The Bride and the Dowry by Avi Raz is a penetrating new book that explores newly opened archives to uncover how and why Israeli-Arab peacemaking negotiations failed in the crucial years after the Six Day War of 1967. In this exclusive extract, the author provides a fascinating introduction to his controversial and illuminating book.
More than two decades ago, in a Tel Aviv bookstore, I stumbled upon a new book entitled Shnat Shabak— The year of the Shabak. I was intrigued. Shabak is the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s General Security Service, the excessively secretive agency whose operations have always been shrouded in mystery. The book, written by David Ronen, a retired top- brass GSS officer, was about the activities of the GSS in the West Bank in the first year of its occupation in the Six Day War of June 1967. One passage in particular aroused my curiosity. The passage describes the GSS political contacts with prominent West Bank Palestinians in the summer and fall of 1967, and argues that many of the local leaders were willing to work for some kind of bilateral accommodation between themselves and Israel. The author concludes that the opportunity for a peace settlement was missed largely because of Israel’s inchoate, occasionally inconsistent, policy.
I was struck by this fascinating, hitherto unknown story. Being a journalist at the time, I interviewed David Ronen. In the interview he went even farther. During the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Ronen said, it had been agreed that Sheikh Muhammad ‘Ali al- Ja‘bari, the magisterial mayor of Hebron, would be the prime minister of a new West Bank Palestinian state, and the only remaining decision was whether Hebron or Ramallah should be the seat of government.
I was determined to pursue the matter more thoroughly. I am an Israeli, and the Arab- Israeli conflict concerns me deeply. My life has often been affected, and at times dominated, by the conflict. I fought in some of the Arab- Israeli wars and covered some as a journalist. Over the years, the knowledge I acquired of Israel’s history, as well as my firsthand experience, has led me to question the official Israeli line that since its foundation in 1948 Israel has indefatigably extended its hand in peace to the surrounding hostile neighbors but has always been rejected. Since the late 1980s my doubts have been supported by archival-based studies on the first Arab- Israeli war of 1948 and the early years of the State of Israel. The passage in Ronen’s book seemed also to undermine the traditional Israeli claim that there was no one to talk to on the Arab side in later years. In practical terms it offered a starting point for research which would challenge the generally accepted Israeli argument by examining the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 War in the light of the available historical evidence.
But soon my journalistic assignments abroad— first in the United States and then in the Soviet Union– becoming–Russia—and other professional and personal commitments compelled me to delay my inquiry. I returned to the subject a decade later as an academic, during my doctoral studies at the University of Oxford. By then many more relevant records had been declassified in Israeli, American, British, and United Nations archives, thereby providing invaluable ingredients for a fuller reconstruction of the past.
Early on I discovered that Ronen’s narrative was inaccurate: the GSS contacts with West Bank leaders were in fact designed to transform as many of them as possible into collaborators. But Ronen was correct in arguing that the Israeli government’s approach frustrated the quest for a peace settlement with the West Bank Palestinians during the initial months of the occupation. However, the true story of the political maneuvering in the first formative years of the postwar era was far more remarkable. The Israeli search for Palestinian quislings was just one episode in what became a broader and complex effort to maintain the territorial status quo created by the military victory in the Six Day War. This effort, which involved King Hussein of Jordan as well as the West Bank political elite who were alike eager to reach a peaceful settlement with Israel, was mainly directed at the United States and amounted to a consistent foreign policy of prevarication. Its aim was to mislead the Americans into thinking that Israel was seriously trying to resolve the Arab- Israeli conflict.
This is in a nutshell what The Bride and the Dowry is about. Its narrative and conclusions are the result of years of painstaking research, relying predominantly on many thousands of official records obtained from numerous archives on three continents. Some might argue that inevitably this work is colored by my Israeli background and by my emotional and practical involvement in the Arab- Israeli conflict. Indeed, no historical study can ever be objective. Any historical writing reflects the historian’s personal convictions and prejudices, no matter how hard he or she may strive to cast them aside. In dealing with the Arab- Israeli conflict— still unresolved and raging— an Israeli historian faces an additional hurdle. The Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua addresses this issue in The Liberated Bride. The protagonist, a university professor of “Orientalism”—mizrahanut, Middle Eastern studies— maintains that Israeli scholars specializing in the Middle East
are caught in a double bind. On the one hand, they are suspected by both the world and themselves of being unduly pessimistic about the Arab world because of Israel’s conflict with it. And on the other hand, they are accused of unrealistic optimism because of their deep craving for peace. For the Israeli scholar, whether he likes to admit it or not, Orientalism is not just a field of research. It is a vocation involving life-and-death questions affecting our own and our children’s future… We are the Arabs’ neighbors and even their hostages— participants in their destiny who are unavoidably part of what we study.
Much of this is true. As I have conceded, I am not an indifferent bystander. Even when investigating events which took place four and a half decades ago, I have had difficulty detaching myself from the tragic present. Problems created or left unsettled during the early days of the June 1967 occupation later reemerged, sometimes assuming enormous proportions. The Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are an obvious case in point: to this day they constitute one of the principal obstacles to peace in the region. In producing this book, however, I have been inspired not by current events or by any political agenda, but by the empirical evidence alone. This point must be stressed because the study of the Arab-Israeli conflict is fraught with bias and propaganda, frequently disguised as academic work. As early as 1938 George Antonius, the Lebanese- born Palestinian historian, cautioned in The Arab Awakening that
the most formidable obstacle to an understanding, and therefore to a solution, of the Palestine problem lies not so much in its inherent complexity as in the solid jungle of legend and propaganda which has grown up around it. To the ordinary tasks of a student dealing with the facts is thus added an obligation to deal with pseudo-facts and dethrone them from their illegitimate eminence. It is as much his duty to expose the fallacies as to assert the truth.
These words remain valid today. On both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide are writers—including academics—who have abandoned responsible scholarship in favor of partisan polemics. As a result, even well-founded studies too often seem biased to apologists of one of the parties to the conflict who reject any criticism of their own side. Proving that a work is biased requires demonstrating that it is unsupported by reliable evidence; uncomfortable narrative and conclusions are not ipso facto biased. The archival and other sources this book brings to bear fully substantiate its version of events and arguments.
Avi Raz is associate member of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, and research fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford, specializing in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was formerly a journalist at a leading Israeli daily, where his assignments abroad included bureau chief in New York and Moscow. He lives in Oxford.
The Bride and the Dowry: Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians in the Aftermath of the June 1967 War is available now from Yale University Press.