Freedom of information is one of the most fundamental human rights. But so is the right to live in security – and the two rights need to be balanced and reconciled. With that in mind, UK law statutes include the so-called ’30-year rule’, which compels Her Majesty’s Government to review and declassify secret documents upon the passing of three decades.
Amazingly (given the difference in the security situation between the two countries), Israel has the same rule. Which – let us remark in passing – has led certain researchers to claim that Israel emulated the UK in this respect. Avi Shlaim, for instance, writes that
“Israel adopted the British rule for the review and declassification of foreign policy documents.” [‘The Iron Wall’, Penguin Books 2000, Preface page xvi. ISBN 13:978-0-140-28870-4].
Ilan Pappé makes a similar claim in ‘The Israel/Palestine Question’ [Routledge 1999, p. 153. ISBN 0415169488].
The only problem with this theory is that the relevant Israeli law (The Archives Law) has been promulgated in 1955, i.e. prior to the British law (The Public Records Act, issued in 1958). Which may lead some historians to conclude that it’s the UK that adopted the Israeli rule; assuming, that is, that the two practices are related in the first place, and that ‘some historians’ are more interested in chronology than in ideology. Two big assumptions, admittedly!
Be that as it may, the point is that Israel’s foreign policy documents (including minutes of cabinet meetings, communications among governmental and parliamentary officials, etc. etc.) are declassified and made available to researchers upon the passing of 30 years. These documents complement others that are already available, including even the private diaries of former government officials (such as that of the country’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion). Needless to say, such unusual wealth of easily-accessible information is a true bonanza for researchers and history scholars. And indeed, through the years many have availed themselves of that brilliant research opportunity.
Among those who took advantage of it was a group of Israeli historians that came to be collectively known as ‘new’ or ‘revisionist historians’. It is a very eclectic group, comprising staunch Zionists like Benny Morris, alongside anti-Israel zealots like Ilan Pappé and ‘post-Zionists’ like Avi Shlaim and Tom Segev. But whatever the differences, they also have quite a few things in common.
True to the ‘revisionist’ moniker, the ‘new historians’ all see as their mission to disprove what they regard as ‘the official Israeli version’ of history, to ‘debunk its myths’. Don’t get me wrong: anything and everything can and should be challenged; and if found to be wrong, ‘official versions’ should be disproved. But for the ‘revisionist historians’, all too often the diagnosis of ‘wrong’ seems to be a starting point, rather than a conclusion. Time and again, their research appears to be less about extracting knowledge from facts and more about finding facts that fit the preconceived theory.
This should not come as a surprise: the ‘new historians’ tend to approach ‘history’ from a position of left-wing or extreme left-wing political activism (in Morris’s case, that initial leftism seems to have evaporated in time, leaving behind what one might describe as ideological confusion – if, that is, one is kindly predisposed).
Ilan Pappé is the most candid in that respect; in an interview he gave to Le Soir (Brussels, Nov. 29, 1999) he confessed:
“I admit that my ideology influences my historical writings […] Indeed the struggle is about ideology, not about facts. Who knows what facts are? We try to convince as many people as we can that our interpretation of the facts is the correct one, and we do it because of ideological reasons, not because we are truthseekers.”
For those unaware of Mr. Pappé’s ideology, it may be interesting to note here that the mentioned interview took place barely six months after his attempt (and failure) to get elected to Israel’s Parliament on the Communist Party list.
Avi Shlaim is slightly more subtle with regard to his ideological motivations. Nevertheless, in the preface to his book ‘The Iron Wall’, he declares:
“Like the British historian E.H.Carr, I believe that the main task of the historian is not to record but to evaluate”.
A political activist first and foremost, Edward Hallett Carr is remembered among other things for his ardent advocacy of appeasement towards Nazi Germany and later for his enthusiastic admiration for Soviet Union and Maoist China; Carr’s main claim to the title of ‘historian’ stems from authoring a 14-volume book about Soviet Union’s first 12 years of existence… Needless to add, he was also an acerbic critic of Israel.
