Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can’t Make Peace, by Patrick Tyler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)

In discussions of the Israel-Arab conflict, it has become increasingly acceptable to pretend that only one character truly exists: Israel, a country peopled with Jews struggling with their history and their demons as they act out a great moral drama against a backdrop of deserts, camels and Arabs.

Israel’s neighbors are present in this narrative as inanimate objects or, at most, as children. Their actions barely warrant analysis, so understanding the story does not involve looking at the complex interactions of Israel and its surroundings but rather dissecting Israel’s flaws.

A variant of this one-man show exists on Israel’s right: In this narrative, the Arabs are uniformly and unalterably malevolent, and the story is Israel’s failure to shed its Diaspora weakness and respond with enough force and ethnic pride. In the version accepted on Israel’s left and abroad, on the other hand, the Arabs are passive bystanders and victims, and the story is the Jews’ abuse of force, their repetition of the crimes once perpetrated against them. In my years covering Israel as part of the international press corps, I came to understand that this latter view has become the default framework in which the story is covered for foreign audiences, shaping the way it is seen by millions of people.

Tyler makes a case for a rethinking of Israeli history in which Israel is not Athens but Sparta: a belligerent and deeply militaristic society that fights not because it has to but because it wants to

This take eschews political and historical complications in favor of moralizing, and tends to believe Israel is not rationally responding to external threats but surrendering to internal weaknesses. Israel is too religious, or too scarred by the Holocaust. It is too Western, or not Western enough. It is too influenced by the ultra-Orthodox, or the settlers in the military’s officer corps, or by eastern Jews and their hardline politics or — this has become a popular one recently, put forward by Bill Clinton and the editorial page of The New York Times because of the anti-democratic tendencies of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. The reason there is no peace, this thinking goes, is because something is rotten in Israel’s soul.

The newest addition to this expanding genre is Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can’t Make Peace, by Patrick Tyler, formerly a senior writer at The New York Times. Tyler makes a case for a rethinking of Israeli history in which Israel is not Athens but Sparta: a belligerent and deeply militaristic society that fights not because it has to but because it wants to.

Presented with a choice between diplomacy and force, in this telling, Israel has consistently chosen force — not because circumstances demanded it, but because of a desire for battle in the state’s DNA. From its inception, Tyler writes, Israel has been controlled by a “sabra military elite,” a fighting class that wants war for its own reasons and has imposed its will on more dovish leaders and infected the rest of the country with the “sabra exuberance for combat.”

“The broad conclusion that I believe any realistic researcher reaches,” Tyler writes, “is that Israel, six decades after its founding, remains a nation in thrall to an original martial impulse, the depth of which has given rise to succeeding generations of leaders who are stunted in their capacity to wield or sustain diplomacy as a rival to military strategy, who seem ever on the hair trigger in dealing with their regional rivals, and whose contingency planners embrace worse-case scenarios that often exaggerate complex or ambiguous developments as threats to national existence.

“They do so,” he continues, “reflexively and instinctively, in order to perpetuate a system of governance where national policy is dominated by the military.”

As has been amply described by historians, in its early years and thereafter Israel missed opportunities to pursue peaceful solutions, used force injudiciously, and occasionally lied about it, like most countries. There may be a good book to be written for an international audience on the way 64 years of conflict have affected Israel’s national outlook and character: The military unquestionably plays an outsize role in decision-making and in the life of the country, and the effects of that imbalance in government and on individual Israelis are real and worth exploring.

This is not that book. Fortress Israel, while clearly based on copious research, is a tiresome sermon – a mix of simplistic analysis, ill-informed observation and casual slander.

Tyler is an accomplished journalist who has been posted to the Mideast, but according to his publisher, he does not know Hebrew and has never been based in Israel. (He made five trips here to report for this book.) He has nonetheless attempted an ambitious and critical political biography of the country, its leaders and society, which reminds me of an apt observation by B.R. Meyers in a 2004 Atlantic Monthly review of a book about North Korea: “The question of where Europe ends and Asia begins has troubled many people over the years,” he wrote, “but here’s a rule of thumb: If someone can pose as an expert on the country in question without knowledge of the relevant language, it’s part of Asia.” It is impossible to imagine anyone writing a book like this one about America, for example, without knowing English.

Some of those who have reported this conflict for many years have found their capacity for glib condemnation of either side crippled by familiarity with the subject matter. Tyler has no such constraints

The best of the international reporters covering Israel — and this is true of reporters in any foreign country — retain a clear sense of what they do not know and respect the ways a place’s true nature always eludes the transient. Some of those who have reported this conflict for many years have found their capacity for glib condemnation of either side crippled by familiarity with the subject matter.

Tyler has no such constraints, and that allows him to write sentences like this one, explaining how the military pervades all levels of Israeli society: “Once in the military system, Israelis never fully exit,” he explains. “They carry the military identity for life, not just through service in the reserves until age forty-nine, or through social and retirement services, but through lifelong expectations of loyalty and secrecy.”

I actually had to read that sentence again to make sure I hadn’t read it wrong. Anyone who thinks Israeli society is characterized by “loyalty and secrecy” has never spent time with Israelis; anyone who has done so might find this description as unintentionally hilarious as I did. As for the outdated idea that, as the book suggests, Israel’s “military is the country”, two statistics should suffice. According to 2010 numbers, one-half of Israeli citizens do not serve in the military at all, or do not complete their service. And of the population that could be doing yearly reserve duty, only 5 percent do, according to statistics released earlier this year. As a percentage of the general population, that number is even lower.

