Killing the past. As guardians of a people's self-image, historians define the terrain on which wars of national identity are fought - and nowhere more so than in Palestine. By Stephen Howe

The Road to Jerusalem: Glubb Pasha, Palestine and the Jews

Benny Morris <em>IB Tauris, 297pp, £24.

All wars, in a sense, are history wars. Their protagonists are driven by rival visions of the past, and people are willing to kill or die for those visions, at least as much as they are for ideas about the future. The unending violence between Israelis and Palestinians is a particularly extreme case. There, historians themselves are combatants, whether they are working to sustain the national myths that fuel the conflict, or trying to undermine them.

The modern Middle East has been shaped by two decisive wars. The conflict of 1948 ended in the creation of Israel and the concurrent destruction of Palestinian Arab society. For Israelis, this was their "war of independence". For Palestinians, it was al-Nakba, the catastrophe. For those Arab states newly emergent from colonial rule, it was their first great post-colonial crisis. Their governments' failures in the war set the powder trail for numerous regime changes, endemic instability, the rise of radical nationalism, military rule and, later, militant Islamism.

In June 1967, the long Arab-Israeli cold war escalated into armed conflict. Israel was again victorious, and far more swiftly and sweepingly so than in 1948. It was all over, as they say, in six days. In truth, Israel's triumph was assured in the first couple of hours with the destruction of the main Arab air forces, mostly before they could even leave the ground. By the end, Israel had occupied the remainder of historic Palestine-Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza - as well as swathes of Egypt and Syria. Its era as a regional superpower had begun, as had the peculiar mixture of triumphalism and insecurity that continues to haunt its politics.

In the aftermath of each war, the states involved began constructing their own official histories of the conflicts. The versions presented by, or on behalf of, the Arab states were largely self-justifying, censored narratives, while a full-fledged Palestinian historical narrative was slower to take shape. This has meant that, often, the most revealing visions of the Palestinian experience of dispersal, exile and occupation have come not from academic historiography or political polemic, but from personal memoirs. Raja Shehadeh's Strangers in the House is a poignant addition to that literature. Concentrating on the author's tortured relationship with his father, Aziz, it is not an overtly political book, but its intimate portrayal of one family's history offers important insights into the wider Palestinian story.

Israeli history-writing was always more varied and critical, but it, too, mainly reflected a nationalist consensus. According to that story, in 1948, 1967 and beyond, Israel's leaders had sought peace but met only rejection and hatred from the Arabs. Israeli victories were seen not as US-sponsored successes, but near-miraculous triumphs of the weak and virtuous over the powerful and wicked. Israel had sought neither the exodus of Palestinian refugees in 1948 nor the occupation of Arab lands in 1967.

A self-congratulatory, indeed near-mythical, vision of the Israeli past has since been sharply reappraised by a group of youngish historians who include Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim. Although they were often called "revisionists", they themselves preferred the more flattering self-designation "new historians". Using newly available archive sources, they scrutinised the standard claims and found most of them suspect. Their work - especially on the 1948 war and Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus - aroused intense controversy in Israel and beyond. They induced new kinds of national self-doubt and even trauma. But their more sceptical, self-critical stance also, by the late 1990s, began to reshape representations of national history in literature and the arts, in the cinema and television, in school textbooks, and in museums and other heritage sites.

If certain left-wingers and Palestinians criticise the "revisionists" for being insufficiently bold in their challenge to Israeli orthodoxies, a far greater weight of attack comes from the opposite direction. The questioning of the official story is viewed by some - including, not surprisingly, Israel's current prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and the education minister, Limor Livnat - as undermining the moral legitimacy of the entire national enterprise. The new historians have been denounced as unpatriotic, indeed as anti-Semitic (a standard response in Israel to criticism today). As such, they are a part - even the spearhead - of a general trend toward cosmopolitanism, liberalism, consumerism, excessive individualism and rootlessness, which right-wingers fear are destroying Israel from within.