Whether motivated by political ideology or not, the ‘revisionist’ stance has served the ‘new historians’ exceedingly well. A relatively humble lecturer in political science at the University of Haifa, Ilan Pappé’s obvious scholarship (or was it his obvious anti-Israel fervour?) has propelled him to the position of Professor at the University of Exeter and Director of that university’s European Centre for Palestine Studies. A Reader of Politics at the University of Reading, Avi Shlaim’s ‘revisionist’ activity got him headhunted by Oxford, where he was soon created an Emeritus Professor of International Relations. And that’s in addition to other ‘signs of appreciation’. In the words of Shlaim himself:
“My greatest debt is to the British Academy for awarding me a two-year research readership in 1995-1997 and for giving me a research grant. The readership freed me from my teaching and administrative duties at the University of Oxford, while the grant enabled me to travel, to visit archives, and to employ research assistants. Without the generous support of the British Academy, this book [‘The Iron Wall’] could not have been written.”
Pappé and Shlaim are feted darlings in anti-Israel circles – and not just in the academic ones. Both are frequently invited to speak at ‘Israel/Palestine debates’.
In this context, one must feel a bit of compassion for Benny Morris: from a strictly chronological and scholarly point of view, his work may claim priority over those of both Pappé and Shlaim; but his refusal to abjure the ‘mortal sin’ of Zionism made him ineligible for exalted positions such as professorship at the likes of Exeter or Oxford, let alone grants from the British Academy. He therefore has to contend with the decidedly more humble station of Professor of History at Israel’s University of the Negev. Prof. Morris’s 2010 invitation to speak at Cambridge was withdrawn when the University’s Islamic Society agitated against inviting such an ‘Islamophobic hate speaker’. Even as an ‘Islamophobic hate speaker’, however, Morris must be an abject failure; perhaps that is why the British media shows so little interest in his contributions. Meanwhile, The Independent recently gave Ilan Pappé ample space to denounce Israel as a “society inspired by visions of ethnic purity and supremacy”; while in The Guardian, Shlaim engaged in a moving defence of Hamas, which he declared “indeed guilty of terrorism but […] also a legitimate political actor”.
But let us concern ourselves less with who the ‘revisionist historians’ are and more with what they do – with their contribution (or lack thereof) to the science of history. For this case study, I have chosen Avi Shlaim’s book ‘The Iron Wall’, authored in 1999 and published by Penguin as paperback in 2000. The book is in many ways typical for the work of ‘revisionist historians’, although it is not the most outrageous example of that work.
In its author’s own words, the book aims to
“offer a revisionist interpretation of Israel’s policy towards the Arab world during the fifty years following the achievement of statehood”.
But then the author also writes:
“I should state at the outset that this is not a comprehensive history of the Arab-Israeli conflict but a study of Israel’s policy towards the Arab world. Consequently, the emphasis throughout is on Israel – on Israeli perceptions, Israeli attitudes, Israeli thinking, and Israeli behaviour in the conflict.”
Such limitation is ‘standard policy’ for ‘revisionist historians’. Shlaim attempts to ‘sell’ it as legitimate: the overall subject (‘the Arab-Israeli conflict’) is vast; hence, the prudent researcher defines a workable scope for himself. This allows him to disregard anything that falls outside the scope – without the risk of being accused of sloppiness or intellectual dishonesty; this is standard academic practice, isn’t it? Well, it is of course – provided however that the selected scope makes sense, that it enables insightful analysis aimed at producing better understanding of the subject. Had Shlaim defined his scope as ‘Israeli-Arab politics between 1948 and 1998’ (or even ‘between 1948 and 1950’), that would have been the case. But how can “Israel’s policy towards the Arab world” be understood, without looking at Arab world’s policy towards Israel?? That makes just as much sense as providing a commentary on a football match, by focusing exclusively on the actions of one team, while completely disregarding those of the other. Isn’t it rather obvious that “Israeli perceptions, Israeli attitudes, Israeli thinking, and Israeli behaviour” were – at least to some extent – triggered, generated or at the very least influenced by Arab perceptions, Arab attitudes, Arab thinking, and Arab behaviour? How can one be cogently and insightfully studied without researching the other?? Why, then, the ‘standard policy’ of ‘limiting the scope’ to Israel alone?
