by Shlomo Ben-Ami
(Oxford University Press, 2006), 368 pp., $30
Another book about the Arab-Israeli conflict…. My eyes were glazing over. Arabs and Israelis may be exhausted after five years of non-stop confrontation, but don’t they realize that we were also tired of reading about it? What could possibly be new enough about the problems of the Much Too Promised Land to justify another book?
Apparently quite a bit. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister and Oxford-trained historian, has offered up something that is indeed new and different—a history of sorts that has both the honesty and clarity often lacking in books about the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a literature too often dominated by propaganda and polemic, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace is a refreshing look at why Arabs and Israelis fight. It is also a sharp indictment of Israelis, Arabs and even Americans, with some depressing conclusions about whether or not they can ever stop fighting.
Ben-Ami’s only significant transgression in an otherwise rewarding read is an annoying penchant for holding his own countrymen responsible for consistently missing alleged opportunities for peacemaking. His expectations of Israeli policies are unrealistic, particularly in circumstances where each side’s fears and actions feed off the other. To the extent that tragedy describes the Arab-Israeli conflict, it does so mainly in the sense that fifty years of violence and suspicion have hardwired both sides to miss opportunities, misperceive each other and never give the slightest benefit of a doubt.
Writing with persuasive eloquence, Ben Ami surveys the grand sweep of the conflict from its origins through five Arab-Israeli wars, to successful and abortive peacemaking, and finally brings us to the doorstep of Ariel Sharon’s disengagement strategy. His judgments of the key actors are sharp throughout, and there are no heroes here, with the possible exception of Anwar Sadat. Of Shimon Peres, Ben Ami writes, “persistent, obstinate, and proverbially patient, he was second to none in his talent for political maneuvering and manipulation.” Of Arafat’s life, he notes, it was characterized “by ambiguities, doubletalk, closing a door yet leaving it half open.”
Ben-Ami’s judgments are numerous, but two of his conclusions are worth special note. First, the history of peacemaking and withdrawal on the Israeli side is really a record of the conversion of hawks, not a consequence of the preaching of doves. The list of examples is compelling: Begin, Dayan, Rabin, Sharon and now Ehud Olmert. Second, Ben-Ami rightly asserts that it has taken years for Arabs and Israelis to begin to realize the limits of their ability to impose their will on one another. The evidence of this is now clear: The idea of Greater Israel is dead for all practical purposes, and so is the idea that the Palestinians can use armed struggle to end Israel’s occupation or force a comprehensive solution on issues such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees. Palestinians may rejoice in the fact that Greater Israel is dead, but they surely do not take heart in the sobering reality that death might also have come for the idea of a conflict-ending agreement that satisfies all their national aspirations.
What is most noteworthy about Ben-Ami’s synthesis, however, is his critique of the Israeli approach toward peacemaking these many years. He has taken Abba Eban’s famous quip about Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity and applied it to Israelis. According to Ben-Ami, peace breakthroughs were largely initiated by the Arabs, not by the Israelis, and the Israelis responded only after external pressure or a major setback. He also suggests that the Israelis bear a measure of responsibility for their own predicament. For example, he writes that Ben-Gurion cultivated the perception of Israel as an embattled ghetto and laid the psychological conditions for the 1967 war. Similarly, in the period between 1970 and 1973 Israeli leaders rejected Sadat’s peace initiatives, one after another; in doing so, they brought on the October 1973 War, which could have been prevented had they read Sadat’s intentions correctly.
Some of this is a bit much. Leaders need to be judged by the circumstances and options available to them at the time, not to mention the behavior of their adversaries. Nothing should be clearer than this: Until the October 1973 War, neither Arabs nor Israelis felt the urgency, summoned the will, developed the capability, or bore any intention to do serious peacemaking.
Shlomo Ben-Ami is nonetheless a man of honesty and integrity—something I know from my dealings with him in negotiations during the 1999-2001 period. I suspect that some of Ben-Ami’s misreading of Israel’s options flows from the fact that he feels twice betrayed: once by the Palestinian leaders whose shortsightedness, in his view, caused the failure of the Camp David Summit in July 2000; but perhaps now, as he reflects back, betrayed also by his recognition that his own leaders may have missed some real opportunities as well.