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Deconstructing Post-Zionism Review Essay.

The Iron Wall: Israel and The Arab World, by Avi Shlaim. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2000. 670 pp. $22.75.

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict 1881-1999, by Benny Morris. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 751pp. $40.00.

The Transformation of Palestinian Politics From Revolution to State-Building, by Barry Rubin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. 288 pp. $29.95.

Does a substantial imbalance in military power provoke the outbreak of violence between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East? Or is it fear and a pervasive sense of insecurity which triggers the terrible assaults that have killed and wounded so many across the generations? Are battles driven primarily by ideological principle or by material interest? The twentieth century has not produced a monolithic story about the Arab-Israeli conflict--different political perspectives are so ingrained that the wars are as much justified as interpreted by the scholarly work. Although recent contributions to the literature on Arab-Israeli wars have become increasingly sophisticated particularly in mining newly opened archives, they have not yet developed a workable set of conceptual links explaining the relationship of culture to the decision to go to war and to the adherence to an unvarying stance of embattlement. Even when relationships between culture and politics are asserted, they are too fuzzy to explain how such ordinar y human activities as bearing children become incorporated into official calculations as security threats or how the standard political practice of forging alliances is often read by adversaries as subversive.

If we reflect upon these issues, we are impelled to ask a set of questions about the relationship of culture to politics. To what extent does the experience of prolonged conflict and war shape a community and society? Or is conflict, instead, the product of long-held values and norms? Does a struggle over land imbue people with a sense of national unity that is inevitably accompanied by particularly deep and uncompromising feelings of hostility? Does making peace, then, not only demand a modification of a myriad of official public policies but also require a rupture with all previously held traditional categories for understanding the world? By ignoring these questions, most scholarly studies of the Arab-Israeli conflict provide little sense of its meaning for the large numbers of people caught in its wake who live through and with this violence. Almost every textbook focuses on wars as watershed events and touchstones for the emergence of wide-ranging shifts in policy and on the decisions of elected officia ls and military leaders, as if personal views were formed without institutional constraints. Implicit in the conventional scholarship is the assumption that policies are made by individuals whose intentions are freely formed and are central to the unfolding of events.

As we have been told over and over again, however, the bitter, prolonged conflict between Arabs and Israelis is not simply over a contested land. The confrontation is interpreted as well as a matter of life and death, with land and power construed as the foundation for national survival. Murderous violence is triggered by visions of civilization drawn by the mosthumane of cultural norms and religious values. Conquest and defeat, possession and dispossession of the land are thus intense multi-cultural experiences which have yet to be subjected to closely reasoned analyses.

Arguably the most original research program within this body of literature has been a succession of studies, largely undertaken by Israeli scholars, that deal with the specifics of military and diplomatic developments during Israel's establishment and first years. These works share three basic components that significantly affect their utility for understanding this conflict. First, these works rely primarily on Zionist or Israeli archives and not on comparable primary source material from the Arab states. There are many reasons for this heavy reliance on Hebrew rather than Arabic documentation, but nonetheless the data available for assessment is necessarily limited and skewed. Second, this body of academic literature tends to frame the analysis it presents in essentially personalist terms. Despite their clear intention of moving away from the conventional interpretations, revisionist scholars end up by giving considerable weight to the rationales and motivations of individual leaders in explaining specific events. The views attributed to these leaders are often quite different from the stances traditionally associated with them. Leaders such as David Ben Gurion, described as moderate in mainstream books, are often portrayed by the revisionists as much more extreme, particularly on the question of territory and rights of Arabs. Third, because of Israel's regional dominance, there is a tendency to assume the country's policy-makers controlled the timing and shape of all military actions and often consciously and continuously drove state action in the direction of war.

More than a decade's worth of revisionist examinations have produced a clearer and more dynamic picture of particular aspects of Israel's founding and its early attempts to establish a credible military defense. But while all revisionist studies are predicated upon a rejection of the conventional wisdom, and have moved well beyond the familiar chronicles of particular events, they have yet to provide an alternate coherent narrative to replace the histories they deem inadequate and biased. If the conventional narratives reflect either an Israeli-Zionist or Palestinian Arab point of view, it is not yet clear what kind of story Israel's revisionists wish to construct.

