Recommendation: It’s kinda foundational
Where to read: Do not, I repeat DO NOT, read this in the Israeli cafe in Newtown I forgot was Israeli
Read with: This is a black coffee kind of book
In brief: The Iron Wall dovetails with Fortress Israel and, to be honest, covers a lot of the same ground. If you’re going to pick one, Fortress Israel is more engaging (if a little less careful). If you have issues with anger management, go with the slightly more sedate Shlaim.
“History may yet judge the Netanyahu years as a necessary evil: a time when the great majority of Israelis were forced to come to terms with a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and to abandon the dream of Greater Israel.”
It’s a poignantly optimistic ending, isn’t it. Twenty years later, after a second intifada, several bloody riots, the determined creation “facts on the ground” in the West Bank, the resurgence of Likud and a lot of death on both sides, it’s bloody heartbreaking.
It’s always interesting reading older texts (2000), particularly the ones which challenged historical orthodoxies. Shlaim did both with The Iron Wall. Worse, he was also dealing with one of the most politically charged topics conceivable.
Although the debate wasn’t entirely ground breaking, the battle between “old” and “new” Israeli historians kicked off in earnest in the late 1980s. An initial salvo of revisionist works reframing Israel as a broadly aggressive regional power with a nasty habit of committing provocative atrocities and assorted war crimes and a distinct lack of serious interest in diplomacy (summarising quite crudely). Unsurprisingly, it all got rather messy from that point on.
Already one of the leading lights in the revisionist camp, Shlaim nailed his colours to the mast in The Iron Wall in meticulous, robustly sourced fashion. Tyler occasionally refers to his materials – Shlaim is far more thorough. Clearly aware that the burden of proof tends to lie, rightly or wrongly, on the heterodox argument, he spends a lot of time setting out very clearly what documents or interviews underpin his conclusions. As some have pointed out, one of the major limitations on scholarship in the area is the lack of access to Arab archives so most of it comes from Israeli, British and American sources.
In terms of the substance of the argument, The Iron Wall is precisely what it says it is – it is a history of Israeli dealings with their Arab neighbours rather than the various Arab-Israeli conflicts. While this may sound like a distinction without a difference, Israeli attitudes, plans and connivances are set out in great detail while those of the PLO, Jordan, Egypt and Syria (mostly) are fairly roughly sketched. As a result, while Shlaim’s argument as it pertains to Israel is quite convincing, I would caution against unquestioning acceptance of the conclusions about culpability inherent in the thesis.
On a related note, can someone explain to me how the bloody hell Netanyahu became Prime Minister again after the absolute shit he pulled the first go round (though, to be fair, Australians can’t really throw stones).
Here are some additional resources:
Article on Shlaim and the revisionists from Teveth
The origin of the title