Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
New York: W.W. Norton. 2000.

The Gist of the Book:

How can a historical revisionist write an even-handed interpretation of Israel's role in the conflict with Palestine? Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World is certainly a fascinating addition to this "new" historiographical approach. Shlaim's book is not only a critique of the use of the Iron Wall policy, but it is also reads as a narrative of the power struggle over time. While the book is written in order to be a factual account of history, one can get into the story and read it as though it is a story. The "story" may not have a definite beginning and end, but the characters and their interactions carry a linear tale of the struggle.

Shlaim says that his "aim in the present book is to offer a revisionist interpretation of Israel's policy towards the Arab world during the fifty years following the achievement of statehood". (p.xii) While it is a lofty goal, his recognition that "war is a striking example of the way in which history can be manipulated to serve nationalist ends" (p.185) places the author in a great position to make his argument. The author's style of writing takes the reader through the interpretation of the "Arab problem", and the story progresses until it is a "Palestinian problem" that the Israelis are dealing with.

The Iron Wall theory is one based in a need for security, no matter what. Right wing leaders want strength with security, and left wing leaders want peace with security. The vague language is in itself a problem; When can one know when one is ultimately secure? The author stresses that the Iron Wall policy, promulgated by Zeev Jabotinsky, has led to an offensive strategy which has made peace elusive between Palestine and Israel. I find that the author portrays the other right wing Israeli leaders as being directly influenced by Jabotinsky, but I am left wondering if it is really that simple.

Is the Iron Wall really one man's idea? I believe that the administrations felt the need for this policy for more reasons than Jabotinsky. He did coin the term, but the policy has evolved and the author makes a point to show this. I do credit the author for attempting to create a story which is not particularly pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, but he must leave out some things in order to do so.

On one hand, Shlaim is not just challenging historians' interpretations of the Israel conflict, but on the other hand, he is challenging Israel's myths about itself. Many Israelis would like to think that Israel was a peaceful settlement that was forced into battle by neighboring Arabs who didn't want to accept that Israel existed. Perhaps one of the most revealing aspects of the initial myths about settling Israel is a quote by two rabbis in a fact-finding mission. "The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man." This goes against any argument that Zionists created later to say that Israel was barren when they decided to move there.

Shlaim's organization of the book is immensely useful. The chronological listing of events prior to the Prologue is valuable in order to get a working idea of the situation before reading the book, if one is unfamiliar. Shlaim begins his book with his own interpretation of the early periods of Zionist thought, which began as a nationalist movement in Europe (the term "Zionist" being coined by Nathan Birnbaum in Vienna). The reader gets a great insight into the most influential thinkers of the movement, such as Theodor Herzl, Zeev Jabotinsky, David Ben-Gurion, Nathan Birnbaum, and others.

The author uses a varied selection of primary sources, such as items in the Israel State Archives, Britain's Public Record Office, and interviews with people such as King Hussein, Yitzak Rabin, and Shimon Peres, to delve into the problems that both sides had to deal with during their power struggle in British Palestine. However, for other arguments, he depends almost solely on secondary sources, most of them from Israel's state archives. He also states that he was not able to get anything out of the Israeli archives that referred to anything past 1960.

He does have other primary sources such as rare Arab documents which were translated into English. I imagine that there is some difficulty getting into Arab state archives, but there is not an even portrayal because of his usage of evidence. "Shlaim must offer proofs, not just assertions, that Israel's leaders were driven by this ideology. The evidence adduced is mostly circumstantial." (Hunter) He is able to expose Israel's underbelly, but the Arab side of the story remains mysterious. The main point here is that the reader must already know a great deal about the Israel/Palestine conflict in order to discern whether the author is using adequate evidence. Many have hailed his book as being wholly impartial, and others portray it as having quite a slant. If one is not entrenched in the situation, it is difficult to know which history is the "correct" history.

