Bruce van Voorst
Mr. van Voorst is a former correspondent for Newsweek and Time magazines.
Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can't Make Peace, by Patrick Tyler. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 576 pages. $35.00, hardcover.
"For the past 25 years the philosophical underpinning of U.S. policy toward Israel has been our conviction — and certainly my own — that if we gave Israel an ample supply of economic aid and weapons, she would feel strong and confident, more flexible and more willing to discuss a lasting peace." But after four wars, Ford continued, "I began to question the rationale for our policy."
– President Gerald R. Ford
Throughout the first decades of its history, Israel basked in the reflected glow of a mystical image that it projected to itself and to the outside world. Here were the survivors of Auschwitz, now kibbutzniks making the barren sands of Palestine bloom. Many Americans were brought to the Zionist cause by the breathtaking exploits of their very own Paul Newman as he sought to help Jewish refugees escape to the Holy Land. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, said this film [Exodus] — "the greatest thing ever written about Israel" — had an enormous impact in winning support for the Jewish state. The whole world watched in admiration as the Israelis fought their many wars against Arab armies, projecting the aura of the biblical David — even though the Israelis, armed to the teeth and enjoying a central command, were in fact Goliath. Profiles of the peace-loving, gray-haired national grandmother, Golda Meir of Milwaukee, were fashionable in the American media. A wave of international sympathy followed in the wake of the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes in a Black September attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and greeted with admiration the Mossad's subsequent Wrath of God operation that liquidated many of the terrorists involved.
With the passage of time, however, this perception has become less romantic and more clear-eyed. The public appreciation of Israel is nuanced to such a degree that the country now has an image problem. The 46-year occupation of Palestinian territory, the unabated building of settlements on this land, and the 650,000 Israeli settlers taking over in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have provoked the opprobrium of the international community. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's incessant call for war against Iran has further raised international hackles. Nothing better illustrates the erosion of Israel's status than last November's lopsided (138-9) UN General Assembly vote to grant the Palestinian state non-member observer status. "It was good while it lasted, but now it's over...," wrote the nation's leading newspaper, Haaretz, "The zenith of Israel's public relations campaign has been reached."
A major contribution to the changing attitude began a half-century ago with the "New Historians," who were willing to challenge the received wisdom. Basing their work on newly available documents and interviews with former participants, these revisionists offer remarkably convincing reinterpretations of standard hagiographic portrayals. They include Benny Morris's Righteous Victims; Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; and Tom Segev's Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East. Peter Beinart's widely-praised The Crisis of Zionism warns that "the hour is late" for Israel to relinquish the occupation of territories taken in the1967 war. Israel's most renowned public intellectual, Amos Elon, moved to Italy, disgusted at what he termed the "growing influence of religion and a heightened focus on military power" in the country. All the authors have a deep attachment to Israel, but the books are uniformly critical of many aspects of Israeli society and distressing for observers unaware of what was going on. Critics lambast the authors as unprofessional or anti-Zionist, but "new" history has become part of a national debate, waged not just in textbooks but in newspapers and magazines as well, and now on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Now former New York Times chief correspondent Patrick Tyler has weighed in with a major contribution to the revisionist school: Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can't Make Peace. Tyler's subtitle labels loud and clear the whole calamitous problem of the Israeli leadership. Tyler describes how, after an early period in which some Zionists hoped to live peaceably with the Arabs, a two-track path in strategic thinking emerged. In 1923, Zionist legend Vladimir Jabotinsky described the tactics of erecting an unassailable Zionist stronghold in his essay "The Iron Wall." Beginning with Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, Israeli leadership has been divided between the militarists and a much smaller group of peace makers, with the hawks — unfortunately for Israel's future, in Tyler's opinion — consistently gaining the upper hand. There emerged the "Iron Wall" doctrine of arming themselves to the teeth and relying on military might to defend the nation. Tyler also casts the spotlight on a little-known aspect of Israeli politics: the constant internecine battle among the leaders, who quarrel interminably, lie to each other and stab each other in the back. Ben-Gurion overthrew Prime Minster Moshe Sharett; Peres was a foe of Yitztak Rabin.
