The War of the Israeli Historians

Avi Shlaim

Annales, 59:1, January-February 2004, 161-67.

‘A nation’, said the French philosopher Ernest Renan, ‘is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours.’ Throughout the ages, the use of myths about the past has been a potent instrument of forging a nation. The Zionist movement, the forerunner of the State of Israel, was one of the most successful public relations exercises of the twentieth century. Yet this movement was not unique in propagating a simplified and varnished version of the past in the process of promoting its nationalist agenda. On the contrary, like all nationalist versions of history, the standard Zionist version of the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948 and of its fifty years’ war with its Arab neighbours, was selective, simplistic, and self-serving. This version of history served a dual function in instilling a sense of nationhood in Jews from various countries of origin and in enlisting international sympathy and support for the fledgling State of Israel. The one cause it emphatically did not serve is that of mutual understanding and reconciliation between Jews and the Arabs.

The last decade has witnessed slow and halting progress towards peace between Israel and its traditional enemies but it has also witnessed the emergence of a new kind of war, the war of the Israeli historians. This war is between the traditional Israeli historians and the ‘new historians’ who started to challenge the Zionist rendition of the birth of Israel and of the subsequent fifty years of conflict and confrontation. The work of the ‘new historians’ has already had a significant impact on popular perceptions of the historical roots of the conflict. And it may also turn out to have a part to play in breaking down the remaining psychological barriers on the road towards comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

‘Conquerors, my son, consider as true history only what they themselves have fabricated.’ Thus remarked the old Arab headmaster to young Saeed on his return to Haifa in the summer of 1948 in Emile Habiby’s tragicomic novel The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-fated Pessoptimist. The headmaster spoke about the Israelis more in sorrow than in anger: ‘It is true they did demolish those villages ... and did evict their inhabitants. But, my son, they are far more merciful than the conquerors our forefathers had years before.’

Most Israelis would be outraged by the suggestion that they are conquerors, yet this is how they are perceived by the Palestinians. But the point of the quote is that there can be no agreement on what actually happened in 1948; each side subscribes to a different version of events. The Palestinians regard Israelis as the conquerors and themselves as the true victims of the first Arab-Israeli war which they call al-Nakba or the disaster. Palestinian historiography reflects these perceptions. The Israelis, on the other hand, whether conquerors or not, were the indisputable victors in the 1948 war which they call the War of Independence. Because they were the victors, among other reasons, they were able to propagate more effectively than their opponents their version of this fateful war. History, in a sense, is the propaganda of the victors.

The conventional Zionist account of the 1948 War goes roughly as follows. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine came to a head following the passage, on 29 November 1947, of the United Nations partition resolution which called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews accepted the UN plan despite the painful sacrifices it entailed but the Palestinians, the neighbouring Arab states, and the Arab League rejected it. Great Britain did everything in its power towards the end of the Palestine Mandate to frustrate the establishment of the Jewish state envisaged in the UN plan. With the expiry of the Mandate and the proclamation of the State of Israel, five Arab states sent their armies into Palestine with the firm intention of strangling the Jewish state at birth. The subsequent struggle was an unequal one between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath. The infant Jewish state fought a desperate, heroic, and ultimately successful battle for survival against overwhelming odds. During the war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to the neighbouring Arab states, mainly in response to orders from their leaders and despite Jewish pleas to stay and demonstrate that peaceful co-existence was possible. After the war, the story continues, Israeli leaders sought peace with all their heart and all their might but there was no one to talk to on the other side. Arab intransigence was alone responsible for the political deadlock which was not broken until President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem thirty years later.

For many years the standard Zionist account of the causes, character, and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict remained largely unchallenged outside the Arab world. The fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel, however, was accompanied by the publication of four books by Israeli scholars who challenged the traditional historiography of the birth of the State of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war. The four books are Simha Flapan’s The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Ilan Pappé’s Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-51, and my own Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine. Collectively the authors came to be called the Israeli revisionist, or new historians.