Partially, the answer is to be found in a type of pseudo-leftist (and actually crypto-racist) ideology which views ‘native’ populations (read: non-white people) as forever passive victims of ‘white colonialists’. In the Arab-Israeli context, a branch of this ideology tends to see the Arab-Israeli conflict as a kind of argument between wilful adults (Israelis) and innocent children (Arabs); the former are held to behave responsibly – the latter cannot be expected to. Therefore, the results of the argument, as well as ending it, are Israel’s exclusive responsibility. This infantilisation of Arabs allows misbehaviour from their part to be disregarded or excused; not so misbehaviour by Israelis who, as ‘adults in the relationship’, are held to a much more demanding standard.
The ideological reason is reinforced, however, by a more practical one: simply put, research of “Israel’s policy” is easy. It involves little more than reading documents freely offered by the State Archive, in a language familiar to the researcher. And, if one is a ‘good revisionist’ such as Shlaim, this can even be undertaken with the help of research assistants generously funded by British Academy grants. Researching the Arab side is, of course, much more difficult. As Prof. Shlaim explains in the Preface to his ‘Iron Wall’:
“Arab governments only open their records for research, if they open them at all, in a haphazard and arbitrary manner.”
They also tend to open such records only to ‘researchers’ who do (or rather write) what they are told.
Not that this makes research of ‘Arab policies, Arab perceptions, Arab attitudes, Arab thinking, and Arab behaviour’ impossible; it only makes it more difficult. Indeed, in the bibliography section of books written by other researchers (see for instance ‘Palestine Betrayed’ by Ephraim Karsh, or ‘The Shaping of the Modern Middle East’ by Bernard Lewis), one finds tens if not hundreds of Arab sources – from correspondence among Arab leaders to speeches, memoirs, official documents, transcripts of radio transmissions, etc. etc. But then, both Lewis and Karsh took the trouble to actually learn Arabic and search extensively for Arab sources; perhaps Avi Shlaim’s British Academy grant did not really cover such strenuous efforts… As it is, Shlaim’s Arab sources are notable only by their embarrassing absence. The book’s list of interviewees includes exactly four Arabs: three former Egyptian politicians and the late King of Jordan. The Egyptians were interviewed in 1981 and 1982; as for King Hussein, Shlaim met him in 1996.
Speaking about sources, there is another fact worth mentioning: given the ’30-year rule’ and since the main research for the book was completed, as we have seen, between 1994 and 1997, Shlaim only had access to official Israeli documents (his only serious primary source) up to the mid-1960s. But Shlaim’s book does not end with the mid-1960s; it continues to ‘analyse’” Israeli policies, Israeli perceptions, Israeli attitudes, Israeli thinking, and Israeli behaviour” up to and including 1999… What’s more, the transition between the two parts of the book (pre- and post-mid-1960s) is seamless and opaque to the unsuspecting reader. There is no signpost saying ’Reader Beware! Up to this point, what I wrote is based on documents; from here on, it will be based on… well, on my personal opinions!’
But, beyond all these rather fundamental flaws, what is it that ‘The Iron Wall’ says? The ‘myth’ that this revisionist book sets out to debunk is that of Israel’s desire for peace. To use Shlaim’s own words:
“Why was there no political settlement between Israel and its neighbours after the guns fell silent [i.e. after the armistice agreements of 1949]? Why did peace prove to be so elusive? […] The traditional Zionist answer to this question can be summed up in two words: Arab intransigence.”
Shlaim’s answer , however, is that it was actually Israeli intransigence – an intransigence that continues to this day (or at least to 1999, when the book was completed). Needless to say, from a commercial – if not scholarly – point of view, such claim makes the book much more interesting. As some journalists have long ago realised, sensationalism ‘sells’. And if it sells newspapers, why not books of ‘history’? After all, ‘Dog Bites Man’ is such a banal story! Whether true or not, ‘Man Bites Dog’ is interesting news.
But on what evidence is that new theory based? Says Shlaim:
“Evidence for the revisionist interpretation comes mainly from Israeli sources. The files from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, for example, burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with Israel from September 1948 on. The two key issues in dispute were refugees and borders.”
The statement above – which all but summarises the book’s ‘message’ – is the historiographical equivalent of a mine field: for the unsuspecting reader almost every word conceals treacherous pitfalls. To uncover the deceit, suffice to ‘dissect’ several of Shlaim’s ‘euphemisms’.
