“On the same day the Lord made
A covenant with Abraham, saying:
To your descendants I have given this
Land, from the river of Egypt to to the
Great river, the River of Euphrates”
The Concept of Greater Israel (Part 1 of 3)
Noisy and threatening throngs march through our cities, carrying placards and chanting in an eerie rhythmic call-and-response pattern from “the River to Sea Palestine will be free.” For those with any kind of historical antenna and who want to listen, there is a much deeper reciprocal chant, whose faint echo can be detected if one listens carefully; it is an echo that has been heard through all the ages; it is not a chant, but rather an endlessly repeated divine promise—a promise that is far more resonant, sonorous and deeper than the noisome cacophony of shouts and slogans being mega-phonically broadcasted. This promise is freighted with profound historical meaning, which the world shutters to consider in its full implication. It is the chant calling for the restoration of Greater Israel. The faint signal is a promise that is part of the very fabric of Western, nay human civilization. This promise is inscribed indelibly on the minds and unconscious of humankind; it is the spectre of Greater Israel from the “River to the River,” that is from the river Euphrates to the river Nile and all of the land in between.
It is not a divine promise in the strict sense but a covenantal commitment, a legal claim and title to all of the lands between the two rivers, and it is a ‘deed’ that has been witnessed and ‘sealed’ by all of humankind. The granting of this title, immortally and in perpetuity to Abraham and his progeny though Isaac and Jacob is permanent and irrevocable. The granting of Abraham’s title is repeated and repeated, in different forms and language throughout the Pentateuch, and it functions accordingly as a defining leitmotif of the biblical books. We have all read the description of the land ‘title’ in Genesis 15:18 and elsewhere, and we all understand its meaning. It is a birthright and a land grant that all of the Abrahamic people recognize. It is embedded in all of the subsequent New Testamental books and in the Koran. There are no theological convolutions, argumentative gymnastics, or intellectual casuistry that can withdraw this claim. It is the most permanent and final title ever granted or will ever be granted to humankind. There is in fact no stronger claim to any piece of property in the world than the Jewish claim to the Holy Land, and the holy lands to their full extent—that is, from the “River to the River,” from the Euphrates to the Nile.
The expression Greater Israel in secular popular discourse has, however, come to mean very different things to different groups. To people in Israel and the diaspora today, the term “Greater Israel” has largely grown to convey the very restricted idea of extending Israel’s sovereignty to the West Bank (of the Jordan River), the Biblical Judea and Samaria, and possibly to lands acquired in war since 1948. These are the territories in the Sinai, Northern Israel, and the Golan. This is also how the idea of Greater Israel is largely understood by contemporary Palestinians.
Not all Arabs, nor all Zionists, both Jewish and Christian Zionists, understand the expression of Greater Israel in this sense, however. Many of us understand Greater Israel to mean exactly what is described in the Bible, which is to say, from the “Euphrates to the Nile,” or at the very least the reconstructed outlines and demarcations of the historical polities of King David, or King Solomon, or King Herod—all greatly exceeding the existing State of Israel in size and area.
The modern Zionist vision as defined by Theodore Herzl was indeterminate as far as geography was concerned. Herzl envisioned and delimited the Altneuland (Old-New Land of his Zionist novel) as encompassing most of modern Israel but extending to such northern Lebanese cities as Sidon, Tyre, and to such Golan heights towns as Quneitra. Herzl’s vision and that of some of the early 20th century Zionists also typically encompassed Judea, Samaria, and the Sinai Desert. It cannot be said that Herzl, to any degree, did a full geographic survey or thought about the ultimate boundaries of the soon to arise Jewish State. Extraordinarily demanding practical and immediate considerations largely absorbed Herzl and the other early Zionists. The difficulties were many and seemingly insurmountable. Herzl was not a Cecil Rhodes with a grande “Cape to Cairo vision”; he did not see himself as a colonialist figure despite the much cited letter that he wrote but never sent to Rhodes. Herzl saw the Jewish people as a people returning to their homeland. He had a conjoined vision of a great intellectual flourishing and efflorescence of culture. It was largely an ecumenical vision that prevailed with Herzl, free of 19th century racist or imperialist cant and rhetoric.
Herzl’s vision was also a very modern vision. Technologically speaking, it was considerably ahead of its time. He envisioned a land interconnected with fast elevated railways that extended across the Levant and the Ottoman Empire into Europe. It was to be a land with highways and modern ports and air ships, advanced industries and factories, highly productive farms, and cultural production of all kinds. Its cities would have grand European Opera Houses and theatres, and wide boulevards for promenading.
