Slayers of sacred myths

The Fifty Years War
May 15, 1998

The 50th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel is this year and there have been many tributes and critiques. This is the book of the BBC television series about the Arab-Israeli conflict screened in March and April. It does not aim at providing a comprehensive history of the conflict between Arabs and Jews. Instead, the book takes the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 as its starting point and thereafter concentrates on important events and watershed moments. Based primarily on interviews with participants, the authors claim to provide startling new insights into the conflict and into the efforts to secure peace in the Middle East. This is going too far: to my mind, their major contribution is that they help to demolish a number of myths and to bring already published information to a wider public via an entertaining and engaging writing style. Moreover, the book should be contextualised by more scholarly writing on the subject and the new material it provides needs to be tested against the documentary evidence.

Refreshingly, the authors are not in awe of the myths of either side and they often challenge conventional accounts of events. Following in the footsteps of Palestinian historians such as Walid Khalidi of Harvard University and Shairf Kana'ana of Bir Zeit University, they show that the massacre of Deir Yasin in 1948 was exaggerated by the Arab side. Rather than encourage resistance, this precipitated the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians into neighbouring Arab countries. They were never allowed to return to Israel and they remain at the core of the conflict and the peace process. More contentiously the authors also challenge the conventional wisdom about the 1967 war that Nasser was bluffing and that the Soviet Union was pushing for war. Based on the testimony of the Egyptian minister of war at the time (who was imprisoned and subsequently vanished only to be tracked down by Ahron Bregman and Jihan El-Tahri) the book claims that Nasser was eager to move against Israel, but delayed because of Soviet efforts to de-escalate the crisis.

In line with Israel's new historians (and Avi Shlaim in particular), the authors also target the Israeli myth of no alternative to war with the Arab states because the latter were determined to destroy Israel and refused to make peace. Elmore Jackson and others have written about how Israel and Egypt were engaged in secret negotiations in the spring of 1955.

Bregman and Tahri show that there had been earlier talks between the two sides in 1953-54. Based on interviews with the Israeli and Egyptian diplomats involved, they claim that the talks were undermined by Israeli hawks, who ordered punitive raids against Jordan and terrorist attacks inside Egypt. Later, drawing on a 1976 interview with Moshe Dayan that was not published - presumably for security reasons - until 1997 in an Israeli newspaper, the authors overturn previous accounts of the run-up to the 1967 war on the Syrian front by showing that Israel provoked Syria and not vice versa. In the interview Dayan admitted that Israel was responsible for at least 80 per cent of the clashes between Israel and Syria in the de-militarised zone between 1949 and 1967.

One of the most startling pieces of information comes when the authors seem to confirm reports in the Israeli press a few years ago by publishing excerpts from a secret conversation between King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli prime minister Golda Meir shortly before the 1973 war where the king warns of an impending Egyptian-Syrian attack. This news may enhance the King's position as a peacemaker in Israel and the "West", but one can only wonder about what impact it will have on Jordanian and other Arabs.

The authors' approach of interviewing participants works better in the more recent past - partly because the major players are still alive. Their account of the peace process and the run-up to it is particularly useful. They cover the 1987 Shimon Peres/King Hussein meetings in London and the often-forgotten efforts of Moshe Amirav to launch a Likud peace initiative in the same year. They provide a blow-by-blow account of what happened in Oslo in 1993, based on a mix of interviews and the published works of senior participants from both sides. The chapter on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations is especially helpful and shows how the talks of late 1995/early 1996 came agonisingly close to agreement. The book ends on a sombre note with hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu in power in Israel and peace still far away.

The fly-on-the-wall approach of the book, the terse writing style and the rapid scene shifts as the authors provide a many-sided account of key moments are reminiscent of the best work of the Sunday Times Insight team in the mid-1970s. It is clear, however, that much of the information that the authors provide is not as new as they claim, though they have done a good job in collating and presenting it. Other material in the book really does need more corroboration - for instance the testimony of the Egyptian minister of war. Memories of events that occurred some 30 years ago can be hazy and the players involved can have ulterior motives. What do the Russian archives reveal about these matters? Students and teachers will enjoy this book, but it should be used in courses with some caution and in conjunction with more detailed and scholarly work on the Arab-Israeli conflict by authors like Mark Tessler and Charles Smith.

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

The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs

Author - Ahron Bregman and Jihan El-Tahri
ISBN - 0 14 0268 8
Publisher - Penguin and BBC Books
Price - £7.99
Pages - 301

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