The “from September 1948” bit is crucial in this context: it ‘glosses over’ certain facts that, rather dishonestly, Shlaim chooses not to share with the readers. Why “from September 1948”? The UN Partition Resolution had been adopted by the General Assembly in November 1947. It proposed the partition of the British Mandate of Palestine into two independent states: a Jewish State and an Arab State. At that point, there were no refugees. If the Arab states wanted peace, all they needed to do was accept that Resolution. If dissatisfied with the proposed borders, they could even have accepted the principle of partition, subject to negotiations on the actual borders. There were sufficient precedents for such an approach, not in the least the Jewish Agency’s response to the 1937 Peel partition proposal.
But that is not what the Arab states did. They – every single member of the Arab League – rejected the principle of partition lock, stock and barrel; and vowed to oppose it, including by force. This is so well-documented that no one – not even Avi Shlaim – bothers to deny it; he simply chooses ‘not to focus’ on that issue.
What’s more, the Arab states’ rejection of UN’s Partition Resolution in November 1947 still did not close the door to negotiations and peaceful resolution, had those states desired such outcome. The concerted Arab attack on the Jewish State came only on May 15, 1948. Even then it was not too late. There were additional attempts at mediation, but they were all rejected by the Arab League states. In July 1948, they even rejected Count Bernadotte’s proposal, which abandoned the concept of partition in favour of a ‘union’, with the ‘Jewish member’ of that union awarded only limited sovereignty in a tiny portion of the territory.
What, then, caused the Arab position to change so radically – if indeed it did – between July and September 1948? Shlaim’s failure to analyse the reasons for such bizarre volte-face is a strange omission for someone who believes that “the main task of the historian is not to record but to evaluate”! Let us, then, try to fill that gap:
The full-fledged Arab military onslaught on Israel had begun on May 15, 1948. The Arab armies were (with the exception of the Arab Legion – the British-equipped and officered Transjordanian army) rather poorly armed, trained and led; but they were still regular armies – with artillery, tanks and airplanes. Facing them was, initially at least, a clandestine militia (the Haganah) equipped for and primarily experienced in civil war skirmishes. As a consequence, in that first phase of their invasion (May-June 1948), the Arab armies registered important successes. Advancing in two directions, the Egyptian army managed to reach positions 20 miles south of Tel Aviv, as well as on the outskirts of Jerusalem. By making contact with the Arab Legion, the Egyptians had succeeded in cutting the Jewish-controlled territory in two. For its part, the Arab Legion reached the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, interdicting Jewish traffic and thus blockading Jerusalem’s Jewish neighbourhoods. In the North, Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese forces had occupied strategic positions, threatening to cut off Eastern Galilee. But the IDF was gaining strength: weapons were being procured, additional recruits were being trained and in July 1948, when the Egyptian Army violated the truce, it encountered a much stronger adversary. In just ten days of fighting in July, IDF successfully checked the Arab offensive and pushed the enemy forces back. After ten days, a new ceasefire imposed by the UN stoped the IDF offensive, leaving the Arab forces still in control of large swathes of territory. But by September, their situation was considerably weakened. With long lines of supply and few reserves, the Arab armies were over-stretched and increasingly vulnerable to concentrated attacks by a better supplied and more mobile IDF. The Arab forces needed time to consolidate their gains and re-supply.
Was the sudden Arab interest in sending “peace feelers” to Israel “after September 1948” just a ploy to gain time? Ben Gurion certainly thought so – and his assessment looks more than reasonable, given the sequence of events.
Had Shlaim’s intention been truth-seeking, rather than revising “the traditional Zionist answer” he might have wished to “evaluate” how genuine the “Arab peace feelers” really were. That would have required, however, more than reading “files from the Israeli Foreign Ministry”; it would have necessitated researching ‘Arab policies, Arab perceptions, Arab attitudes, Arab thinking, and Arab behaviour’ – something that, as we have seen, Shlaim is neither equipped for, nor interested in. In fact, throughout the book Shlaim simply assumes – either with no evidence or against the evidence – any secret diplomatic contact coming from the Arab side to be a genuine peace offer, while viewing Israeli leaders’ public peace proposals to be nothing but ‘double-talk’.
