No issue in current international politics has stirred more partisan fervor than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and writing on this subject tends to reflect this. There are, to be sure, balanced analyses, but in search of even-handedness, they are often cautious to a fault. War Without End, by Anton La Guardia, who spent seven years in Jerusalem as a reporter for The Daily Telegraph, is a happy exception. It is fair, compassionate and understanding toward both Israelis and Palestinians. But it is also full of unvarnished judgments that spare neither side. Above all, it is a brilliant work of reporting. Indeed, I know of no other one-volume work on this conflict that is so informative, rich in insights and readable. First published in London in 2001, the newer American edition traces the history of the conflict from the birth of Zionism in the late nineteenth century to the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the Al Aqsa intifada up to May 2002.
La Guardia, who was born in Rome, has a rare gift for compact, expressive writing. He seems to have been everywhere and seen everything in Israel and Palestine, and his observations and conversations are doubly informed by wide readings of historic and current materials. War Without End is packed with information and analysis that offer both a comprehensive guide for non-expert readers and new material and insights for old hands. Every page is seasoned with fascinating anecdotes and quotations and crisp metaphors. La Guardia has a keen eye for off-beat facts that illustrate and enliven his story.
War Without End covers the historic milestones of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and portrays the politics, culture, religion and society of the Israelis and Palestinians in all their variety. La Guardia sets the stage with the tragedy of the Jews, the Holocaust, their redemption and the creation of Israel in 1948, and the resulting catastrophe for the Palestinians and the “appalling price” they have paid for the sins of European anti-Semites. While the “Jewish Question” may have been solved by the creation of Israel, the “Question of Palestine” remains “an open sore.”
In a chapter on Jerusalem and religion, La Guardia irreverently describes the jarring contrasts of mythology and reality and the bitter political, sectarian and ethnic strife in the city. Evoking the religious, political and commercial dissonances of the Old City, he calls it a “a poor advertisement for the brotherhood of man.” While Israel promotes Jerusalem as a united and eternal “beacon to Jews around the world,” the city’s Arabs are treated as “foreigners in their own city,” the two communities held together only by Israeli force.
La Guardia offers rich descriptions of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions in all their refracted variety, both the base and the sublime. Recalling a Passover Seder with a liberal Israeli rabbi who reads a passage from the Haggadah calling for tolerance toward others, he contrasts this with the intolerance of ultra-Orthodox Jews toward gentiles, whereas Christianity has struggled to some to terms with antisemitism. There is Palestinian intolerance as well – for example, the claim of the mufti of Jerusalem that the Second Temple of the Jews was not located on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, ignoring well established Islamic history. (Arafat’s negotiators foolishly made the same claim at the ill-fated Camp David summit in July 2000.) At the Western Wall, La Guardia writes about skirmishes between Orthodox rabbis and Jewish women who, trying to pray, had bags of excrement thrown at them. And in the dark precincts of the Holy Sepulcher, he recalls complaints from the nineteenth century that the church was being turned into a “brothel” by pilgrims who believed that a child begotten in its precincts would be blessed.
In a chapter on early Zionist history, La Guardia describes the tenacious struggle of the early Jewish settlers, but notes that the historical record has been distorted by Zionist propaganda and colored by the naïve and Eurocentric attitudes of that colonial era. For example, although Palestine was often described as a benighted land before the Jews came, the economy around 1900 was in fact developing quickly. The Palestinians created their own myths, stressing their history of “heroic defeats.” But serious Palestinian history has been written mostly by Israelis, and Palestinian scholars are only beginning to make up lost ground.
La Guardia’s chapter on Israel’s military and its struggle for security deftly compresses the history of five wars. Israel’s situation has created a kind of schizophrenia: on one side it is the victim, underdog and bastion of democracy and liberal values; on the other it is the aggressive, arrogant bully and an abuser of human rights. He criticizes the Israeli military’s domination of politics and its expansionist urge, calling Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands after its remarkable victory in the 1967 war a “poisoned chalice.” But he observes that the Yom Kippur and Lebanon wars and the first intifada brought a sober appreciation among many Israelis that that occupation of Arab neighbors is debilitating and corrupting and that Israel cannot live by the sword alone. This led to the Oslo peace process, but it also deepened the chasm between Israel’s pragmatic moderates and its militant nationalists. The Palestinians’ evolution from armed struggle to political pragmatism is treated in less detail.
In a powerful chapter, “Victims of Victims,” La Guardia analyzes the traumas of Israelis and Palestinians that lie “at the core of their national identity.” Each side’s failure to recognize the other’s agony and the tendency to insist “that it alone is the victim of history” are huge obstacles to reconciliation. He dwells upon the moral paradoxes that flowed from Jewish suffering and the unique evil of the Holocaust. Just as the Jews refused to be wiped out by history and fought for a Zionist state to preserve their heritage and legitimacy, the Palestinians have arisen from the disaster of 1948 with a kind of parallel “Palestinian Zionism,” laying claim to their lost homeland. And when Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were denied the right to return to their homes in Eastern Europe since non-Jews had occupied them, they found refuge in Israel and moved into farms and homes taken from Palestinians. La Guardia suggests that it is the Palestinian challenge to Israel’s moral legitimacy, even more than violence and terrorism, that breeds hatred and fear among many Israelis and disbelief that peace is possible. Thus, it becomes the Palestinians’ burden, though they are weak and oppressed, to reassure the Israelis that they are ready to accept the Israelis as neighbors at peace.
