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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 14th, 2006


Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy

by Shlomo Ben Ami

Books, Manners, Mores

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Because it's a bracing and honest history of the Arab-Zionist confrontation, this book will displease partisans of both sides. But unconditional supporters of Israel will find both its challenges to many of the country's founding myths and its frequently severe appraisals of Israeli policies over the past half century especially disconcerting, because its author, a trained historian, was also Israel's minister of foreign affairs. Although Ben-Ami should be praised for his unsparing account, readers looking for a clear-eyed narrative of this fraught and intricate subject should turn instead to Benny Morris's astringent, nuanced, and superbly written Righteous Victims, which remains the peerless chronicle.

Ben-Ami's work, which incorporates the more sober and responsible insights of Israeli revisionist scholars, covers the period from the late nineteenth century to the present, but it concentrates on Arab-Israeli relations since the 1980s, and especially on the already well-chronicled story of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the Oslo Accords to the failed 2000 Camp David talks (in which he was a participant). Moreover, although he writes clearly when recounting long-past events and long-dead figures (he fashions an especially astute appraisal of David Ben-Gurion), Ben-Ami lapses into nebulous diplo-blah-blah ("an international alliance for peace was needed in order to articulate a new peace paradigm") when analyzing events in which he was an actor.

Still, his assessments are often spot-on: he correctly emphasizes that Israel's basic motivation for erecting the separation barrier was to forestall the danger of a Palestinian demand for a "one-state solution"; he cogently argues that it was only unbending and even aggressive Israeli behavior -- behavior he often judges harshly -- that forced the Arab world to reconcile itself to the Jewish state; and he nicely highlights the historical continuities in Zionist-Palestinian relations, specifically the geographic and demographic realities that, after more than a century, still render impossible an accommodation between the two peoples.

Indeed, this is, rightly, a bleak book. Ben-Ami seems to grasp the dire long-term prospects confronting the Jewish state (owing to those vexing geographic and demographic realities), and his only way out is an international scheme to negotiate and supervise a new partition of Palestine (led by -- you guessed it -- the United States), which would necessitate a large peacekeeping force. Yet just over four years ago, Ben-Ami presciently acknowledged that it's "not improbable" (!) that radical Islamists will gain power in Palestine, "possibly even democratically" (!) -- which means that the likelihood that "the international community" will police that dangerous and volatile neighborhood is virtually nil.

Israelis convincingly argue that the anarchic and hostile Palestinian factions don't present a partner for peace, but even less do they present a partner for peacemakers. Which leaves Jerusalem, much to Ben-Ami's understandable dismay, unilaterally erecting the barrier (a solution that obviates some of the Jewish state's pressing tactical problems, even as it promises to exacerbate its -- admittedly, seemingly insoluble -- strategic ones).

Although Isabel Kershner, senior editor of The Jerusalem Report, has over the years written some of the most crisply intelligent journalistic analyses of Israeli-Palestinian relations to appear anywhere, her book, Barrier (Palgrave), takes a human-interest approach. The result is a sometimes vivid but more often stale series of sketches that don't play to the author's strengths, and that fail to illuminate those vexing geographic and demographic realities -- and the concomitant, elaborate calculations -- behind Israeli policy.

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