during the 1960s and 1970s, and so helped bring on the Ayatollah Khomeini. American arrogance grated on Iranians. The huge size of the official American presence and its proximity to the central institutions of power, economics, and culture eased the way for the opposition to direct populist rage against Americans. Awareness of the conspiracy mentality would have gone far to have prevented this hostility from erupting.
Use Greater Israel rhetoric to predict a dictator's actions. Mirror-imaging—the projecting of one's own motives and behavior on to others—implies that accusations often reflect the speaker's own intentions. When rulers are not accountable, this insight can help understand what their future moves may be. Qadhdhafi's accusing Israel of wanting to divert the Nile waters reveals nothing about actual Israeli actions but it may tell us a great deal about Qadhdhafi; and in fact, he has devoted enormous resources into schemes to divert the Nile to Libya. Similarly, accusations from Damascus about Greater Israel confirm the Asad regime's ambitions for a Greater Syria more than they tell us about Israeli intentions.
Deny the validity of Greater Israel. The high road—not dignifying the outrageous with a response—does not work. Left alone, conspiracy theories fester. Better do as Middle Easterners: reply promptly and in kind. If the accusations are made privately, reply in private; if publicly, then in public. Americans in official positions do not often enough take this step.
Avoid the term Greater Israel. Greater Israel has two entirely different meanings. One is the Arab Nile-to-Euphrates notion analyzed here; the other an English translation of the term Eretz Yisrael Hashlemah used by Revisionist Zionists to refer to Israeli retention of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Arabs and Israelis tend to be completely ignorant of how the other uses the same term. Thus, when Labor Zionists criticize Revisionists in English, they refer to Revisionists' territorial claims as those of "Greater Israel," without any thought of how Arabs use this term.
Westerners tend to use Greater Israel in the Israeli sense, not the Arab one. That's what Secretary of State James Baker meant in 1989 when, in the Bush Administration's first major policy statement on the Middle East, he admonished Israelis "to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel." Baker used a term with self-evident meaning for Israelis and American Jews; but of course Arabs heard something quite different. His choice of words signaled to them that the U.S. government finally saw Israeli expansion as they did. Arafat observed that while the Israelis "are planning to establish Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates, U.S. Secretary of State Baker said Israel should forget its dream about establishing Greater Israel."
To escape this sort of confusion, American officials should not use the term Greater Israel. And when they do, they have to be absolutely explicit that they mean Israeli control over the West Bank, and nothing more.
Remember that terms have different meanings. Westerners, and their statesmen in particular, must never assume a common political vocabulary when dealing with Middle Eastern political issues. Greater Israel represents a whole class of terms with starkly different meanings. When Americans use the term peace in reference to the Arabs and Israel, they mean something along the lines of the United States and Canada. When Arabs use the term, they think of U.S.-Cuban relations. Democracy in the West refers to a way of ordering politics, including the rule of law, freedom of speech, minority rights, and political parties; in the Middle East, it just means elections. Syria in the West means the country delineated on the map; for people living in that country, it often refers to a cultural region that extends to include the entire Levant.
These differences point to a profound gap separating political assumptions in the West and in the Middle East. If outsiders hope to intervene constructively, they must begin by understanding what Middle Easterners are actually saying.
Daniel Pipes is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
 Radio Monte Carlo, May 25, 1990.
 La Repubblica, Apr. 3, 1990. `Arafat made the same point again in a speech to the Jerusalem Committee of the Arab League on 9 Apr. 1990.
 The Jerusalem Post, June 9, 1990.
 Geo-Journal, Feb. 19, 1989, pp. 99-110.
 Playboy, Sept. 1988.
 Al-Jazira, Jan. 17, 1982.
 Sawt Filastin (Sanaa), Apr. 9, 1990.
 Amman Television, Apr. 25, 1990.
 Ad-Dustur, Apr. 17, 1990.
 Secret letter from Gerard Lowther to Charles Hardinge, 29 May 1910, Foreign Office 800/193A (Lowther Papers). Quoted in Elie Kedourie, Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies (London: Frank Cass, 1974), p. 256.
 Theodor Herzl, Zionistisches Tagebücher, 1895-1899, edited by Johannes Wachten, Chaya Harel, et al. (Berlin: Ullstein, 1983), vol. 2, p. 650. For a catalogue of Zionist and Israeli statements, real and alleged, see Ass'ad Razzouq, Greater Israel: A Study in Zionist Expansionist Thought (Beirut: Palestine Liberation Organization Research Center, 1970), especially pp. 83, 87-90, 92, 96-97, 99-103, 144-45, 167-69, 178-81, 187, 209, 212-14, 230, 234, 240, 243-45, 249-52, 264, 278-82, 286, as well as Maps 3 and 4.
 Robert Gessner, "Brown Shirts in Zion," New Masses, Feb. 19, 1935, p. 11.
 Damascus Television, Feb. 18, 1986.
