All the difference

Avi Shlaim

  • The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations by Itamar Rabinovich
    Oxford, 259 pp, £19.50, December 1991, ISBN 0 19 506066 0

The 40th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1988 was accompanied by the publication of a number of books which critically re-examined various aspects of what Israelis call their War of Independence. The authors of these books – Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and myself – are sometimes collectively referred to as the ‘new historians’ or the ‘Israeli revisionists’. Revisionist historiography challenged the traditional Zionist version of the birth of Israel on a number of points: Britain’s policy towards the end of the Mandate, the causes of the Palestinian refugee problem, the Arab-Israeli military balance in 1948, Arab war aims and the reasons for the political deadlock after the guns fell silent.

The Road Not Taken is about the last but not least contentious point in this debate: the attempts to resolve the dispute between Israel and her neighbours in the aftermath of the 1948 war and their eventual failure. Itamar Rabinovich is one of Israel’s leading Middle Eastern experts and the Rector of Tel Aviv University. In 1989, when he was the director of the Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, he organised a conference on the new sources for and the approaches to the study of the 1948 war. The conference turned into a fierce, frequently acrimonious confrontation between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ historians, a confrontation which generated rather more heat than light. Professor Rabinovich himself was one of the most dispassionate, well-informed and open-minded participants in this debate. His book is the product of the same balanced and scholarly approach which he displayed at the conference. His aim is not to defend any of the actors or to allocate blame but to re-examine Arab-Israeli relations in the light of new archival and other sources.

The book focuses on the three sets of bilateral negotiations that Israel held between 1949 and 1952 with Syria, Jordan and Egypt respectively. The title of the book, like the poem by Robert Frost which inspired it, is rather ambiguous, perhaps deliberately so. Rabinovich declines to identify those who decided not to take the road towards peace. He may be intrigued by Frost’s suggestion that the choice when reaching the fork in the road ‘makes all the difference’, but all he will finally say is that ‘the choices of 1948-9 were made by Arabs, Israelis, Americans and others. And credit and responsibility for them belongs to all.’

Although Rabinovich does not openly take sides in the debate between traditionalists and revisionists, he does concede, at least by implication, that during this critical period, Israeli leaders had some freedom of choice and that the choices they made affected the subsequent course of Israel’s relations with the Arabs. Implicitly, he rejects the notion of ein brera – that Israel had no alternative but to stand up and fight – which lies at the core of most traditionalist accounts. Another claim which has always featured in traditionalist accounts, and in Israeli propaganda over the last four decades, is also conspicuous in its absence from Rabinovich’s book. This is the claim of Arab intransigence, the claim that the Arabs rejected Israel’s very right to exist and that there was no one to talk to on the other side.

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