The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs, the 1998 TV Series

Nor­ma Per­cy has pro­duced doc­u­men­taries on some the world’s most volatile regions, with The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Iran and the West (2009), The Iraq War (2013) and most recent­ly, Putin Vs the West (2023), which was reviewed by me ear­li­er here

But in 1998 she made a six part series on what is sure­ly the most con­test­ed cor­ner of the entire globe; The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs.

What Per­cy man­ages to do, some­how, is to per­suade prac­ti­cal­ly every sin­gle one of the prin­ci­ple play­ers to sit down and talk to her, on the record. The rea­son they agree to do so is that she allows them to artic­u­late their views, what­ev­er they are, which she presents in a trans­par­ent and entire­ly neu­tral manner. 

Here, we hear from a host of Israeli defence, for­eign and prime min­is­ters, includ­ing Ben­jamin Netanyahu, Shi­mon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, a wide range of com­bat­ants, nego­tia­tors and min­sters from both the PLO and a num­ber of its splin­ter groups, from for­mer U.S. pres­i­dents Jim­my Carter, George Bush and Bill Clin­ton, from for­mer KGB oper­a­tives, Jordan’s King Hus­sein and from an array of senior diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary fig­ures from every cor­ner of the region.

It’s both com­pre­hen­sive and con­sis­tent­ly illu­mi­nat­ing, with prob­a­bly the most sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tion being the fact that it was in fact the Rus­sians who’d qui­et­ly trig­gered the Six-Day War in June of 1967.

They’d looked at how stretched the Amer­i­cans were over in Viet­nam, and had con­clud­ed that open­ing up a sec­ond war front in the Mid­dle East could be the final nail in their cof­fin. So they put a great deal of effort into con­vinc­ing every­one in the region that the Israelis were amass­ing troops on their bor­der with Syr­ia. Which, plain­ly, they were not. 

They even went so far as to try and con­vince the Israelis that that was what they were doing, even though they knew per­fect­ly well that they were mak­ing the whole thing up!

Then, in the after­math of that war, after Yass­er Arafat and the PLO had plant­ed them­selves in Jor­dan, a fac­tion with­in the PLO took it upon them­selves to go to war with their hosts, on the grounds that they clear­ly weren’t being suf­fi­cient­ly sup­port­ive of them. 

And before he knew it, King Hus­sein found him­self under attack from Russ­ian-pro­vid­ed Syr­i­an tanks that were on their way to Jor­dan, fund­ed and sup­port­ed by Egypt, to help their Pales­tin­ian broth­ers with their fight against the Jor­da­ni­ans. Arab against Arab. 

So the King turned to the only mil­i­tary force capa­ble of com­ing to his aid. But the Amer­i­cans insist­ed that they could have noth­ing to do with what was going on. It would have to be the Israelis. So the King of Jor­dan was final­ly res­cued by the arrival of Israeli jets, that sent the Syr­i­an tanks scur­ry­ing back to whence they’d set off from. 

King Hus­sein of Jor­dan, by the way, exudes effort­less grace and charm, and is the most mar­vel­lous adver­tise­ment for breed­ing and the kind of edu­ca­tion that only obscene wealth can pro­vide you with. And the con­trast he pro­vides to the sight of those sim­i­lar­ly schooled clowns who’ve been knock­ing the fur­ni­ture over in West­min­ster for the past decade or so is, to put it mild­ly, stark.

There are, inevitably, one or two gaps. I was sur­prised that there was no ref­er­ence to the way in which the price of oil was used by the Arab coun­tries in the wake of the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973. Notwith­stand­ing which, this is a land­mark tele­vi­sion series. 

But it’s impos­si­ble not to note that, for all the vio­lence, blood­shed and hatred that was then in the air, when the series end­ed in 1998, that was, we now know, a high point in Israeli-Arab relations. 

What­ev­er about the first 50 years, the next 25 would, unimag­in­ably, see a sig­nif­i­cant deterioration.

Very unusu­al­ly, you can see all 6 episodes on YouTube:

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