Avi Shlaim was more vehemently critical of Israel than the relatively dispassionate Khalidi. Nevertheless, Shlaim sees the Arab side, mainly Nasser, as being responsible for causing the 1967 Six Day War. This came up because both were preparing papers for a conference on the 1967 Six Day War. Interestingly, Khalidi went even further than Shlaim in blaming the Arab side, stating that Nasser was not very interested in the Israel/Palestine issue– focusing mostly on Yemen at the time– and that he gave in to pressures from Syria and the Palestinians to embark upon his confrontation with Israel.
In terms of his general view, Shlaim says that he accepts the “lachrymose history” of the Jews (a chronicle of disasters)– as dubbed and decried by Salo Baron, an iconic scholar of Jewish history– but only up to 1948. Shlaim sees the Jews as having been victims of history up to that point, and then “the boot was on the other foot” and the Jewish State of Israel has primarily been the victimizer ever since.
He repeated his published observation that Jewish forces actually outnumbered Arab combatants in the 1948 war. I’m familiar with this contention and don’t doubt his factual documentation. But I see it as a static and one-dimensional snapshot of a conflict that rapidly changed tides more than once. His statement tells us nothing about how well armed the warring sides were (or at what point Israel received substantial arms) or what forces had to be held back to guard population centers and how many were available to go on the attack. If his point is that Israel’s victory in 1948 was not “a miracle” — that it is explainable materially– he’s certainly correct. But if he’s arguing that the Jews were not seriously threatened by the Arabs in 1948, he is certainly wrong.
There is much more that needs to be said in this analysis. Israel’s casualties were high: one percent of the entire population (not just combatants) was killed and 2.5% wounded. Jewish Jerusalem, with its 100,000 inhabitants, was besieged for an extended amount of time and had to be relieved militarily. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell to Arab forces, as did the Etzion Bloc of settlements to the east of Jerusalem, and these areas were “ethnically cleansed.” I don’t for a moment deny the ultimately higher toll among the Arabs or that many suffered instances of great brutality– their “Nakba” was clearly a humanitarian disaster– but these were losses suffered by the side that had chosen to go to war and made it into a life-or-death struggle.
Other factors that go into this matter: the relative military experience and coordination of the opposing forces, the morale and motivations of the opposing combatants, and the availability of seasoned foreign volunteers. These mostly favored the Jews.
Which brings me back to Prof. Khalidi. I asked both scholars questions in the Q & A. Khalidi responded to my query on the pro-Nazi Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini that his role was minimal, because he spent the 1940s in exile. Khalidi also minimized the Mufti’s influence as a leader of the pro-Nazi rebellion in Iraq, and then stated that most Palestinian Arabs favored the Allies during World War II and that “thousands” had volunteered to serve in the British forces.
Khalidi further pointed out that referring to the Mufti has “iconic” value for Zionists in the debate over the historical merits of the two sides. While this is undoubtedly true, it doesn’t mean that the Palestinians should discount him as a major bad actor on their side. The Mufti’s actual impact on the events of 1948 may be debatable, but it obviously was not good.
I’d like to see figures on Khalidi’s assertion that so many Palestinians (“thousands”) had served with the British in WW 2; if this were true, I think that their forces would have been more difficult to defeat in ’48. One of the advantages that the Jews had in the ’48 war was that they had several thousand combat veterans who had in fact served with the British.
Prof. Shlaim responded to my question about King Hussein’s peace offering to Israel in the early 1970s. Shlaim indicated that he’s written on this in detail in his biography, “Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace,” including an index listing the “42 secret meetings” that Hussein held with Israeli leaders. He stated that King Hussein offered Israel a “total peace in exchange for total withdrawal.” Since this would corroborate my understanding that Golda Meir blew a peace treaty with Jordan prior to the Yom Kippur War, because she didn’t want to give up East Jerusalem, I need to do my homework and read up on this. In particular, I need to discover if there was any wiggle room in what Shlaim describes as Hussein’s demand for a complete withdrawal. If there was none– nothing regarding Israel’s access to the Western Wall or to Jewish-owned properties in the Jewish Quarter, or regarding the strategic Latrun Salient– then for the stronger power to give up all its gains on the demand of the weaker (who was also the aggressor in 1967), defies historical precedent. Shlaim may or may not be overly harsh in judging from this episode that Israel valued land over peace. But this is something I need to study.
Professors Shlaim and Khalidi are scholars who challenge Zionist understandings, but their arguments are not bullet-proof. It was a pity that there was nobody at the speakers’ table at this major university to represent a Zionist point of view, preferably a left-wing one. Why not, for example, the Queens College/CUNY historian, Mark Rosenblum– a founder and longtime spokesperson of Americans for Peace Now, who hosted Khalidi at pro-peace forums in the early ’90s? And now Benny Morris– the pioneer of the New Historians’ school of historiography who has gone “bad” with extremely un-PC understandings of the conflict — is in New York to lecture at NYU. Could we have possibly had a civilized three-way conversation? I would like to think so.