Defending the Holy Land
A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy
Publisher: University of Michigan Press (May 12, 2006)
Reviewer: Ellen Cantarow
In 1997 Hamas offered Israel a 30-year truce. Jordan's King Hussein delivered the offer: Israel's response was to send Mossad agents to Jordan where they tried to kill Hamas leader Khaled Meshal by dropping poison in his ear. The incident (described by former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy in his book, Man in the Shadows), not only deeply embarrassed the King, it also failed to kill Meshal. (Other peace bids were made; all were rejected, though none, perhaps, as dramatically as this.) Hamas has also honored both short and long ceasefires, not the least of which took place during the six months preceding Israel's recent devastation of Gaza. A January 2009 Huffington Post article by Nancy Kanwisher, Johannes Haushofer, & Anat Biletzki shows that in any "conflict pause" between 2000 and 2008 ("conflict pause" means a cessation of hostile actions on both sides) Israel most often killed first, shattering the peace. The longer the "conflict-pause," the greater Israel's propensity to break it with violence.
The 1997 assassination attempt illustrates what Zeev Maoz, in his landmark work, Defending the Holy Land, calls Israel's "over my dead body" approach to peace. One form of Israeli ceasefire violation has been targeted assassinations, which Maoz says became policy -- a specific "tactic intended to ignite escalation" -- in the al-Aqsa Intifada. (He himself cites "four separate occasions" on which "Israel violated an implicit cease-fire that the Palestinians imposed upon themselves by assassinations that caused escalation" .)
Anyone seeking the background behind Israel's demonizing of Hamas; its destruction of Gaza; its slide into today's fascism (my word, not Maoz's) should read this book. According to its author Israel has been a "Sparta state" from its inception, its national psyche veering between arrogance and paranoia. Shaped by the belief that all Arabs and their states would destroy Israel if they could, the Jewish state's policies have been rooted from the start in Jabotinsky's "Iron Wall" doctrine. Adopted by Jabotinsky's arch-rival Ben Gurion, this doctrine has translated throughout Israel's history as repeated military blows "to convince the Arabs of the futility and illogic of their dreams. Over time, the Arabs will come to accept the Jewish state and to make peace with it" (9).
The book brings a crushing weight of historical and analytical detail to bear on all arenas of Israel's security and foreign policy. Readers will find blow-by-blow analyses (including details of military decisions, arms used, tactics chosen, advances, retreats, etc.) of all of Israel's wars from Sinai in the mid-1950s through Lebanon in 1982 (the book ends in 2004). Here, too, is a compendium of its "lesser" conflicts from 1949 through the first part of the al-Aqsa Intifada.
Maoz gives careful attention to Israel's secretive nuclear policy and its impact on the region. An illuminating exploration of Israel's intervention into the affairs of neighboring states includes Israel's covert operations in the Sudan, where it supported the Black Sudanese south against the Arab north from 1965-75; the West Bank, where it tried to create "village leagues" -- these were manned by thugs loathed by the general population -- to supplant the PLO. (When that didn't work, it supported Muslim groups that morphed into Hamas.) A section on the "causes and implications of the mismanagement of National security & foreign policy" includes a detailed discussion of how Israel's military came to dominate its civil society (including its court system).
This book was ignored (by The New York Times among others) when it appeared. My guess is that it wasn't the book's bulk (at over 700 pages including end notes and references this is a huge volume) that caused editors to ignore it. Certainly it wasn't its plain-spoken but occasionally "poli-sci" style: such books are routinely reviewed in the Times and The New York Review of Books. I suspect that the book was simply too damning of policies slavishly underwritten by the US, and unquestioningly accepted by US intellectuals -- including, say, the editors of the Times. Length and unwieldiness might have been an excuse; but the real reason probably lies in today's unhappy atmosphere of censorship (both by the "self" and by the guardians of public thought in this arena). I also suspect that a strike against Maoz is his unimpeachable credentials. He's enough of an "establishment man" to be dangerous -- hence, better ignored. He headed the Masters program of the Israeli Defense Force's National Defense College; he also directed the Graduate School of Government Policy and the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies
at Tel Aviv University. Of five major wars he analyzes here, he fought in three: the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Lebanon War. In the early 1990s he briefly advised Yitzhak Rabin on strategic affairs. His thirty-year ambition to write this book was driven by his frustration with "the persistent failure of the policy community to learn from Israel's mistakes . . . " (viii).
