Shimon Peres once said that "small states have no foreign polices, but only defence policies". He was referring, of course, to small Israel.
Suspecting that its Arab neighbours intended to drive it into the big blue sea which lies to its west, Israel developed defence policies aimed at preventing such an unwelcome fate. A key element was the threat and the actual ude of military force if a regional state posed a serious threat to Israel's vital interests. Also central to Israel's defence policy was its view that none of its neighbours should be allowed to have nuclear weapons. To that end its bombers destroyed Iraq's Osiraq reactor on June 7 1981.
Israel's regional policies are strategic and Open Secrets: Israeli Nuclear and Foreign Policies is a critical analysis of these policies.
A retired professor of organic chemistry, not the "right" expertise to scrutinise strategic foreign policies, Israel Shahak is, nevertheless, well equipped for the task. He lives in Israel and speaks the language, which is essential - for his work is based on the Hebrew press. He has a sharp eye and a deep knowledge of the topic. Above all, Shahak has the courage to say what most Israelis do not dare to say and definitely do not want to hear.
The portrait of Israel which emerges from Open Secrets is of a small and aggressive state driven by the desire to achieve regional domination. "What I consider to be the real aims of the Israeli policies," says Shahak, "is establishing a hegemony over the entire Middle East." And, he adds, that includes stabilising the regimes "which do not disturb too much the Israeli progress toward that aim...". One of the methods Israel uses to achieve its domineering ambitions, he says, is using the influential Jewish lobby in the United States to put pressure on the US administration to side with Israel.
Shahak then uses the "hegemony theory" to explain Israel's uncompromising attitude towards Iran, which features a lot in his book. A state like Israel, says Shahak, which is "aspiring to hegemony in an area cannot tolerate other strong states in that area, (especially) Iran which may be attempting to break the Israeli monopoly of nuclear weapons in the Middle East".
Shahak is not the first, and will not be the last, to advance the theme that Israel's often forceful policies in the Middle East are aimed at achieving regional hegemony and domination. Arab spokesmen, in their war of words with Israel, have said as much for many years. Shahak, however, is not an Arab, but a knowledgeable insider who builds his argument carefully on the best information: what Israeli generals and respectable commentators say in the Hebrew press.
The weakness of Shahak's work is not in what it contains, which is superb, but in what it omits, which is the motives behind Israel's often forceful policies vis a vis its neighbours. The omission of this dimension is probably deliberate, for if Shahak were to present Israel's rationale as eloquently and sharply as he presents his "hegemony theory" then he would weaken the strength of his argument.
Fear, whether justified or (probably) unjustified - but still a great fear - is behind Israel's suspicious and often forceful policies towards its neighbours. For even after almost 50 years in the Middle East (1998 is Israel's 50th anniversary), many Israelis still fear that the very existence of their state is at stake and that Arab states wish to see them disappear under the waves of the Mediterranean.
Israel is alarmed that one state may become dominant and lead the entire region, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, in a crusade against the Jewish state. Iran seems the most likely to emerge as the hegemonic power with a nuclear bomb which, Israel fears, would be directed at Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Shahak is right in saying that Israel's foreign policy aim is stabilising regimes in the area. But this is not for the reason Shahak gives us, namely to stabilise regimes which "do not disturb too much the Israeli progress toward hegemony", but because of Israel's fear for its own security.
What, of course, comes to mind is Israel's intervention on the side of King Hussein in September 1970 when he attempted to get rid of the Palestinian organisations which almost ruined his kingdom. What followed was that Syria sent its tanks into north Jordan to fight alongside the Palestinians against the King. Hussein screamed for help and Israel, after coordinating its moves with the US, mobilised its own forces and sent four Phantoms to fly over the heads of the Syrians to signal to them that they should turn back home, which they actually did.
This Israeli intervention was not intended to "stabilise" Jordan so "it will not stop Israel from establishing hegemony in the area". Rather it was to ensure that Syrian forces did not take over Jordan and then take up positions along the Jordan river to open a new front against Israel.
This is not to say that Israel's activities in the Middle East are naive or always defensive. Of course, Israel wishes to influence and have its own imprint on the region, for after all this is the nature of international relations. But one has to distinguish between attempts to influence, in order to serve Israel's national interests, and attempts to establish hegemony over the entire region, which, according to Shahak, Israel attempts to do.
In Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Shahak points at the dangers of Israel being a Jewish state. Is there any cow which is holier than this one? What is inherent in the character of Israel as a Jewish state, says Shahak, is discrimination towards all non-Jews, be they Arabs or non-Arabs. Yet the real danger of Israel being a Jewish state is to do with its regional policies. And from this point of view Jewish History Jewish Religion is a fine complement to Open Secrets.
The more Israel becomes Jewish (a process which has been under way in Israel at least since 1967) and its policies are based on religious beliefs and on the historical rights of the Jews - the more aggressive it will become, argues Shahak. If Jewish Israel strives to restore the biblical borders as its present borders there will be bloodshed. Shahak gives us the "flavour" of the sort of places which will have to be annexed to the State of Israel to satisfy some of those who wish to restore the biblical borders: southern Sinai and a part of northern Egypt up to the environs of Cairo, the east of Jordan and large chunks of Saudi Arabia. Not only this but all of Kuwait and a part of Iraq south of the Euphrates, plus north of Lebanon and all of Syria together with a huge part of Turkey and Cyprus.
Even a pragmatic prime minister such as David Ben Gurion fell into the religious trap when after the 1956 war he pronounced in the Israeli parliament that the real reason for Israel going to war was "the restoration of the Kingdom of David and Solomon" to its biblical borders. Now if Ben Gurion the atheist found it necessary to rely on the bible to justify war and annexation of territory to Israel, then what would happen in a much more radical, Jewish-Israeli state in which religious beliefs became the guidance for policies? For, after all, Israel of the 1990s is much more orthodox than Israel of ten or 20 years ago, and it now seems that religious groups are becoming even more powerful and influential with government policies.
The lessons to be drawn from what Shahak tells us are self-evident. If the Israeli state is to become a better place and if unnecessary wars are to be avoided then Israelis, and indeed diasporic Jews, should have a good look at their Jewish history books to see that what is written there never turns into the manifesto of future Israeli governments.
Open Secrets and Jewish History, Jewish Religion are two remarkable, powerful and provocative studies offering a penetrating examination of Israeli strategic foreign policies and Jewish religion and history.
Ahron Bregman is an associate producer of the forthcoming BBC2 television series, Israel and the Arabs.
Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of 3,000 Years
Author - Israel Shahak
ISBN - 0 745 30818 X and 0 745 30819 8
Publisher - Pluto
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 128