Balfour, Mossad, Peres

Mosaic has asked its regular contributors to recommend three books: two new ones published in 2020, and a classic. Below is my contribution. For all of them, go here.

Just when we think we know all there is to know about the modern history of Zionism and Israel, a new book deflates our confidence. Here are two new ones that did just that in 2020, and a classic that did that long ago.

Shimon Peres remains one of the great enigmas of Israel’s history. He was a high-flying statesman of international caliber who kept falling to earth. Israelis saw in him the glimmer of a visionary à la Herzl, so they kept him in public life. But this indulgence came with a condition: he would always be “number two” to someone else, and he would have to propitiate this “number one” to get his work done.

Avi Gil, trained as a diplomat, ended up as an adviser to Peres for 28 years. His Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 264pp., $26.95) caused a stir when it appeared in Hebrew in 2018. Other advisers had written reverential memoirs about their political bosses. Gil, by contrast, is admiring of Peres’s strengths, but unsparing when it comes to his faults, above all his preening ego. It wasn’t always clear what drove him: vision or vanity.

Whatever one thinks of the Oslo Accords (Gil thinks more of them than you probably do), they represented a double triumph for Peres. To maneuver Yasir Arafat into an agreement, he first had to outmaneuver his nemesis, Yitzḥak Rabin. The backstory of how Oslo got made isn’t pretty, replete as it is with lies and betrayals. But it’s also riveting.

This year was the 60th anniversary of Israel’s 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann. (I wrote about an aspect of it for Mosaic back in June.) But that wasn’t the end of Israel’s hunt for Nazis. In 1965, Herbert Cukurs, a Latvian collaborator involved in the murder of 30,000 Jews, turned up dead in Uruguay. A statement attached to his body, stuffed in a trunk, denounced him for his crimes against Jews. Years later, the Israeli who lured him to his death revealed that it had been a Mossad assassination.

The journalist Stephan Talty has retold the story with verve in The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320pp., $28). The chief Israeli agent, Jacob (“Mio”) Medad, whose parents perished in the camps, first revealed the details in a memoir published over twenty years ago. But Talty greatly enriches the context of the Mossad operation. We learn in depth about the Holocaust in Latvia, the inspiring life story of a key witness, and the strange personality of Cukurs. A famed long-distance aviator before the war, he descended into unspeakable cruelty. Suffice it to say, he was no desk murderer. So he got what Talty calls “a certain kind of killing. . . . [T]here would be no trial, no lawyers or judges, no legal niceties, no essays by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker.” The deception involved in the operation was ingenious, but the denouement wasn’t very tidy. No more spoilers.

And something classic? The Balfour Declaration by Leonard Stein appeared in 1961. (Simon and Schuster published the American edition.) I still find its 700 pages invaluable, despite the appearance of later studies based on archives that weren’t open to Stein in the 1950s.

This was meticulous history, written by an amateur. Stein, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and a veteran of World War I service in Palestine, became a tax lawyer and a Zionist activist. Yet he deftly uncovered and untangled the interests that converged in the declaration. His main discovery, obvious today but not realized 60 years ago: British interests, not pro-Jewish sentiment, underpinned the declaration. Indeed, some of the Balfour Declaration’s chief British proponents were (shall we say?) less than enamored of Jews.

Stein died in 1973, at the age of eighty-five. The Balfour Declaration is a sturdy monument.