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Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 1-80

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Top Hat, Tuxedo and Cannons:
Israeli Foreign Policy From 1948 to 1956 as a Field of Study

Uri Bialer


Introduction to the Historiography

For numerous complex reasons Israel's foreign policy is a relatively recent field of historical study, so that a few historiographical comments are necessary to begin with. During the first years of statehood Israel retained many patterns of secrecy that had been characteristic of the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine during the British Mandate], when the use of code names was common practice. 1 Following independence, it was natural for Israel to continue its pre-state political behavior and there were several reasons for maintaining secrecy; political and institutional inertia were rife in the country; the same people remained active participants in public affairs before, and after 1948; and, most important, the young state was surrounded by hostile neighbors. The inherent tendency to secrecy with regard to internal political matters and, especially, to foreign affairs, was also expressed in the quality and quantity of documentary material available to the public in the state's archives. The government's obvious interest in avoiding publicity on certain sensitive aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the close cooperation it enjoyed with the press at the time, meant that the question of Palestinian refugees—for example—remained almost completely outside the public debate. Other areas of Israeli foreign policy, such as immigration, oil resources, and the procurement of arms, were hushed up for similar reasons. 2

During the first eight years of the state's existence the tendency to secrecy meant that little was written on issues of foreign policy, with the exception of dramatic events that the government could not keep classified, such as the War of Independence, the reparations from Germany issue, and the Sinai Campaign. Also, the relatively recent (late 1970s) introduction [End Page 1] into Israeli universities of the study of contemporary history and international relations—which also contributed to the dearth of academic writing on the subject—makes the study of Israeli foreign policy a fairly recent discipline. Further, Israel adopted the "thirty year" formula as an iron rule for declassifying state documents. In other words, only by the end of the 1970s was it possible to begin researching the War of Independence, based on Foreign Ministry material, and only in the early eighties was documentation available on the origins of the Reparations Agreement with Germany. Since other countries (the United States and Great Britain, for example) declassified their state documents (including those regarding Israel) according to the "thirty year" principle, the 1948-1956 period became available for historical-academic research only in the late 1980s. Considering the time element involved from the start of formal research and to the published results, it becomes obvious why most historical studies on which the present article is based were published during the 1990s. However, the basic difficulty surrounding the source material for research on Israeli foreign policy has not abated. While, in theory, Foreign Ministry documents dealing with this period have been opened to researchers, the declassification process is far from over. Major lacunae remain due to administrative difficulties (for example, all the material relating to the Finance Ministry between 1948 and 1956 is still classified), and serious gaps exist in government, Defense Ministry, and military records. Since a considerable amount of Israeli foreign policy is contained in the last two bodies, today's research suffers from the unavailability of material and can only reconstruct a fragmented and, possibly, distorted picture. Finally, the Israeli Foreign Ministry lacked a tradition of methodic internal reporting, a defect that is obvious in the quantity and quality of documents in the state archives. The aggregate result of these obstacles has meant that a significant number of areas in the history of Israel's foreign policy have not received systematic academic treatment. 3 Nevertheless, as will be demonstrated, the fruit of the extant research has provided a basis for the following analysis, and has laid a...


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