- The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World
In the summer of 1993 I participated in a discussion on the Arab-Israeli peace process at the annual conference of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. A Labor-led government headed by Yitzhak Rabin, the most dovish in Israel’s history, had come to power the previous year with the avowed commitment to peace-making. Yet my co- panelist, Avi Shlaim of Oxford University, remained unimpressed. “Let me tell you an anecdote,” he said by way of underscoring his scepticism. “When asked for his reaction to the change of regime in Israel, an old Palestinian said: ‘Do you see my left shoe? That is Yitzhak Rabin. Do you see my right shoe? That is Yitzhak Shamir. Two Yitzhaks, two shoes, so what’s the difference?’”
For most people it would of course make a fundamental difference whether they put their right shoe on the left foot, and vice versa; indeed, it did not take long for this analogy to be wrong-footed by the Oslo Accords and the attendant peace process between Israel and its neighbours. But for Shlaim, there seems to be no real difference between left- and right-wing Israeli attitudes to the Arab world in general, and to the Palestinian people in particular.
This viewpoint is vividly illustrated by the title of his latest study of Israel’s policy towards the Arab world—The Iron Wall, borrowed from a 1923 article by Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, founding father of Revisionist Zionism, the antecedent of today’s Likud Party. In that article Jabotinsky viewed the creation of an unassailable Zionist power base—political, diplomatic, and military—as the only way to convince the Arabs to desist from their effort to obliterate the Jewish national cause and to accept a negotiated settlement based on mutual equality and respect. But then Shlaim misinter preted this broad concept of power as a narrow and unwarranted obsession with military force, (mis)attributing it to both right- and left-wing Zionist/Israeli policies throughout the twentieth century.
Shlaim reckons that Jabotinsky recognized Palestinian national rights, was categor ically opposed to their expulsion from Palestine, and was amenable to a negotiated settlement based on mutual respect of national and civilian rights once the latter had given up the hope of destroying Jewish nationalism. Yet this does not prevent him from portraying Zionist/Israeli history as a catalogue of recalcitrance, aggression, and undue obsession with military force. The Arabs’ outspoken commitment to the destruction of the Jewish national cause and their sustained violent attempts to achieve this goal from the early 1920s onwards are conveniently overlooked, as are Jewish attempts at peaceful coexistence. Instead, the reader comes out with a surrealistic impression of the conflict, where a small, fragile, and peace-loving Arab World is besieged by an aggressive and expansionist Jewish superpower. [End Page 132]
In a brief point in time, after the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, Shlaim sheds this indiscriminate approach by conceding that the differences between Labor and Likud are “quite profound, in the realms both of ideology and of practical policy” (p. 479). Yet he fails to trace these divergences to their real origins, well before the establishment of the State of Israel. Instead he views Labor and revisionist policies over this prolonged period as virtually identical, as if there is no difference between the former’s acceptance of the UN Partition Resolution of November 1947, with its expressed commitment to the creation of an Arab (i.e., Palestinian) state, and the latter’s rejection of this resolution; or between Labor’s adoption of the “land for peace” formula following the 1967 War and Likud’s commitment to the “Greater Israel” doctrine.
But the most incredible charge levelled against the Zionist movement is its alleged “non-recognition of a Palestinian national entity,” dating back to Theodore Herzl, founder of political Zionism. But then again, Shlaim does not fail to demolish his own (mis)claim. First he concedes that it would have been virtually impossible for Herzl to...