Ben-Gurion, virtually idolized in America, was in reality the leader of the war party, choosing the military option whenever possible and disdaining diplomacy. He preached that unless conquered by force, the Arabs would never make peace. He looked upon the 1949 armistice with the Arabs as only transitory, pending renewed hostilities to retake all of the biblical holy land. Ben-Gurion ignored, however, that while Jabotinsky argued for the Wall, he saw it not as permanent but as the foundation for negotiations with the Arabs, the policy later reflected in the Oslo accords. The hawks' hands were strengthened by the militaristic tendencies of more than a million Russian immigrants.
Tyler documents how Ben-Gurion and other top Israeli leaders torpedoed repeated opportunities for serious talks with the Arabs. Operation Black Arrow, the vicious attack in Gaza that Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan executed in 1955, not only derailed an Eisenhower-Anthony Eden peace initiative; it prompted Nasser to bring in huge quantities of Soviet weapons, profoundly changing the military balance. The initial waves of joy over the June 1967 war — Israel tripled its land area — confirmed war as policy and resulted in the 1967 Arab League Summit in Khartoum that issued the League's famous belligerent three "nos: "no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel." Then, in 1973, although the Israeli military ultimately decisively defeated the Egyptians in the Yom Kippur war, "The Israelis were psychologically devastated by the war, which in only nineteen days killed nearly 3,000 soldiers and wounded thousands more." Their grief was aggravated by the official Agranat Commission findings of missed warnings, miserable preparations and miscalculations of enemy weapons and intentions. Equally distressing, it unfairly blamed only the uniformed officers, not the cabinet, for the failures.
Poised against Ben-Gurion and the militarists was Prime Minister Sharett. He, the author argues, was among the few Israeli leaders (Ehud Olmert was another) who realized that peace with the Arabs could never be achieved on the field of battle. Sharett had grown up near Arab-speaking Ramallah, spoke Arabic himself and, unlike virtually the whole Israeli senior leadership, understood Arabs and did not share the common visceral hatred toward them. He sympathized with the depth of their suffering as a people because of the Nakba, the catastrophe of 1948. He recognized that Arabs were fighting the Jews out of their conviction, not unreasonable, that the Zionists, through diplomatic manipulation of the United Nations, had stolen their lands and forced 700,000 Palestinian to abandon their homes. Sharett, during his short term in office, rejected the notion that the Arabs could only be brought to peace through a military victory, arguing — in vain — that accommodation was possible, indeed imperative, for the future of the Jewish state.
Tyler describes "military-diplomacy" tension as the paramount theme in Israeli political culture. He calls it "the clash between Sharett's impulse to engage the Arabs and the military establishment's determination to mobilize for continual war." Sharett was eager to respond to peace initiatives from Syria, Egypt and Jordan, but was stymied at every turn by the militarists. "Early Zionist notions of integration and outreach were undermined by a mythology that Israel had no alternative but war," writes Tyler. Repeatedly, however, it is demonstrated that, contrary to the hard-liners' view, constant war with the Arabs was not inevitable.
A consistent and, in the historical context, possibly fatal theme clearly established in Fortress is the Israeli determination (when they were not actively trying to kill him) to denigrate Yasser Arafat, to make the PLO chairman responsible for all the terrorism and to reject him as a negotiating partner. Arafat was most assuredly responsible for many acts of terrorism, but facts became irrelevant over time, as he became a public-relations instrument. From the beginning, the Israelis demonized the PLO leader, blaming him, for instance, for planning the Second Intifida (3,000 Palestinians dead; 1,000 Israelis). In fact, it resulted from Ariel Sharon's amazingly reckless visit in 2000 to the Temple Mount, site of the Haram al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Tyler does not ignore multiple Arab mistakes, including Nasser's closing of the Straits of Tiran, senseless suicide bombings and incredibly stupid threats to "push Israel into the sea."