Friendlier observers recognised the efforts of the new historians as laying the intellectual foundations for the peace process of the mid-to-late 1990s. Today, that process is in a critical condition, if not dead. The future of the past is even more uncertain than usual. In place of the optimism of recent years, Israeli and Palestinian historians are as anguished and divided as the rest of society. Benny Morris, the most influential of the new historians, has swung hard to the political right. The Palestinians' misfortunes, he believes, must be blamed on their own leaders' past and present folly. Morris's earlier historical reinterpretations were read as offering support for the aims of Israeli "doves". But his own political attitudes are increasingly hawkish.

The relationship of history-writing to politics is even more bitterly contentious in the Middle East than it is in Ireland or Germany. But it has its own particular twist. For historians, the events of 1948 are the crucial fulcrum of debate. Yet the peace process of the 1990s was driven by a need to reach an accommodation based on undoing the consequences not of 1948, but of 1967. The fate of Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants was supposed to be part of the "final status" negotiations. Most Palestinians believe that the end of the conflict and historical reconciliation are about accommodation with the legacies of 1948. This means that Israelis must recognise that their state was created through ethnic cleansing. It must involve an admission of historical responsibility - if not guilt - accompanied by practical restitution: a "right of return" for Palestinian refugees to their or their forebears' pre-1948 homes. Yet even among those Israelis usually identified as pro-Palestinian, it is widely believed that acceding to such demands would amount to national suicide.

Benny Morris's latest book is about John Bagot Glubb, the expatriate British general who, as commander of the Arab Legion in Transjordan, was Israel's most formidable opponent in the 1948 battles. Glubb was also an influential power-broker. To Arab nationalists, he was the key agent of British neocolonialism in the region. But Morris's study of his career is a disappointment. For the first time in all his work, his burrowing in the archives produces no important revelations, and his account of the 1948 war adds little to what he and others have previously written. The Road to Jerusalem is in places overtly opinionated and didactic; his style betrays his new, more hardline political attitude.

The 1967 war, short though it was, has already prompted an astonishing amount of literature, perhaps more even than that concerned with 1948. Until recently, few of these accounts were based on a wide range of primary sources. Only now, with the opening of Israeli and other state archives under the "30-year rule", is it possible to produce for 1967 the kind of penetrating, myth-exploding account that Morris and others did for 1948. Michael B Oren has certainly delved widely into Israeli, American and British archives. He has interviewed many participants. Unlike most Israeli historians, "old" or "new", he has made substantial use of Arab sources, too. But Oren is no revisionist in the style of Pappe, Shlaim or the younger Morris. He is a former Israeli government policy adviser, a fellow of the right-wing Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Yet he has produced a more balanced, detailed and honest account than might be expected from such a background.

He argues persuasively that none of the contending parties really wanted or expected the war, and that although President Nasser of Egypt made stridently belligerent noises, his actual preparations for combat were far less effectual than Israel's. Oren's survey of the aftermath and consequences of 1967 is, by contrast, disappointingly thin.

Among the consequences of 1967 was Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. At the time, there were not many people, even in Israel's government, who expected it to last more than a few months. But as the occupation stretched across years and then decades, with successive governments sponsoring illegal settlements, it added fearsomely combustible new elements to Israel's already volatile social and political mix. There have been innumerable attempts to map that complexity and to produce a comprehensive analysis of Israeli society. Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled's Being Israeli may well be the most sophisticated so far, and perhaps the most challenging. It is certainly more laborious than Oren or Morris. But there are important insights, and the authors align themselves closely with the heretical views of the new historians - arguing, for instance, that settler colonialism is one of the keys to understanding Israel's development.

Who will win the battles over interpreting the Israeli past? Will it be the left-wing, post-Zionist "new historians", such as Pappe and the young Morris, or more conservative, nationalistic scholars - Oren or the older Morris, for example? In truth, such speculation is pointless. The process of revising history is unceasing; and, in Israel, its results and reception will inevitably be overdetermined by political events. At present, while Israel's historians struggle over the meaning of their past, the gulf between them and their Palestinian counterparts grows ever wider. In the 1990s, it appeared to be narrowing, although, even then, academic conferences seldom brought Israeli and Palestinian historians together. Today, history, like so much else in that blighted land, is in thrall to the crude, unrelenting violence of clashing nationalisms.

Stephen Howe's Empire: a very short introduction is published by Oxford University Press in August