A Review of Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall

Anyone who claims to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict is either badly mistaken or has spent several decades seriously studying the matter. I have not spent several decades of study on this topic, and so will not pretend to understand.

Judging by the monumental undertaking that is The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, however, Avi Shlaim, an Oxford emeritus professor of International Relations, has spent the requisite lifetime needed to speak with authority here. In this daunting 800+ page work, he attempts to chart out the entire history of Israel’s relationship with the Arab world in the service of a revisionist thesis.

Shlaim’s title refers to a 1923 essay highly influential in Revisionist Zionism, which argued for a two-step process in establishing the state of Israel. First, its author argued, Israel must establish an “iron wall” of military strength to safeguard the nation against the inevitable hostility of the Arab world. Then, once the Arab nations resigned themselves to an Israeli presence, the two sides could negotiate peace. Shlaim argues that Israel failed to follow through on the second step of the “iron wall” strategy, and that its leaders missed several critical opportunities to negotiate peace.

As I previously mentioned, I cannot judge the validity of Shlaim’s historical argument. What I can do is examine the generosity of his history, and on that count Shlaim passes with flying colors. His sketches are not always generous, and it’s clear he intends to defend the memory of some Israeli figures and tarnish that of others. At one point, he openly announces that he intends in the following chapters to critique Israel’s sainted (and hawkish) first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, while simultaneously resuscitating the reputation of his dovish successor Moshe Sharett. But his sketches are vivid and lifelike, and while he castigates the mistakes made by different prime ministers, at no point do any of those mistakes come up as implausible. Had Shlaim been a bad historian, he would have presented decisions with which he disagreed as moments of spontaneous evil, or simply failed to explain them altogether. But Shlaim is not a bad historian. There’s always some kind of explanation, and it’s usually a good one.

At least, that is, until the emergence of Israel’s current prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu. If The Iron Wall were Beowulf, Netanyahu would be its dragon: he appears late in the saga, with no character traits besides a love of murdering anyone in his path and the apparent goal of laying waste to the kingdom. There’s a significant moment a little over three quarters through the book, in which Shlaim proclaims that “history may ultimately judge” Netanyahu’s early years in a different light. This was a troubling line. Up until this point, it had seemed that The Iron Wall was history, and very good history at that. After Netanyahu’s entrance, that ceases to be the case.

The most recent two decades of Israeli history are depicted through the close-up lens of partisan politics, rather than the more distant lens of the historian. They feature inflammatory phrases such as a description of the Israelis as “colonial overlords” and the somewhat absurd claim that Israel fought Hamas in 2008 only because “[Israel] knew that its leadership, unlike that of Fatah, would stand firm in defense of the national rights of the Palestinian people.” These are not the arguments of a historian. As such, Shlaim’s coverage of the last two decades will be pleasant reading for those who share his political positions and intensely frustrating for those who do not. Particular notice must be given to a truly unnecessary tangent discussing the second Gulf War. Only the most tenuous of speculations can connect Israel directly to this war, but Shlaim does not hesitate to brand the US invasion as an extension of aggressive Zionist policy, in one of the least reasonable explanations for the war this journal has ever seen.

This shift in tone and bias is not entirely Shlaim’s fault. He was clearly handicapped in the last quarter of the book by a lack of resources. Accounts of international diplomacy are dependent on access to the diplomatic records, and neither Israel nor any of the Arab states will be opening up their archives regarding recent events anytime soon. As such, it’s impossible to write a comprehensive history of Israel’s most recent decades, because the information circulating among the administration at that time is not available to the public. Nevertheless, Shlaim chose to fill in the gaps with excessive speculation and opinion, and as such bears the responsibility for abandoning history for politics.

Does the shift to politics damage the book as history? Well, somewhat. Nevertheless, the book is still extraordinarily successful as a work of history, even if Shlaim stumbles a bit near the finish line. His grand conclusion that Israel abandoned the “iron wall” strategy right when it was about to succeed remains extremely effective.

Shlaim presents his thesis very cleverly. In the first half of the book, he gives the impression that he doesn’t support the strategy at all. In the second half, however, when all the Arab nations, even the Palestinians, are willing to negotiate with Israel along the two-state lines the Israelis originally wanted, it becomes clear that the strategy has played out as planned. It’s then, and only then, that Shlaim brings out his harshest criticisms for the hawks who lacked the foresight to emerge from behind the iron wall and negotiate.

Shlaim closes the book with a personal address to the reader. This is far and away the most moving and arresting part, no mean feat in a work that retains the reader’s attention for the entirety of modern Israeli history. He directly states his commitment to Palestinian rights and his belief that Israel’s denial of those rights is not only atrocious but also deeply harmful to its own national character.

In conclusion, this book is a magnificent, clear-sighted history of Israel’s relationship with its neighbors. It may have its own claims to make and axes to grind, and as such probably should not be the only book you read about the subject. That said, no collection of Israeli histories would be complete without The Iron Wall among them.