Most Israelis regard their founding as heroic: courageous men and women fired by a sense of commitment to a full and free Jewish life risked everything to establish a Jewish state and protect it against attack. The tales of Israel's founding generation are among the central legends of contemporary Jewish history: Ben Gurion proclaiming independence in the midst of a civil war before a people facing an imminent attack by the armies of seven Arab states; the heroes and heroines of Israel's War of Independence holding their positions even as they watched almost all their comrades fall in battle; the people under siege in Jerusalem; the convoy drivers pushing their truckloads of food up a narrow winding roadway into a barrage of gunfire to feed Jerusalem's hungry population. The founding fathers and mothers of the state symbolize the extraordinary actions undertaken by ordinary people to create a Jewish state. But to Palestinian scholars, the cost in lives and material goods Jewish settlement and development exa cted from the Arab population constitutes not an epic drama but rather a horror story. Conscious of casualties of war and the defeats, mindful of a nation displaced from its land and homes, Palestinian historians read Israel's successes as deriving first from Arab failures and Western-imposed underdevelopment. Recently, revisionist academicians--Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim--whose earlier more highly focused research floats outside mainstream historiography, have produced what can only be described as magisterial books on the hundred years' war between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. But have they constructed a new paradigm that alters the fundamental insights of conventional scholarship?

Shlaim's book, The Iron Wall, advances the stronger, some might say, more tendentious claim that the wars, cycles of violence, failed diplomatic gambits, and even partially successful peace processes can all be reduced to a common strategic ploy adopted by Israeli political leaders and summarized by the doctrine of the "Iron Wall," an idea formulated in the 1920s by Vladimir Jabotinsky. At the time, Jabotinsky considered Zionist objectives too limited and tentative to create the necessary conditions in Palestine for the establishment of a Jewish state. According to Jabotinsky, conflicting Arab and Jewish political interests would only be resolved in favor of Zionist goals if Jews raised a strong army to insulate settlements and population from attack and convince Palestine's Arabs that they had no chance of ending the project of building a Jewish state. Only a strong Jewish military could convince Arabs to surrender their own national objectives and acknowledge the political tights of Jews to Palestine. Beca use they had not yet completed building Israel's iron wall, the country's first prime ministers, according to Shlaim, repeatedly ignored or dismissed peace overtures initiated by a variety of Arab heads of state. Until Israel's regional power was decisive and undeniable, presumably by the later 1970s, its leaders could not seriously and comfortably conclude full peace agreements with its Arab adversaries.

The thesis is intriguing but problematic. Judging by his public statements, Jabotinsky, himself, did not adhere to this view throughout his life. Nor is there any reason to believe that his argument claimed the attention, let alone loyalty, of Israel's chief policy-makers since the establishment of the state in 1948. But Shlaim is not interested in trying to verify the thesis with empirical data--he simply asserts that it explains the reasons for actions which culminated in waves of violence, periodic eruptions of full-scale war, and finally, measures adopted which promoted negotiations and a political resolution of the dispute. There is also little evidence to suggest that regional dominance has consistently encouraged diplomacy rather than war. The first peace treaty concluded with Egypt in 1979 followed a war without a clear and decisive victory for any of the participants. Moreover, if the iron wall necessitated substantial expansions of military power, then it is unclear why Israel's leaders should be f aulted -- as Shlaim repeatedly does--for failing to exploit opportunities for pursuing peace. Depending on the balance of power, overtures for peace, premature in time and circumstance, must surely and legitimately be read as traps. What Shlaim's way of conceptualizing the dispute's history lacks is an awareness of the many competing interests and views that together push a series of political decisions in a particular direction.

Shlaim's book ends up arguing contradictory themes. While claiming the relevance of the iron wall doctrine, Shlaim also insists that Israel's foreign policies have actually been dominated by politicians so committed to the principle of territorial acquisition as to defer unnecessarily and for many decades the possibility of concluding peace agreements. It is hard to dispute Shlaim's observations that the territory of the Jewish state increased significantly from the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947 to the borders controlled by Israel to 1949 and then again in the aftermath of the 1967 June War. But it is equally difficult to attribute all of these geographic changes to the intentions of Israel's political leaders. Shlaim is disdainful of Ben Gurion's statements proclaiming Israel's desire for peace with its Arab neighbors while he credits his musings on the possibility of altering the regional map. Ben Gurion, Shlaim insists, forged policies which escalated the levels of violence until large-scale military action became inevitable. Such policies, Shlaim repeatedly suggests, were the outcome of attitudes and intentions and not a response to changes in the global and regional balance of power. Shlaim makes this point emphatically and without any obvious corroboration in considering the impact of Jordanian King Abdullah's death.

Abdullah's assassination thus caused something of a change in Ben-Gurion's thinking. Until 1951 he had accepted the territorial status quo and done nothing to disturb it. Once Abdullah was removed, his own commitment to the status quo began to waver and he indulged in dreams of territorial expansion (p. 68).

