That Most Eventful Year: 1979 in the Middle East
by Jeemes Akers
“Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Arabs can be elected to the parliament in a democratic election.”
“(There is only one possible solution to unrest in the Middle East), namely the annihilation and destruction of the Zionist state.”
During the Spring Semester 2015—time flies by so quickly—I taught my first course as visiting professor at the College of the Ozarks. I had convinced the Academic Dean that the upper-level students in the History Department would benefit from a good look at the “Modern History of the Middle East,” focusing on five specific events that happened in the region in 1979. The threads of almost every major geopolitical problem we face in the region, I argued to the Dean, can be traced back to these five events.
The Dean liked the idea and we built a course around it.
To be honest, the idea did not originate with me: I had scribbled down the notion from a background lecture during my time at the Agency with a team targeting Muslim extremist groups in the region. The lecturer emphasized the year, the five events and subsequent regional developments tracing back to these occurrences. I remember thinking at the time this would make a great topic for a future book or a semester-long college class.
Unfortunately, I have long forgotten the lecturer’s name.
At any rate, the logic still stands up (then as now), it seems to me, as we read today’s headlines: a recently concluded bitter exchange between Iran proxy Hamas and Israel (“the first drone war” as I explained in my recent Future of War II missive); continued unrest on the temple mount; Russia, Iran and Hezbollah’s continuing efforts to prop up the Bashar al-Asad regime in Syria; the drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan; the likely end of the Benjamin Netanyahu era in Israel after twelve years; and, Tehran’s continuing threats against U.S. and Saudi interests in the region.
Indeed, the Middle East still serves as one of the world’s most sensitive tinderboxes.
Despite the efforts of successive administrations—dating back to Obama’s—to disengage from the Middle East (ostensibly to better marshal our efforts against a rising China), we continue to get sucked back in, again and again, into the region’s religious, economic and political quagmire.
So, in case you were wondering, that’s why it matters.
What were the five events from 1979?
First, in March 1979, two arch enemies in the region—Israel and Egypt—signed a historic peace treaty (the first time an Arab country recognized Israel’s right to exist). The treaty followed twelve days of intense secret negotiations in mid-September of the previous year between then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The talks were brokered by U.S. President Jimmy Carter at Camp David, a presidential retreat in Maryland (just outside of Washington D.C.). The treaty between the two countries remains in effect (despite UN, PLO’s Yassir Arafat, and widespread Arab opposition at the time), making the agreement one of the political cornerstones of Middle East peace negotiations.1 Anwar Sadat paid a heavy price for his personal involvement in the negotiations and was assassinated on October 6, 1981, by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Teaching points: Israeli-Palestinian tensions; confrontations on the temple mount (holy, contested territory among three religions—Islam, Jew, and Christian);2 and, the growth of radical Islam in Egypt and the teachings of Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna.