Monday, September 11, 2006

Shlaim on Roads Not Taken

Reading Avi Shlaim’s Iron Wall can be a slog (not unlike Céline infra): you have to care an awful lot about Arab-Israeli to follow the intricate pathway through the moves and counter-moves of political and military episodes running back almost 60 years into the past. But if politics is indeed the slow boring of hard boards, this is exactly what you should do. And Shlaim sets it forth with as much clarity as you could hope for in a topic so dense.

The “Iron Wall” of the title is not just a literary conceit. Rather, it is the idea that

…the Palestinians were a nation and that they could not be expected to renounce voluntarily their right to national self-determination. It was therefore pointless … to hold a dialogue with the Palestinians; the Zionist program had to be executed unilaterally and by force.(598)

Shlaim argues that this posture dominated Israeli public life from (at least) independence in 1948 until (at least) “first the Egyptians, then the Palestinians, and then the Jordanians … recognized Israel’s invincibility” (599) and came to the negotiating table (he is writing in 1999). Shlaim has three noteworthy purposes: one is to write Israeli history unblinkingly, rather than merely as the story of David Ben-Gurion chopping down a cherry tree. A second is to show how this “Iron Wall” policy played itself out. The third is to suggest how there could have been another way—how the history of Israel can be read as a history of Roads Not Taken, of Missed Opportunities.

Reading the early chapters (I’m not finished with it yet), it is almost chilling how often one finds resonance with the current uproar—not neat parallels, but a spooky sort of echo against the current spirit of adventurousness, the sense that with a bit of enterprise we can effect change through the whole Middle East. Another theme—a favorite of mine—is the distinction between (or confusion of) the political and the military—Israel’s (and our own) knack for winning the battle and losing the war. Here is Shlaim on the end of the Suez Crisis in 1956:

The three political aims behind the Sinai Campaign were the overthrow of Nasser, the expansion of Israel’s borders, and the establishment of a new political order in the Middle East. None of these aims was realized. … Despite all the political miscalculations and failures of those who planned the Sinai Campaign, it is their version that became firmly entrenched in the mind of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. The popular perception of the 1956 war in Israel is that it was a defensive war, a just war, a brilliantly executed war, and a war that achieved nearly all of its objectives. (184-5)

Sound familiar?

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