Two factors account for the emergence of the new historiography: the release f the official documents on 1948 by the government of Israel, and the change in the political climate in Israel in the aftermath of the Lebanon War of 1982. Israel adopted the British thirty-year rule for the review and declassification of foreign policy documents. Under this rule, a vast amount of primary source material was released for research in the Central Zionist Archives, the Israel State Archives, the Haganah Archive, the IDF Archive, the Labour Party Archive, and the Ben-Gurion Archive. Arab countries have nothing remotely resembling a thirty-year rule. Arab governments only give access to their records, if they give any access at all, in a limited, haphazard, and arbitrary manner. It is very much to Israel’s credit that it allows researchers access to its internal documents thereby making possible critical studies of its own conduct such as those written by the new historians.

If the release of rich new sources of information was one important reason behind the advent of historical revisionism, a change in the general political climate was another. For many Israelis, especially liberal-minded ones, the Likud's ill-conceived and ill-fated invasion of Lebanon in 1982 marked a watershed. Until then, Zionist leaders had been careful to cultivate the image of peace-lovers who would stand up and fight only if war was forced upon them. Until then, the notion of ein breira, of no alternative, was central to the explanation of why Israel went to war and a means of legitimizing her involvement in wars. But while the fierce debate between supporters and opponents of the Lebanon War was still raging, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave a lecture to the IDF Staff Academy on wars of choice and wars of no choice. He argued that the Lebanon War, like the Sinai War of 1956, was a war of choice designed to achieve national objectives. With this admission, unprecedented in the history of the Zionist movement, the national consensus round the notion of ein breira began to crumble, creating political space for a critical re-examination of the country's earlier history.

The appearance of the first wave of revisionist studies of the 1948 war excited a great deal of interest and controversy in the Israeli political arena, in academic circles, and in the media. The initial reaction was one of discomfort and even dismay at what looked like the deliberate targeting of the sacred cows that all Israeli school children had been educated to respect and revere. Some commentators felt that the new books constituted a well-orchestrated attack on Israel’s reputation, an attack that must not be allowed to go unanswered. Others were more sympathetic to the attempt to re-examine time-hallowed truths in the light of fresh evidence. Even when the initial shock subsided, opinion remained sharply divided on the merits of the new historiography. Veterans of the 1948 war and members of the old guard, especially the old guard of the Labour Party, continued to bristle with hostility towards the new interpretations.

Among the critics of the new historians, the most strident and vitriolic was Shabtai Teveth, a journalist and biographer of David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel and its first prime minister. Teveth’s attack entitled ‘The New Historians’ appeared in four successive full-page instalments in the independent daily Ha’aretz in May 1989. In September 1989, Teveth published an abridged version of this series in an article entitled ‘Charging Israel with Original Sin’ in the American-Jewish monthly Commentary. In this article, Teveth described the new history as a ‘farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications.’ Teveth pursued two lines of attack. One line of attack was that the new historiography ‘rests in part on defective evidence, and is characterised by serious professional flaws.’ The other line of attack charged that the new historiography was politically motivated, pro-Palestinian, and aimed at deligitimizing Zionism and the State of Israel. Teveth’s polemics generated more heat than light. Like so many members of the Labour Party old guard, he showed himself to be incapable of distinguishing between history and propaganda.

Interestingly, individuals on the political right in Israel, whether scholars or not, respond to the findings of the new historiography with far greater equanimity. They readily admit, for example, that Israel did expel Palestinians and even express regret that she did not expel more Palestinians since it was they who launched the war against her. Right-wingers tend to treat the 1948 War from a realpolitik point of view rather than a moralistic one. They are therefore spared the anguish of trying to reconcile the practices of Zionism with the precepts of liberalism. It is perhaps for this reason that they are generally less self-righteous and more receptive to new evidence and new analyses of the 1948 War than members of the Mapai old guard. The latter put so much store by Israel's claim to moral rectitude that they cannot face up to the evidence of cynical Israeli double-dealings or brutal expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians. It is an axiom of their narrative that Israel is the innocent victim. Not content with the thirty pieces of silver, these people insist on retaining for Israel the crown of thorns. And it is their concern with the political consequences of rewriting history that largely accounts for the ferocity of their attacks on the new historiography.

