Flowers in the Desert: Worldbuilding A Larger Israel

In “Scratch One Tassel”, I shared the latest concept I have for Tassel, including an Egyptian boyfriend, the worldbuilding context of a pharonist Egypt overseeing a Coptic language revival, and all that good stuff. One aspect I became interested in is how this alternate Egypt would interact with Israel. And yes, there is an Israel in this alternate timeline. Zionism was already a big deal even before the First World War, with Jewish settlers pouring into private lands acquired by the movement in Palestine, and without the decimation of the Holocaust (not to mention the wars and Stalinist purges in eastern Europe, where a disproportionate number of Jews lived) there are so many more Jewish people available to immigrate in.

The Ottomans may well allow unlimited Jewish immigration (certainly they might have been friendlier to it than the British, what with how driving a demographic wedge into the region would blunt Arab nationalist efforts at unification), supercharging Palestine’s transformation into the Jewish national home, and this together with the much greater Jewish population to work with and a much more favorable demographic situation relative to the Arabs (the less-developed countries like the Arab world develop rapidly in this timeline, which means lower birth rates courtesy of the demographic transition) means when the Ottoman Empire collapses, as it will in this timeline, Israel will quickly attain full independence, with borders stretching from the River to the Sea, the demographic situation being that of a comfortable Jewish supermajority across this region.

What will the Arab reaction be? In real life it was hostile to say the least, but in this timeline god knows. If there is an Arab-Israeli war, however, it’s entirely possible that Israel may prove victorious and make advances beyond Israel proper, much like in real life, only from a much better starting position and a much larger territory.

Should the Sinai have been Israeli?

One territory really stands out to me as a prime addition to alternate Israel: the Sinai. Israel occupied the region in real life from 1967 until it was handed over to Egypt and demilitarized under the auspices of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO). Which I’m rather familiar with because I had family who actually served in that force! Cool outfit. Anyway, it’s been credibly argued that Israel got the worse end of the Camp David Accords, considering Israel surrendered critical strategic depth for their country, an area equal to three times the size of Israel proper (not to mention proximity to the Suez Canal), and Egypt got a plethora of modern weaponry and training from the United States, greatly improving its military’s size and prowess relative to Israel’s. In real life Egypt has kept its word and been peaceable, but relations are still not exactly warm to say the least, and they could still change for the worse. A more hostile but ultimately less threatening Egypt may well have been a better situation for Israel long-term.

This becomes especially true when you consider that the Sinai was not just desert land useful only as raw distance to drive tanks over; the place has considerable oil reserves, which would be a tremendous asset to a country like Israel that otherwise lacks any. In addition, the Straits of Tiran, the gateway between the Gulf of Eilat and the Red Sea, are of tremendous strategic importance to Israeli trade and hence to its economy, and the Sinai forms their western shore; Israel securing this section of the coast is an effective guarantee they will be kept open. There’s also a surprisingly lucrative and important tourism industry in the Sinai; to this day Taba, for example, on the shore of the Red Sea in the south of the peninsula, is a very popular vacation destination for Israelis and people from further afield. There were also serious plans to expand the settlement of Yamit, on the Mediterranean coast in the peninsula’s north, into a city of 200,000 people, all Israeli settlers of course.

Israel if it retained permanent control of the Sinai (which it well might have had it simply not trusted Egypt to keep its word) would have heavily invested in and developed the place, which interestingly would have been a tremendous improvement from how it’s been treated as part of Egypt; as a peripheral area of little concern or importance. The Sinai’s people would likely have done much better as part of Israel than of Egypt.

But was this ever realistic? Israel blockades Gaza and occupies the West Bank, denying political rights to the native inhabitants of these territories, but there’s reason to think the Sinai might have been different. The primary reason the West Bank and Gaza aren’t just annexed and all its inhabitants granted Israeli citizenship is because there are so many Arab Muslims the Jewish population would be in serious danger of losing its majority in the resulting state, which defeats the point of Israeli statehood (hence the historical interest in the “two-state solution”, where the Arabs could be spun off into their own “State of Palestine”).

This isn’t an issue with the Sinai. Even today the peninsula has a population of just 600,000, as compared to Israel’s 7.1 million Jewish people. Annex the place and give the entire population citizenship, and Israel would drop from 73% to 69% Jewish. No big deal. With settlement the region could become as Jewish as huge swaths of Israel are now, with the ethnic minorities there given citizenship just like Arab Israelis, Druze Israelis, and the like are today, all without compromising Israel’s character as the Jewish state and giving the country far more strategic depth and some useful resources.

Indeed, so compelling are the advantages one has to wonder why Israel even bothered with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip when the Sinai was right there…

Anyway, the Sinai was not Ottoman territory as of World War I, but rather Egyptian, so alternate Israel is only taking it in the event of a war that Egypt participates in. Possible, but who knows whether that would have actually happened? It does open up the rather cool possibility of an Israeli Sinai, though.

The Temptation of the East Bank

Given that Israel in this timeline is starting out with control of the West Bank, if there’s war on Israel’s eastern flank as well — and given an Ottoman collapse this is even more likely than war with Egypt, since these areas were Ottoman regions populated by Arabs who might want Jewish lands for themselves — then might Israel take control of territories on the East Bank of the Jordan River?

Revisionist Zionists have long entertained the idea, which isn’t as crazy as it might seem; in ancient times when the Jews were still rooted in their ancestral homeland of Palestine, Jewish kingdoms and populations straddled both banks of the Jordan River, including the overwhelmingly Arab regions that comprise today’s Kingdom of Jordan (originally Transjordan, as in “beyond the Jordan [River]”). Of course during this time there were also relatively few Jews on what’s now Israel’s picturesque, well-developed, and overwhelmingly Jewish Mediterranean coast, but since when did little facts like that stop irredentists from having some fun? 🤪 

Indeed, strong enough was the Revisionist Zionist desire for all of Jordan that the Irgun, the military wing of the movement, actually had as part of its logo a map depicting the entire undivided British Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan, which is coterminous with what’s now Israel proper, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Kingdom of Jordan, all combined together.

