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Response to Review no. 153

Matthew Hughes’s review of my book ‘The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World’ is judicious and fair-minded. Hughes places this book in its proper context: the ongoing debate between the traditional Israeli historians and the ‘new historians’ or revisionist Israeli historians of whom I am one. He goes on to give an accurate summary of some of the main arguments of the book before offering his own comments and criticisms. I have no real problem with the review but I would like to take up some of the points made in it.

First, Hughes notes that Palestinian historians have attacked the ‘new historians’ for not going far enough in their analysis. This is true. Some Palestinian historians, like Ibrahim Abu Lughod and Nur Masalha, have welcomed our work but taken us to task for not being critical enough of Israel’s conduct in 1948. But other Palestinian scholars have stressed the value of our work. Edward Said, for example, has remarked that Arabs in general, and Palestinians in particular, recognize the ‘new history’ as honest and genuine history in contrast to the usual propaganda of the victors. He also expressed the hope that our example would spur Palestinian historians to re-examine critically the conduct of the Palestinianleadership in 1948. This is already happening, with Rashid Khalidi taking the lead. Our real debate is not with Palestinian historians but with orthodox Israeli historians like Shabtai Teveth, Anita Shapira, and Efraim Karsh.

Second, Hughes writes that I echo the view put forward in the BBC TV series ‘The Fifty Years War’ in seeing the origins of the Suez War in the dispute between the hard-liners led by David Ben-Gurion and the moderates led by Moshe Sharett. As it happens, I was one of the historical advisers for this series and it is the series which echoes my views! The series features some of the players in the secret dialogue between President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Moshe Sharett during the latter’s brief term as Prime Minister in 1953-1955. The chapter on ‘Attempts at Accommodation’ in this period is the most original chapter in the book. My argument is that Sharett’s policy of accommodation was undermined not by Nasser but by the hard-liners in the Israeli defence establishment. I also challenge the conventional notion that Suez was a defensive war by using Ben-Gurion’s diary to expose his territorial expansionism.

Third, Hughes argues that the June 1967 War does not fit easily into my overall thesis about Israel and the Arabs. ‘The events surrounding the 1967 war’, he writes, ‘show a more benign and scared Israel, and move attention away from the “iron wall” idea.’ My answer is that we need to focus not on the origins but on the aftermath of the 1967 war in order to see how it fits into the overall pattern of an expansionist and intransigent Israel. I accept that 1967, unlike Suez, was a defensive war and I portray Levi Eshkol as a moderate leader and as an advocate of peaceful coexistence with the Arabs based on the territorial status quo. But because of his hesitation and dithering on the eve of the war, Eshkol’s reputation was badly damaged. Moshe Dayan who, on 1 June 1967, joined the national unity government as Minister of Defence, got most of the glory for the military victory over the Arabs. He was a proponent of the iron wall, of dealing with the Arabs from a position of nassailable military superiority, and an opponent of territorial compromise. As Minister of Defence he became the emperor of the occupied territories, setting his face against withdrawal from the West Bank in the name of Greater Israel. In short, victory in the 1967 war tilted the internal balance of power in favour of the hard-liners and their resistance to diplomatic compromise paved the way to the October 1973 war. Or, to use Hughs’s apt summary of my arguments, ‘military conquest replaced political dialogue; strength had triumphed over compromise.’

Finally, Hughes suggests that Arab military power in the 1973 war, their ‘iron wall’ if you like, prompted the two sides to negotiate the first peace treaty in 1979 between Israel and Egypt. His conclusion is that perhaps the policy of military toughness was not entirely mistaken. My argument is not that the policy of military toughness was entirely mistaken but that it could not solve the conflict with the Arabs on its own. In the Prologue to the book I explain that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the original proponent of the strategy of the iron wall, envisaged two stages: first, building the iron wall and, second, once the Arab had given up hope of destroying Israel, negotiating with them. The mistake of some of Israel’s leaders, and especially the leaders of the Right, is that they regard Israel’s military superiority not as an asset in negotiating a final settlement of the conflict with the Palestinians but as an instrument for perpetuating Israel’s mastery over them. The politicians of the Right still believe that the only language the Arabs understand is force. But if the 50 years’ history covered in my book shows anything, it is that Israel can only have peace with the Arabs when it is prepared to meet them half-way.