Not a Useful Contribution

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“I never read a book before reviewing it,” the celebrated wit Sydney Smith famously remarked, “it prejudices a man so.” I have, in point of fact, read every word of Patrick Tyler’s "Fortress Israel" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 562 pages, $35), a lengthy account of Israeli militarism, but at the end of it all I can’t help wondering whether I shouldn’t have followed Smith’s advice. The reason for this feeling is that the entire message of the book is expressed in its subtitle: “The inside story of the military elite who run the country—and why they can’t make peace.” Tyler seems determined to force every line of his lengthy and detailed narrative into a mould that illustrates his basic theory.

Not that Tyler, a distinguished former journalist of both the Washington Post and the New York Times, is entirely wrong. Much of what he writes about Israel’s militaristic mentality is sadly true. Israeli policymakers have indeed far too often viewed their conflict with the Arabs through the sights of a rifle. The problem is that, in dealing with a subject of notable complexity, the author is guilty of simplification that can only be described as grotesque.

Anyone familiar with the Israeli reality knows that much of the more moderate, peace-oriented policy thinking has emerged from the nation’s military men, such as Moshe Dayan, Ezer Weizman, and Yitzhak Rabin, whereas most of the xenophobic extremism has come from civilians, like Menachem Begin and Binyamin Netanyahu.

Tyler’s basic thesis is that the elite determining Israeli policy over the past sixty years consisted of militarized “sabras,” native Israelis. (For some reason he revives this archaic label that has not been in general use in Israel for several decades.) When his own account demonstrates that crucial decisions were made by such “non-sabras” as Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, Pinhas Sapir, Chaim Bar-Lev, David Elazar, and Menachem Begin, he either simply ignores it, or maintains that they lined up with the “sabra military elite.”

The author is no stranger to controversy. Early in his career he earned a reputation as a courageous purveyor of uncomfortable truths after successfully winning a libel suit. The problem is that the experience appears to have left him with an insatiable appetite for polemics. He is justifiably critical of Israel, but he is not satisfied with constructive criticism; he insists on blanket condemnation.

Tyler discloses that his “exposure to Israel’s military culture” began when he was a young correspondent based in Cairo, but the “inspiration” for this book took shape while visiting Tel Aviv to conduct interviews for "A World of Trouble," his study of the Middle East policies of ten American presidents. The author is understandably exasperated by what he (rightly) sees as an exaggerated American bias in favor of Israel, but unfortunately he has allowed this irritation to permeate the volume under review.

Not since David Hirst’s "The Gun and the Olive Branch" has there been an account of the Israeli-Arab confrontation so viscerally hostile to Israel. Why, for example, does he bother to relay cheap gossip on everything from Shimon Peres’s purported physical cowardice to Moshe Dayan’s sexual peccadilloes and a great deal else besides?

Tyler does not provide us with a bibliography, although his extensive notes include many books on Israel and its neighbors. Conspicuous by its absence is Shabtai Teveth’s magisterial biography of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and defense minister. Most of it is available in English translation and it might have helped the author appreciate the extraordinary complexity of this remarkable man. BG was no saint, but he was far from the fire-breathing caricature depicted in Fortress Israel.

Tyler is much better when he comes to the subsequent actors in the drama such as Dayan, Peres, Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. He gives us an eloquent account of Yitzhak Rabin’s transformation from military mandarin to courageous peacemaker and is particularly deadly when depicting the egregious mistakes of Ehud Barak, as he blunders into the second intifada.

Ultimately, though, it is difficult to see the point of this rather portentous book. It adds nothing of importance to the accounts of far more knowledgeable critics of Israeli policy and conduct such as Avi Shlaim, Amos Elon, Tom Segev, and Simha Flapan. It neither supplements our knowledge, nor provides new insights into that knowledge.

In the acknowledgements section, Tyler pays generous tribute to various Israeli researchers who befriended and assisted him. Sadly, they do not appear to have given him an understanding of their nation’s basic character. The Israel he depicts is not the Israel we know. I always maintain that, in the tragic Middle East situation, there is plenty of blame to go around, and that it is time to stop trying to win the argument and start trying to solve the problem. In apportioning the overwhelming proportion of the blame for the continuing crisis to Israel, Tyler overstates his case and that is why his book is a long way from being a useful contribution to the discussion.