This is the place to note that, when Shlaim writes “Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate” he actually refers to meetings conducted and/or messages conveyed under heavy veil of secrecy. But why were those “Arab peace feelers” so secret? Why do we have to learn about them, 30 years down the line, from declassified Israeli files – rather than from contemporaneous newspapers, or from the speeches of Arab leaders? Simply because for Arab politicians and diplomats any contact with Israelis was anathema – something that could at most be done under the blanket of utmost secrecy. Admitting to such contacts would – in their view – ‘legitimise’ Israel. But then, why would Israel give any credence to vague hints expressed in secret by people who in public vehemently denied its very legitimacy? In contrast, every single Israeli leader expressed readiness to negotiate, directly and with no preconditions, towards peace treaties. Yet Shlaim chooses to (mostly) ignore and (occasionally) discount Israel’s numerous public and unequivocal proposals, while building his ‘revisionist’ theory entirely on the few “feelers” that came from the Arab side. Referring to Golda Meir, for instance, Shlaim writes:
“Meir never tired of repeating that she was prepared to go anywhere at any time to meet any Arab leader who wanted to talk about peace. Given her expansionist policies, these statements had a distinctly hollow ring”.
Expansionist policies?? Golda Meir became Prime Minister in 1969, long after the Six Day War; she resigned in 1974. During her tenure, the territory controlled by Israel did not ‘expand’ one square inch; on the contrary, it decreased somewhat, as a result of armistice agreements concluded after the (Arab-initiated) Yom Kippur War.
To even more fully understand Shlaim’s systematic and outrageous double standards, let us analyse the first so-called “Arab peace feeler”. On September 23, 1948 a certain Kamal Riad, claiming to act as an emissary for King Farouk of Egypt, secretly met in Paris with an Israeli diplomat. According to Shlaim,
“Riad suggested Egypt’s de facto recognition of Israel in return for agreement to Egypt’s annexation of a large strip of territory in the Negev”
In passing, let us make clear that “de facto recognition” does not mean peace: as legal documents, peace treaties constitute actual, de jure recognition; clearly, what was on offer was not a peace treaty – but some form of armistice. The price Israel was required to pay for such temporary arrangement (assuming the offer was genuine) was what Shlaim rather deceitfully calls “agreement to Egypt’s annexation”. ‘Deceitfully’, I say, because the Negev had been awarded by the UN Partition Resolution to the Jewish State; most of that territory was at the time under Israeli control and included Israeli villages. It was not Israel’s “agreement” that Egypt’s monarch was purportedly seeking – it was Israel’s evacuation of a large part of its sovereign, legitimately held territory. Yet somehow Shlaim does not view Farouk’s demand (to annex territory he had no legal claim to) as evidence of “expansionist policies” imparting “a distinctly hollow ring” to his “peace feelers”!
Shlaim’s next “Arab peace feeler” was that of Syrian President Husni Zaim, in May 1949. According to Shlaim,
“He openly declared his ambition to be the first Arab leader to conclude a peace agreement with Israel and offered repeatedly to meet with Ben-Gurion to work together toward this end.”
There is only one problem with that idyllic description: Syria’s Army Chief of Staff Colonel Husni Al-Za’im (to use his correct name) became President in April 1949, after conducting a military coup d’etat which imprisoned the former President and suspended the Constitution. What’s more, the coup was sponsored by the CIA, which was interested in a ‘friendly government’ in Damascus – one that would approve the passage through Syria of Arabian American Oil Company’s Trans-Arabian Pipeline. Al-Za’im’s tenuous hold on power lasted all of 4 (four) months – in August 1949 he was in turn toppled and summarily executed by another military satrap. Shlaim somehow omits to inform his readers of these rather essential facts; instead, he manages to present the short ‘reign’ of this incompetent dictator as ‘yet another’ peace opportunity missed through Israel’s damnable intransigence.
And so Shlaim proceeds, picking facts that prop-up his theory – and sweeping everything else under the proverbial rug. He even manages to imply (not for the first time) that Israeli leaders ‘colluded’ to divide Palestine Mandate with Transjordan’s King Abdullah in 1947-1949. A very strange ‘collusion’, given that the battles between IDF and Abdullah’s Arab Legion were arguably the war’s bloodiest and most costly in human lives on both sides!
