September 19, 2016 - Special edition – Books of note


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses books! The best book on the Arab revolutionary wave, books on additional causes for the current chaos in the Arab world, books on the Arab revolutions that add a more human dimension, on the US role in the Middle East before the Arab revolutions, and on Israel and the Palestinians.

Books of interest on Israel and especially the Middle East


Q. The past five years of Middle East turmoil must have produced some interesting expert writing. What’s the best book you’ve read lately on the Arab revolutionary wave?

A. Probably Jean-Pierre Filiu’s From Deep State to Islamic State: the Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihad Legacy (2015, Cerie Series in Comparative Politics and International Studies, Hurst Publishers). Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs, is an accomplished historian and Arabist. In From Deep State, he discusses the Arab dictators who were swept away in the revolutions of 2011 (Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Saleh in Yemen) as “Mamluks”.

The term Mamluk literally means slave and was originally applied to a knightly military caste of non-Arab--Turkic, Albanian, Circassian and southern Slav--slave origin whose dynasty ruled large parts of the Arab world during the late Middle Ages. Filiu uses it to suggest the military origins of many Arab rulers to this day. The “deep state”, a concept that originated in Kemalist Turkey, is the security state-within-a-state the pre-2011 Arab rulers maintained to stay in power, get reelected when necessary, and suppress all opposition. And the Islamic state, of course, suggests the dominance of Islamists among today’s revolutionary opposition--the inevitable outcome of “Mamluk” rule.

Filiu analyzes the Arab revolutions only in terms of their dictatorial deep state predecessors. Of course there were, and are, many additional causes for the current chaos in the Arab world.


Q. Such as?

A. Two recent books come to mind. Emma Sky’s The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (2015, Public Affairs and Atlantic Books) is a riveting and entertaining hands-on description of the failure of the 2003 US/UK invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation. Sky was there, as an adviser on Arab issues to Raymond Odierno and additional American generals. If you assess, as I do, that the US fiasco in Iraq was a primary trigger for the unraveling of the entire Arab world, this is important reading.

An attempt to give the US military role historical depth is offered by Andrew Bacevich in America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (2016, Penguin Random House). Bacevich reaches back to the US role in Afghanistan, two wars against Iraq and even American military involvement in Somalia, Beirut and as far afield as Bosnia to discuss a chain of poor strategic calculations regarding realistic war goals, failures to grasp the roles of religion and ideology in the region and a dangerous tendency to personalize the enemy (e.g., Saddam in Iraq, Milosevich in Serbia, Aidid in Somalia). The book offers a sweeping view of the American contribution to Middle East chaos. Here and there, however, it is marred by the tendency of the author, himself a former senior US Army officer, to harbor grudges toward virtually every one of his former superiors.


Q. And books on the Arab revolutions that add a more human dimension?

A. Another panoramic view, this time of the entire geography of the Arab Middle East, is provided by Robert F. Worth, a distinguished NY Times correspondent, in A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir square to ISIS (2016, Farrar, Strauss and Giraux, New York). Worth uses the stories of individual Arabs caught up in the revolutions to describe the Arab Spring over the past five years in highly personal terms that shed light on many additional dimensions of the drama.

A somewhat similar approach, nearly book-length, was published in the NY Times Magazine recently, on August 12. Scott Anderson’s “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart” also uses personal stories from across the Arab world. They are engaging; they represent a concerted effort over five years to follow the fortunes of a fascinating cross-section of Arabs caught up in the revolutionary wave. But like Worth--and with the exception of a solid introduction--they don’t really give us the strategic dimension.<

Anderson’s long treatment, incidentally, is accompanied by photos taken by Paolo Pellegrin over the past five years. They add an engaging dimension--with the sole exception of photos of Lebanese victims of Israeli bombing during the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Needless to say, this had nothing to do with the Arab revolutions--nor does Anderson make any claims to that effect. It looks more like the photographer, or an editor, had a private score to settle at the expense of objectivity.


Q. Anything else to recommend on the US role in the Middle East before the Arab revolutions?

A. Bruce Riedel’s What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-89 (2014, Brookings Institution Press) offers a fascinating insider’s story of the CIA operation to mount an Islamist resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. This was a low-cost, clandestine project, in partnership with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that proved to be a key factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Of course, like all complex and successful clandestine intelligence operations, this one too had at least one significant negative side effect: it helped install an extremist Islamist regime in Kabul, which in turn sheltered and nurtured al-Qaeda, which was followed in Iraq and Syria by ISIS. Riedel, a former senior CIA and National Security Council Middle East expert, acknowledges that at the time no assessment was undertaken as to the ramifications for the Arab world of the Mujahideen victory in Afghanistan.


Q. To round off the list, something on Israel and the Palestinians?

A. Something quite unique: Zionism in Arab Discourses, by Uriya Shavit and Ophir Winter, both of Tel Aviv University (2016, Manchester University Press). Shavit and Winter delved back 100 years and more into the early stages of Zionist settlement in Palestine to explore the initial Arab reaction.

It was a more innocent time. The Arabs of Palestine expressed open admiration for Zionist accomplishments like the Technion in Haifa. In 1914, the Arab mayor of Jaffa wanted Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff to take over Jaffa as well and develop it as he did Tel Aviv. A secular Palestinian Arab opined that the soil belonged to whoever worked it--meaning the Zionist farmer--even if he had not owned it for long.

But some things have not changed. Palestinian Arabs, whether Islamist or secular, were generally unable to accept the Jews as a people, much less a secular people. Admiration for Zionist accomplishments quickly became mixed with hatred for Zionism itself. One prophetic Arab statement from a century ago seemed to sum it up: ‘If they are a Jewish state, then we are Islamist states’.