Whereas the initial debate revolved around the methods, sources, and alleged political motives of the new historians, the subsequent debate related to some of their specific findings. Five major bones of contention can be identified in the debate between the traditional and the new historians: British policy towards the end of the Palestine Mandate; the Arab-Israeli military balance in 1948; the causes of the Palestine exodus; Arab war aims; and the reasons for the persistent political deadlock after the guns fell silent.

The traditional Zionist version maintains that Britain’s aim in the twilight of its Mandate over Palestine was the prevent the establishment of a Jewish state; that the Jews were hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned; that the Palestinians left of their own accord and in the expectation of a triumphal return; that there was an all-Arab plan to destroy the infant Jewish state as soon as it came into the world; and that Arab intransigence was the sole cause of the political deadlock that followed the war.

The revisionist version maintains, in a nutshell, that Britain’s aim was to prevent the establishment not of a Jewish state but of a Palestinian state; that the Jews outnumbered all the Arab forces, regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre and, after the first truce, also outgunned them; that the Palestinians, for the most part, did not choose to leave but were pushed out; that there was no monolithic Arab war aim because the Arab rulers were deeply divided among themselves; and that the quest for a political settlement was frustrated more by Israeli than by Arab intransigence.

The last issue in the debate is particularly sensitive because it involves the allocating of responsibility for the elusive peace. At the core of the old version is the image of the Arab world as a monolithic and implacably hostile enemy. According to this version, Israel’s leaders strove indefatigably towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute but all their efforts foundered on the rocks of Arab intransigence. The revisionist version holds that Israel was more inflexible than the Arab states and that she consequently bears a larger share of the responsibility for the diplomatic stalemate that remained in place long after the ending of military hostilities.

Evidence for the revisionist version comes mainly from the files of the Israeli foreign ministry. These files burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with Israel from September 1948 onwards. The two main issues on the agenda were borders and the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Each of the neighbouring Arab rulers was prepared to negotiate directly with Israel in the hope of gaining something on these issues in return for making peace.

King Farouk of Egypt demanded the cession of Gaza and a substantial strip of desert as his price for a de facto recognition of Israel. King Abdullah of Transjordan proposed an overall settlement with Israel in return for a land corridor to link his kingdom with the Mediterranean. Even more subversive of the conventional wisdom is the case of Colonel Husni Zaim, the chief of staff who captured power in Syria in a bloodless coup in March 1949 and was overthrown five months later. On seizing power, Zaim offered Israel full peace with an immediate exchange of ambassadors, normal economic relations, and the resettlement of 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria in return for moving the border to the middle of the Sea of Galilee. All three Arab rulers displayed remarkable pragmatism in their approach to negotiations with the Jewish state. They were even anxious to pre-empt one another because they assumed that whoever settled with Israel first would get the best terms. Zaim openly declared his ambition to be the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.

In each case, though for slightly different reasons, David Ben-Gurion considered the price being asked for peace as too high. He was ready to conclude peace on the basis of the status quo; he was unwilling to proceed to a peace which involved more than minuscule Israeli concessions on refugees or on borders. Ben-Gurion, as his diary reveals, considered that the armistice agreements with the neighbouring Arab states met Israel's essential needs for recognition, security and stability. He knew that for formal peace agreements Israel would have to pay by yielding substantial tracts of territory and by permitting the return of a substantial number of Palestinian refugees and he did not consider this a price worth paying. Whether Ben-Gurion made the right choice is a matter of opinion. That he had a choice is now undeniable.

