A pursuit of power, not peace

The Iron Wall
August 3, 2001

"Conquerors, my son, consider as true history only what they themselves have fabricated," wrote the late Emile Habiby, one-time mayor of Nazareth. The conventional account of the history of modern Israel has enjoyed wide credibility for a long time. One aspect of this is that former foreign minister Abba Eban's charge against the Palestinians that "they never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity" still enjoys considerable support. This book redresses the balance and makes a strong case for directing this charge at Israel.

Avi Shlaim, professor of international relations at Oxford, is a prominent member of a group of Israeli academics called the "new historians" who have concentrated primarily on challenging conventional Israeli accounts of the 1948 war. The major contribution of this book is that while it covers this ground, it goes beyond previous work to challenge traditional views of Israeli policy towards the Arab world right to the present day.

The Iron Wall is above all an exercise in "myth busting" - with the myths lined up like targets and Shlaim nearly always scoring a bull's eye. The material on the war of 1948 will be familiar to those who know the work of the new historians. The conventional Israeli account is that the Arabs enjoyed numerical superiority in soldiers. Shlaim (and others before him) have shown that they did not. Traditional historians have claimed that all the Arabs were united in the objective of destroying Israel. In an equally monumental earlier work of revisionist history called Collusion across the Jordan , Shlaim showed that there had been secret negotiations and some agreement between Israel and Trans-Jordan and that the Arab states were disunited in 1948. A third myth that still has currency is that Israel sought to make peace from the beginning but was foiled by rejectionism on the Arab side. Shlaim shows that in 1948-49 and the 1950s and 1960s, Jordan, Syria and Egypt put out peace feelers that were rebuffed by Israel.

Other myths are contested or laid to rest. For instance, Moshe Sharett, acting prime minister and foreign minister in the 1950s is usually portrayed as weak and hesitant in Israel. Shlaim 5 argues that he was an independent and original thinker and that he was a serious alternative to the dominant and hardline school of Ben Gurion.

The standard account of the 1956 war is targeted as yet more propaganda of the victors. It is portrayed as a just, defensive war that was brilliantly executed and achieved nearly all of its objectives. However, the war failed to expand Israel's borders, overthrow Nasser or establish a new political order in the Middle East. And while it is said that the war gave Israel 11 years of peace, this was only because Nasser was working to change the balance of power in favour of the Arabs. Ultimately, in fact, the 1956 war deepened the conflict in the Middle East. Bringing the story up to date, Shlaim also busts the myth, which apparently had wide currency among American Jews, that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir was a tough bargainer who was genuinely interested in peace and ideally suited to negotiate with the Arabs.

As Israeli academic and writer Avishai Margalit put it, "Shamir is a two-dimensional man. One dimension is the length of the land of Israel, the second is its width... he will not give an inch." Shamir himself was quite frank in his autobiography that his objective was to display the politics of moderation but without conceding anything on the goal.

` , however, is not only about demolishing myths. Based on an in-depth interview with King Hussein (nicknamed "his royal shyness" by Shimon Peres), it provides the most comprehensive account of the king's meetings with Israeli leaders over the years. The king revealed that his first encounter with an Israeli leader happened as early as 1963 when he met prime minister Levi Eshkol in London. This was followed by meetings with Golda Meir and other senior figures on a fairly regular basis. The section in the book about the London agreement of April 1987 between King Hussein and Peres is particularly revealing. From the king's perspective, Peres did not deliver and this is part of the reason why the king preferred to work with Rabin.

The text is compelling narrative history enlivened with humour. Writing of the US-Israel relationship, Shlaim is in Churchillian mode with the comment that "never in the annals of human history had so few people owed so much to so many". Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, which involved 2,000 air raids, and 25,000 artillery shells against Hizbullah's estimated 300 full-time fighters "was like using a bulldozer to weed a garden". And in an aside that has some relevance at a time when Benyamin Netanyahu is in contention to lead the Likud and Israel once more, Shlaim says that "Bibi was not as bad as he seemed when he stood for election to the top post in Israeli politics on May 29 1996. He was much worse".

The book has already stimulated considerable debate. Palestinian critic and scholar Edward Said congrat-ulated Shlaim for at last producing "an unsentimental, demythologised history of Israel's deliberately provocative relationship with the Arabs".

Efraim Karsh, of King's College London, is prominent among those who have castigated the new historians in sometimes vitriolic terms. In a review of the book he accused Shlaim of inaccurate history and misinterpretation. Karsh charges him with ignoring the unremitting hostility of Arabs to the Jewish state and to Jews as a whole.

It is true that the book is strongly critical and judgmental about the Israeli side and that it rarely touches on the experience, motivations and perspectives of other parties, including the Palestinians and the Arabs. But perhaps this is to be expected given the focus of the book. It is worth noting that Palestinian academics such as Yezid Sayegh are producing revisionist accounts of Palestinian history.

This division of labour appears appropriate in histories that have been riven by conflict and seems to reflect a desire to move away from dogma and the language of confrontation. Against this or any other background, Shlaim's book is a major work of scholarship and (as he himself might have said) is likely to be the mother of all books on the subject for some time to come.

Paul Lalor is lecturer in contemporary Arab studies, University of Edinburgh.

The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

Author - Avi Shlaim
ISBN - 0 713 99410 X and 014 028870 8
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00 and £10.99
Pages - 1,670

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