Between Revision and Tradition in the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict -- the Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations by Itamar Rabinovich / Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956 by Benny Morris

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The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations, by Itamar Rabinovich. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. xi + 222 pages. Notes to p. 239. Bibl. to p. 245. Index to p. 259. $24.95.

Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War, by Benny Morris. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1993. xvii + 428 pages. Biogs. to p. 431. Bibl. to p. 437. Index to p. 451. $39.95.

The historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict has undergone a significant transformation in the last decade, thanks primarily to Israeli academicians who either challenged or tried to correct and refine the Israeli semi-official version, which held the Arabs responsible for the non-settlement of the Palestine problem and its derivative, the Arab-Israeli conflict. These two books assess the accepted version of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although they do not focus on the same aspects of the conflict, both books offer fresh insights into the realpolitik that lies behind the facade of Arab and Israeli polemics.

Of the two books under review, The Road Not Taken has received the highest degree of attention and recognition in the literature on the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are three reasons for the book's popularity among diplomats, historians, and journalists. First, it is written in a vivid, carefully argued narrative style, carrying the reader elegantly and swiftly from one set of secret Arab-Israeli negotiations to another. The narrative brings to light some important details about these negotiations. It also offers revealing depictions of the personalities involved in them. Here is what Itamar Rabinovich says of Israeli Premier David Ben-Gurion:

In 1949 David Ben-Gurion reached the pinnacle of prestige and power as the man who had led the Zionist movement and the Jewish community in Palestine to statehood and who had conducted the military and political campaign that culminated in the victory and formation of a state larger and more viable even than the one envisaged in late 1947 and much of 1948 (p. 31).

Here is his perceptive judgment of Syria's Prime Minister Husni al-Za'im:

Zaim seems to have been a person of many contradictions. He radiated power and leadership but apparently was not very clever. He saw himself as a Syrian version of Ataturk, as a man who would take his country forward, but he was bogged down by his involvements and corruption and his lack of consistency and persistence (pp. 93-4).

Rabinovich's portrayal of Jordan's King 'Abdallah in the late 1940s and early 1950s is also perceptive:

He was impulsive and impatient, and his eagerness to accomplish his purpose and to reach a settlement caused him more than once to overplay his hand. He could also be utterly pragmatic and change his mind while persuading himself that he was being persistent, thereby ignoring the maze of contradictions into which he had in fact maneuvered himself (p. 149).

The second reason for the book's merit, as the author himself states in the preface, is that the decisions made by Arab and Israeli leaders in 1948 and 1949 played a crucial role in shaping the lives of Arabs and Israelis for the next four decades. Third, the timing of the book's publication--when the Middle East peace process is underway, when the Soviet Union has collapsed, and when the United States is involved as never before in reshaping the Middle East following the crushing defeat of Iraq in the Gulf War--makes this a relevant book.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 of The Road Not Taken constitute the heart of Rabinovich's book. They provide three case studies of Arab-Israeli negotiations from 1948 to 1952: attempts to arrange negotiations between the Israeli government of Ben-Gurion and Syria's Husni al-Za'im, the intermittent negotiations between Israel and King 'Abdallah, and the talks between Israel and pre-revolutionary Egyptian emissaries.

Rabinovich is concerned primarily with two essential points. …