The War of the Israeli Historians

/* I give you 3 short extracts but I highly recommend you read the whole text with the link provided at the end */

By Pr Avi Schlaim

For many years the standard Zionist account of the causes, character, and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict remained largely unchallenged outside the Arab world. The fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, however, was accompanied by the publication of four books by Israeli scholars who challenged the traditional historiography of the birth of the State of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war. The four books are Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Ilan Pappé’s Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-51, and my own Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine. Collectively the authors came to be called the Israeli revisionist, or new historians.

Two factors account for the emergence of the new historiography: the release f the official documents on 1948 by the government of Israel, and the change in the political climate in Israel in the aftermath of the Lebanon War of 1982. Israel adopted the British thirty-year rule for the review and declassification of foreign policy documents. Under this rule, a vast amount of primary source material was released for research in the Central Zionist Archives, the Israel State Archives, the Haganah Archive, the IDF Archive, the Labour Party Archive, and the Ben-Gurion Archive. Arab countries have nothing remotely resembling a thirty-year rule. Arab governments only give access to their records, if they give any access at all, in a limited, haphazard, and arbitrary manner. It is very much to Israel’s credit that it allows researchers access to its internal documents thereby making possible critical studies of its own conduct such as those written by the new historians.


Towards the end of 1999 another round began in the war of the Israeli historians with the publication of two books: Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 and my own The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Both books are wide in scope: the first traces the turbulent history of the conflict from its origins in the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century while the second examines Israel’s policy towards the Arab world during the first fifty years of statehood.

The title of my book requires a word of explanation. It refers to a strategy which was first formulated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism. In 1923 Jabotinsky published an article entitled ‘On the Iron Wall.’ He argued that it was naïve to expect Arab nationalists to welcome a Jewish state in Palestine. Negotiations with the Arabs in the early stages would be futile. The only way to realize the Zionist project was behind an iron wall of Jewish military strength. In other words, the Zionist project could only be realized unilaterally and by military force.

The crux of Jabotinsky’s strategy was thus to deal with the Arabs from a position of unassailable strength. But his article also incorporated a sophisticated theory of change – a change in Arab attitudes to a Jewish state. He envisaged two stages. The first stage was to build the iron wall. This was expected to compel the Arabs to abandon any hope of destroying the Jewish state. The shift towards moderation or realism on the Arab side was to be followed by stage II, negotiations – negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs about their status and national rights in Palestine.


The ideology underlying Oslo was the direct opposite of the ‘Iron Wall’ strategy, which had guided the policy of Israel’s leaders since the establishment of the state. Jabotinsky only stated the obvious when he claimed that the Arabs will never willingly accept the existence of a Jewish state in their midst, but that only an ‘Iron Wall’ of deterrence and military strength would lower their aspiration to destroy Israel.

Ms Livnat goes on to warn against ‘the false belief that preaching pacifism and abandoning some of Zionism’s national claims would be enough to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.’ The doctrine of the permanent conflict is stated even more forcefully in the conclusion:

”It is time for Israel to rebuild the ‘Iron Wall’ that will once again convince the Arabs that neither military threats nor terrorism will weaken Israel’s determination to protect the rights and freedom of the Jewish people. The ‘Iron Wall’, however, will not be rebuilt as long as Prime Minister Ehud Barak is in power.”


Ms Livnat’s summary of the strategy of the iron wall is so crude and simplistic that one is bound to wonder whether she ever read the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Had she read Jabotinsky’s work, she might have realised that he was not a proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict between the Zionists and the Palestinians but an advocate of negotiations from strength in order to end the conflict. Like other prominent members of her party, Ms Livnat treats the iron wall as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end – a satisfactory resolution of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. The policies she advocates can only lead to more violence and more bloodshed. As long as she, and people who think like her, remain in power, Jabotinsky’s strategy is unlikely to be carried to its logical conclusion. One of the obstacles to reconciliation through strength with the Palestinians is precisely the kind of over-reliance on military force and disdain for diplomacy that Ms Livnat exemplifies. In this respect, the new history is not part of the problem but part of the solution.”

To read the whole article: The War of the Israeli Historians
Simha Flapan’s book Summary
Simha Flapan’s book Review


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