Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Newly-Arrived Ambassador's Reading List for Israel

Having grown tired over the years of newly-arrived American and British ambassadors declaring that they prepared for their new job by reading the historical portions of the Hebrew Bible, I propose the following reading list on Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the peace process. Imagine that you are a newly appointed ambassador to Israel from a European country or have been charged with providing support for a joint American-European peace initiative in the region and suddenly have to understand what makes Israel tick. Because this is the age of Amazon, I’m only providing author’s names and titles—but all the books date from the 1980s and after. I’m assuming reading fluency in English. Some of these books may exist in translation in other languages.
Overview: Howard Sachar, A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time and Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Siege; Colin Schindler, A Short History of Israel. Both these books date from the late 1980s and cover roughly the first century of Zionism from the first settlement to the aftermath of the First Lebanon War. Sachar’s is the definitive history by a prolific American historian of Israel and modern Jewish history; O’Brien’s is a sympathetic narrative by an Irish journalist who started his life as a nationalist and ended up as a unionist, it is also the much shorter version. Read the final chapters of Schindler’s book for the last 20 years.
The Conflict: Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall; Benny Morris, Righteous Victims; and Shlomo Ben-Ami, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. Shlaim was originally an Iraqi Jew who immigrated to Israel as a child and then moved to London after he established his reputation as a historian. Morris is a British Jew who immigrated to Israel. Both, along with historian Tom Segev, are considered to be part of the New Historians movement of Israelis who began writing a post-Zionist narrative in the mid-1980s. Shlaim’s insight is that David Ben-Gurion quietly adopted Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s doctrine of dealing with the Arabs from behind an iron wall of military might. Morris’s insight is that both the Jews and Arabs consider themselves to be blameless victims of the other side. Ben-Ami was Israeli foreign minister and interior minister during the Camp David II summit. His history deals mostly with the post-1967 period whereas Shlaim and Morris go back to the 1930s.

The Holocaust: Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against the Jews; Tom Segev, The Seventh Million. Davidowicz’s history dates from 1976 (so I lied—sue me!) and is dated as far as its revelations about Hitler’s pathology towards the Jews, but it is the standard history of the Holocaust used in Jewish history courses. Segev’s book is on the Israeli reaction to the news of the Holocaust. This is important both because Israel partly owes its existence to the Holocaust and because this is how many Israelis relate to Europe.

Politics—the Party System and the Labor Party: Any standard textbook used on Israeli politics will do, but I personally recommend those by Gregory Mahler, Politics and Government in Israel: The Maturation of a Modern State; and Don Peretz and Gideon Doron, The Government and Politics of Israel: Third Ed. Mahler provides a couple of chapters of historical overview so that if you don’t have time to read the above books this would be the one to choose. Asher Arian’s The Politics of Israel: The Second Republic is also good on coalitions. On Labor read Neil Lochery’s Labor: In the Shadow of the Likud—written in 1997, the name said it all. A good biography of Ehud Barak has yet to be written, but read Michael Bar-Zohar’s 2007 biography of Shimon Peres for a history of the Labor Party in the 1970s through the 1990s. Bar-Zohar is a former Labor MK and confidante of Peres.

On the Likud:  The best book is Colin Schindler, The Land Beyond Promise: Israel, Likud and the Zionist Dream. Schindler is a British expert on Israeli politics. For a good update on Likud ideology straight from the horse’s mouth read Benjamin Netanyahu, A Durable Peace (this is the 2000 update of his earlier A Place Among the Nations). There are many biographies of the first Likud leader, Menahem Begin, but that by Amos Perlmutter, The Life and Times of Menachem Begin is the best because of its detailed account of his role as underground leader. Begin is to the Likud what Ronald Reagan is to American conservatives in the Republican Party. There are no biographies of Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, in English or Hebrew (there is one in French) but you can read Shamir’s memoir, Summing Up, which does a good job of covering his time as premier. On Sharon read Nir Hefez et al. Ariel Sharon: A Life and Mark Matthews, The Lost Years: Bush, Sharon and Failure in the Middle East.

On Camp David II and the peace process: Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace; Itamar Rabinovich, Waging Peace: Israel and the Arabs; William Quandt, The Peace Process; Aaron D. Miller, The Much Too Promised Land.. Ross, a former State Dept. official in the Ford, Reagan George Bush, and Clinton administrations provides a meeting-by-meeting account of the peace process from 1993-2001 and a brief overview of Middle East diplomacy in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington during the Clinton administration and academic expert on Syria, provides an issue-oriented account of the peace process in the 1990s. Quandt, a former National Security Council Middle East expert during the Carter administration provides an account of the peace process from 1967 to the present. Every time it looks like a new Democratic president might be elected, Quandt publishes a new edition of his book by updating it and thinning out some of the earlier chapters. Miller, who worked under Ross in several U.S. administrations provides a detailed critique of the diplomacy of Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and James Baker and why they succeeded and why Clinton failed to advance the peace process.

On the settlements: Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar, Lords of the Land: Israel’s War Over the Settlements, 1967-2007; and the annual report from Peace Now on settlement activity in the territories.

On Northern Ireland and Israel: Thomas Mitchell, When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East. This is an academic overview of the Northern Ireland and Oslo peace processes and lessons derived from both for future Mideast peace makers. Northern Ireland's conflict is the closest conflict in origins and details to that in the Middle East and both the British and Irish have promoted it as a model for the Middle East peace process.

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