As one might expect from an atlas, this book is composed entirely of maps, though these are overlaid with many text boxes containing descriptions of events, statistics, and so on. The format is rigidly adhered to even where it serves no useful purpose – to the extent of including maps showing the itineraries of US diplomats travelling for talks in the Middle East. The maps have been prepared by the author over an extended period, with many dating back to the 1970s. There are no references, no index, and no bibliography.

The textual content of the book is nevertheless substantial. In its boxed, bullet-point style, it presents a familiar historical narrative: Jews seeking to return to the Promised Land, rejected by the Arabs who would benefit by their arrival, forced to fight for their very existence; Arab countries justly punished for their belligerence by losing territory to their peace-loving new neighbour. It is a narrative sustained by a prejudiced and highly selective presentation.

First there is the political geography. The Green Line – when it is shown at all – is universally described as “Israel's border until 1967”. Gilbert completely avoids any use of the word occupied: whatever all the countries of the world outside Israel might call them, there are no “Occupied Territories”, and certainly no “occupied Palestinian territories”.

Then there are the ubiquitous quotes. Only international figures favouring the Israeli side are quoted: we hear, for instance, from Winston Churchill but not from Mahatma Gandhi. In almost every case, Gilbert selects Arab quotes that are inflammatory and sinister, while the quotes of Israeli leaders are invariably moderate and principled. And throughout, quotes intended for public consumption are used when others would be more telling. Thus we are treated to David Ben-Gurion's “It is our belief that a great Jewish community, a free Jewish nation, in Palestine, with a large scope for its activities, will be of great benefit to our Arab neighbours” but not his “If I was an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country”; Golda Meir's “the spirit of our people ... is a spirit of a people that hates war” but not Moshe Dayan's “let us hope for a new war with the Arab countries, so that we may finally get rid of our troubles and acquire space”; Hafez al-Assad's “We have never committed ourselves, nor shall we ever do so, to restrict terrorist activities”[1] but not Yitzhak Shamir's “neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat.”

Maps early in the book show the locations of violent incidents in Mandate Palestine. In the absence of any accompanying analytic insight, one might wonder at the purpose of enumerating many individual incidents in which relatively few people died, especially when this cannot be done comprehensively. The mistake is to assume these maps are at least representative: they are not. In particular, although violence between the British army and Palestinians is included, Zionist terrorism directed against the British – which killed hundreds during the Mandate period – has been carefully omitted. Thus Gilbert dulls the reader with ostensibly diligent catalogues of four Jews killed here and three Arabs there, but the bombing of the King David Hotel (91 dead) is nowhere. The effect is to portray Zionist militias as acting in alliance with the forces of law and order and Western civilization: part of the good Us versus the bad Them. Of course, mentioning anti-British Zionist violence would also have suggested to alert readers that Zionist groups did not feel themselves to be in need of British protection – undermining the notion that they overcame enormous odds in the 1948 war.

The Palestinian refugees of 1948 are introduced like this: “From mid-April, Arabs began to leave their villages in large numbers, encouraged by their leaders.” So, it was because of their feckless leaders that the Palestinians fled, not because they were driven from their homes at gunpoint or because of the panic induced by the 9 April Deir Yassin massacre. Deir Yassin is easy to miss in this book: though by far the biggest atrocity on the map entitled “The Battle for the Jerusalem Roads”, it is accorded just six words. Gilbert shifts easily from denying ethnic cleansing to justifying it: “The transfer of populations on a massive scale, whether as a result of war or statecraft, has been a constant feature of twentieth century history”; without irony, he then compares the unwillingness of Palestinians to accept their “transfer” unfavourably with the readiness of Israeli Jews to start new lives on the land taken from the Palestinians. By the time Gilbert reaches his 1989 map, the refugee problem has nothing at all to do with Israel: “The continued reluctance of Arab states to absorb the Palestinian refugees in their midst, and the political desire of many Palestinians to retain their identity and status as a dispossessed people, led to the perpetuation of the refugee camps set up in 1948 and 1967.” In Gilbert's account, Palestinians became refugees because they wanted to leave, and they remain refugees because they want to return: they are constant only in their determination to be dispossessed.

