Sunday, November 24, 2019

"Be Strong and of Good Courage," released in September, is a bit of a bait and switch.

It's subtitle, "How Israel's Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny," makes it appear that the book is a biography of David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon centered on the key decisions they made that made them into leaders. Four of the five chapters are indeed focused on those leaders, edited in such a way that the same stories aren't repeated.

But the book is really about its fifth chapter, called "Israel's Fateful Choice." All the stories beforehand were curated to lead to this fifth chapter, where authors Dennis Ross and David Makovsky argue that Israel must do something bold - in their minds, in line with the fateful choices made by Israel's previous leaders - to avoid Israel becoming a binational state.

The major leadership choices that the authors concentrate on are Ben Gurion's decision to declare the State of Israel immediately upon the British leaving Palestine (it was not as obvious a decision as it appears in hindsight,) Begin's making peace with Egypt and ultimately giving up the entire Sinai for peace, Rabin's peace agreement with the PLO and Sharon's decision to withdraw unilaterally from Gaza. The Begin chapter includes fifty pages on the negotiations over the Sinai and less than one sentence on the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, which gives an idea of their definition of leadership.

The biography chapters are not bad, even if they are slanted towards the last chapter. For example, Ben Gurion is quoted by Sharon as saying that Israel could have taken the land to the Jordan (presumably in 1948) but decided not to because then the Jews would be a minority. But Ross/Makovsky would never quote Ben Gurion's words as an introduction to a book about Hebron written in 1970:
Don't forget: the beginnings of Israel's greatest king were in Hebron, the city to which came the first Hebrew about eight hundred years before King David, and we will make a great and awful mistake if we fail to settle Hebron, neighbor and predecessor of Jerusalem, with a large Jewish settlement, constantly growing and expanding, very soon. This will also be a blessing to the Arab neighbors. Hebron is worthy to be Jerusalem's sister. 
It is difficult to imagine a more pro-settlement statement.

There are also some new insights, both from newly uncovered archives and from Ross' own direct experience. My favorite new piece of information is in a footnote:

This anecdote hints at so much: Arafat's pre-planning the intifada and having little interest in compromise at Camp David, the dangers of Israeli unilateral withdrawals and how they are perceived in the Arab world, how Arafat would think that he can gain more from violence than from negotiations, the fundamental importance of pride and honor in Arab politics. A book based on these insights would be a valuable one indeed.

The stories are all shaded towards Chapter Five, implying that real leaders would decide today to effectively withdraw to the route of the security barrier unilaterally in order to preserve Israel's Jewish majority. (For example, they quote Sharon as saying he had to withdraw from Gaza because he felt that any successor prime ministers would be politicians, not visionaries.)

Ross and Makovsky are not starry eyed J-Streeters. They know quite well what Israel's challenges are, and do not expect a Palestinian peace partner to emerge any time soon. They know that Israel must keep the Jordan Valley one way or another with the Jordan River as the only truly effective secure border for Israel. But they have blind spots as well, such as thinking that the US could pressure Europe to accept that Israel would keep the settlement blocs to the east of the security barrier, when Europe would do no such thing because it has spent twenty years saying that the "1967 lines" are the basis for any peace agreement - they have spent so much political capital on that "solution" that they cannot change course, especially when Palestinians would scream about a "land grab" and not look at it as Ross/Makovsky intend, that they have a path to a nation of their own.

Chapter 5 is clearly directed at one person, Benjamin Netanyahu. The authors do give him grudging respect for his skill in relations with Russia, his improvement in relations with Gulf states and in deterring Iran in Syria. But his allowing settlements to continue to grow (even if he has slowed that down significantly for most of his time in office) is his major sin, allowing Israel to drift towards an unsaid but implied apartheid. (To their credit, they do not count Gaza as being occupied by Israel in their demographic arguments.)

What is the real solution to the demographic problem? It is a difficult question to be sure, but their solution is just as flawed as the ones they attack from Israel's right. Most people agree - right and left- that Palestinians deserve to be treated well; that Israel can do things that can improve their lives and make a fresh view of what is needed for security and what is kept in place because of inertia. (Would allowing Palestinians to have 4G networking really hurt Israel's security? Such a move could jump start a Palestinian Internet economy where the location of the workers is not important.)  My own modest addition to the ideas thrown around would be to take advantage of the better relationships with the Gulf countries and come up with incentives from the US or Israel or both to have them give true citizenship to Palestinians - the most educated and most industrious Arab population, who would improve the futures of those countries. This cold crack the Arab consensus that it is in the best interests of Palestinians to keep them stateless, forever.

I wish that Be Strong and of Good Courage was not quite as polemical as it is. A good biography of these four Israeli leaders would be worth reading on its own.

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