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.

Rabinovich’s book reveals an astonishing readiness on the part of the Arab rulers to negotiate with the newly-born state of Israel even though some of them insisted on keeping these negotiations secret. Indeed, his book is essentially a record of the Arab-Israeli negotiations that took place in different places and at different levels between the conclusion of the armistice agreements in the first half of 1949 and the Egyptian revolution of July 1952. Of the three sets of bilateral negotiations surveyed in this book, those between Israel and Syria’s first military dictator, Colonel Husni Zaim, are the most instructive.

Colonel Zaim was a corrupt, unprincipled and unstable officer who spent much of his time intriguing with politicians inside and outside Syria. Among his contacts were Israeli intelligence operatives who in late 1948 thought he might be someone who would stage a coup in Syria with Israel’s support and financial aid. The Israeli documents do not disclose whether money actually changed hands but rumour has it that Zaim did not emerge any the poorer from his contacts with the enemy. It was with the help of the CIA that Zaim eventually carried out his bloodless coup in March 1949, but, to add to the confusion, the Israelis thought that the British were his secret backers.

Once he seized power, Zaim made a peace overture to Israel which was startling in its audacity. He suggested that the two countries skip the armistice negotiations and conclude a peace agreement with an immediate exchange of ambassadors, normal economic relations, military co-operation to control the Middle East, and the resettlement of 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. In return, Zaim asked that the border between the two countries run through the middle of Lake Tiberias and the Jordan River rather than along their eastern shores. Zaim openly proclaimed his desire to be the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel. He also asked for a face-to-face meeting with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in order to break the deadlock in the negotiations. Ben-Gurion refused to meet with Zaim. He insisted that the Syrians withdraw their forces from the patch of land they had captured in Palestine and sign an armistice agreement on the basis of the existing border before he would discuss peace and co-operation. On 20 July Syria signed an armistice agreement on Ben-Gurion’s terms, but three weeks later Zaim was overthrown and killed by some of his disaffected co-conspirators.

Rabinovich finds Israel’s response to Zaim’s initiatives puzzling and is critical of Ben-Gurion for refusing to meet with him. But he also dwells on Zaim’s defects of character, on the questionable legitimacy of his regime and on the strong opposition to his policy of accommodation with Israel from the nationalist political establishment that he had overthrown. Against this background, it seems to Rabinovich that Ben-Gurion didn’t miss an opportunity to reach an agreement that would have transformed Arab-Israeli relations.

There can, of course, be no definitive answer to the question of whether Israel missed a historic opportunity to come to an arrangement with Syria. All we can say with certainty is that in the spring of 1949 Zaim offered direct high-level talks and that Ben-Gurion spurned his offer. What might have happened if the meeting had taken place there is no way of telling – history does not disclose its alternatives.

The Zaim episode is nonetheless significant. First, as Rabinovich notes in his conclusion, it calls for a revision in the traditional perception of the Syrian-Israeli conflict, which has always been seen as bitter and hopeless. Syria, though committed to pan-Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause, was willing to be influenced by pragmatic considerations. Second, the episode reveals that Israel was nowhere near as flexible, on either procedure or substance, as the traditionalist historians would have us believe. Various arguments can be advanced to explain Israel’s inflexibility, but they only serve to underscore the central point, which is that in the spring of 1949 the leader of an important Arab state wanted to embark on the road to peace but found no one from the other side with whom he could speak.

Greater tactical flexibility but a similar reluctance to pay a significant price emerge from the survey of Israel’s negotiations with Jordan. That King Abdullah, the grandfather of King Hussein, dealt with the Jewish Agency was an open secret. These contacts were maintained from the establishment of the emirate of Transjordan in 1921 until Abdullah’s assassination in 1951, Rabinovich’s chapter focuses on the period from November 1949 to March 1950 when first a comprehensive settlement and then a less ambitious non-aggression pact were on the agenda. He gives a very full account of these negotiations before broaching the question of why they failed.

Rabinovich does not doubt that Abdullah was motivated by a genuine desire for peace despite widespread opposition to his policy both at home and in the Arab world. On the other hand, as he points out, Abdullah was not interested in piecemeal arrangements on minor issues: what he wanted was a general settlement in which he would regain enough Arab land to counter the criticism that a separate peace with Israel was bound to arouse in the Arab world. Since a concession of this magnitude was unacceptable to Israel, Rabinovich concludes that the negotiations for a comprehensive settlement were doomed from the start.

