The Bush administration's first major policy statement on the Middle East was delivered by Secretary of State James Baker on May 22. For the most part, he used standard phrases and recalled traditional American policies. But there was one line at least that was original, even startlingly so. This was Baker's call to Israelis "to lay aside, once and for all, the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel."
Some Israelis responded with alarm at this phrase. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir called it "useless." So did some Americans; William Safire called it "inflammatory." But they and many others would have been more upset — indeed, they would be flabbergasted — if they knew the effect Baker's statement had on politicians in the Middle East.
Drawing the border
For Baker and the U.S. State Department, Greater Israel is a shorthand for the Likud Party's desire to retain control of territories captured in the June 1967 war, particularly the West Bank. But in the Arab world and many of the Muslim countries, it means something much grander: Not Israeli retention of the West Bank, but Israeli conquest of a huge area stretching from Egypt to Iran.
This startling definition of Greater Israel derives from God's covenant with Abraham, as described in the Bible. "To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the river Euphrates" (Genesis 15:18). Using this text as their proof, Middle Eastern politicians hostile to Israel spread the accusation of Israeli Nile-to-Euphrates expansionism widely and deeply. What is more, they apparently believed it, and many still do.
Egypt: Pres. Gamal Abdel Nasser argued tirelessly that Israelis were "working for the day when the Arab people between the Nile and the Euphrates will be a horde of refugees." He held that 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]."
Palestine Liberation Organization: Yassir Arafat tells anyone who will listen about Jerusalem's design for a Greater Israel. In September 1988, he explained to a Playboy interviewer that the two blue lines on the Israeli flag represent the Nile and Eupharates rivers, "and in between is Israel."
Iran: Since 1979, the threat of a Greater Israel has been a consistent theme of Iranian propaganda. Sometimes this alleged state is even mapped. Thus a 1985 Tehran reprint of that old calumny, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, includes as its frontispiece a map titled the "Dream of Zionism." The map purports to show Greater Israel's ideal boundaries. It shows the whole of inhabited Egypt within this Israel, 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.
Syria: Pres. Hafez al-Assad called on Arabs in March 1985 to mobilize "to prevent the establishment of Greater Israel." According to Patrick Seale, the Syrian regime's leading apologist in the West, Assad truly believes this expansion to be the long-term Israeli goal. Nor is the Syrian strongman alone; his prime minister 'Adb ar-Ra' uf al-Kasm, told a Turkish audience in early 1986 that Israelis intend to occupy everything "from the source of the Nile [in Ethiopia and Uganda] to the sources of the Euphrates [in central Anatolia] … Greater Israel includes Turkey, Iran, and Africa." (As quoted from Damascus Television, March 2, 1986)
Some go further yet (inspired perhaps by the Protocols) and perceive Greater Israel ultimately as "Zionist aspirations for world domination."
The claim for a Greater Israel often includes a canard about a Nile-to Euphrates map supposedly hanging in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, accompanied by the verse from Genesis. In variant on this, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas told al-Jazira on Jan. 17, 1982 that an inscription "The Land of Israel from the Euphrates to the Nile," is chiseled over the Knesset's entrance. Arabs who have toured the parliament and not seen the map sometime explain that it was removed in anticipation of their visit.
This rhetoric is not without impact. Ask an Arab on the street about these matters and it quickly becomes apparent that idea of Greater Israel is common coin. Of course, they say, the Zionists intend to subjugate the whole Middle East; the only debate is whether they aspire to this for their own sake or as proxy for the Western powers. Such notions, in turn, feed deep fears and cause many in the Middle East to assume that they must try to destroy Israel before Israel devours them.
The notion has also spread outside the Middle East. For example, in 1983, Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson of France called the division of Lebanon between Greater Syria and Greater Israel "our nightmare."
The American secretary of state's call on Israelis to lay aside "the unrealistic vision of a greater Israel" had two main effects. It provided authoritative confirmation of a deeply held and cherished fantasy; worse, in a strange way, it made the U.S. government a party to the political hallucinations of others.
Such a step can have real significance. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson omitted placing South Korea within the United States defense perimeter, the result was a three-year-long war. While such a price is not likely here, this misstep could have long-term consequences.
American diplomats will probably not be able to undo entirely the mischief caused by Secretary Baker's speech. Still, they should act quickly in private and in public, to explain that was meant by the reference to "Greater Israel."
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and editor of Orbis, its quarterly journal. His most recent book, The Long Shadow: Culture and Politics in the Middle East was recently published by Transaction.