Israel's governments, he suggests, have moved recklessly and irresponsibly to expand the domain of Jewish sovereignty and to rely on military power to extend the country's regional dominance. Even in agreeing to conclude a peace treaty with Egypt and withdraw troops and small settlements from the Sinai Peninsula, Israel's leaders, most particularly Menahem Begin, did so, according to one of Shlaim's formulations, in order to deepen control over the West Bank territories so sacred to Begin's vision of the historic rights of the Jewish people. But this explanation, as do others in his book, avoids relying on the very theme--the iron wall doctrine--Shlaim is purportedly advancing.

Indeed, Shlaim seems torn between writing a book with a consistent theme and rendering a judgment on Israel's political leaders. Shlaim is more contemptuous of Labor's policies during Israel's first two decades than he is of subsequent right-wing Likud actions because he sees the greater disjuncture between Labor's words and deeds. But the causes of wars between Israel and the Arab states cannot be reduced to the views of policy-makers most of whom lacked a coherent long-term political philosophy and agenda. Explaining the reasons for war and the pursuit of peace must take the regional and international contexts into fuller consideration and be evaluated in light of the conflicts and tensions erupting across different sectors of Israeli society. The insecurity of Israel's citizens, particularly those newly arrived immigrants living near the country's porous borders, pushed various governmental coalition into an increasingly aggressive military posture in the state's first years. This is not to deny the brutal ity of some of these military actions or to suggest that they did not escalate the level of violence at certain times. But a country whose legitimacy was challenged from without was also a state whose survival was questioned from within. Retaliatory raids, viewed as effective in strengthening the sense of security of Israel's citizens, derived as much from fear as from anger.

One of Shlaim's most fully developed examples of Israel's seeming intransigence and militarism is the 1956 Sinai War. Shlaim is correct in pointing out how Israel's military tactics escalated military activities along the country's border with Egypt. But the attack launched against Egypt was hardly a foregone conclusion of earlier raids. According to the careful research of Matti Golani in Israel in Search of a War, Ben Gurion held the real militants at bay for almost a year until firm air support could be secured from at least one of the Great Powers. And because the militants of 1956 became the peace proponents of the Camp David era, it is difficult to agree with Shlaim's argument that the "iron wall" ideology has consistently driven Israel's foreign policy-making.

Benny Morris, a well-respected Israeli scholar and an energetic critic of traditional Zionist historiography, has written a more authoritative and comprehensive study than that offered by Shlaim, but his book, too, ultimately fails to live up to its revisionist promises. Morris' earlier studies on Palestinian refugees and on border conflicts in Israel's first years of statehood earned praise for their reasonably meticulous assessment of complex data. Indeed, Morris is at his best in describing battles and in drawing closely reasoned, sometimes tentative conclusions, grounded in the reality of the times. Morris is at his worst when he generates claims about the secret long-term political agenda of Zionist and Israeli leaders. In Righteous Victims, Morris insists that Zionist leaders in the 1930s became convinced that only a massive "transfer" of the Arab population from Palestine to other Arab states would ensure the survival and viability of a Jewish state, and he argues that this principle guided decision-ma king throughout the days of British rule and well after Israel's establishment. In commenting on the reasons for the creation of masses of Palestinian refugees during the 1948-49 War, Morris writes, "The tone was set by Ben-Gurion himself in June 1938: 'I support the compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral'" (page 253). It is difficult to read Morris's descriptions of the Zionist views on "transfer" without thinking of ethnic cleansing.

The idea of an exchange of populations, first advanced by the Peel Commission in the midst of the Arab Revolt in 1936, became a part of an undisclosed Zionist consensus, according to Morris' reading of official memoranda, which subsequently accounts for the high number of expulsions of Arabs during Israel's many wars. The problem with Morris' view is that it is undercut by his own earlier research which persuasively argued that expulsions of Palestinian Arabs during the 1948--49 War resulted primarily from local decisions and from the highly particular circumstances of war in specific regions of the country. His assertion of a sustained, conscious program of transfer transformed into expulsion is simply not supported by the data-rich evidence which Morris, himself, has assembled.

Morris' earlier work also showed how statements must be understood by attending to audience, intention, and circumstance, which produces a more complex picture of decision-making than his current book accommodates. Now Morris is much more willing than in the past to suggest that decisions are the product of ideology and a direct translation of political dominance. So, while Morris provides a very sophisticated account of battle field strategies and tactics, he furnishes a rather simple chronicle of the consequences of Israel's wars: military superiority determined the outcome. Morris charges Israel with escalating local skirmishes into full-scale battles and driving arms races to include increasingly destructive weaponry. Notwithstanding such sweeping claims about Israel's military might, Morris does not challenge the legitimacy of the Zionist endeavor--this is a conflict with righteous victims on all sides. Morris, too, seems to be writing two books simultaneously--one that reflects the basic Zionist histori ographic assumptions and another which opposes them. At times, Morris seems to be arguing that Israel could have established and secured its sovereignty with fewer casualties and less violence. Perhaps, but Morris does not explain how that objective might have been achieved given his rather conventional presentation of the Arab political forces and organizations. On Arab politics, Morris follows the path of Zionist historiography. From his presentation, it is difficult to imagine how Israel, alone, could have constructed policies to serve both Jewish and Arab interests in Palestine. Consider his dismissive attitude toward Palestine Arab nationalism on the eve of war in 1948 which totally discounts the many peasant-based attacks against Zionism. "The 'nationalism' of the urban elite," Morris writes, "was shared little, if at all, by the urban poor and the peasantry" (page 253).

