The Biblio File: Zionism, Peace and Illusion

The Biblio File: Zionism
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Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can’t Make Peace
Patrick Tyler, Portobello Books, 2012. 562 pp.

Israel Has Moved
Diana Pinto, Harvard University Press, 2013, 215 pp.

Paul Monk

Patrick Tyler is a veteran American journalist who has worked for The New York Times since 1990, serving as a military analyst and as a foreign correspondent in Beijing, Moscow, Baghdad and London. In Fortress Israel, he has given us a massively researched and passionately argued polemic against the secular sabra elite who founded and have led Israel over the past 65 years. It is an intriguing, deeply thought-provoking book; but it is flawed in several ways.

Tyler gained remarkable access. He was able to draw upon numerous very high level interviews, as well as public documents, critical analysis in Israeli newspapers, criticism of Israel by both Jewish diaspora and non-Jewish analysts, debates in the Knesset and the memoirs and histories written over the decades he covers. This gives him immensely rich and nuanced material for his argument. But at no point in his book does he pause and ponder the fact that all this is available within and around Israel, while no such rich or open debate is available in or from the Arab or other Muslim countries around Israel who have besieged it since its inception. He expresses no appreciation of the fact that this rich and vital Israel has risen from almost nothing while the Arab world around it has remained mired in despotism, poverty and bigotry. This is the book’s most obvious flaw.

The second is that he writes as if the Israeli elite were at any given point since 1948 in a position to make peace with the Arab enemies of Israel if only it wished to do so. Yet at no point does he attempt to lay out a blueprint for a settlement with its Arab neighbours that Israel could actually have made. Even his analysis of the peace between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin suggests that Sadat was magnanimous, Begin grudging and opportunistic and the whole episode an illustration of the lost possibilities for Israel to make peace more generally with its neighbours. But it was the initiative of an Egyptian leader who had seen his country soundly defeated in four wars by the Israelis, acknowledged his own country’s need for peace and defied anti-Israeli sentiment among his countrymen to make it. For that bold initiative, of course, he paid with his life.

The third flaw is his implicit assumption that the situation of Israel has deteriorated since 1967 because of the lack of peace. By his own account, for a long time now, numerous generals and intelligence chiefs, sabras all, have actively and publicly lobbied for peace initiatives and diplomacy and been openly critical of some of the country’s recent military interventions against Hamas and Hezbollah. They have, admittedly, run into entrenched opposition within Israel to the central idea of handing back the West Bank; but the unwillingness of their Arab enemies to accept the existence of Israel has been at least as important. Nowhere does Tyler consider the possibility that, despite the unresolved confrontation with the Arabs, Israel has actually flourished and is, today, a remarkably prosperous and secure state.

Diana Pinto, like Tyler, is concerned with the changes Israel has undergone since the secular Zionist humanism of its early years. She would like to see it return to those roots. But her book is not a polemic. It is, rather, the kind of incisive and erudite little book on Israel that one might have expected from, say, Hannah Arendt, were she alive today. Pinto is Jewish, but lives in Paris. She plainly loves and is deeply immersed in her Jewish identity, but she is an Enlightenment European Jew, the Holocaust notwithstanding. She is bemused and a little troubled by the robust revival of ultra-Orthodox and ethnically Hebraic identities in Israel. Perhaps nothing symbolises this more strangely for her than the project of the Temple Institute – a tiny, fringe group to which she devotes much attention – to reclaim the Temple Mount from the Muslims, destroy the Dome of the Rock and rebuild the Second Temple. The Institute even plans to take Judaism back to pre-rabbinical times by reviving the animal sacrifices still practised until the Romans sacked the Temple in 70 CE.

Israel, Pinto argues, has begun to cut its umbilical cord to the European Enlightenment and create its own “post-modern” identity. With a rate of economic growth comparable to the most dynamic economies in Asia and grounded in scientific and commercial fertility in numerous cutting edge fields, it no longer feels a need to cling to the stagnant West, she suggests. In those respects, it is becoming ever more cosmopolitan. Yet as it builds a new, Hebrew-speaking, Bible and Talmud and Kabbala-fixated identity, it is becoming culturally “autistic” and even schizophrenic, enclosed not only behind security walls, but behind newly strengthened linguistic, cultural and religious walls. These, she emphasises, are not eccentric or polemical observations of her own. They were remarks made to her in Israel by Israelis young and old, secular and ultra-Orthodox “as so many self-evident truths.”

Of the two books, I find Pinto’s the more original and eye-opening. Tyler’s preoccupations are those of J Street and the Israeli revisionist historians. He is out to prove a point. Pinto looks at Israel through multiple, often unfamiliar lenses and is rich in humane sympathies. Tyler finds excuses again and again for Arab terrorism, while excoriating Israeli counter-measures “brutal”.

This is nicely illustrated in his double standard over the Karine A affair. Tyler accepts that Ben-Gurion seized the Altalena from the Irgun in June 1948 to demonstrate that the Zionists were not terrorists and that the government of the new state of Israel would exercise a monopoly of the use of force. He then writes of Yitzhak Rabin, more than forty years later, looking for the nascent Palestinian Authority to have its “Altalena moment”. Poignantly, it had been the young Rabin who had carried out Ben-Gurion’s orders in the first place.

Famously, Rabin was murdered by an Israeli fanatic, Yigal Amir, and attempts to negotiate peace with the Palestinian Authority ran aground. But in 2002, as Shimon Peres called for another effort at peace talks with Yasser Arafat, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon showed that Arafat was no Ben-Gurion. His security forces boarded the cargo ship Karine A in the Red Sea and found it loaded with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and enough C-4 explosive for 300 suicide vests – all coming from Iran and destined for Arafat’s armouries. Tyler remarks, “Arafat denied any connection with the ship. Israeli intelligence, however, had documents to prove Arafat was involved and the CIA seemed to agree. Arafat had arranged the shipment through Hezbollah intermediaries.”

Yet Tyler bitterly denounces Sharon’s head of military intelligence, Aaron Ze’evi Farkash, for declaring that the Karine A proved Arafat was a terrorist and not someone with whom it would be possible to come to a workable peace agreement. He writes heatedly, “Farkash’s language was not the neutral syntax of professional intelligence but rather the didactic cant of a military elite straining to declare the political track bankrupt.” I would have thought that syntax was inherently neutral and that vocabulary or semantics were the issue. But let that pass. What conclusion was Farkash to have drawn other than the one he did?

Of course, mention of the Altalena in juxtaposition with the Karine A takes one into current controversies in Israel about the Likud’s plan to find the wreck of the Altalena and integrate it into a monument to Begin and Irgun. That, perhaps, is occurring because the Likud under Netanyahu has drawn the conclusion that Ze’ev Jabotinsky (and thus the Irgun) has been vindicated. Pinto worries that this is so. Tyler is apparently irritated that it is so, but refuses to accept it. Both seem to believe that it would be highly desirable for Israel to find a way to establish a peaceful settlement with the Palestinian Arabs; but neither offers a persuasive formula for how this is to be done. Pinto remarks almost wistfully that the minuscule state of Israel created in 1948 is something the Arabs “should have accepted early on.” Tyler, strangely, writes as if the only party to blame for this not happening was Israel itself. Everyone is likely to find Pinto’s book illuminating. Most will find Tyler’s polarising.

Paul Monk is Managing Director of Austhink Consulting and holds a PhD in international relations from the Australian National University. He previously served at the Defence Intelligence Organisation as an analyst focusing on East Asia. He is a widely published commentator on public affairs and is the author of four books, including most recently, The West in a Nutshell: Foundations, Fragilities, Futures (Barrallier Books, 2009).