October 13, 2014 - Recent books about the Israel-Arab dispute


For a holiday change of pace, Alpher discusses some recent books about the Israel-Arab dispute, starting with the two best sellers by Shavit and Klein Halevy.

Q_Boxed_40For a holiday change of pace, could you discuss some of the books that have been published recently about the Israel-Arab dispute? Shavit's My Promised Land and Klein Halevy's Like Dreamers come to mind.

A_Boxed_40I was asked by a particularly valuable reader to discuss Shavit's book and thought the best way to do so would be in the context of several "parallel" books that recently caught my eye. I distinguish between the best-sellers that focus directly on the Israeli-Palestinian issue by wrapping their narrative in personal stories, and several very valuable more "basic" books.

Q_Boxed_40Could you start with the more talked-about books by Shavit and Klein Halevy, both of which received American Jewish writing awards?

A_Boxed_40My Promised Land: the triumph and tragedy of Israel (Scribe, 2014) interweaves the story of author Shavit, his ancestors and family with the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It concludes with the need for a two-state solution based in part, on the Israeli side, on the recognition that we Israelis made a lot of negative contributions to the unfolding of the conflict.

In describing those contributions, Shavit is not particularly optimistic: "The historical imperative that had brought [Jews] from Europe . . . wreaked a havoc that no one could control. First it demolished the indigenous culture, then it demolished the pioneer culture, then it. . . created faceless Israeli cities of discontent. . . . Perhaps there was no other way. . . . The Zionist project did not become what it was supposed to be. . . . A movement that got most things right in its early days has gotten almost everything wrong in recent decades. . . . If present [demographic] trends persist, the future of Zion will be non-Zionist. . . . The question is whether Israel will end occupation or whether occupation will end Israel. . . . Israel lacks a political force with the will required to lead the painful and risky retreat."

This is heavy stuff, yet easy reading in the sense that Shavit writes extremely well and his book holds the reader. But the reader should be aware that there is also an element of demagoguery at work here. Facts are manipulated to suit the author's ostensibly seamless narrative and apparent need to blame Israel beyond what is warranted. A Zionist movement that “got most things right” is also the movement that “destroyed the indigenous culture”. A chapter entitled "Lydda", excerpted in the New Yorker, creates the false impression that the 1948 expulsion of the town's Arabs was absolutely critical to Israel's survival and a totally central battle of the War of Independence. The treatment of Israel's nuclear project blames it for Iran's and for Arab nuclear plans, when in fact this is decidedly not the case.

I don't feel particularly at ease with presumptuous titles like "My Promised Land". Aba Eban could perhaps get away with "My People". But Shavit? Read this book, but with a grain of salt.

Yossi Klein Halevy, Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation (HarperCollins, 2013), follows a select group of IDF reserve paratroopers--rightists, leftists, artists, entrepreneurs--from 1967 until today, treating us to fascinating biographies and a unique way of discussing the events that have unfolded ever since in Israel and particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.

Full disclosure: I contributed material to Halevy's description of one of his heroes, settler leader Yisrael Harel, who was a leading participant in a series of meetings between the settler vanguard and Palestinian leaders that I organized in the mid-1990s.

Shavit is a native Israeli with deep roots in the country. Klein Halevy, somewhat to Shavit's political right, left behind a Kahanist affiliation in New York when he made aliyah and joined the Israeli mainstream. Klein Halevy is, for want of a better word, what I would term a "spiritual" writer. When he describes Motta Gur's deep biblical musings as he contemplates conquering the Old City, I'm not sure I believe him. The book is rich in this occasionally problematic dimension. Still, the well-developed biographical narrative renders this easy and rewarding reading.

Q_Boxed_40And you have additional and more "basic" books in mind as well?


A_Boxed_40This is the place to introduce a more scholarly work that, for my money, does the best and most up-to-date job of explaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for a two-state solution. Israel, Jordan & Palestine: the Two-State Imperative (Brandeis Univ. Press, 2012) is by Asher Susser, a professor of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University and for many years head of TAU's prestigious Dayan Center.

