Shlaim: The Iron Wall

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VOL. 29

1999/2000

No. 4
P. 109
Recent Books
Shlaim: The Iron Wall
FULL TEXT

    Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder and leader of right-wing Revisionist Zionism, back in the 1920s wrote that, given Arab numbers, antagonism, and resistance, a Jewish state only could arise in Palestine behind an "iron wall," meaning a protective carapace of very sharp bayonets, either British or, preferably, Jewish. Only a powerful army could assure the emergence and continued existence of such a polity, until such time as the Arabs—in Palestine and around it—were persuaded that the Jewish state or its "iron wall" were too powerful to vanquish. Then, and only then, would they sit down and talk peace with the Israelis.
    The idea of the iron wall runs like a motif through Avi Shlaim's study of Israeli policy toward the Arab world since 1948; a secondary, and related motif, is the perennial clash that Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, discerns between hard-liners (or "activists") and soft-liners (or "moderates") in the Israeli decision-making elite. Shlaim seems to suggest that the hard-liners, like David Ben-Gurion, shared Jabotinsky's iron wall postulate while the moderates, like Moshe Sharett or Levi Eshkol, respectively Israel's second and third prime ministers, did not.
    Be that as it may, Shlaim, one of the leading "revisionist" (or "new") historians examining Israeli, Zionist, and Middle Eastern history, agrees with the core of Jabotinsky's analysis: Israel could not have arisen or continued to exist or, indeed, extracted (a grudging) peace from its neighbors without the services of that iron wall. Yet Shlaim's heart, clearly, is not with that philosophy's tough-minded, occasionally ruthless practitioners, Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and, yes, Yitzhak Rabin. Rather, in the course of this highly readable, thoroughly researched book, he time and again suggests that he prefers by far the more humane and moral visage and praxis of Sharett, Israel's first foreign minister (1948-56) and second prime minister (December 1953-55), who always but unsuccessfully was trying to rope the Arabs into negotiations and trying but failing to solve Israeli-Arab problems through diplomacy. A major milestone in the hard-liner-soft-liner dispute was in 1956, when Ben-Gurion at last succeeded in firing his rival and casting him out into the political wilderness, thus setting his stamp on future Israeli political-military behavior for at least two decades.
    Shlaim's real argument, I felt, was not actually with Jabotinsky or Ben-Gurion, who could have thought and done no other if they wanted to establish a Jewish state in the middle of a very rough and inhospitable neighborhood, but with their successors, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu who, having inherited a stable and secure Israel, bristling with conventional and atomic weaponry, failed to move on to the prescribed second stage of Jabotinsky's iron wall philosophy, the stage of negotiation and peace, even after the Arabs had acquiesced in Israel's existence and, in varying degrees, signalled their readiness to sign on the dotted line. (Shlaim, incidentally, nowhere spells out what sort of compromise, if any, he believes Jabotinsky would have been capable of reaching with the Palestinians. Would "autonomy," which he was among the first to have suggested for them, really have solved the problem any better, say, than it solved the problem for Begin and Shamir?)
    Shlaim offers us a comprehensive description and analysis of each of the episodes and junctures in which Israel and the Arabs politically and diplomatically interacted, sometimes with third-party mediation, and either missed or moved toward peace, starting with the contacts at the end of the 1948 war and ending with the repeated bungling and failures of the Netanyahu premiership (1996-99). He sets each episode in its international and local political context, basing himself on (some) archival material, memoirs, interviews, and secondary works. Inevitably, he leans more heavily on Israeli (and Western) materials than on Arab materials.
    Inevitably, in comprehensive books of this sort the author ends up leaving out a great deal of material he would have liked to keep in: much detail and evidence and, on occasion, whole chunks of history. Nonetheless, I felt that this volume could and should have told us something about the history of the PLO before the 1970s and could and should have explained the events of 1981 that in various ways led up to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon the following year. Earlier on, the reader is given no inkling of what the Anglo-French forces actually did during the Suez war (surely important to understanding their failure in that war). In general, the book sticks to political-diplomatic history and almost completely avoids the military aspects of the conflict. And, unfortunately, the rare references to military matters are quite often marred by mistakes (e.g., p. 100: Moshe Dayan's battalion, while contributing, did not actually "capture" Ramle and Lydda in 1948; on p. 236 Shlaim tells us that on 12 May 1967, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff Rabin threatened, in an interview, "to occupy Damascus and overthrow the Syrian regime"—whereas the source of the statement was in fact the director of IDF intelligence, Aharon Yariv, and he did not threaten to occupy Damascus; on p. 473 Shlaim speaks of Israel's "200 nuclear warheads and 47 atomic bombs"; on p. 476 Shlaim writes that the Temple Mount massacre of 1990 was sparked when the fanatical Jewish "Temple Mount Loyalists" "entered the area to hold public prayers"— whereas in fact the police kept them out of the compound; on p. 561 Shlaim calls both Israeli operations in Lebanon, in 1982 ["Peace for Galilee"] and 1996 ["Grapes of Wrath"], "invasions," whereas only the first was an invasion; etc.).
    The book reads well partly because Shlaim peppers his tale with well-written cameo portraits of his protagonists and a welter of anecdotes and stories, here and there inserting witticisms, his own or others'. The book begins (p. 3) with the wonderful, to-the-point story of the delegation of Viennese rabbis sent to scout out Palestine after the first Zionist congress in Basel in 1897. The fact-finders pithily cabled home: "The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man." Of Golda Meir, Israeli ambassador to the United States Abba Eban once said, "She chose to use only two hundred words although her vocabulary extended to five hundred" (p. 284). Of Shamir during the Gulf War of 1991, Shlaim writes: "he was [then] in his element. He presided with great aplomb and gravitas over the inaction of his country's legendary armed forces" (p. 482). Of the Madrid peace conference of 1991, Shlaim writes (p. 491) that the PLO accepted UN Resolution 242 and "They got on board the bus that James Baker told them would come only once, whereas Shamir continued to quibble over the fare, the powers of the driver, the rights of other passengers, the speed of the bus, the route, and the final destination" (p. 338).
    Shlaim has a tendency to be judgmental, and the book is a bit hard on Israel and Israelis and soft on Arabs. Many Israeli leaders—the hard-liners—earn or at least receive pejorative adjectives ("ignorant," "stubborn," "incorrigibly vain," "suspicious," "manipulative," "devious," "imperious," "overbearing," "duplicitous," "power-hungry"), whereas Arab leaders like Gamal `Abd al-Nasir and Hafiz al-Asad, who are at least equally deserving of any and all of these descriptions, are let off with a mere slap on the wrist, if that. King Hussein of Jordan, without a doubt a noble and benign figure, emerges almost saintlike—though he too easily could be reprimanded for failing to take any significant or bold steps toward peace during the 1960s and 1970s and perhaps even in the 1980s. Israel comes in for a great deal of criticism, much of it deserved. But is the following completely accurate or fair? "Israel's strategy of escalation on the Syrian front was probably the single most important factor in dragging the Middle East to war in June 1967" (p. 235). Most historians would say, rather, that it was Syria's repeated cries of "wolf," Russia's lies about Israeli troop concentrations, and Nasir's unprovoked, provocative, and unnecessary dispatch into Sinai of his armored divisions and his subsequent closure of the Straits of Tiran that were "the most important factors" in propelling the region into war in June 1967. But despite these flaws, Shlaim has given us the best, most comprehensive and generally fair-minded diplomatic history of the conflict between 1948 and 1999 yet published, and it ought to be required reading for anyone seriously interested in the conflict.


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Benny Morris teaches history at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba, Israel. His most recent book is Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).