THE IRON WALL

Israel and the Arab World

By Avi Shlaim

Norton. 670 pp. $32.50

Avi Shlaim, a historian who teaches at Oxford, places himself among the "revisionists" in dealing with Israel's relations with the Arab world. His term, insofar as it conveys a departure from conventional Zionist accounts, is accurate. Western readers were long fed honey-coated history in which Israeli statesmen struggled valiantly for peace against villainous Arabs.

This is the view that much of the American Jewish community still embraces, and which for decades has been the basis of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Shlaim leaves no doubt that this perception is largely false. But he faces a problem in coming late to the game. Most careful observers of international affairs long ago dropped the vision of a sainted Israel. Though still benefiting from certain taboos, Israel, like other states, is now subjected to serious critical scrutiny. Shlaim has written an excellent chronicle, coldly honest in examining Israeli practices; but since so much evidence of Israel's moral lapses is already on the record, it can hardly be called "revisionist."

"The Iron Wall" takes its title from two celebrated articles written in 1923 by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the founder and spiritual guide of right-wing Zionism. Before Jabotinsky, Zionism simply dismissed the Arab question. Its sloganeers proclaimed that Palestine was an empty land waiting to be taken over by the Jews. Its more serious thinkers held that Zionism, in bringing prosperity to Palestine, would earn the Arabs' gratitude. Jabotinsky considered such notions nonsense. While promoting Jewish sovereignty over all of Palestine, he had enough respect for the Arabs to know that, far from being passive collaborators, they would fight for their homeland. Jabotinsky rejected the view that Zionism could be realized through diplomacy. The Jews will have their state, he maintained, only by erecting an "iron wall" of Jewish bayonets that would subdue the Arabs in battle.

Though Jabotinsky's followers did not take power until Menachem Begin became prime minister in 1977, his ideas passed in the 1930s into the Zionist mainstream. By then, few Zionist leaders believed that a Jewish state could be established by the goodwill of Western powers. Zionism became an armed movement prepared to settle its disputes, first with the British, then with its neighbors, by force. It is ironic that Jabotinsky had also argued that Israel, after establishing its military superiority, would have to reach a settlement by which Jews and Arabs could live peacefully together. Mainstream Zionism adopted Jabotinsky's commitment to the "iron wall" but has never taken serious measures to reach a reconciliation with the Arabs still fighting for a homeland within Palestine's borders.

Shlaim is at his best in the early years. Israel, he tells us, makes documents available to scholars only after 30 years have elapsed, which explains why the book's freshness gives way to familiar material after the Six-Day War of 1967. For the nonspecialist, this does not matter: Shlaim has produced a powerful overview of 50 years of policy. But even the specialists will be grateful, for it was in the period before 1967 that Israel's militant nature was permanently forged.

Shlaim contends persuasively that, though Israel was already the strongest power in the region, its leaders after independence had no interest in making peace without further weakening Arab military capacity. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, not only rejected Arab peace overtures but also repeatedly provoked Arab governments as a means of undermining their stability.

Moshe Sharett, the one figure in the inner circle for whom peace was a virtue in itself, was hounded out of office, while power gravitated to military leaders, most notably Moshe Dayan, who promoted aggression. A massive raid on the Egyptians in Gaza led inexorably to the 1956 Suez War, while attacks on the Syrians in the north were the prelude to the 1967 war. Even the protests of President Dwight D. Eisenhower were no deterrent. Finally, beginning with Lyndon Johnson, Washington seems to have thrown up its hands in frustration, letting the Israelis do whatever they wanted.

Israel's current generation of leaders has inherited its values from those who shaped the founding of the state. Binyamin Netanyahu, the recent prime minister, was a proclaimed disciple of Jabotinsky, while Ehud Barak, his successor, is in the mold of Ben-Gurion. A Ben-Gurion quotation cited by Shlaim could easily be repeated by Barak. "I am prepared," he declared, "to get up in the middle of the night in order to sign a peace agreement--but I am not in a hurry and I can wait ten years. We are under no pressure whatsoever." Though far more than 10 years have passed, Israel's policy remains much the same. Both Ben-Gurion and Barak, within the Israeli context, are regarded as pragmatists rather than ideologues. But Shlaim makes clear that for both, peacemaking is secondary to the concept of a secure Israel behind an iron wall. Obviously, many Israelis agree with them.

Milton Viorst, the author of "Sands of Sorrow: Israel's Journey From Independence" and several books on the Arab world.