With 11 million Arabs in Jordan as opposed to 7 million Jews in Israel that’s not going to be happening anytime soon, bar some hardcore ethnic cleansing or depriving the locals of political rights. Which would have been just fine with a great many Revisionists; a lot of them back in the 1930s were out-and-out fascists, admirers of Benito Mussolini.

The most interesting specimens were perhaps the “Canaanites”, who sought a modern progressive and nationalistic form of Zionism rooted in a Hebrew identity, based on the language and ancient heritage, while consciously casting off altogether the religious aspects that constituted Judaism. A key plank of this crowd’s platform was the belief that large sections of the Near East had constituted a Hebrew-speaking civilization in antiquity; uplifting the Arab Muslim population away from Islam and toward their authentic Hebrew heritage was considered key to their version of the Zionist nation-building project. Wild stuff, and adhered to by only a few dozen influential intellectuals and artists in real life, but for all we know there’s a timeline out there where it got real traction, and even saw success in a much more expansionistic version of Israel.

Do the Canaanites prevail in my timeline? Probably not. But the same sort of zeitgeist that inspires Egypt to turn to pharonism and emphasize its ancient language and heritage might lend this timeline’s version of Israel a vibe ever-so-slightly reminiscent of Canaanism.

Anyway, unlike in real life the demographic situation is such that an Israel that’s Jewish and democratic and also includes parts of or even the entirety of Transjordan can’t be ruled out. Perhaps only specific territories of historical significance directly adjacent to Israel and with light (and hence easily integrable) native populations would be annexed, whatever those would be.

A Jewish Midian?

A more promising and at once more out-there possibility, however, might be Midian. Yes, the same Midian that appears in the Book of Exodus; it’s a real place, and now forms the northwesternmost region of Saudi Arabia. A mountain range, the northern extension of the Hijaz Mountains, forms the eastern boundary of a rugged downslope that stretches to the Red Sea, directly adjacent to the Sinai! Like the Sinai, the place is of historical and biblical significance, and even today is only sparsely populated. The entire region of Tabuk put together, a somewhat broader area, only has a population of 930,000; hypothetically, like the Sinai, it could be annexed outright into Israel and settled by Jews who would form a demographic supermajority without much trouble. That would have been even more true in the past, before the Saudis made an effort to populate the region with Arabs.

Interestingly, the Saudi state as we know it today was only formed in the 1930s with the House of Saud’s conquest of Arabia, and previously Midian was part of the Kingdom of the Hejaz, run by the Sharif of Mecca (yes, the same one from “Lawrence of Arabia”). If the Hejaz breaks off from the Ottoman Empire during its collapse and joins an unsuccessful Arab war against Israel on its eastern flank, it’s entirely possible Israel will extract the transfer of Midian from the Hejaz to Israel.

Midian would be an interesting region; like the Sinai it’s a picturesque desert dominated by mountains and coast, and even today has quite a tourism industry. The Red Sea coast of this region is one of the premier recreational diving centers in the world, its waters full of coral reefs and thought to be absolutely beautiful by people the world over, the climate warm in winter, hot in summer, and perennially dry and sunny. In a world like the one I write in where there’s appetite for building out new cities and infrastructure and where nuclear desalination can be installed in a country’s sleep blindfolded for pennies on the dollar compared to real-life efforts, Midian’s coast is prime real estate.

It’s worth noting that control of Midian secures for Israel the other side of the Straits of Tiran from the Sinai, thus completely protecting them from adverse action by the Arabs. The only minor hiccup is that to be contiguous with Israel’s territory, the nearest part of which is in the Negev Desert near the city of Eilat, the city of Aqaba would have to be annexed, and that’s now part of Jordan, and is its only access point to the sea. An Israel that secures all these territories would leave Jordan, or whatever alternate Arab statelet stands in for it in this timeline, as a landlocked country, even more centered on Amman than it is in real life. Not a fatal blow, but it is a significant change to the country’s geostrategic position.

Zooming Out

So if Israel in this timeline successfully integrates all these territories, you end up with an Israel that’s much larger in land area but probably not hugely larger in population, an Israel that’s much more dominated by widely spread population centers in the southern desert, as opposed to denser and more compact concentrations of population centered on the northern Mediterranean coast of Tel Aviv. Incorporating what’s now Jordan lends it a nice compact shape, but with just Sinai and Midian plus Aqaba and perhaps a few territories on the East Bank Israel assumes a shape consisting of three distinct lobes: Palestine sticking out to the north, Sinai bulging out to the southwest, and Midian bulging out to the southeast.

A slightly weirdly shaped country, but not an implausible one, yet I’m not familiar with any alternate history trope that incorporates this rather interesting possibility. An even more interesting possibility might be if Jewish settlement becomes so extensive it pushed into Midian and the East Bank yet Israel is loathe to directly annex these territories for various reasons, leading to the establishment of multiple Jewish states in the region. A setup ripe for intrigue. Even more intrigue could come courtesy of Druze and Kurdish states successfully emerging in the post-Ottoman chaos, not to mention a Greater Armenia, Constantinople breaking off as an international zone, the Greeks wanting to get their own pieces of the pie in Asia Minor, Alawites emerging as an independent nation…I mean, the space really is underexplored, especially in its more outré yet still plausible configurations…

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