Unfortunately, political and military leaders in the Israeli cabinet simply refused to recognize changes in the Arab camp, as the Egyptians, Palestinians and Jordanians, all came to recognize the futility of military confrontation and sought peaceful compromise. Truth is, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were interested solely in seizing more Palestinian lands — for settlements and for priceless water. In Tyler's close analysis, there is no denying that it was the Israelis who kept pushing militarily. Netanyahu's standard mantra that there was nobody to talk to looked rather hollow after the free and democratic 2006 Palestinian elections were won by Hamas and immediately overturned by Israel and the United States. They made their puppet Mahmoud Abbas the president, but even then claimed, despite Abbas's peace feelers, that there was no partner. The Israelis did everything imaginable to destabilize the Palestine Authority and the state, including withholding taxes that were legally due the Palestinians. While it is true President Clinton blamed Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks, most independent observers attribute this to Clinton's domestic situation and remain unpersuaded that the PLO leader was solely at fault.
Israeli policy towards the United States has been schizophrenic. The leadership, as well as the man on the street, recognize full well that Israel is ultimately dependent on the United States for its national security, including huge military and economic subsidies ($3 billion annually, about half of the U.S. worldwide aid package). Still, Israel shows no disposition to support American interests in the region or to recognize to what extent its actions are deeply contrary to American policy. One early blatant example was the 1954 Pinhas Lavon Affair, a Mossad dynamiting campaign aimed at killing Americans and Britons in their national libraries in Cairo, hoping to create friction between Egypt and the United States. Israel didn't hesitate to attack the USS Liberty in international waters during the Six-Day War, killing 34 crewmen and wounding 171. The United States, to its shame, cooperated in the Israeli cover-up, explaining the attack as "misidentification."
The Mossad is the second-most active foreign intelligence service operating in the United States, most often seeking industrial and technological secrets. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said of the Israeli recruitment of naval intelligence specialist Jonathan Jay Pollard in 1984, "It is difficult for me… to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel ...." Relations between the two states were on ice for several years, especially as the Israelis, despite clear evidence to the contrary, refused to admit their involvement or to aid in a damage assessment that would have helped the United States. On the diplomatic front, the Israelis rejected one Washington peace proposal after another — the Carter plan, Reagan's Rogers Plan, the Clinton suggestions, the Obama points — not to mention the promising Arab League Plan of 2002.
U.S. presidents have not been blind to these realities, and the early ones, like President Eisenhower, held firm against Israeli demands. Gradually, yielding to the political pressure of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the other formidable American Jewish organizations, presidents began to yield to what came to be called the "Israel problem." When Israel was reeling under the Egyptian/Syrian attack in the Yom Kippur War, President Richard Nixon approved a massive airlift of armaments, which likely enabled the Israelis to turn the tide without resorting to nuclear weapons. Any president who tried to stand up to the Israelis ran into trouble in the American Congress, as Barack Obama was to learn. Confident of this support, Prime Minister Netanyahu publicly treats Obama with disdain. Despite enormous political pressure, Obama is trying, as best he can under the circumstances, to steer his own course on Iranian nuclear weapons and on a Palestinian settlement.
The state that Ben-Gurion built — like others in the region — institutionalized deception and lying and the extensive use of propaganda to spread its mythology. The government consistently denied the bloody actions of the intelligence services — Mossad, Shin Bet, Aman — despite its chain of assassinations around the globe. Top Israeli officials blatantly denied that Israel was building a nuclear bomb; Shimon Peres lied about it to President Kennedy. Ben-Gurion lost all credibility in the international arena. He denied ordering the bloody Qibya massacre, in which 69 Palestinian Arabs, two-thirds of them women and children, were murdered. Ben-Gurion wrote the government denial statement, although everyone in the street knew this was a lie. As Tyler shows, although the Oslo Accords (Article 31) provided that "neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations," the Israelis without hesitation immediately violated this by continuing the settlement program. Israel also never delivered on the Oslo Accords' promise to work towards an independent Palestinian state following a five-year transition period. Ben-Gurion in fact had all along claimed a sort of Israeli exceptionalism, justifying any action by the state, provided it appeared to serve the national interest. Repeatedly, Netanyahu promised to halt settlement expansion, yet always found an excuse to continue. The overall impact of Tyler's countering of many of the traditional stereotypes is indeed critical of Israel, but his meticulous research and many interviews with insiders supports his case. There is certainly no evidence to challenge his fair-mindedness.
