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Ahron Bregman. Israel's Wars: A History since 1947. Second edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 272 pp. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-415-28715-4; $15.95 (paper), ISBN 0-415-28716-2.

Reviewed by Thomas Scheben, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
Published by H-Levant (March, 2003)

Israel At War

Starting a book review with a critique of its title may seem a little bit extreme. However, Israel's Wars might better have been titled Israel at War. As the author states explicitly, he did not write a military history because it lacks a view of both sides of the hill. His focus is clearly on the Israeli side. The Arab side of the story is brought in whenever it is necessary to understand Israeli actions. Moreover, it is not primarily a military history in the classical sense. Battlefield moves and countermoves are summarized only very briefly. Just two pages and a sketch are spent on the description of the ten-odd days of the Battle for the Golan in 1973. Roughly the same amount of space is dedicated to the see-saw battles in the Sinai, the largest tank battles the world had seen so far.

After this cursory review of a battle of that length and magnitude, the first-time reader is left with ideas, questions, and the desire to learn more about this topic. Because this happens more than once in the course of reading the book, the study does an excellent job in accomplishing what any introductory work should achieve. By attracting and luring his reader into the topic, laying out food for thought along with questions, and emphasizing crucial spots and crossroads, he entices the reader to dig deeper. The select bibliography is a useful springboard for further reading.

The full story of the Arab-Israeli tragedy has often been told, and need not be repeated here. The reviewer deems it more important to discuss how the story is told and which perspective has been used. The emphasis of Bregman's book clearly is on the history of Israel as a society at war. Thus, as he points out in his conclusion, "Israeli-Arab wars can be seen, in a historical perspective, as a single war with a single continuity" (p. 238). Unrolling a truly complicated Oriental carpet, the author has chosen a chronological approach. He starts with the 1948 War of Independence and ends with the ongoing Al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in September 2000, raging on when the book went to the printers, as it still does.

Ending with the view of a still-undecided conflict fits into Bregman's thesis that Israel is a society at war and was even before the beginning of statehood. This is the book's primary focus and Bregman is careful to identify the decisive moments and crossroads. Reaching such points, he arrests the flow of his straightforward narrative to go into greater detail. The way he characterizes persons and sketches situations with a few candid pen strokes is a pleasure to read and even more pleasurable to re-think. Not wasting space with diplomatic phrases, his judgement is direct and to the point. Dayan is featured as a sharp-eyed, far-sighted personality, but lacking the necessary vigor to impose his will on the Meir cabinet (pp. 90, 93, 105). In the early seventies, Egypt's Anwar al-Sadat clearly held the initiative, contrasting strongly with the immobility of the Israeli leadership. Thwarting all Sadat's political initiatives, the Meir administration all but led him to the only way out of the Arab-Israeli stalemate. No choice was left save a new, but limited war. Unintentionally paving the way to the October War, Israel's political and military top brass blundered into an armed conflict, for which neither was really prepared and which, according to Bregman, was as avoidable as it was unnecessary (pp. 102-108). A decade later, Minister of Defence Ariel Sharon's deceptive moves to turn Israel's punitive invasion of southern Lebanon 1982 into the siege of Beirut are described as being close to outright treason (p. 162). The dark picture he paints of this shrewd warrior and unscrupulous politician sheds a light on a political system, in which a man like Sharon not only could resume his political career after a while, but even be elected Prime Minister.

Even darker are the shadows cast over "the only democracy in the Middle East" when it comes to dealing with its enemies. Dating back into the forties, well before the establishment of the state, Israel has "pursued a policy of political assassination." "Pinpointing" or "neutralizing" dangerous individuals are the euphemistic expressions for the targeted killing of forty Palestinians in the first year of Intifada II (pp. 219 ff).

One event is singled out for broader treatment, not only because of its significance for understanding the conflict. The author provides new documentary evidence that the attack on the U.S. spy ship Liberty, off the Sinai coast on June 8, 1967, was not a case of misidentification; instead, the air control knew positively that it was attacking a vessel of its most important ally.

The overall treatment of the successive events is uneven, providing a more detailed account as the narrative approaches recent events. While only a few pages cover the sweeping battles in 1967 and 1973, the tit-for-tat of Palestinian suicide attacks and Israeli retaliation in the Second Intifada are described with specific dates as well as the names of the attackers and their victims. Pushing the narrative of a history book into ongoing events is a daring endeavor. The Tenet Plan, which Bregman discusses in all its elaborate details--depicting it as the ultimate blueprint for an end to the turmoil in the occupied territories--has since joined the grand assembly of failed Mid-East Peace Plans.

Bregman argues that this conflict has not yet seen a clear victor on the battlefields, but that so far Israel has won the "war of words," or the battle over public opinion, at least where it matters (p. 239). Putting society rather than armed forces into the focus of his observations, however, requires that other dimensions be taken into account. Be it social or economic development; the level of education, science, and technology; or the quality and efficiency of leadership and political system, Israel is far ahead of its Arab neighbors. Adding these dimensions, one comes to the conclusion that an occasional stand-off, or even defeats on the battlefield, are only temporary set-backs with the overall outcome never in doubt.

If there is any leitmotif in this book, it is the question regarding how the Israeli society's political orientation has been influenced by the constant stress of conflict and imminent war and, in turn, how this has shaped the decision making of Israel's security policy. We know today that Israel's mere existence was never really at stake after the 1948 war. At that time, the threat to the very existence of the Jewish community in Palestine was real, and subsequent years of Arab infiltration created the perception of an ongoing fight for survival. This was not supported by the relatively low number of Israeli casualties, probably fewer than those caused by road accidents (pp. 49 f). However, the bloodthirsty Arab propaganda helped to create the notion that the opposite was true, and that the physical annihilation of the last Jew on Palestinian soil was the ultima ratio of all Arab policy. The Israeli leadership profited heavily from such murderous Arab rhetoric. It closed the ranks, instilled social discipline, and made the society accept the necessity of spending more than a third of the budget on arms. Moreover, they went to war without any resistance whenever the long roll was beaten. Bregman is suspicious that the Israel government deliberately echoed, and thus reinforced, notions of Arab hatred to rally the people behind it, although he frankly admits this suspicion cannot be proven with the available sources. The memory of the Holocaust, a strong stimulant in the early wars, is fading, but still kept alive to serve the same purpose.

Bregman observes that Israeli society's reaction to real and perceived threats bears a political message to the Arab side. The more or less unconditional national solidarity and the readiness to rally around the flag whenever the government called the nation to arms lasted unto the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the subsequent siege of Beirut with the massacres of Sabra and Shatila. This solidarity declined during the First Intifada and dipped again since its renewal in September 2000. Although the author argues this point in the preface, he states almost the opposite in the concluding chapter about the Al-Aqsa-Intifada (pp. xv, 236). The contradiction is obviously a result of developments in the very early phase of the Second Intifada, when many people on Israel's left still believed in a chance for the Peace Process and were outraged over Sharon's provocative visit to the Temple Mountain. One year later, when the book's second edition was finalized, the Israeli people were drifting to the right after hope for any fruitful coexistence with the Palestinian Arabs was as dead as the Peace Process itself. Notwithstanding the briefness of an introductory work, the reader would have appreciated a less contradictory stance.

The events in the months since the book came out have supported the author's thesis, which may be seen as the political message of his book, that threat and pressure have driven Israel's society into a form of national solidarity.[1] That solidarity is centered around stiff resistance and the use of military or paramilitary force rather than backing away by demonstrating flexibility or compromise, surrender not being an option. Thus, if the Arab side wants to strengthen the peace-oriented forces in Israeli society, signals of conciliation and cooperation have to be communicated from the Arab World in general and the Palestinians in particular.

That Sharon and the settlers share this analysis, triggering more Arab violence by a policy of deprivation and provocation in order to uphold the national or majority consensus for their policy, is part of the dilemma that keeps the Middle East firmly in a vicious cycle of violence and retaliation. Bregman's book succeeds in displaying some of the mechanisms that keep the conflict alive. Asking an analyst, instead of the responsible decision makers, to provide solutions is putting the blame at the wrong doorstep.


[1]. This is a widely shared view amongst liberal Israeli intellectuals. See, for example, Amos Elon, "Israelis and Palestinians: What Went Wrong?" in The New York Review of Books (December 19, 2002); Nathan Sznaider, "Ethnischer Staat und Pluralistische Gesellschaft," in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (January 2003); and Moshe Zimmermann, Wiederholungsspiel in Suddeutsche Zeitung (January 28, 2003).

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 24/02/04 12:23:51
S D Stein

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