Israel committed one of its worst mistakes in 1971. That February, President Anwar Sadat announced to Egypt's People's Assembly a possible "interim agreement" with Israel. Within days this became a full-blown peace offer brokered by the UN's Gunnar Jarring in trilateral negotiations with Israel, Egypt and the US. Egypt's foreign minister wrote Jarring that Egypt would "enter into a peace agreement with Israel containing all the . . . obligations as provided in Security Council Resolution 242 . . . once Israel withdrew from the Sinai" (412; emphasis mine). The offer, comments Maoz, "could not be overstated . . . At the end of the road was what the Israelis had been, presumably, praying for over the past twenty-three years: a full-fledged peace treaty . . . It implied a formal acceptance of and peace with a Jewish state in the Middle East by the strongest and most important Arab state" (412).
If Israel had said yes to Sadat in 1971, the Palestinians might well have been quiet (subsequent leaked Israeli intelligence has revealed that Israel was considering letting the old families in the occupied territories run their affairs as they had under the Ottoman Empire). Egypt would have been removed as Israel's greatest Arab threat;
Egyptian compliance with the treaty would have been a touchstone for future negotiations with other Arab states.Before 1967 Israel would have accepted Sadat "with both hands," says Maoz. "In 1971, however, the price tag for this deal appeared excessively high . . ." (412). In short, Israel's greed trumped its desire for peace. It wanted to hold onto what it had conquered in the Sinai in 1967; in specific it wanted to build a huge city on the site of a tiny settlement called Yamit (Israel was forced to evacuate that in 1982).
The choice was fateful. The Yom Kippur War, which largely owed to Israel's rejection, cost the lives of three thousand Israeli soldiers; a "staggering" loss of equipment; $10 billion in overall damages. (Arab losses, of course, were far higher.) On at least two occasions (October 9 and 23), Israel armed its nuclear warheads, bringing the region to
the brink of nuclear war (164). (Maoz thinks it's reasonable "to suppose that [Israel] had two to three dozen bombs and a dozen or so nuclear warheads on its Jericho missiles" (165). He also feels that "nuclear deterrence did not do what it was supposed to do" (315).
Soviet intelligence must surely have passed knowledge of Israel's nuclear doings to Egypt, but neither Egypt nor Syria was deterred from pressing forward. (The chapter on Israel's nuclear policy greatly expands the idea of its futility and its sparking of a regional arms race.) After the war Israel's defense spending soared from 15% to 25% of GDP, "the largest in the world atthat time" (165). Beyond sheer expense in blood and money, in January, 1974, Israel agreed "to a far worse deal" with Egypt (417).*
Was the choice of expansion over peace worth it? Maoz thinks not. The Yom Kippur War did improve Israel's relations with the US; at the same time it increased Israel's military dependence on the Americans. The Yom Kippur War further isolated Israel elsewhere in the world and, in Maoz's view, "marked the growing legitimacy accorded by the international community to the PLO" (167). Israel's security establishment (IDF intelligence) continued dominating its foreign-policy decisions. Among other things this produced Israel's ties with "pariah states such as South Africa . . . " (168).
Maoz use the specific terms "expansion" and "annexationist" only in reference to later events: "Once religious ideology became a major drive in the settlement policy, an unspoken alliance was formed between annexationist elements in the Labor Party and the Likud Party, on the one hand, and national-religious groups such as Gush Emunim, on the other" (489). But Israel's expansionist ambitions are very clear in Maoz's account of Sadat's 1971 offer. Elsewhere, the author describes Israel's territorial fixation as a far earlier motive:
"Even before 1948 . . . Zionist leaders strongly believed that the outcome of any political settlement in Palestine would be determined by the demographic distribution of the ethnic groups residing in it . . . Settlements form a human and physical fait accompli" (17).
