Sunday, April 13, 2008

Getting History Wrong

Shimon Shamir is a very important scholar on the Arab world, who also served as an Israeli ambassador to Egypt and our first ambassador to Jordan. Here he reviews a new biography of King Hussein, by Avi Shlaim, a self-professed anti-Zionist Israeli historian who lives and teaches in London. It appears this newest book of his may be less dreadful than some of his previous work - or perhaps simply Shamir's diplomatic training inhibits him from being direct (which means he'd be a poor blogger). One redeeming feature of the review is that Shamir brings a lot of what he himself knows, so that's interesting.

Down near the bottom, Shamir brings some examples where Shlaim relies more than is reasonable on the testimony of people he interviewed. The examples are interesting on their own, but the reason I'm bringing them is that they show how players can be convinced they know what's going on and why things are happened, and still the documents will show that they've got it all wrong. A cautionary tale.
Discussing the crisis that erupted between Jordan and Israel due to the expropriations of lands in East Jerusalem, Shlaim bases his position on an interview with Jordanian diplomat and minister Marwan Muasher, and asserts that what brought Rabin to cancel the expropriations was a letter from King Hussein. Muasher's version does indeed reflect the way in which the Jordanians like to see the end of that story - but the truth is different: Rabin rejected all the pleas, from home and from abroad, to change his mind. I myself came especially from Amman to inform Rabin about the severe damage the affair had caused to relations, but he did not budge. The real end, which is reliably documented, came from a completely different source: the right-wing opposition in the Knesset hastily joined a no-confidence motion by the Arab factions and Rabin was forced to cancel the expropriations in order to save his government.

Shlaim's discussion of the secret meeting, at a Mossad installation, between Hussein and Golda Meir, at which he ostensibly warned Israel 11 days before the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is largely based on his interviews with three of the four main participants in that meeting: King Hussein; his prime minister, Zeid Rifai; and the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Mordechai Gazit (Meir, of course, was no longer alive). Hussein told Shlaim that he was not privy to the war plan and had no knowledge about its timing; Rifai asserted strongly that Hussein could not have warned about the war, because he would not have betrayed the Arabs for Israel's sake; and Gazit said the king had not come at all to warn Meir of an approaching war but for a different purpose.

The catch is that each of Shlaim's three informants had a transparent agenda: Hussein and Rifai wanted to cleanse themselves of the suspicion that they had acted as "collaborators" with Israeli intelligence, and Gazit did not want Golda Meir to be blamed for another blunder. Shlaim would have done better had he noted that meticulous studies of the subject came up with different results: It has been found, for example, that Hussein had warned of a war even prior to that meeting, and even though there were Israelis who were skeptical about Hussein's alert, most of them understood his message as warning of a war, and that this, incidentally, is also how Hussein described his meeting to agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

All of this should have led Shlaim to make a distinction between two things: Though Hussein did not tell the Israelis the details of the war plan, because he was not informed about them, he did know very well that a war was imminent, and at the meeting that he initiated in haste, he definitely did warn Israel of it. Naturally, Hussein's motive was not to serve Israeli intelligence but rather to prevent the eruption of a war that was liable to endanger his kingdom.

No comments: