Before discussing the book itself, I need to quickly talk about the Israeli New Historians. These fellows set themselves the task of approaching their country's history the way historians are meant to – by looking at documents and the historical record to establish what had actually occurred in the past, rather than by simply regurgitating self-serving national myths. In a young country like Israel, with a carefully cultivated narrative around its founding, this kind of approach proved rather contentious, uncovering as it did events and counter-narratives that many would prefer to see forever buried.
Avi Shlaim is one of these New Historian people. His back academic work was the book "Collusion Across The Jordan", about the then largely obscured negotiations between the Israeli leaders and King Abdullah of Jordan around the time of the Israeli state's founding. "The Iron Wall" is a more general work, covering the relationship between the Israeli state and the Arab World; in this context, the Arab World includes both the various Arab states as well as the Palestinian people living inside what became Israel and in the territories it came to occupy. In time, the book covers the period from the foundation of the Zionist community in Palestine in the early 20th century to the election of Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999. At this stage of the game the book cries out for a second edition, given subsequent events and the rather naïve note of optimism on which the book ends.
Shlaim's book takes its title from an article written in 1923 by Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky was committed to the establishment of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine, but he acknowledged a key obstacle to the project – the Arab majority population in Palestine (and, the Arabs generally beyond the territory's borders). Other Zionist leaders had fudged the issue of what to do with these people and how the emerging Jewish state would deal with them. Jabotinsky called a spade a spade, and foresaw that as the Israeli project advanced the Arabs would increasingly resist their expropriation. Jabotinsky argued that attempts to conciliate or negotiate with the Arabs were pointless, at least initially, as their wish would be to destroy the Zionist colonies and re-establish their authority in the country. Jabotinsky proposed instead to erect a metaphorical "Iron Wall" of military might around the Zionist project. Eventually the Arabs would realise that this Iron Wall was unbreakable, that the Israelis could not be defeated, and then it would be possible for the Zionists to negotiate with them and reach some sort of accommodation (that would presumably see them permanently reduced to second class citizenship or some such status).
Jabotinsky remained an oppositional figure within Zionism, but Shlaim's assertion is that his Iron Wall doctrine became the established model on the Israeli side for dealing with the Arabs. Shlaim sees this in the tendency of the Israeli state for much of its history to make early resorts to force and to happily choose escalation over the defusing of tensions. Part of Shlaim's argument, though, is that successive Israeli leaders have had a less sophisticated understanding of the idea than Jabotinsky himself, in that they have failed to register that the Iron Wall has done its job and convinced the Arab World of Israeli permanence, in that the Israeli state has been slow to pick up on opportunities to pursue negotiations and non-violent options with its neighbours.
OK, so that is the theoretical underpinning of the book. What you actually get when you read it is an account of Arab-Israeli relations based on documentary research and interviews with many leading figures. The story is mostly told from the Israeli point of view, probably because of the difficulties an Israeli researcher (or indeed anyone) would have consulting archives or conducting serious research in most Arab states. It is basically an account of interstate politics in the Middle East, from an Israeli point of view. The Israeli point of view is one of perspective rather than sympathy, however, in that Shlaim is not an apologist for his government's actions. He does not gloss over situations where Israel appears to be in the wrong, and where he feels the situation warrants it he is happy to criticise Israeli actions (one criticism sometimes made of this book is that it is too critical of Israel).
The section of this book I found most interesting was the one dealing with Israel in the 1950s, perhaps because I am more familiar with the later periods. In this period, after Israel had won the war that led to its formation, the Israeli state is generally seen as being surrounded by enemies hell-bent on its destruction, but Shlaim argues that this perspective is somewhat illusory and one deliberately cultivated. He suggests that this period was one in which Israeli leaders, wedded to the militarist ideas of Jabotinsky, missed numerous opportunities to move Middle Eastern politics onto a more pacific course. He talks in particular about various back-door negotiation channels open in the early 1950s with Nasser and about how countries, ultimately buried by an Israeli raid against an Egyptian military position (in retaliation against an attack on Israelis by Palestinians). He also asserts that Jordanian and Syrian posturing against Israel was reactive, whereas Israel was always keen to escalate any encounters.
And so it goes. While the section on the 1950s was the most interesting to me, I reckon that anyone with a beginner's interest to the Middle East would find all of this book very interesting. One thing, though, that I would like to read is a more pro-Israel book, albeit one written subsequent to this and to the work of the New Historians – that is to say, a book which is still putting a pro-Israel slant on events, even if, unlike earlier books, it is not just ignoring or explaining away events that do not fit its narrative. Can anyone recommend me such a work?
The Iron Wall also features a fascinating photo of Kissinger leering at Leah Rabin.