The Israeli public paid close and unremitting attention to the war of the Israeli historians. This war was not conducted exclusively within the precincts of academe but periodically spilled over into the public arena. Extensive coverage of this war is provided by the media. Newspapers vie with one another in giving blow by blow accounts of pitched battles fought at conferences, seminars, and symposia held on university campuses. Consequently, it is not just a handful of scholars but the whole nation which has been confronting its past. Such a high degree of public involvement in a war in which the principal protagonists are university professors is uncommon in most countries but not surprising in the case of Israel. The reason for this is that the debate about 1948 cuts to the very core of Israel’s image of itself.

For a number of years after the publication of the first batch of revisionist books, the war of the historians continued to concentrate on the birth of Israel and the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Gradually, however, the war extended to other fronts. In 1993 Benny Morris published a book entitled Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War. This formed a natural sequel to his 1988 book on The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and to his 1990 volume of essays 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians. Taken together, the last two volumes effectively undermined Zionist orthodoxy on the causes of the Palestinian exodus. Israel’s Border Wars dealt with the formative period which ended with the Suez war. Here too Morris made extensive use of recently declassified Israeli and Western sources in an attempt to describe what actually happened. And here too he drove a coach and horses through the orthodox version which placed the entire responsibility for the escalation of the conflict on the Arab side.

Towards the end of 1999 another round began in the war of the Israeli historians with the publication of two books: Benny Morris’s Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 and my own The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. Both books are wide in scope: the first traces the turbulent history of the conflict from its origins in the late 19th century to the end of the 20th century while the second examines Israel’s policy towards the Arab world during the first fifty years of statehood.

The title of my book requires a word of explanation. It refers to a strategy which was first formulated by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of Revisionist Zionism.
In 1923 Jabotinsky published an article entitled ‘On the Iron Wall.’ He argued that it was naïve to expect Arab nationalists to welcome a Jewish state in Palestine. Negotiations with the Arabs in the early stages would be futile. The only way to realize the Zionist project was behind an iron wall of Jewish military strength. In other words, the Zionist project could only be realized unilaterally and by military force.
The crux of Jabotinsky’s strategy was thus to deal with the Arabs from a position of unassailable strength. But his article also incorporated a sophisticated theory of change – a change in Arab attitudes to a Jewish state. He envisaged two stages. The first stage was to build the iron wall. This was expected to compel the Arabs to abandon any hope of destroying the Jewish state. The shift towards moderation or realism on the Arab side was to be followed by stage II, negotiations – negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs about their status and national rights in Palestine.

Jabotinsky’s article sparked a lively debate within the Zionist movement. Spokesmen for the mainstream accused him of militarism and of betraying the values of the Zionist movement. Jabotinksy poured scorn on his left-wing critics, on the ‘vegetarians’. He called them hypocrites and he considered it a mitzvah – a sacred duty – to expose their hypocrisy. He rounded on his critics in a second article entitled ‘The Morality of the Iron Wall.’ From the point of view of morality, he argued, there were two possibilities: Zionism was either a bad thing or a good thing. If it was a bad thing it should be abandoned; if it was a good thing, if it had justice on its side, then it must triumph, regardless of the wishes of anyone else.

Jabotinsky’s analysis was surely correct: this was a conflict between two national movements that could not be resolved by negotiation and compromise as long as the Arabs thought they had a chance of winning. A voluntary agreement was unattainable. I argue in the book that Jabotinsky’s strategy was adopted in all but name by his Labour Party opponents, led by David Ben-Gurion. It became the cornerstone of Zionist strategy in the conflict. And, most importantly, I argue that the strategy worked. The history of the state of Israel is a vindication of the strategy of the iron wall.

The Arabs – first the Egyptians, then the Palestinians, then the Jordanians – recognised Israel’s invincibility and were compelled to negotiate with her from a position of palpable weakness. They learnt the hard way that Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield. The real danger for Israel is to fall in love with the iron wall and refuse to move to stage II: negotiations and compromise which means the partition of Palestine with the Palestinians. Paradoxically, the politicians of the Right, the heirs to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, are more prone to adopt stage I of the iron wall strategy as a permanent way of life than the politicians of the Left.

