The 50 Years War-Israel and the Arabs, a Six-Program Television Series / the Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs

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The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs, by Aharon Bregman and Jihan El-Tahri. London: Penguin Books and BBC Books, 1998. 274 pages. Notes on sources to p. 276. Select bibl. to p. 279. Notes and photo credits to p. 292. Index to p. 301. n.p.

Reviewed by Don Peretz

The period covered in this six-part television series produced in England extends from the establishment of Israel in 1948 to the Wye River Plantation Agreement in 1998. Given the limitations of TV pictorial documentaries, the series does relatively well in presenting the wars between Israel and the Arabs. Naturally, in covering a half century, the producers had to be selective; therefore, they left out many of the crucial diplomatic negotiations and the international power politics of the Middle East conflict. Critics will probably judge the series by what is omitted as much as by what is included. Because of their limitations, television documentaries are more useful as supplements, than as source material, to study events of this kind.

Much of the first three programs focuses on battle scenes in what is termed here the Israel Independence War, the Suez War, the Six Day War, and the Yom Kippur War. The second part devotes more footage to diplomacy and the emerging peace process. The series is sprinkled throughout with interesting vignettes that are not part of the usual historical narrative, either from the Israeli or the Arab perspective.

In the first program, for example, we learn from presidential adviser Clark Clifford about US Secretary of State George Marshall's bitter reaction to President Harry Truman's precipitous about face-his decision to recognize the State of Israel. Clifford recalls that he had never heard a subordinate official speak to his president as harshly as did Marshall when the latter threatened to vote against Truman in the forthcoming election.

While the first three programs offer many details about the military aspects of Arab-Israeli relations between 1948 and 1982, they provide little information about the underlying causes of these wars. (The conventional argument is that the Arabs sought revenge for their various setbacks.) Although the Palestine Arab refugee situation is mentioned, the extent of its impact on Arab-Israeli relations is not fully explored. We see the large immigration of Jewish refugees from Europe and the Middle East, but are not told of the importance of abandoned Arab refugee homes, farms and businesses in absorbing these immigrants. The border clashes between Israel and its neighbors (which led to the 1956 and 1967 wars) are shown and the role of General Ariel Sharon is covered, but the connection between these clashes and the Palestine problem is unclear. Blame for border clashes is attributed to "terrorist" infiltration into Israel from the neighboring countries.

The 1967 Lavon affair is presented by exColonel Benyamin Gibli, the officer who claims to have received instructions from then-Defense Minister Lavon to conduct sabotage in Cairo. But the events leading up to the affair, the controversy surrounding it and the impact on Israeli politics are neglected. …