 Sa`d al-Bazzaz, Gulf War: The Israeli Connection, transl. Namir Abbas Mudhaffer (Baghdad: Dar al-Ma'mun, 1989).
 Tyler Courier-Times-Telegraph, 5 Feb. 1983; reported in The Los Angeles Times, Feb. 6, 1983.
 Sawt al-Kuwayt, Aug. 4, 1991.
 As must its close cousin, Greater Armenia, an exclusively Turkish phobia. One commentator, Necati فzfatura, wrote in the nationalist newspaper Türkiye (29 Sept. 1991) that the Armenian president had secretly met with George Bush and the two of them agreed on an Armenia stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf.
 Conversation on Oct. 25, 1937 with H. R. P. Dickson, Foreign Office 371/20822 E7201/22/31. Text in Elie Kedourie, Islam in the Modern World (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1980), pp. 72-73.
 Speech, Mar. 26, 1964. Quoted in Y. Harkabi, Arab Attitudes to Israel, transl. by Misha Louvish (London: Valentine, Mitchell, 1972), p. 73.
 Ibid., p. 74. The translation has been slightly altered.
 Radio Cairo, July 22, 1965 and Al-Ahram July 23, 1965. Quoted in Eliezer Be'eri, Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1969), p. 399.
 Hasan Sabri al-Khuli, Qadiyat Filastin (about 1966), pp. 19, 24. Quoted in Harkabi, Arab Attitudes, p. 82.
 Saad El-Shazly, The Arab Military Option (San Francisco: American Mideast Research, 1986), pp. 17, 31.
 Al-Akhbar, Jan. 31, 1990.
 Al-Jamahiriya, July 19, 1991.
 Al-Ahram, Feb. 23, 1990.
 More imaginatively yet, some Arabs suggested Israel would alter geography: according to one Egyptian, "Sadat even offered to divert the waters of the Nile into Israel" (quoted in Sana Hassan, "Egypt's Angry Islamic Militants," The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 20, 1983, p. 138).
 Jamahiriya Arab News Agency, Jan. 6, 1990.
 Tripoli Television, Mar. 20, 1990.
 Radio Damascus, Mar. 12, 1985.
 Damascus Television, Mar. 7, 1990.
 Radio Damascus, Mar. 8, 1989.
 Kayhan International, May 30, 1991.
 Ibid., May 8, 1990.
 Radio Tehran, Apr. 20, 1990.
 Ar-Ra'y al-`Amm, June 14, 1990.
 Sawt ash-Sha`b (Amman), Jan. 16, 1990.
 Amman Television, Apr. 25, 1990.
 As-Siyaha (Cairo), May 1991.
 Nayif al-Hadid, quoted in Jordan Times, Dec. 17, 1989.
 Muhsin D. Yusuf, "The Zionists and the Process of Defining the Borders of Palestine, 1915-23," Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 15 (1991): 39.
 Patrick Seale, "La Syrie et le processus de paix," Politique Etrangère, Winter 1992, p. 785.
 Reuters, Feb. 7, 1983.
 Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, June 9, 1992.
 Amman Television, Apr. 25, 1990.
 Iraqi News Agency, May 7, 1990.
 Radio Damascus, Mar. 8, 1989.
 Damascus Television, Mar. 2, 1986.
 Syrian Arab Republic Radio, Apr. 1, 1992.
 The Grand Mufti of Palestine [Hajj Amin al-Husayni], Memorandum Submitted to His Holiness Pope Paul VI, Beirut, Feb. 28, 1964.
 Al-Jumhuriya (Baghdad), Mar. 2, 1991.
 Iraqi News Agency, May 3, 1990.
 `Al Hamishmar, Jan. 17, 1989.
 Patrick Seale, "Madha Yurid Hafiz al-Asad?" Al-Majalla, July 23, 1982, p. 22.
 Radio Damascus, Mar. 8, 1990.
 The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 27, 1990. Greater Syria is in fact a serious proposition, as I have argued at length in Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
 Quoted in Larry Cohler, "Rethinking Syria," Tikkun, Sept./Oct. 1992, p. 33.
 An-Nahar al-`Arabi wa'd-Duwali, 1 July 1985. Quoted in Martin Kramer, Hezbollah's Vision of the West (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1989), p. 55.
 Radio Madrid, Feb. 26, 1991.
 These steps derive in part from Daniel Pipes, "Dealing with Middle Eastern Conspiracy Theories," Orbis 36 (1992): 41-56.
 Martin Sicker, The Making of a Pariah State: The Adventurist Politics of Muammar Qaddafi (New York: Prageger, 1987), pp. 61-66.
 Secretary of State James A. Baker, Jr., "Principles and Pragmatism: American Policy toward the Arab-Israeli Conflict," 22 May 1989.
 Ad-Dustur, Apr. 17, 1990.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Israel & Zionism | Daniel Pipes | March 1994 MEQ
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.