Itzhak Shamir, who succeeded Menachem Begin as Likud leader and prime minister in 1983, conceived of the iron wall as a bulwark against change and as an instrument for keeping the Palestinians in a permanent state of subservience to Israel. He had no interest in negotiations. His aim was to preserve the integrity of the historic homeland, to keep the whole Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) in Jewish hands. As Avishai Margalit once wrote in the New York Review of Books: Itzhak Shamir is a two-dimensional man: one dimension is the length of the Land of Israel, the other is its breadth. Since his historic vision is measured in inches, it was predictable that he would not yield an inch. It was the Labour Party’s Itzhak Rabin who took the plunge, who made the transition to stage II by negotiating the Oslo accord with the PLO in 1993.

With the election of Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996, Israel was back to phase I of the iron wall. Netanyahu did not accept the Oslo accords. He spent three years in power trying to arrest, delay, and subvert the Oslo process only to discover that it had become irreversible. The election held in May 1999 was a major landmark in the history of Israel’s relations with her neighbours. The Israeli public passed a severe judgement on Netanyahu and gave Ehud Barak a clear mandate to continue the Oslo process and to proceed towards comprehensive peace in the Middle East. This is why I ended the Epilogue to my book on an optimistic note, describing Barak’s election as ‘the sunrise after the three dark and terrible years during which Israel had been led by the unreconstructed proponents of the iron wall.’

Political change in Israel helped to create a climate in which the new history could make further headway. The shift towards more moderate attitudes in the political arena was accompanied by growing awareness of the complex historical roots of the conflict and greater sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people. The two processes proceeded in parallel and reinforced one another. They were the product of greater maturity and greater self-confidence on the part of the Israeli public and its leaders. Self-righteousness and the habitual blaming of the Palestinians for their own misfortunes began to give way to a better understanding of the part played by Israel in causing the conflict and a more constructive attempt to heal the wounds of this conflict.

Two official pronouncements marked the beginning of the change in early October 1999. Prime Minister Ehud Barak, from the podium of the Knesset, expressed on behalf of the State of Israel his regret and sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinian people. Barak did not apologise, nor did he accept responsibility for Palestinian suffering. Nevertheless, his speech was significant as a first step towards a public recognition that without confronting the past, there could be no real reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. Yossi Sarid, the education minister, went a step further. He apologised to Israel’s Arabs for the massacre carried out by IDF soldiers in the village of Kafr Qasim in October 1956, on the eve of the Sinai Campaign. Sarid accepted full responsibility for the cold-blooded killing of Arab citizens of the State of Israel that had occurred 43 years previously. He also called upon Israel’s teachers to confront this dark chapter in their nation’s past.

In relation to the Palestinians, too, there were further indications of soul-searching at the official level. Shlomo Ben-Ami, the Moroccan-born and Oxford-educated foreign minister, conveyed to his cabinet ministers some home-truths about the impact of the past on the present. The prime minister’s office prepared a long list of Palestinian violations of the Oslo accords. As reported by Akiva Eldar in Ha’aretz on 28 November 2000, Ben-Ami opposed the distribution of the document on the ground that ‘Accusations made by a well-established society about how a people it is oppressing is breaking rules to attain its rights do not have much credence.’ This was a remarkably honest acknowledgement by a senior official that Israel, as the occupying power, could not set the ground rules for a people struggling for their legitimate rights.

The books by Benny Morris and me appeared during this relatively hopeful phase in the development of the peace process. Both books were first published in the United States where they received much attention from the media and many reviews, often together. On the merits of the books, opinion was divided but the great majority of reviewers were sympathetic and supportive, reflecting a general shift in America towards a more critical attitude to Israel. What ten years previously had been regarded as dangerous revisionism, had become almost mainstream thinking.

