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The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World Paperback – 12 Feb 2001

4.2 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; New Ed edition (12 Feb. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140288708
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140288704
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 3 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 263,676 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

Amazon Review

In 1897, under order of First Zionist Congress president Theodor Herzl, two Austrian rabbis travelled to Palestine to explore the possibility of locating a Jewish state there. "The bride is beautiful", the rabbis cabled Herzl, "but she is married to another man". That "other man" was the Palestinian Arab nation, long established in the region as a political entity. Undeterred, Herzl pressed on with his programme of emigration, ignoring Palestine's existing occupants and creating in the process what came to be known as the "Arab question".

In this far-ranging history, Avi Shlaim analyses that question in remarkable detail, tracing the shifting policies of Israel toward the Palestinians and the Arab world at large. Herzl, he writes, followed a policy that consciously sought to enlist the great powers--principally Britain and later the United States--while dismissing indigenous claims to sovereignty; after all, Herzl argued, "the Arab problem paled in significance compared with the Jewish problem because the Arabs had vast spaces outside Palestine, whereas for the Jews, who were being persecuted in Europe, Palestine constituted the only possible haven". This policy later changed to a stance of confrontation against the admittedly hostile surrounding Arab powers, especially Syria, Jordan and Egypt; this militant stance was a source of controversy in the international community, and it also divided Israelis into hawk and dove factions. The intransigence of those hawks, Shlaim shows, served to alienate Israel and made it possible for the Palestine Liberation Organisation and other Arab nationalist groups to enlist the support of the great powers that Herzl had long before courted. Both sides, in turn, had eventually to face the "historic compromise" that led to the present peace in the Middle East--a peace that, the author suggests, may not endure. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author

Avi Shlaim is Professor of International Relations at St. Antony's College, Oxford. His previous books include COLLUSION ACROSS THE JORDAN (1988) and WAR AND PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST (1995).


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Books on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict tend to reflect the prejudices of the author more than they show what actually occured. However this book, although not perfect, is the closest thing I have read to a balanced account of the conflict.

This book is a fairly comprehensive diplomatic summary of the conflict that covers the period before the foundation of the state of Israel through to the election of Ehud Barak as Isarel's prime minister. Shlaim is an Israeli-Jew who believes in a two state solution to the conflict, and this comes across in his writing. He criticises both Israel and the Arab states when they squandered opportunities to achieve the solution Shlaim would prefer to see.

There are books which focus on specific aspects of the conflict which are perhaps more useful to understanding the conflict than this, but this is probably the best account currently available which covers the all the Arab-Israeli wars. However while you should definitely read this book, there are a few things which you should be aware of.

This book is primarily a diplomatic history of Israel. This means it goes into great detail on Israel's foreign policy. This means that it can sometimes get bogged down in the details of negotiations. It also means that it focuses more on pre-war and post-war diplomacy more than on the actual wars themselves.

The books main flaw however is that it views the conflict largely based on Israel's viewpoint. Shlaim is sometimes supportive of Israel, and often critical, but his focus is generally Israel. Since this is a diplomatic history, and the Palestinians are without a state, they recieve little attention.
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Other reviewers have listed the strengths of this book so I will refrain from repeating their comments here. Suffice as to say Shlaim's research is impeccable and he challenges many myths central to the founding of the State of Israel and the claims of many 'mainsteam' Middle East commentaries. Particularly impressive are his early chapters dealing with the dispossession of the Palestinians and the lost diplomatic opportunities resulting from Isreal's 'iron wall' stance towards the Arab states.
However, where I would dissent from other reviewers is that I found the book's momentum became bogged down in the second half in a thicket of irrelevant detail. Every single diplomatic initiative and exchange, great and small, is described exhaustively. The most insignificant aspects of meetings are noted e.g. chapter 11 even describes the dining arrangements at a meeting attended by King Hussein of Jordan and Shimon Peres, and who did the washing up!. The upshot of all this pointless and tiresome clutter is that Schlaim's promised central narrative - the destructive consequences of the 'iron wall' doctrine of revisionist Zionism - gets lost along the way. This fine work of scholarship clearly would have benefited from improved editing. With footnotes it runs to over 640 pages.
Another major problem with the book is that its narrow diplomatic focus makes the Palestinians as 'a people', largely invisible players. Readers wanting a more rounded socio-economic approach, or one which deals with political events 'on the ground' would be advised to look to Edward Said, Ilan Pappe, Noam Chomsky or Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal's work.
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A truly amasing book by a sincere objective and intellectually sound historian. Avi Shlaim succeeds where so many other authors on the subject have gone so tragically wrong.
He gives a sound, comprehensive analysis of the creation of the state of Israel within a historic and political context. But he goes further than that. He presents his views and criticises where necessary both the Israelite politicians and the state.
The use of language is understandable and simple. This enables the reader to focus on the content rather than the unneccessary long/complicated language used by many historians.
I recommend this book strongly to anyone who wants to find out more about Israel and the Arab World. Edward W. Said was absolutely right in saying that this book is a:
"A milestone in modern scholorship of the Middle East"
He couldnt have got it more right than this!!!
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Avi Schlaim's 'The Iron Wall' traces the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the very birth of the Zionist movement to the present day. An incredibly honest, fair and detailed history of the conflict is brought to life through Schlaim's writing. Every Israeli and Arab should read this book to understand just how often their respective leaders have allowed blinding ideology and dogmatic nationalism stand in the way of peace in the region. This book turned every one of my personal preconception of the politics of the region on its head. If you are interested in reading your first book on the Israeli-Arab conflict, this surely must be the one. Ziad Nassar
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Avi Shlaim has written a great book about the myths and realities of Israel's relationships with it's Arab neighbours governments.He's had access to many archives and shows that many mistakes were made by Israeli leaders in their analyses and responses to the Arab world.He also makes clear that crimes and mistakes were plentiful on bothe sides of the Arab-Israel dispute,there are no goodies or baddies in this history.
The strength of the book-the focus on diplomacy-is also it's weakness.As the Palestinians didn't have a government,and their organisations such as the PLO didn't have diplomatic ties with Israel till 1992,the first and most important casualties of the Arab-Israel conflict are largely invisible till the latter part of the book,ie until after 1970.
Still,well worth a read.
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