Shlaim's entire idea is to tear down the past interpretations and build a new one based on his evidence and the passage of time itself. It is quite difficult to write a factual portrayal of a problem which is still ongoing. He manages to discuss theory enough to not leave the entire book open-ended. However, I think his history would have greatly benefited from footnotes and a lot more citations of where he got his information, within the text. The pictures he includes are refreshing, though, and are useful in order to put a face on the characters in the text.

I believe that this book would do best if put into context by reading pieces such as The Zionist Idea by Arthur Hertzberg and The Origins of Arab Nationalism edited by Rashid Khalidi in order to juxtapose differing theories. It is difficult to read any piece on war and judge whether the author is telling the whole story or not. I do believe that Shlaim does a great job of creating a new interpretation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and sheds new light on what motives may have driven the need for the Iron Wall. However, the argument is far from foolproof, which is not entirely the author's fault. Even historians can't see the entire scope of a problem that is ongoing, and there is also the issue of obtaining primary (as well as secondary) sources from people who may be less than willing to give up the information.

A Deeper Analysis:

Shlaim begins in 1948 with the initial Israeli policies, and then continues on to Netanyahu and beyond. The author is very clear about his opinion of Israel's political policy, and how it has resulted in shaping the opinion of the world. Shlaim is of the opinion that the Iron Wall policy has done more harm than good, both in terms of Israel's relationship with Palestine, and with the Arab world as a whole.

However, his opinion is more complex than that. Benny Morris, another well known revisionist historian, points out in his review that "Shlaim agrees with the core of Zeev Jabotinsky's analysis: Israel could not have arisen or continued to exist...without the services of that iron wall ...Yet Shlaim's heart is clearly not with that philosophy's tough-minded, occasionally ruthless practitioners." Shlaim's overall opinion seems to be that the Iron Wall worked, but should have been abandoned when it seemed as though the Palestinians would be willing to make peace. He is critical of the leaders that he believed took the theory too far.

This begs the question, how could Shlaim know when it was a good time to back down from the Iron Wall strategy and start making peace? Israel seems to have wanted to be autonomouss, but at the same time needed the support of other nations in order to survive. Zeev Jabotinsky's theory is partially to blame for the problem, but also is partially lauded as being necessary for Israel to exist to begin with. Shlaim's approach is interesting in that there is some kind of preoccupation with placing blame, but at the same time he is pointing out that blame will not promote peace. He places much of the blame on Israeli leaders, but what does that accomplish?

David Ben-Gurion is painted as an awful person, and certain Arab leaders are promoted as being quite effective. I feel that he does a great job of explaining Palestine's constraints in terms of politics, and compares their "pragmatic" leadership to the very anti-Israel sentiments on the streets. However, he seems to downplay the violence committed by both sides, and his explanation that Palestinian terrorism is reactionary (to Israel's militarism) is over-simplified. I find that there are a few things missing in Shlaim's argument, and one of his strongest critics agrees. "Shlaim, incidentally, nowhere spells out what sort of compromise, if any, he believes Jabotinsky would have been capable of reaching with the Palestinians". (Morris)

Shlaim did the best he knew how with the information and experience he had, but I believe that there cannot be an entirely even-handed analysis of the conflict at this point. The author's goal was to re-write history, and he completed his goal successfully. However, until the conflict is over and both sides are willing to speak candidly, it will continue to be a difficult task to discern the true motives and influences on the leaders and participants in the Israeli/Palestinian* conflict.

*Palestinians live in Palestine. If there were no Palestine, the conflict would be rather one sided. So, I, and the author, and his reviewers, choose to acknowledge that there are a group of people who live in an area who have an issue with Israel. It happens to be called Palestine.

Works Cited:

Hughes, Matthew. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. (Review).
Institute of Historical Research; 2000, Review No. 153

Hunter, F. Robert. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. (Review).
American Historical Review; Oct 2002, Vol. 107 Issue 4, p 1329

Morris, Benny. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. (Review).
Journal of Palestine Studies; Autumn 2000, Vol. 29 No. 4., p 109

Shlaim, Avi. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
New York: W.W. Norton. 2000.