True to his general rule, Rabinovich seeks to explain the positions of the parties and the objective obstacles on the road to peace rather than to apportion credit and blame. He follows an Israeli Foreign Ministry paper which enumerates the principal actors other than Israel which shaped the negotiating process. Israel’s role, he notes, was rarely scrutinised by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. In his account of the forces at work he has sections on the Arab system, Abdullah, Britain and the United States, but he does not have a section on Israel. This omission is highly significant given the historical perspective available to us today. There is a good deal of new material on Israel here but it is left to speak for itself. Rabinovich tells us what Israel’s stand was: he does not tell us whether he thinks her stand was justified or not. One is left with the impression that he regards the price demanded by Abdullah as exorbitant and Israel’s refusal to pay as only natural, but he does not explicitly say so.

What governed Egypt’s position on the Palestine conflict was the quest for regional hegemony. It was to assert this hegemony that King Farouk ordered his army into Palestine and it was to preserve this hegemony that he began to issue peace feelers in September 1948. Farouk acted in total disregard of Palestinian rights, the ostensible reason for Arab intervention in the conflict. With military defeat staring him in the face, his primary concern was to extricate himself from the conflict and to pre-empt his great rival. King Abdullah, in coming to terms with the Jewish state.

Farouk’s price for a de facto recognition of Israel was Israeli agreement to Egypt’s annexation of southern Palestine. Ben-Gurion rejected the price as too stiff, even when taken as merely the opening bid in a bargaining process. He wanted to establish Israeli control over the entire Negev and since the military balance favoured Israel, he decided to end the war with a clear-cut military victory against Egypt. Israel’s victory on the battlefield enabled her to conduct the armistice negotiations with Egypt from a position of strength. The agreement that was reached, however, marked the formal end of the war rather than the beginning of the journey towards peace. The road to peace was not taken, not because Egypt was ideologically opposed to a separate deal with Israel, but because no agreement could be reached on the terms of a deal. Egypt continued to claim the Negev, while Israel wanted a peace settlement based on the territorial status quo, and the gulf between the positions remained unbridgeable.

The picture which emerges from the detailed chronicle of the three sets of bilateral negotiations is one of remarkable pragmatism on the part of all the Arab rulers in the aftermath of the Palestine disaster. After the sobering experience of military defeat at the hands of the infant Jewish state, the rulers of the neighbouring Arab states were prepared to recognise Israel, to negotiate with her directly, and even to make peace with her. Each of these rulers asked in return for far-reaching territorial concessions which Israel was unable or unwilling to make. While the Arab rulers themselves were pragmatic, at the popular level there was growing hostility towards Israel. And as this book clearly demonstrates, the rulers encountered enormous difficulties in their efforts to mobilise political support for their policy of accommodation with Israel.

On the Israeli side the picture is also complex. Rabinovich analyses Israel’s conduct in terms of a spectrum of views, but his focus is always Ben-Gurion’s choices. Many insights into Ben-Gurion’s thinking are gleaned from his diary and the documents, but no attempt is made to define his basic position or to relate it directly to the deadlock in the peace talks. Ben-Gurion probably considered that the armistice agreements met Israel’s essential needs for recognition, security and stability. He knew that for formal peace agreements Israel would have to pay by yielding territory to her neighbours and by agreeing to 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 when he reached the fork in the road is a matter of opinion. That he had a choice is undeniable.

One gets the impression that Rabinovich believes that Ben-Gurion made the right choice, but he never says so outright. Ben-Gurion is mildly criticised for his tactical rigidity, but there is no suggestion that his policy towards the Arabs was unsound or that he missed any real opportunities for a settlement. In the concluding chapter, Rabinovich quotes just about everybody’s verdict on the early Arab-Israeli talks except his own. Nor does he engage directly in the debate between the traditional Zionist historians and the new historians. He notes that the source material that became available in the Eighties enabled the new historians to bring new facts to the surface and thereby to present a fuller, less schematic picture of the early years, but he is also critical of the revisionist school because ‘its point of departure is political and moralistic rather than academic; it relied almost exclusively on Israeli and Western rather than Arab sources, thereby presenting an unbalanced picture; and it introduced emotional issues that were not always the most important ones.’ Professor Rabinovich has evidently tried to avoid these pitfalls. He has chosen an extremely important issue for his book; he made full use of all the available sources; the picture he presents is a balanced one; and no one could possibly accuse him of being emotional.