As it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998, Israel could count many important successes. Its population, six million, was ten times that of 1948. One third of the world's Jews were now living in Israel, speaking the Hebrew language that had been confined to the liturgy when Zionism was born. In its central aim of providing the scattered Jews with a haven, instilling in them a sense of nationhood, and forging a modern nation-state, Zionism has been a brilliant success. These achievements are all the more remarkable against the background of the appalling tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the conflict with the Palestinians, and with the Arab world at large, casts a long shadow over Israel's history. Israel's relationship with the Arabs has been marked by war and uneasy peace. What was promulgated in the 1920s as an "Iron Wall" strategy - dealing with the Arabs from a position of unassailable strength - was intended by its architects to yield a further stage where Israel would be strong enough to negotiate a satisfactory settlement with the Palestinians and its other Arab neighbours. This Iron Wall has been constructed but the goal of comprehensive peace in the Middle East remains elusive. One of Avi Shlaim's aims is to explain how and why this is so. In this book, Shlaim places Israel's political and military actions under an uncompromising lens. He traces a pattern of policy from the goals of the early Zionists, through the wars that have marked much of Israeli history, to recent efforts to construct peace. This book draws on a great deal of new material which not only brings events alive, but also leads to fresh assessments and a better informed, more critical understanding of one of the world's most intense and intractable conflicts of modern times.
In 1897, under order of First Zionist Congress president Theodor Herzl, two Austrian rabbis traveled to Palestine to explore the possibility of locating a Jewish state there. "The bride is beautiful," the rabbis cabled Herzl, "but she is married to another man." That "other man" was the Palestinian Arab nation, long established in the region as a political entity. Undeterred, Herzl pressed on with his program of emigration, ignoring Palestine's existing occupants and creating in the process what came to be known as the "Arab question."
In this far-ranging history, Avi Shlaim analyzes that question in remarkable detail, tracing the shifting policies of Israel toward the Palestinians and the Arab world at large. Herzl, he writes, followed a policy that consciously sought to enlist the great powers--principally Britain and later the United States--while dismissing indigenous claims to sovereignty; after all, Herzl argued, "the Arab problem paled in significance compared with the Jewish problem because the Arabs had vast spaces outside Palestine, whereas for the Jews, who were being persecuted in Europe, Palestine constituted the only possible haven." This policy later changed to a stance of confrontation against the admittedly hostile surrounding Arab powers, especially Syria, Jordan, and Egypt; this militant stance was a source of controversy in the international community, and it also divided Israelis into hawk and dove factions. The intransigence of those hawks, Shlaim shows, served to alienate Israel and made it possible for the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Arab nationalist groups to enlist the support of the great powers that Herzl had long before courted. Both sides, in turn, had eventually to face the "historic compromise" that led to the present peace in the Middle East--a peace that, the author suggests, may not endure. --Gregory McNamee