The elegantly titled Iron Wall is a perfect example of how a necessary book on an important topic can be rendered inadequate by the author’s all-consuming bias. In the Preface to this immense volume, Avi Shlaim, a retired professor at Oxford and a fellow of the British Academy, describes his well-connected family as Iraqi “Arab” Jews from Baghdad who “always lived in harmony with our Muslim neighbors,” were “not mistreated,” and “certainly not pushed out.” He fails to mention the bloody outrage known as the Farhud, perpetrated in 1941 against Baghdad Jews. At the instigation of the notoriously pro-Nazi mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin Al-Husseini, upward of 180 (perhaps many more) Jews were brutally murdered, and as many as 900 Jewish homes were destroyed in one of the worst anti-Jewish pogroms in history.
While Shlaim accepts the legitimacy of Israel within the 1949 armistice Green line, he rejects the “Zionist colonial project beyond the 1967 borders,” laments that the Israeli armed forces, in which he served “loyally and proudly,” is now a “police force of a brutal colonial power,” and “still believe[s] that the main obstacle [to peace] is Israel, or rather the Zionist colonial project beyond the Green Line.” Shlaim’s opinion betrays a sophomoric approach to the question of Israel’s legitimacy.
Both Yasser Arafat’s and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and their Hamas and Islamic Jihad adversaries reject that legitimacy inside the pre-1967 Green Line, as well as within the “colonial” borders Shlaim detests. As Arafat, whom Shlaim portrays as a moderate, accommodating, honest leader by contrast with the duplicitous and belligerent Israeli leaders, proclaimed, “Acre before Gaza, Beersheba before Hebron. We recognize one thing, namely that the Palestinian flag will fly over Jaffa.” And as the controversial Israeli historian Benny Morris demonstrated decades ago, around 400 Arab villages were depopulated or destroyed within pre-1967 Israel as hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants were driven out by Israeli forces. No such calamities took place in the “colonial” West Bank and Gaza.
But Shlaim sets aside his anti-Zionist bias when describing the views of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who coined the term “iron wall” and whom he accurately characterizes as an exceptionally talented, original, powerful writer, devoted to Zionism as a distinctly Western movement:
He rejected the romantic view of the East and believed in the cultural superiority of Western civilization . . . The East, in his view, represented psychological passivity, social and cultural stagnation, and political despotism. Although the Jews originated in the East, they belonged to the West culturally, morally, and spiritually. Zionism was conceived by Jabotinsky not as the return of the Jews to their spiritual homeland but as an offshoot or implant of Western civilization in the East.
Shlaim is also correct in his account of Jabotinsky’s view of the Arabs and their future coexistence with the Jews, which forms the basis of his famous “On the Iron Wall” article. Like his purported ideological heirs in the Likud Party, Jabotinsky did not believe in a voluntary agreement between the Jews and the Arabs. But unlike the Likudniks, Jabotinsky was brutally candid in describing the Arabs as “indigenous people” who viewed the Zionists as “alien settlers.” The only solution was to “erect an iron wall of Jewish military force” until the Arabs give up hope of destroying the Jewish presence in Palestine.
The famous Israeli general Moshe Dayan demonstrated the same blend of sensitivity to the Arabs’ national feelings and aspirations and a realist pessimism regarding the possibility of a settlement with them. In Shlaim’s opinion, the first Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and most of the Labor Party’s military-political establishment shared the Jabotinsky-Dayan iron-wall doctrine. However, it is doubtful that Jabotinsky, a dyed-in-the-wool European right-wing liberal, would decide to dispossess hundreds of thousands of Arab civilians as Ben-Gurion did with his Plan D (Dalet) during the Israeli War of Independence.
Another strong point of the book is the author’s characterization of his bêtes noires from Likud—Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Shamir, and Benjamin Netanyahu—and of their party’s pernicious influence on U.S. foreign policy. Ariel Sharon is accurately shown by Shlaim to be a ruthless and devious man who fully deserved his nickname “Bulldozer.” As Israeli defense minister, Sharon violated the agreements reached between Begin and Anwar Sadat at Camp David by ordering his soldiers to destroy the Israeli-built town of Yamit in the Sinai, which was supposed to be handed over to Egypt. He then goaded the Begin government to invade Lebanon, with the acquiescence of the Reagan administration. American special envoy Philip Habib was so repelled by Sharon’s truculence that he told the defense minister, “You can’t go around invading countries just like that, spreading destruction and killing civilians.”
But the mind of the Israeli government was already set on invading Lebanon and, like the second Bush administration pleading its nonexistent casus belli of Saddam’s possession of WMDs, the Begin government used an assault by an anti-Arafat breakaway terrorist group on the Israeli ambassador in Britain to launch an attack on Arafat’s forces in Lebanon. While George W. Bush evoked fears of nuclear bombs going off in American cities, Begin asserted that “the alternative to fighting [in Lebanon] is Treblinka.” The initial goals of the Israeli invasion were rather limited: a 40-kilometer thrust into Lebanon and the avoidance of conflict with the Syrian army. But Sharon, with typical deviousness, made sure that Israel advanced to Beirut and engaged in battles with the Syrians.
A few chapters later, Shlaim accurately describes the tension between Israel and the first Bush administration during the Gulf War:
Likud leaders used the invasion [of Kuwait] to drive home their point that Iraq was a greater threat to Middle Eastern stability than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
America had given Israel aid totaling $77 billion and was continuing to subsidize the Jewish state to the tune of $3 billion a year. Never in the annals of human history had so few people owed so much to so many.
Shlaim is also right on the mark about the role of the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby during George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, describing the lobby as “want[ing] U.S. leaders to treat Israel as though it were the fifty-first state of the union”:
On Iraq there was remarkable ideological convergence between the neoconservatives of the Bush administration and the hard-liners in Sharon’s inner circle. All the neoconservatives were pro-Israeli and many of them were Jewish. All of them, regardless of religious affiliation, believed that America’s long-term interests in the Middle East coincided with Israel’s.
The Likud government and the powerful Israel lobby in the United States worked together to shape the Bush administration policy toward Iraq, Syria, and Iran as well as its grand design of replacing dictatorship with democracy.
Unfortunately, Avi Shlaim’s bias gets the better of him and utterly ruins the narrative when he moves on to recent events. The blame for the Second Intifada is laid exclusively on Israel. Shlaim ignores the fact that Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state in all of Gaza and 90 percent of the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem and control over parts of the Old City. Instead, he obfuscates and tries tortuously to convince the reader that Arafat was right to reject the offer. Shlaim lays the blame for the outbreak of hostilities on the insufficiency of Barak’s offer and Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount in September 2000. In fact, on the day before Sharon’s visit, an Israeli soldier was killed in a Palestinian bomb attack on a convoy near the Israeli settlement of Netzarim. This attack, conveniently ignored by Shlaim, and not the riots following Sharon’s visit, marked the start of the Second Intifada.
Finally, Avi Shlaim has not a single word to say about the jihadist nature of the Arab revolts against the British in Mandate Palestine and the Arab attack on Israel during her war of independence. And he passes over the more recent fact that Hamas and Islamic Jihad explicitly reject any kind of Jewish presence between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, and would only allow Jews whose families lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine to remain as dhimmis in an Islamist Palestinian state. Whatever strong points Shlaim’s book has in its earlier sections are negated by his nauseating advocacy on behalf of Hamas and his mendacious bias against Israel, a country he claims to love.
[The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, by Avi Shlaim (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 960 pp., $24.95]