Tyler's description of the decades of conflict between the Israeli militarists and the peacemakers provides a foundation for understanding what's going on currently in the Jewish state. Although the Arab Spring has altered its relations to Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Turkey, few Israelis or their leaders seem sensitive to what's taking place. As he has repeatedly demonstrated, Netanyahu is a scion of the Ben-Gurion warrior class, fundamentally uninterested in peace if it involves yielding territory. Netanyahu once said into a microphone he thought dead that it was necessary to "beat them up, not once, but repeatedly; beat them up so it hurts badly, until it's unbearable."
True to form, he seems determined to rattle war drums about Iran's nuclear program, although many experts, including top Israeli military and intelligence officials, are skeptical of military action. The right wing no longer conceals its objectives. The religious-nationalist politician Naftali Bennett proclaims proudly, "I will do everything in my power to make sure they [the Palestinians] never get a state." He claims that the Green Line, which separates Israel from the occupied West Bank, "has no meaning," that Palestine does not exist. Many Israelis obviously believe in "Eretz Yisrael," hoping to retain all of the occupied West Bank, territory they believe was given to them by God.
Tyler doesn't mention the oft-discussed supposition among many experts that Netanyahu's Iran fixation as in fact a deceptive maneuver, designed to relieve pressure for negotiations with the Palestinians. Despite his public statements, Netanyahu appears determined to block a two-state solution, striving to recover all of ancient Israel — Judea and Samaria. Why else, experienced observers ask, has Israel fought all these years so bitterly against a Palestinian state, called for in the same UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1948 under which Israel was established? Why has it opposed the "Land for Peace" resolution (UN Security Council Resolution 242), signed by Israel following the 1967 war 46 years ago, specifically providing for the "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict"? This can only be explained as a determination to hold on to the territories forever. Israelis don't offer any legal argument against a two-state solution. The sole Israeli position is that "the time is not appropriate." President Obama clearly is dissatisfied with these delaying tactics. Reliable sources report that he's said privately and repeatedly, "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are," adding that with each new settlement announcement, "Netanyahu is moving Israel down a path toward near-total isolation."
Tyler writes a memorable summary:
The broad conclusion that I believe any realistic researcher reaches, is that Israel, six decades after its founding, remains a nation in thrall to an original martial impulse, the depth of which has given rise to succeeding generations of leaders who are stunted in their capacity to wield or sustain diplomacy as a rival to military strategy, who seem ever on the hair trigger in dealing with their regional rivals, and whose contingency planners embrace worse-case scenarios that often exaggerate complex or ambiguous developments as threats to national existence.
Nothing in Tyler's analysis was fundamentally changed by the recent parliamentary elections, though Netanyahu's position in the Knesset was somewhat weakened. Curiously, the campaign turned almost entirely on domestic economic and social issues, with Israeli voters seemingly indifferent to the Palestinian question or even the feared Iranian nuclear bomb. In significantly increasing its parliamentary strength, the Yesh Atid ("There is a future") center party under the bright newcomer Yair Lapid did not challenge the government on its Palestine policy or intentions towards Iran.
Tyler emphasizes the critical fact that Israel's militarism is not just that nation's problem, but a major challenge to America as well. "We have to help the Israelis — and we have to help our own country," he said recently. "Because their politics reflects into our politics — we have to help them get back to that strategic consensus that Rabin imposed on the military establishment, that peace is the strategic goal, not war."
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