Needless to say, people unfamiliar with the historical facts (and who already may have an anti-Israel bias) easily fall victim to such misinformation. In fact, they tend to swallow such ‘alternative history’ hook, line and sinker. Take, for instance, the ‘Historical Background’ compiled by the British Methodist Church in 2010, as part of its justification for anti-Israel boycott. At times, the document haplessly reproduces Shlaim’s ‘Iron Wall’ theories:
“King Abdullah I of Jordan was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist for his suspected collusion with Israel. An offer of a full peace treaty with Israel by the Syrian leader Husni Zaim was rejected…”
Nowhere are Shlaim’s aberrant interpretations more blatant than when he examines the causes of the Palestinian Arabs’ plight.
As we have seen, the Egyptian army’s 1948 invasion was motivated by territorial expansionism, as well as internal and inter-Arab politics. It had little to do with ‘providing support’ for the Palestinian Arabs. And Egypt’s motivations for invasion were in no way singular; they were exhibited, in one form or another, by all participating Arab states. In the words of the prominent contemporary Arabist Elias Sasson:
“The Arab states’ official military intervention in Palestine […] stems not from concern for the fate of the Palestinian Arabs or opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in a partitioned Palestine, but from fear of a unilateral invasion by Transjordan that would conquer the country’s Arab areas and improve the prospects of the realization of [King Abdullah’s] Greater Syria scheme.” [Karsh, Efraim (2010-08-20). Palestine Betrayed (Kindle Locations 4345-4346). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.]
His opinion was shared by the Mandate’s High Commissioner, British General Sir Alan Cunningham. Both an anti-Semite and generally contemptuous of the Arabs, in this case Cunningham was, however, over-optimistic regarding the chances of inter-Arab accommodation. In a report he sent to Westminster in February 1948, he estimated that
“The most likely arrangement seems to be Eastern Galilee to Syria, Samaria and Hebron to Abdullah, and the South to Egypt, and it might well end in annexation on this pattern, the centre remain uncertain.” [Ibidem (Kindle Locations 4105-4107)]
Even Arab League’s Secretary General Abdel Rahman Azzam admitted to a British reporter that
“Abdullah was to swallow up the central hill regions of Palestine, with access to the Mediterranean at Gaza. The Egyptians would get the Negev. The Galilee would go to Syria, except that the coastal part as far as Acre would be added to the Lebanon if its inhabitants opted for it by a referendum (i.e. the inhabitants of the said coastal strip). In Jewish-controlled areas (including Haifa) the Jews would get some measure of autonomy.” [Ibidem (Kindle Locations 4108-4109)]
Were it not for that external aggression, the Palestinian Arabs would have been able to establish their own independent state in the territory allocated to the ‘Arab State’ by UN’s Partition Resolution.
Yet Shlaim manages not only to gloss over these well-documented facts, but to throw the responsibility, as usual, onto Israel:
“Israel […] succeeded in expelling all the Arab forces from Palestine with the exception of the Arab Legion, which remained in control of the West Bank. This sealed the fate of the UN plan for an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinians were left out in the cold. The name Palestine was erased from the map. […] It was a striking example of the unsentimental real-politik approach that had dictated Israel’s conduct throughout the first Arab-Israeli war.”
Well, what exactly was “a striking example of the unsentimental real-politik approach”?? The fact that Israel expelled the invading Arab forces? The fact that Israel did not expel the Arab Legion from what was supposed to be the Arab State? Or perhaps both?? Shlaim does not quite explain; but, whatever the details, one thing is sure: it’s Israel’s fault!
I do not know how many people bought Shlaim’s ‘Iron Wall’, but I do know that they wasted their money. Because, if one wants to read sensationalist contraptions uncomplicated by scholarly scruples, one can do so at significantly lower cost, by purchasing a tabloid.
As for ‘revisionist history’ – there is simply no such thing: there is of course history; and then there’s political activism. I have nothing against the latter – when it is honest and well-intentioned. But the ‘new historians’ are guilty of mislabelling the goods: they deliver ideology, when it says ‘history’ on the can…