Thomas Mitchell, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and creator of The Self-Hating Gentile blog.
“Fortress Israel“ by Patrick Tyler; 497 pp.; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $35.
Since former Irish diplomat, politician and journalist Conor Cruise O’Brien penned The Siege in 1986, there has been a flood of histories of Zionism and Israel. Some of these have been written by professional historians, others by diplomats and politicians, and some by journalists. Generally I find those written by historians or political scientists to be better because their authors have been trained in using professional judgment to evaluate sources as well as how to make an argument for a particular thesis. Journalists are more trained in getting the interesting quotes, and now freed from restraints imposed by their news editors, are liable to allow their partisanship to show in ways that would not be permitted in a quality newspaper.
Patrick Tyler, a former Washington Post Middle East reporter and New York Times foreign correspondent and writer comes to this task having already written a book on the Mideast policy of American presidents. This history covers Israeli regional policy from 1954 to 2009. In the nearly five hundred pages of text the most attention is devoted to the period between 1954 and 1956 and the Oslo period with each having over a hundred pages devoted to them. Tyler’s two “heroes” in this book are Moshe Sharett and Yitzhak Rabin. Each faces off against a major villain or two: David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Pinhas Lavon for Sharett and Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres for Rabin.
Patrick Tyler argues in a rather round-about fashion that Israeli diplomatic policy is determined by the military-security establishment in Israel. Tyler defines this broadly to include not only the Israel Defense Force and intelligence organizations like the Mossad, Aman, and Shabak/Shin Bet, but also military politicians such as former chiefs of staff and prominent generals who have gone into politics. He quotes one Israeli to the effect that the IDF is a trade union and everyone who belonged to it toes its line.
The one election campaign I observed firsthand from inside Israel was the May 1977 election that resulted in the historic change of power from the Alignment to the Likud. In that election there were three separate lists headed by former generals: the Democratic Movement for Change headed by former chief of staff and archaeologist Yigael Yadin, Shlomzion headed by Ariel Sharon, and Shelli headed by Mattityahu Peled. The DMC was a movement devoted to electoral reform. Shlomzion was a rightist vehicle for Sharon to return to the Likud after having quit politics after only a year in the Knesset. Shelli was a leftist peace movement dedicated to a two-state solution and redistribution of income in Israel. Besides being headed by former generals, what did they have in common?
Until Rabin became prime minister in June 1974 and for most of the time afterwards, the IDF was controlled by civilian politicians. Although military politicians took over the defense ministry in June 1967, they still had to answer to civilian prime ministers and cabinets. Therefore if Israel had a militaristic policy throughout its history the IDF was not the source of this policy. Ben-Gurion was a civilian who had been in uniform for about two years during World War I—nearly thirty years before he became prime minister. As Tyler points out, Peres never served in the IDF (although Ben-Gurion offered him the rank of general in this war because of his role in manpower mobilization). In fact, military politicians are no more hardline and often more moderate than civilian politicians in their respective parties. Yigal Alon, former head of the Palmakh, created the Alon Plan for peace with Jordan in 1967 whereas the civilian leader of the Ahdut Ha’Avoda party, Yitzhak Tabenkin, joined the Land of Israel Movement that year and eventually made his way into the Likud. Sharon was no more dedicated to settling the West Bank than were Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Although Tyler would define Shamir as a member of the security establishment, because of his decade in the Mossad, Shamir had clearly formed his hardline views long before he joined the Mossad. And under Ehud Olmert, another civilian premier, Israel engaged in two wars.
A third challenge to Tyler’s thesis is how to explain the mellowing or moderation of these security hawks over time. Alon, Rabin, Peres, Weizman and Sharon all started out as hawks and moved leftwards over time. Alon later regressed on his death bed in 1980, but Dayan was a very creative player in the peace process from 1974 to 1979. Both Dayan and Weizman resigned from the Likud coalition because of differences with Begin over regional policy. Peres the hawk during the negotiations on the Sinai II agreement in 1975 became a dove by the early 1980s and was the major sponsor of the Oslo process. Rabin was the moderate in 1975, and after returning to become a hawk as defense minister from 1984 to 1990 became a sponsor of Oslo as well in cooperation with Peres. Sharon withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Maybe where you sit is where you stand to use an old political science saying.
So the source of Israel’s militarism must lay elsewhere than with the IDF. Could it lay in a rational reaction to Israel’s regional environment and the actions of Israel’s Arab neighbors? Because the Arabs are only props in Tyler’s narrative and never actors we would never know. Could it lay in Israel’s Jewish past in Europe and the Middle East? Again we wouldn’t know from Tyler’s narrative. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who spent World War II in Baghdad and Berlin, is nowhere mentioned.
Although Tyler occasionally provides political gossip, particularly from the Mapai-Labor Party era, he does not examine Israel’s political party system as a possible source of Israel’s problems. He might want to explain why the French Fourth Republic could not leave Algeria until a former general took power in a military coup. But that again would involve attempted falsification.
This book will be worth buying in paperback in a year or two for the quotes and information that Tyler has turned up in his research. But much of this material has already been revealed in histories by Israel’s new historians, Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris. Tyler used Shlaim’s The Iron Wall as a source, but not Morris’s Righteous Victims. Morris’s book concentrates on the interaction between Jews and Arabs. But Tyler, like so many observers, falls for the human tendency to side with one party in the conflict and blame the other for its continuation.