Israel is, in many ways, a distinctly non-martial society. There are no military parades. The army is regularly pilloried in the press, and militarism is suspect — even in the military, which is a sometimes startlingly anarchic institution that reflects the country from which it drafts its recruits. In combat units, the acceptable range of attitude among troops toward the army runs from weary acceptance to outright loathing; gung-ho soldiers are mocked. Tyler seems to believe that the Israeli military produces militaristic people, but in my experience it mainly produces cynics.

Tyler gets into more trouble trying to characterize the “sabra military elite” that, as the book’s subtitle puts it, “runs the country” and “can’t make peace.” (“Sabra,” the name of a prickly cactus, was once used to denote people born in Israel; it has hardly been used here in years, but appears on nearly every page of Fortress Israel as a pejorative.) The “elite” makes war not because it sees it as necessary for the country’s survival, but because it can’t help itself: Israel has chosen war “reflexively and instinctively,” Tyler writes, and elsewhere, he describes the decision to fight as “less intellectual than visceral.” Arab actions and motivations remain mysterious, and Arab attacks are generally portrayed either as responses to Israeli provocations or “pretexts” seized upon by sabra generals who had been planning something anyway.

Those who know Dayan as one of the most intelligent and complex figures in Israel’s history might be interested to discover that he was, in fact, an obsessive who loved nothing as much as a good brawl

Tyler describes Israel’s body politic as a battleground between bad militarists — headed by the “churlish” David Ben-Gurion — and peace-loving diplomats like Moshe Sharett, the country’s second prime minister. The “essential tension” in Israel, he writes, is “between Sharett’s impulse to engage the Arabs and the military establishment’s demand to mobilize for continual war.”

Supporting that description requires caricatures like this one, of Moshe Dayan: “A thoroughly secular man, Dayan began fighting Arabs with fists and knives as a teenager, and, as he grew older, he read the Old Testament obsessively, though he was nonreligious, because for him it was a manual for war.” Elsewhere, he writes of Dayan’s “brazen lust for combat,” and his “biblical obsession with primordial combat.” Those who know Dayan as one of the most intelligent and complex figures in Israel’s history might be interested to discover that he was, in fact, an obsessive who loved nothing as much as a good brawl.

The belligerent “sabra elite” at the heart of this telling of Israel’s history includes people like Ben-Gurion and Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, who were not sabras, as well as Dayan and Ezer Weizmann, who were sabras and military commanders — and also architects of the historic peace accord with Egypt. Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak were archetypal products of the military, of course, and as prime ministers they both led dramatic attempts at regional rapprochement. Ben-Gurion pushed for war, as Tyler himself writes, except when he pushed against war, as he did in 1967. Aharon Yariv, the military intelligence director at the time of the Six-Day War, was a “leading hawk,” he tells us, before writing that Yariv was a proponent of talks with the Palestinians long before this was a common position. Tyler does not seem to realize that these are not minor holes in an overarching theory, but signs that the theory is wrong. Israel’s military leadership has always been a mixed bag of people, some of them spoiling for a fight, others keenly aware of the limits of force and many of them inconsistent, as humans maddeningly tend to be. The senior brass has traditionally been associated with parties of the center and left, and that remains the case today. The battle-hungry elite at the heart of this book is imaginary — a construct conjured up to make a point.

It’s possible that Tyler’s book is intended as a parable for Americans about the clash of militarism versus diplomacy. It makes early reference to Eisenhower and the “military-industrial complex” and the constitutional balances that he believes make the US system superior to Israel’s. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Tyler did not invest his decades of reporting experience in the US in an investigation of America’s own military elites and of the impulse that in the past 11 years has led America into two wars, both more costly in human lives than those Israel has fought and with justifications infinitely more tenuous.

Fortress Israel exists in the broader context of today’s discussion of “Israel” — an imaginary place quite unlike the actual state of Israel — in which Western observers use the country and its conflicts as a blank screen onto which they project discomfort about certain aspects of their own societies. At the moment, these seem to mainly involve problems of race and the use of force. I do not see anti-Semitism lurking behind all or most criticism of Israel, and I don’t see anti-Semitism here, but I do believe it would be remiss not to point out that this discussion itself exists in a historical context that often goes unmentioned: For centuries, the Jew has played the role of blank screen in Christian societies – a lightning rod for negative sentiment, usually expressed as harsh moral judgment. If cowardice was a negative attribute, Jews were cowardly. If greed was to be condemned, Jews were greedy. If the poor were to be mocked, Jews were paupers, and if the rich were to be hated Jews were bankers. For capitalists Jews were communists, and for communists they were capitalists. These days, the issues that animate liberals in the West tend to be linked to colonialism, racism, and militarism, and thus it is in these contexts that the Jewish state now appears.

“We have to help the Israelis — and we have to help our own country, because their politics reflects into our politics — we have to help them get back to that strategic consensus that Rabin imposed on the military establishment, that peace is the strategic goal, not war,” Tyler told Tablet Magazine’s podcast in an interview last month.

This book will doubtless be embraced by the kind of people actually willing to believe that Israelis see war as a strategic goal – and judging by the blurbs on the jacket of Fortress Israel, these include at least one prominent US journalist and a former executive editor of The New York Times. (The blurbs suggest either that there is a lack of fundamental understanding of Israel among some otherwise knowledgeable people, or that people don’t read books before they write blurbs.)

For the rest of us, however, Fortress Israel is a disturbing sign of what is becoming accepted thinking about this country, and a demonstration of the way the past is too often at the mercy of those looking to score ideological points in the present.

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Times of Israel correspondent Matti Friedman is the author of The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (Algonquin Books, 2012). He has reported on Israel since 1997.