The most important book ever written about Israel's place in the Middle East is also the saddest and, in many ways, the cruelest and most unfair. The book is Fortress Israel, The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country -- and Why They Can't Make Peace, by former New York Times and Washington Post reporter Patrick Tyler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and it details Israel's military history from the nation's founding through the ending of the Gaza incursion in 2010.
The book is the most important because it provides an intensely readable, compelling narrative about Israel's struggle for survival. It's the saddest because it details remorselessly the many mistakes Israel has made in its quest to provide security for its inhabitants. It's the cruelest because it consistently minimizes the threats from Arab neighbors and constantly upbraids the Israelis for daring to stand up for themselves. And it's the most unfair because it turns the word sabra, a term native-born Israelis use to define themselves, into an ugly epithet, meaning war-like, brutal, ego-driven and self-defeating.
The distortion begins as you open the book, with a map of Israel that depicts the country as huge and its Arab neighbors as tiny, as if Israel dominated the Middle East through its sheer size. One look at a real map of the region indicates just how biased this map is.
Things quickly get worse, especially when Tyler details Arab assaults on the nascent state of Israel in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At one point he mentions that of the Arabs crossing into Israel, 90 percent are coming just to reclaim property lost or abandoned in the war and only 10 percent to kill or maim Israeli civilians. I'm confused -- is he suggesting that the 10 percent is a respectable, acceptable figure? Just how many assaults and attacks, especially on women and children, was Israel supposed to tolerate?
Then comes Tyler's outrage that Israel would not allow its borders to be determined by the great powers. Yet why should Israel be forced to outsource its sovereignty to nations that stood idly by during the Holocaust, the stench of whose crematoria was still wafting across Europe when the State of Israel was founded? Still, Tyler repeatedly criticizes Israel's leadership whenever it turns down borders that others seek to impose.
Tyler chastises Israel repeatedly for taking any action to protect itself. Israel developed nuclear weapons as a fail-safe device, and the author provides fascinating detail as to Israel's obfuscations when the world wanted inspections of the Dimona nuclear facility. He doesn't directly draw a parallel with the desire for inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities today, but the implication is obvious.
Here's the real problem: Tyler looks at Israel in the first decades of its existence, surrounded by neighbors who have made war against it from its birth and who regularly send terrorists to kill civilians, and expects this nation, born from the ashes of the Holocaust, to play by gentlemen's rules. That's not reality.
Tyler is at his incontrovertible best when he dissects the hubris that led the Israeli military into repeated failures and defeats, from the Mitla Pass in the Sinai in the 1950s through Israel's doomed efforts to remake Lebanon in the 1980s. Along the way, Israel's militarism, Tyler argues, radicalized its neighbors and created a cycle of endless war. Israel did not help its own cause by having weak political leaders like Levi Eshkol and Moshe Sharett who kept getting rolled by the top guns in the military.
Even so, Tyler rests his argument on a faulty assumption -- that the Arab world wanted to make peace with Israel, and that if only Israel had somehow weathered all of the attacks, the bombings, the killing of women and children, peace would finally have broken out.
Israel did what it had to do, in order to survive. Were there mistakes? Were there miscalculations? Did leaders overstep? Did ego overcome rational thinking? Yes, of course. But show me a nation, including our own, that hasn't been guilty of all of these mistakes and worse.
Israel was founded and led by human beings. For all their personal and professional shortcomings, they did the impossible: they created a nation that has survived and thrived against all odds and against an array of enemies many times its size. Let Tyler next scrutinize the U.S. government, or any government, during the same period. If he finds perfection anywhere else, please let me be the first to know.