In regard to the Sinai war,
"The Israeli leadership had been itching for war since the early 1950s...A large number of people in the military and political elite believed...that the outcome of the 1948 war had not been decisive . . . in providing Israel with defensible borders . . . Both military and political leaders...were actively searching for an appropriate pretext to occupy the West Bank" (74).
In regard to Israel's relations with Syria:
"Whenever requested to define the military requirements of a possible agreement with Syria, the IDF opted for territorial control rather than for security arrangements . . . " (403).
The theme I've extrapolated from the book (that Israel's expansionism has historically trumped peace) is not Maoz's. But the evidence exists for such a conclusion. A flaw is that there's so much detail, one can easily lose the forest for the trees. But the details do often make for arresting reading.
Readers will be reminded how "traditional" Israel's brutal siege against Gaza was, how rooted in the past its subsequent destruction of the Strip, by reading the chapter, "Unlimited Use of the Limited Use of Force." Here, Maoz goes back sixty years to describe a policy of collective punishment against civilians. From 1949 on, Israel struck villages from which 1948 refugees had "infiltrated" into the Jewish state. Moshe Dayan comments as follows:
"The only method that proved effective, not justified or moral [emphasis mine], but effective, when Arabs plant mines on our side (is retaliation.) . . . if we harass the nearby village . . . then the population there comes out against the (infiltrators) . . . and the Egyptian Government and the Transjordanian government are (driven) to prevent such incidents, because their prestige is (assailed) . . . " (279).
What has changed in 55 years is that Israel's leaders exhibit naked arrogance in committing outlaw acts - there's no thought of using a phrase like "not justified or moral." Yet the use by Ben Gurion, Dayan, and subsequent leaders of collective punishment inevitably produced today's Israel. So has its long history of provocation. "[D]isproportionate responses to provocations, as well as military initiatives not in response to specific provocations" (232) include:
Moshe Dayan's order to his general staff, October 23, 1955, to overthrow Nasser's regime by "bring[ing] about a decisive confrontation with Egypt in the nearest possible future." "Gradual deterioration" (Dayan's term) would materialize through acts of disproportionate force against Egyptian provocations. If nothing else worked to make Egypt react satisfactorily, Dayan would order "the occupation of the Eilat Straits by the IDF" as "the detonator that will blow up the entire powder keg" (63-65). (Result: Nasser is not overthrown. The Sinai war is a military success, but it does not result in "making the region safer for Israel and the West . . . just the opposite" (79).
Dayan's candid discussion, in a mid-1970s interview, of IDF provocations against Syria, designed to push that country and Egypt towards the 1967 war: "It worked like this: we would send a tractor to plow some place in the demilitarized zone where nothing could be grown, and we knew ahead of time that the Syrians would shoot. If they didn't shoot, we would tell the tractor to move deeper (into the DMZ) until the Syrians got mad eventually and fired on it . . . We thought then, and it lasted for a long time, that we can change the armistice lines by a series of military operations that are less than war, that is, to snatch some territory and hold on to it until the enemy would give up on it . . . " (103). (Result: the 1967 War is a victory, but it contains the poison pill of occupation and further conflict. It makes Israel arrogant and stupid enough to ignore all warnings, and be ravaged by the Yom Kippur War.) Israel's blanket-bombing of southern Lebanese towns and villages in July 1983 caused thousands of Lebanese to flee toward Beirut. "Operation Accountability" was meant to make the population reject Hezbollah: the opposite effect was achieved.
This book should take its place in your library next to Israel's "revisionist" historians, Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle and Zertal's and Eldar's Lords of the Land: The War Over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories (1967-2007).