Few historians give credence to conspiratorial theories of history, knowing that myriad economic, political, social and cultural factors shape historical development. Nevertheless, conspiracies do occur in history.
The professor emeritus of international relations at Oxford University Avi Shlaim (who was born in Baghdad to Iraqi Jewish parents and grew up in Israel) documented one. He shows how Britain, France and Israel conspired to start the 1956 Suez Canal War in his sweeping account of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, which was first published in 1999 as The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.
The story bears repeating because its lessons recur as a kind of leitmotif throughout an updated, newly expanded and republished version of The Iron Wall.
Angered by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and his support for Algerian independence, Britain and France enlisted Israel in a plot to regain control of the canal and simultaneously destroy Nasser and any pan-Arab nationalists who might succeed him.
Israel was to play the role of “fall guy” by initiating an invasion of the canal zone, supposedly in anticipation of an Egyptian attack. To secure the zone and restore stability, Britain and France would then intervene, overthrowing the Nasser government in the process.
Realignment and control
Israel’s prime minister David Ben Gurion was not content with only being rid of a regional rival, however. At the secret conference in Sevres outside Paris, where the plot was hatched, Ben Gurion proposed a plan for a Greater Israel and a comprehensive realignment in the Middle East.
As if he was negotiating a new Sykes-Picot agreement, Ben Gurion argued for dismantling Jordan by giving Iraq the East Bank of the Jordan River and Israel the West Bank. Israel would also control southern Lebanon, up to the Litani River, turning Lebanon into a Christian state. As Shlaim remarks, the proposal revealed a “craving for an alliance with the imperialist powers against the forces of Arab nationalism” and “an appetite for territorial expansion.”
Unfortunately for the conspirators, the plot was committed to writing in the Protocol of Sevres, which was eventually exposed in 1996, thoroughly undermining the Israeli narrative that it had invaded Egypt only because it faced an imminent threat. Even more unfortunate for the plotters, of course, was that their scheme unraveled in real time when the administration of US President Dwight Eisenhower, seeking to burnish an image as an anti-colonial power and angered that it had not been consulted, forced all three countries to withdraw from Egypt unconditionally.
Eisenhower even threatened to withhold all US public and private aid to Israel and to not oppose its expulsion from the United Nations.
Fast forward to recent years and one is struck by the similarities of the Ben Gurion proposal with the 1996 plan titled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” devised by a group of US neoconservatives for the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The only difference was that this time Iraq would come under the control of the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.
For this second edition, Shlaim has written a new preface, epilogue and four new chapters that update The Iron Wall from the end of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term in office in 1999 to 2006. He notes that very little from the first edition has been revised, which is unfortunate considering the new scholarship that shows Israel also initiated the 1967 War with Egypt.
In the first edition, Shlaim argued that the 1967 War was a “defensive war.” In this edition he sends a mixed signal by acknowledging in the new preface that even Prime Minister Menachem Begin admitted the 1967 War was a “war of choice,” but he nevertheless retains the “defensive war” conclusion in the chapter on 1967.
Other reservations include his contention that Israel only became a “colonizing power” after the 1967 War, that Israel’s creation was justified by the Holocaust and that Israel is an “ethnocracy” only in the West Bank where he says an apartheid system has been introduced.
He calls Israel in the pre-1967 borders a flawed democracy, ignoring the ethnocracy embodied in more than fifty discriminatory laws and the practice of excluding Palestinian political parties from coalition governments.
Shlaim is a proponent of the two-state solution and regards the Palestine Liberation Organization’s decision to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a “historic compromise” that successive Israeli governments have simply ignored in pursuit of a Greater Israel.
His thesis for this second edition is that the Israeli political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that even the “iron wall” strategy of the revisionist Zionists (originally proclaimed by the ideological founder of Likud, Ze’ev Jabotinsky) has been jettisoned.
That strategy called for the creation of a garrison state so formidable that Arab nations would eventually negotiate and accept the existence of a Jewish state. Despite the initial promise of the Oslo accords, Shlaim argues that Israel’s present-day right-wing parties have “reneged” on the historic compromise and have no intention of allowing a Palestinian state to emerge, which he calls a recipe for “permanent conflict.”
In the preface to the first edition, Shlaim wrote, “An independent Palestinian state is inevitable. It will be weak, demilitarized and territorially divided. The real question now is whether Israel will give the Palestinians a chance to build their state or strive endlessly to weaken, limit and control it.”
In the epilogue to the second edition, he strikes an even more pessimistic note: “I am no longer confident that an independent and viable Palestinian state will emerge in my lifetime. The asymmetry of power is too great: Israel is too strong, the Palestinians are too weak, and the United States is unwilling or unable to redress the balance, to push Israel into a settlement.”
What he fails to appreciate is that there is another kind of asymmetry, the asymmetry of legitimacy, in which Israel is too weak and the Palestinians are too strong — because Palestinians have justice on their side while the Zionist regime has only injustice on its side.
Israel’s international isolation is deepening every day and, as even Shlaim admits, no nation can remain isolated for long and survive.
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.