Hard Questions, Tough Answers - Annual Middle East book review edition (June 7, 2022)


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.

Q: Perhaps you should start with a very contemporary work, Trump’s Peace, by Barak Ravid.

A: I’ll offer only three short comments, because this much-talked about book is thus far available only in Hebrew or, in English, in a Kindle edition. First, if you closely followed the ins and outs of the Trump and Netanyahu maneuvering that brought about the Abraham Accords--normalizing Israel’s relations with three Arab countries just two years ago--this book will not add a great deal. On the other hand, if you did not follow the Trump-Kushner-Netanyahu maneuvering, this is a good place to catch up.

Second, the author, Ravid, tends to insert himself into the narrative too much, as if he were a ‘player’ and not a journalist chronicler.

And third, Ravid writes a bit like a latecomer. Israeli semi-clandestine relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco go back decades, when they involved primarily the Mossad and only secondarily if at all the Israel Foreign Ministry. Relations with Sudan, which was supposed to fill a fourth normalization slot but thus far has not, go all the way back to the 1950s. Little of any of this is mentioned in Trump’s Peace.

Still, the author’s now famous interview with ex-president Trump (“Fuck Bibi”) might just be worth buying the book.


Q: In contrast, Bruce Riedel, who was in the CIA when you were in the Mossad, has in recent years published three chronicles of past American involvement in the greater Middle East.

A: All three were published by The Brookings Institution, where Riedel spent years after distinguished service in the CIA and National Security Council. And all three are written with a light and engaging touch.

Beirut 1958: How America’s Wars in the Middle East Began looks at the first US armed intervention in the region, the Marine landing on the beaches of Beirut. This one ended relatively benignly compared to what followed. For Riedel, the son of a United Nations worker who witnessed the intervention as a young boy, it would turn out to be the beginning of a long Middle East career.

What We Won: America’s Secret War in Afghanistan 1979-89 tells the story of another rare and effective US intervention, this time chronicling CIA support for the Afghan mujahidin defeat of the Soviets. Note that the secret war that Riedel describes helped not only to bring down the Soviet Union. It also helped create Al Qaeda and empower Osama bin Laden to attack the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001. Following 9/11, Riedel’s secret war would be followed by a far less secret, less successful and even longer US intervention in Afghanistan--one that just ended dismally.

Finally, Jordan and America: An Enduring Friendship reviews more than 70 years of relations between Amman and Washington. The focus is on the two kings who have ruled Jordan during all this time, Hussein and Abdullah II, and their interaction with a series of US administrations, from Truman to Trump. This book is a must for anyone who intends to deal diplomatically or on the intelligence level with the Hashemite Kingdom.


Q: Another accomplished veteran of US government service, Fred Hof, has recently chronicled his unique mission of mediating between Israel and Syria just over a decade ago . . .

A: Hof’s book,Reaching for the Heights: The Inside Story of a Secret Attempt to Reach a Syrian-Israeli Peace, is being published this spring by the United States Institute of Peace Press. It covers the period 2009-2011, when Hof mediated on behalf of the State Department between Syria’s President Bashar Assad and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The primary trade-off they talked about was for Israel to turn over the Golan Heights to Syria, in return for which Syria would cut its ties with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

How serious was either side, we may never know. By early 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions reached Syria, Assad had begun butchering his own citizens. That ended Hof’s mission. To date, this was the last time Israel and Syria negotiated. It is hard to imagine any Israeli leader, from Likud to Meretz, again contemplating talking to the Assad regime with its brutal and bloody legacy. But if that does happen, Hof’s book will be compulsory reading for the negotiators: Israeli, Syrian and American.

Hof’s aspiration to negotiate peace between Syria and Israel was born when he was a 16-year-old exchange student in Syria. (Note the interesting parallel to Riedel’s youth; those youthful sojourns in the Arab world have produced good diplomacy and good books.) After 2011, Hof was involved in Lebanon-Israel talks about delineating the two neighbors’ maritime boundary in order to enable Lebanese drilling for natural gas below the Mediterranean. Those talks, currently spearheaded by US Presidential Coordinator for Energy Security Amos Hochstein (who has an Israeli background, for a change), are still going forward.


Q: Let’s move to the Palestinian issue. Tony Klug and Noam Chomsky, both veteran campaigners for a two-state solution that ends the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, recently published in the Palestine-Israel Journal a ‘conversation’. It is almost book length. How relevant do you find it?

A: If you are looking for a compilation of Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives since the 1970s, this conversation might fill the bill. But be warned: it is endlessly rambling and repetitive. And it is two-dimensional: nowhere does either scholar/polemicist seriously discuss the Israeli security concerns that, reasonably or not, have helped move the Israeli Jewish public strongly to the right over recent decades. Neither Klug nor Chomsky bothers even to try to shoot down these concerns. In parallel, Palestinian violence and peace process machinations get short shrift.

Klug (“It has been part of my life's work to shoot down the potent myths nourishing this conflict, on all sides of it”) is the more nuanced and balanced of the two. For Chomsky, “There simply are no nuances. In the ’70s, Labor made the clear decision to choose expansion over security.” 

Neither Klug nor Chomsky, by the way, beats the drums automatically for peace-oriented efforts. Both, for example, are skeptical of the BDS economic boycott of Israel as a means of pressuring Israel. And both are broadly dismissive of Washington’s record of peacemaking attempts.

If you can wade through a rambling, unedited conversation, you still may be sorely tempted to dismiss Chomsky and Klug as two old-timer peaceniks who are full of themselves and seemingly infallible. But note: First, they have been remarkably consistent in their position for some 50 years, advocating two states long before most of today’s peace camp. And second, their conversation is a gold-mine of references of Middle East peace-related documents, ideas and anecdotes, many experienced by the two in the first person.


Q: Finally, something a little lighter and easier to read?

A: The Clandestine Lives of Colonel David Smiley: Code Name ‘Grin’, by Clive Jones (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) is an entertaining historical romp through the operations of the British secret service in WWII in the Balkans and the Middle East. The protagonist is Colonel Smiley, whom Jones knew and interviewed (he worked on this biography for years).

Smiley (his name the inspiration for the John Le Carre hero?) is a priceless character. From running the Albanian resistance to the Nazis in WWII to laying a fence across the future Israel’s Galilee to keep out marauders and illegals from Lebanon, from Ethiopia to Yemen, Smiley seems to have been everywhere and done everything a British secret agent could do to win wars and thwart villains.

The author knows how to spin a Middle East yarn. Professor Jones is Chair in Regional Security (Middle East) at Britain’s Durham University, which is the depository of many of the Middle East and Africa archives of the UK Foreign Ministry.