Susser's title says it all: the big picture of the evolution of this conflict and of the emergence of the two-state idea has to include Jordan and the broader Palestinian diaspora. In discussing the deep origins of the conflict and the need for a two-state solution, Susser wisely distinguishes between the pre-1967 "narrative" issues, particularly the "right of return" question, and the post-1967 two-state issues of borders and security, and suggests that only the post-1967 issues should and can be resolved in the near term.

Susser's book is required reading for serious scholars as well as peace process practitioners. He concludes his careful analysis by stating that "if the leaderships in Israel and Palestine mustered the courage to do what was required to achieve a two-state solution, they would have the majorities of their respective publics behind them." Failure, he warns, "would lead by default to the creation of a one-state reality"--a direction that has "unquestionably eroded the legitimacy of both Israel and the two-state solution."

The growing issue of Israeli legitimacy leads naturally to a look at something a little more controversial but well worth a read: Joshua Muravchik's Making David into Goliath: How the World turned against Israel (Encounter Books, 2014). Muravchik is well known around Washington as an intelligent right-wing commentator. I would say he is downright moderate by the standards of Israel's now dominant right. Here he retells the Israel-Arab and particularly Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of Israel's initial success in gaining legitimacy and support in western eyes, only to be followed by its growing de-legitimization by his enemies. In this regard, Muravchik's book is a timely reminder of the antecedents of the BDS campaign and UN Human Right's Council investigations. His treatment of the likes of Edward Said and the oil lobby is solid and well researched. His debunking of Jimmy Carter's highly inaccurate "facts" is telling.

Muravchik, who favors a two-state solution, is right to allocate blame for the failed peace process to Palestinians as well as Israelis. But he loses me when he moves to focus on what he terms Israel's own "adversary culture". His critique of B'Tselem, J Street, the "new historians", the so-called "post-Zionists", and Haaretz newspaper might make a few points where I can vouch for the existence of exaggerated negativism. But he consistently ignores the root cause of virtually all Israeli criticism of Israel and a great portion of the external attacks as well: he says virtually nothing about and against the occupation--to be precise, 47 years of occupation, with all the accompanying ills that so many in the world, and so many Israelis, understandably find repugnant, even where, like Muravchik, they can cite an endless litany of external factors that unfairly blacken Israel's image. Here Shavit, Susser and I would undoubtedly agree.

For pure history, yet with total relevance to the present, look at Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). Here is a background book (also a play, performed recently in Washington, D.C.) about Israel and the Arabs that is a pleasure to read. It talks about a distant and successful peace process and makes your mouth water for something similar to happen today. It draws on a wide variety of sources, including in-depth interviews with some of the participants and material from the diaries of others. (Again, full disclosure: at his request, I read and commented on Wright's final draft.)

As an Israeli, I found it particularly illuminating to read how key Egyptian participants like Foreign Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Kamel and Boutros Boutros-Ghali described the inner workings of the Egyptian delegation. No less interesting to the general reader are descriptions by the likes of Aaron Barak, then attorney general and later chief justice of the Israel Supreme Court, of what went on within the Israeli delegation. Persuading PM Menachem Begin to withdraw from all of Sinai was quite a task.

Wright succeeds in presenting highly relevant history as only the larger-than-life protagonists can create it. But here I do have one quibble. The book opens: "Three men, representing three religions, met for thirteen days at the presidential retreat of Camp David in the autumn of 1978 in order to solve a dispute that religion itself had largely caused."

In fact, Carter, Begin and Sadat all represented their respective states and peoples more than their religions. Of course, religious views and orientations played a role in the three leaders' respective approaches to the Camp David negotiations. But I would argue that only Islam, which alone equates religion and politics, was and is a major cause of the Arab-Israel dispute, and even there--as an all-embracing Arab culture more than as a religion. Certainly, to read Begin as being motivated by Judaism as a religion rather than as a nationality is to misunderstand both him and Zionism.

To Wright's credit, he does not let this problematic opening observation dictate the course of his narrative, which flows freely and is an important addition to the literature of Arab-Israel peace developments.