Valiant attempts at neutrality are rare and quickly abandoned. In his first map on Israeli "targeted assassinations", Gilbert writes about Palestinians Israel “accused” of organizing and preparing terrorist acts; on the following pages, the accused glibly become those who “were” planning terrorist acts. When the author mentions that children were killed in these Israeli attacks, he feels compelled to stress that they were “anti-terror” attacks: evidently, he recognizes the danger that a reader not instructed what to think might form a contrary opinion. In what may be errors of arithmetic, based on his own maps, Gilbert also understates three out of four of his Palestinian fatality totals. And while he reports opposition to and “distress” at these killings, he has no room for statements by governments and NGOs that they are illegal under international law.

International law and what it has to say about such matters as the refugees and the Israeli settlements doesn't exist in this book. As evidence of what an enlightened nation Israel is, great weight is attached to an Israeli High Court decision in 2004 that the Wall should be rerouted; the more embarrassing International Court of Justice finding of the same year that the Wall is illegal is not mentioned. Indeed, it seems the purported effectiveness of Israeli actions is the principal measure of their morality: “A fifteen-year-old would-be suicide bomber [was] taken to an Israeli checkpoint by his grandfather and made to surrender. The grandfather did not want the family home to be blown up as a reprisal for his grandson's act.” Does Gilbert want us to believe not just that collective punishment works, but that it works because Palestinians love their homes more than their children?

When he decides he has done enough to convince us which side is the side of reason and righteousness, Gilbert goes on to demonstrate Israel's magnanimity. To this end, he describes peace initiatives designed to help Israelis and Palestinians to live together – as if there were no underlying injustice to address but only irrational ill-feeling to be soothed with community programmes. These Gilbert uses like Band Aids on an amputation. There are surreal, feel-good text boxes such as “Palestinian and Israeli fashion designers launch the Peace Women collection.” One map, with the grand title “Industrial Parks and a New Era”, informs us that “One aim of the Industrial Parks is to encourage the return of both Israelis and Palestinians from their respective diasporas” – a piece of PR contemptuous of the reader, divorced as it is from the reality of a Palestinian diaspora denied their right to return. And are these the same industrial parks where Israeli employers get Palestinian employees (only) to work long hours in poor or dangerous conditions for much less than the Israeli minimum wage? Where, according to Haaretz, the Palestinians are liable to be fired without pay or compensation if a workplace accident leaves them unable to work?

What is omitted is significant throughout. The states condemning Zionism at the United Nations in 1975 are distinguished by colour on a world map; unmapped and unmentioned are the many UN resolutions unfavourable to Israel which have been passed almost unanimously. The Irgun – led by Menechem Begin, who was to become Prime Minister of Israel – are anonymous and minimized as “a small group of Jewish extremists”. Gilbert presents as a generous act the ending of military rule over Palestinian Israelis in 1966, while saying nothing of the abuses perpetrated during the preceding 18 years of martial law. Similarly, the provision of services to Palestinian citizens of Israel appears as a gift from the state (as if they were not taxpayers), and there is no hint that even today many Palestinian Israeli villages still receive no electricity or other basic services. A whole section of the book is given over to the 1973 war but Sadat's favourable peace offer that preceded it does not merit a mention. There is no map of aquifers, no statistics on how much water Israel takes from the occupied territories. There are no maps showing how little of Palestine's land was legally owned by Jews prior to Israel's declaration of independence or how much (stolen) land is now state-owned and reserved exclusively for Jews. Choosing his words carefully, Gilbert tells us that just 0.5% of Palestinian-owned West Bank land was expropriated for "constructing" the Wall; the amount of the West Bank annexed by the Wall isn't given. On and on it goes.

Martin Gilbert is clearly in the service of a cause he feels to be greater than the mere facts of history or geography. Readers expecting to find the objective reference suggested by the word Atlas will instead be told a story seen through a misty, squinting eye.

Book review © 2007, 2009 Michael Breen

[1] Quote unverified: Gilbert's source/translation unknown.