Recalling the quote from W.B. Yeats on the title page of War Without End, “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart,” the author condemns the cruelty and self-righteousness of both sides. He deplores their willingness to condone violence toward the other, and the tendency of their religious leaders to act only as “tribal spokesmen.” But he praises the trend among Israel’s new historians and its liberal intelligentsia toward greater self-criticism, lamenting the relative lack of Palestinian introspection and the absence of a popular peace movement. Perhaps, in this respect, he pays too little attention to the evolution of Palestinian thinking toward political compromise and to liberal Palestinian voices and peace activists. He overlooks growing criticism by politicians and intellectuals in the occupied territories and abroad about Palestinian mistakes, although some of this may have emerged after his book was published.
La Guardia vividly describes Israel’s ethnic and religious diversity and the challenge of creating harmony and consensus in an immigrant society, where strife between Jews of European and Oriental origin is deep and many ethnic and religious communities struggle bitterly for power and resources. The influx of Russian and Ethiopian Jews in recent years has strained Israel’s absorptive capacity. And continuing ethnic discrimination, especially against Jews of non-European origin, recalls the old saying that “Israel loves immigration but hates immigrants.”
To give color and context, La Guardia takes the reader on interesting excursions – for example, to the introductory grilling by a polite but insistent Israeli intelligence officer at Ben Gurion airport; an IDF induction camp, where tearful mothers say good bye to their newly drafted kids; a sidewalk café in Tel Aviv, where patrons watch a “summer parade of women’s navels”; the former village and massacre site of Deir Yassin, where a psychiatric hospital is now located; a kibbutz in northern Israel, where “Athens and Sparta” combine; an IDF fire base and a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon; the Erez checkpoint on the Israel-Gaza border, where Palestinian day workers pass through “a human cattle enclosure”; and a chat in Hebron with settler theorist Elyakim Haetzni, who calls conflict with the Palestinians “part of life as a Jew in a gentile world.”
La Guardia believes that the Oslo peace process “was killed by a thousand cuts,” since the vagueness of the Oslo principles invited extremists on both sides to destroy it. Israel continued to confiscate land and build settlements instead of negotiating in good faith, abetting a powerful settler movement for whom settlements are part of Israel’s divine birthright. (La Guardia charges that the Israelis, by building massive settlements on the bulldozed hilltops of the West Bank have “vandalized the landscape of their own beloved patriarchs.”) The massacre of Palestinians in Hebron in 1994 by a settler and the sustained campaign of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli reprisals that followed were the turning points. Arafat proved an unreliable partner in controlling violence and incitement, although his position as “part liberation leader and part Israeli vassal” made his role difficult.
La Guardia blames the collapse of the Camp David summit in July 2002 on Arafat, Barak and Clinton. He rejects the theory that Arafat rejected a “generous” Israeli offer and then chose violence, and accepts the Mitchell Report’s conclusion that there was no evidence that the explosion of violence after the summit was directed or premeditated by Arafat. But he acknowledges that by condoning the violence and stoking it with inflammatory rhetoric, Arafat lost his most important allies – the Israeli peace camp and the Americans – and that he failed this test of leadership. Whereas Anwar Sadat and King Hussein knew how to appeal to the Israeli public, Arafat “drove them into the arms of Sharon.” All this is true, as is La Guardia’s point that Arafat did nothing to save Barak. But he might also have mentioned that Barak’s own clumsy handling of the summit and Arafat contributed to his political defeat.
In the last chapter of War Without End, the author attributes the powerful bond between Israel and the United States to the religious and cultural chords that Israel strikes in the American psyche, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and the amazing skill and chutzpah of Israeli diplomacy in winning American support. He cites a quip from Henry Kissinger: “It takes a special brand of heroism to turn total dependence into defiance; to insist on support as a matter of right rather than as a favor.”
La Guardia aptly sums up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “grand epic” and a discordant struggle full of “moral tension” that is “compelling and tragic.” In an Epilogue, he shifts from reporter to advocate with a prescription for peace. It is similar to the “Clinton parameters” of December 2000 and the tentative Taba agreement of January 2001 that many Israeli and Palestinian analysts think will be the ultimate outcome: two states, roughly defined by the 1967 border, the absorption of large settlement blocks into Israel, with compensatory land swaps; two capitals in Jerusalem; a demilitarized Palestine; and an end to Palestinian claims against Israel. La Guardia warns against more interim, step-by-step proposals without a clear destination, like the failed Oslo experiment. (He might agree that the current Roadmap, which emerged after his book was published, is deficient since it also lacks a well-defined destination.)
He urges that the United States and the international community define a bold solution along the lines he recommends, perhaps with a new U.N. resolution and an international conference. Such a plan, he believes, is the best route to peace, security for Israel and justice for Palestinians. It would also be a major victory over extremists, whose exploitation of this conflict is a major challenge to our “war against terrorism.”