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
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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