Illustrative of this trend was a review published by Ethan Bronner on 14 November 1999 under the title ‘Israel: The Revised Edition’ in The New York Times Book Review. Bronner is the education editor of the traditionally pro-Israeli New York Times. Yet his article was judicious and fair-minded and it helped to place the two new books in their proper intellectual context. ‘There is no question’, writes Bronner, ‘that Shlaim presents compelling evidence for a re-evaluation of traditional Israeli history … His story is a bracing corrective to the somewhat mythic one told until now.’ Benny Morris is praised by Bronner for writing with ‘clinical dispassion’ which makes his narrative more responsible and credible: ‘This is a first-class work of history, bringing together the latest scholarship. It is likely to stand for some time as the most sophisticated and nuanced account of the Zionist-Arab conflict from its beginnings in the 1880s … In short, this is new history as one would like it – not as part of a political or scholarly campaign but in the genuine pursuit of complex truth.’

At the same time, the new books were also subjected to some fierce criticism, notably in the conservative, pro-Zionist, American-Jewish monthlies, Commentary and New Republic. Hillel Halkin, a translator and writer, published in the November 1999 issue of Commentary a long review article under the title ‘Was Zionism Unjust?’ Predictably, Halkin takes the view that Zionism was not unjust and that it is the new historians who are unjustly harsh in their treatment of this noble, enlightened, and peace-loving movement. Yet Halkin begins his article by suggesting that the case of ‘The New Historians vs. The State of Israel’ can be considered closed because the plaintiffs have simply dropped the main charges.

Halkin was evidently relieved to discover that in our new books Benny Morris and I are not as savage about Zionism as he expected us to be. This expectation, however, betrays a mistaken view of the purpose and nature of the new history. Halkin clings to an idée fixe (that all our critics seem to share although they can find no evidence for it) namely, that the new history is driven by a not-so-hidden agenda of delegitimizing Zionism and the State of Israel.

Halkin’s real concern is that by challenging the conventional Zionist narrative of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the new historians deprive young Israelis of pride in the achievements of their country and confidence in the justice of their cause. In this respect, too, Halkin is typical of the establishment view. Aharon Meged, the Israeli novelist, went much further in an article in Ha’aretz (16 September 1999), claiming that the new historians are leading their country towards collective suicide. Meged himself can claim poetic licence, but this is the kind of loose and irresponsible talk that gives paranoia a bad name. The real question is whether the facts we present are true or false. Halkin and Meged, however, do not want the facts to get in the way of the myths that have come to surround the birth of Israel. They would like school history books to continue to tell only the heroic version of Israel’s creation. In effect, they are saying that in education one has to lie for the good of the country. Patriotism, it would seem, remains the last refuge of the scoundrel.

The review published in New Republic, on 29 November 1999, was written by Anita Shapira, a Professor of History at Tel Aviv University who is also known as ‘the princess of Zionist history.’ The cover announces ‘The Israeli Revisionism Racket’ but no explanation is given as to what the racket is. The article itself has a less offensive but an equally ambiguous title: ‘The Past is not a Foreign Country.’ A keeper of the Labour-Zionist flame, Professor Shapira presents old history with a vengeance. Her article is a breathless and relentless ten-page diatribe against the new historians. Her tone is hysterical, her arguments are shabby, frequently imputing guilt by association, and she misrepresents my position and the position of my ‘confederates’, as she calls them, on almost every single issue. Professor Shapira does not engage with the findings of the new history but simply regurgitates the conventional wisdom which portrays Israel as the wronged party, and as the innocent victim of Arab predators. And she takes the debate about Israel’s past rather personally. ‘Whoever dares to oppose or to criticize the pronouncements of these self-styled iconoclasts is savagely maligned’, she asserts. This is simply not true. So far most of the malice, venom, and ad-hominem attacks have come from her side of the argument.

The one mildly interesting question raised by Professor Shapira’s article is why the new history makes her and her confederates so hot under the collar. Their answer to this question would no doubt be that the new history is driven by a political agenda. This is a serious charge but no evidence is brought forth to support it. The more likely explanation for the anger and aggressiveness of the old historians is that they realize that they are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of their compatriots. Professor Shapira’s own article is redolent of defeat on the intellectual battlefield.