Herzl did not write about Greater Israel or what might emerge out of Israel given centuries of development and evolution. No modern Zionist writer that I am aware of has ever fully explored fictionally or novelistically the extension of the Jewish polity to its full biblical geographical dimensions, or contemplated a world-scaling Jewish empire emerging from the embryo of Modern Israel to encompass the entire Middle East and large parts of Africa and beyond.
Remarkably, it was not the Jews who mooted and fretted and contended with the political, strategic, military, economic and political implications of a Greater Israel. This was to be the fevered conspiratorially-minded obsession for generations of Arab politicians and leaders, and for countless Arab writers, academics, journalists, intellectuals, and Imams. And it is to this very day a preoccupation to a considerable extent. Israel and particularly the political concept of a Greater Israel, that is from the “River to the River,” is an ongoing and chronic obsession of the Arab world.
The Zionists’ ‘presumed’ plan to conquer the entire Middle East and to occupy the historical biblical lands was certainly a defining part of the paranoid mindset of the ‘exterminationist’ and Nazi-inclined Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseni. A venal and diabolical figure if there ever was one. It was the Mufti’s existential dread and fear of a Greater Israel that inspired his well-received mission, his near permanent Ambassadorship to Berlin, and his fateful meeting and subsequent friendship with Adolph Hitler and other leading Nazis, including Adolph Eichmann and Joseph Goebbels. The Mufti’s vision of an expansionist militaristic Zionist gorgon fell on the sympathetic ears of the Fuhrer. It was the same vision of an aggressive Zionist and internationally financed superpower set on world conquest and subjugation that obsessed the IraqI Nazi, Rashid Ali al Gaylani. He along with the Golden Square conspirators seized power in a Nazi coup in April 1941. It was the same spectre of sinister Zionist ambitions and a greater Israel that endlessly obsessed Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the great post-colonial figure of Arab Messianic Hope. It was an obsession that led directly to the debacle of the Six Day War for the Arabs. The Greater Israel spectre seeking territorial expansion was also prominently at the core of semi-Fascist National Socialist Baathist thinking; this fear of Zionist machinations drove the massive military rearmament of Hafez Assad of Syria and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
Derivatives of these views of imperial expansionist Israel still influence Basher al-Assad, as can be read in his statements and discerned from his contradictory and distorted political views. Muammar Gaddafi, the long-time strongman of Libya whose psychopathic regime was part of the phalanx of Israel’s adversaries for decades, would carry on multi-hour long rants at Arab summits on the subject of Israeli schemes of conquest. These were extended hysterical rants about Israel’s territorial ambitions that he believed extended across all of Libya and North Africa.
Fears of a nuclear-armed Israeli hegemonic power conquering all of the Middle East arise repeatedly in the discourse of the Ayatollahs and Iranian mullahs. The Egyptian religious figure Hasan al-Banna was beset by the vision of a devouring evil Israel, a vision that influences the Muslim Brotherhood and its 100-million strong followers. The apocalyptic doomsday scenario of a final struggle with Israel can be seen unmistakably in the massive underground fortifications of its militant offshoot Hamas in Gaza. Turkey’s authoritarian Recep Tayyip Erdogan slips into these same paranoid rants of an “expansionist greater Israel,” whenever flights of jingoistic rhetoric are possible. Even Mahmoud Abbas, the titular head of the Palestinian Authority, emerges from this same ideological and paranoid Nazi background, with his doctoral thesis, and its bizarre inversion of the historical reality, titled “Relationship Between Zionists and Nazis, 1933-45.”
For the Arab leaders and the major powers, it is not feasible that the current fight is about a slim sliver of sand and coastline that is Gaza and the checkered highlands of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). This is not what the Arabs fear. Rather it is the abiding and much deeper fear that the Zionists and their backers aspire to take over the entire Middle East, the Gulf oil fields, the Muslim holy cities and all of North Africa.
The areas of Judea and Samaria are seen by the Arabs, and by anyone else that looks at an atlas or map, as part of the contiguous State of Israel. No one in the Arab world believes that Israel would ever forsake or release these miniscule territories to the Palestinians and thereby leave itself entirely vulnerable as a tiny, ten kilometer wide coastal strip pushed hard up against the Mediterranean Sea. Such a state as the Arab rulers fully realize would have absolutely no strategic depth and would be vulnerable to attack from the highlands to the immediate east. The Arabs do not believe for a single moment that Israel would ever relinquish these integral areas, nor that this is how Zionists understand the concept of Israel, never mind Greater Israel. This is not a vision that accords with the Arab mind, with their well-honed martial instincts or their Koranic and religious understanding of Israel’s birthright, one that was granted to Abraham inviolable and in perpetuity.
(Part 2 of 3 to follow)