Although this pair of studies does not provide a new framework of analysis, they do suggest some worthwhile lessons for those interested in formulating a comprehensive approach attentive to the multi-cultural context of the Arab-Israeli dispute. First and foremost, both studies show that levels of regional conflict are related to domestically bred regime challenges, all of which must be confronted simultaneously. Second, this literature indicates the need to look carefully at both state institutions and political organizations involved in the conflict. They structure confrontation and often determine the level of violence.

With considerations such as these in mind, Barry Rubin examines the Palestine Authority and its potential for creating a stable, democratic state. Representing a population that is still widely dispersed, the Palestine Authority operates under the impact of Israeli regional dominance and within the constraints imposed by a fragile economy possessing a marginal resource base. Palestinians had to learn, as well, the hard lessons of compromise. Considering the implications of these issues for state-building, Rubin writes,

... the despair of many Palestinians over the nature of the emerging system of PA governance was completely understandable. Reality was bound to be disappointing, but for them the PA system was especially depressing. Over the long term, most of them had imagined that they would achieve a total victory over Israel, which would be followed by an ideal state and near-utopian society. After 1993, many at least expected more democracy, rapidly improving living standards, relatively little corruption, and swifter progress toward statehood. Such high, unfulfilled hopes were something they had in common with many state-building movements.... (p. 51)

Not surprisingly, internal political conflict often threatens to weaken the power of the ruling elite even as it undermines its policies. Given the many levels of danger, the Palestine Authority and its duly elected leadership have managed, according to Rubin, to forge reasonably stable state institutions even within a culture that has highly compromised democratic values. But as Rubin emphasizes, the Palestinian Authority has managed to avoid civil war and preserve a certain measure of pluralism in the society and polity, no small set of achievements considering the constraints imposed on their operations and options. In Rubin's words,

The tasks of political construction faced by the Palestinians were ... more difficult than those confronting new states in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere in the world. For the projected state of Palestine, one might say, existence preceded essence. The outbreak of war or breakdown of the peace process would signal the abortion, not birth pangs, of a new state. Indeed, the special paradox of the PA was that a determined struggle to obtain a state had to be waged both internally and externally while it simultaneously proved its moderation and stability (p. 3).

Rubin looks very carefully at the Palestinian political, religious, and secular opposition movements. While opposition groups generate all sorts of difficulties for Palestine Authority President, Yasir Arafat, they have not incited serious attacks against his preeminence. Political opponents of Arafat have occasionally altered some kinds of policy initiatives and moderated severe security decrees unleashed against persons accused of subversion and terrorism. But while Arafat may have occasionally and eventually had to cancel arrest orders, he has not had to confront a deeply rooted challenge to his regime. For these reasons, Rubin offers a cautiously optimistic assessment of the prospects for establishing a Palestinian state and, implicitly, for ultimately concluding a final peace agreement.

Neither military power nor political dominance determined, in an unmediated fashion, the course of the confrontation between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. But the very forces--political and cultural--of mediation which filtered and channeled the process of decision-making have yet to be the focus of sustained scholarly analysis. To understand the policy of making war or of pursuing peace in the Middle East, it is, therefore, still necessary to bring together data and a framework that connects social forces to international politics. Only from this kind of academic project can a coherent narrative that both replaces and goes beyond the familiar stories be constructed.

Implicit in the belief in a state as a means to physical and cultural survival is also a valuation of political power. But recognizing the importance of political power does not necessarily mean that Israelis or Palestinians understand exactly how to use it. Zionists reasoned that a state would empower its Jewish citizens and open up new and limitless possibilities for them and the world. Israel's rapid economic development and the range of its impressive cultural production seem to confirm Zionist rhetoric. But no state can be an agent of total change. If Israel's citizens agree on Zionist assumptions about the significance of a Jewish state, they also, by now, share the sobering experiences of the practical limits to this political vision. That experience ought to encourage flexibility and patience and provide both Israelis and Palestinians with the groundwork for establishing, if not a resolution of the entire conflict, at least a reasonably peaceful co-existence.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Divine, Donna Robinson
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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