But while the new history is not propelled by political motives, it has already had significant political consequences on at least three levels. First, it has acted as a spur to a quiet revolution in the teaching of history in most Israeli high schools. Second, it enables ordinary members of the Israeli public to understand how Arabs perceive Israel and how they view the past. Third, it presents to the Arabs an account of the conflict which they recognize as honest and genuine, and in line with their own experience, instead of the usual propaganda of the victors. In all these different ways, the new history helps to create a climate, on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide, which is conducive to the continuation of the peace process. As Bishop Tutu pointed out in the South African context, it is difficult to know what to forgive unless we know what happened. In the Middle East, as in South Africa, it is necessary to understand the past in order to go forward.

It is melancholy to have to add that the breakdown of the peace process, the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, and the rise to power of Ariel Sharon at the head of a Likud-dominated government in February 2001 have resulted in a swing away from the new history towards the old history. Six months before the election, Sharon was asked what changes he thought the education system needed. Sharon replied: ‘I would like them to study the history of the people of Israel and the land of Israel… the children must be taught Jewish-Zionist values, and the ‘new historians’ must not be taught.’ Underlying this reply was a sense, widely shared among the country’s conservatives, that the new historians have undermined patriotic values and young people’s confidence in the justice of their cause. Sharon’s aim was to nullify the effect of the new historians and to reassert traditional values in the educational system.

Likud’s return to power brought in its wake a regression to fundamentalist positions in relation to the Palestinians and the reassertion of a narrow, nationalist perspective on Israel’s history. Limor Livnat, the education minister, launched an all-out offensive against the new history, post-Zionism, and all other manifestations of what she views as the defeatism and appeasement that paved the way to the Oslo accord. In the Jerusalem Post, on 26 January 2001, she published an article, or rather an electoral manifesto, under the title ‘Back to the Iron Wall.’ Ms Livnat accused the Left of lying to the public about the Oslo process that was ‘secretly and illegally initiated by Yossi Beilin in 1992.’ She failed to explain, however, why a diplomatic process initiated by a deputy foreign minister in a democratically elected government is illegal. The central theme of the article is the contrast between the pacifism of the Left and the realism of the Right:

The ideology underlying Oslo was the direct opposite of the ‘Iron Wall’ strategy, which had guided the policy of Israel’s leaders since the establishment of the state. Jabotinsky only stated the obvious when he claimed that the Arabs will never willingly accept the existence of a Jewish state in their midst, but that only an ‘Iron Wall’ of deterrence and military strength would lower their aspiration to destroy Israel.

Ms Livnat goes on to warn against ‘the false belief that preaching pacifism and abandoning some of Zionism’s national claims would be enough to end the Arab-Israeli conflict.’ The doctrine of the permanent conflict is stated even more forcefully in the conclusion:

It is time for Israel to rebuild the ‘Iron Wall’ that will once again convince the Arabs that neither military threats nor terrorism will weaken Israel’s determination to protect the rights and freedom of the Jewish people. The ‘Iron Wall’, however, will not be rebuilt as long as Prime Minister Ehud Barak is in power.

Ms Livnat’s summary of the strategy of the iron wall is so crude and simplistic that one is bound to wonder whether she ever read the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Had she read Jabotinsky’s work, she might have realised that he was not a proponent of the doctrine of permanent conflict between the Zionists and the Palestinians but an advocate of negotiations from strength in order to end the conflict. Like other prominent members of her party, Ms Livnat treats the iron wall as an end in itself rather than as a means to an end – a satisfactory resolution of the conflict between Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. The policies she advocates can only lead to more violence and more bloodshed. As long as she, and people who think like her, remain in power, Jabotinsky’s strategy is unlikely to be carried to its logical conclusion. One of the obstacles to reconciliation through strength with the Palestinians is precisely the kind of over-reliance on military force and disdain for diplomacy that Ms Livnat exemplifies. In this respect, the new history is not part of the problem but part of the solution.