Choice books on Israel, 2019

Mosaic Magazine asked its regular contributors for year-end book recommendations. I selected these four worthwhile books published in 2019. Other contributors (the list is illustrious) made interesting choices too, and you can read them in two parts: here and here. Now, my choices.

Journalism, it is said, constitutes the first draft of history. Sometimes it’s more than that, as when journalists move away from day-to-day reporting and plumb the past. Three of the most worthwhile books on Israel in 2019 fall into just that category.

David Ben-Gurion lived a life that still confuses, inspires, and fascinates, and each retelling reveals some neglected aspect. His greatest biographer was the late Shabtai Teveth, originally a journalist, who wrote a multi-volume study in Hebrew (and a single-volume condensation in English). As it happened, I knew Teveth well; when he was working on Ben-Gurion, his archive filled a specially rented apartment in Tel Aviv. There was so much to say that his monumental project never made it to 1948.

Now Tom Segev, also a journalist, has produced a one-volume portrait: A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 816pp., $40). Some will remember Segev from decades ago as one of those enfants terribles who tried to demolish conventional Israeli narratives. His claim, back then, that Ben-Gurion had heartlessly exploited the Holocaust drove Teveth to write a book-length refutation.

But in this new biography, not only does Segev effectively admit that he got that wrong, he has also given Ben-Gurion an admiring treatment—almost despite himself, one is tempted to say. Sure, Ben-Gurion’s flaws are there to see (no one who knew him could fail to see them). Yet Segev still lets Ben-Gurion’s greatest strength shine through: his sheer single-mindedness, without which Israel might have been born in much more pain and suffering. No one should rely on just one biography to put Ben-Gurion in focus, but Segev’s is a good place to start.

We think we know all there is to know about 1948, until someone comes along and proves that we don’t. Matti Friedman, in his brisk Spies of No Country; Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (Algonquin Books, 272pp., $26.95)tells the story of Jews from Arab lands who came to mandate Palestine, where pre-state Zionist intelligence then recruited them to go back as spies. It’s the kind of espionage better known through the saga of Eli Cohen, the Egyptian Jew sent by Israel in the 1960s to spy on Syria. Friedman shows that Zionist intelligence began recruiting Jews from Arab countries as early as the 1940s, sending most of them to Lebanon. Whether they made that much of a difference is debatable, but their adventures make for riveting reading.

Friedman’s book is also an antidote to the present-day meme of the “Arab Jew”—Jews who supposedly felt themselves to be Arabs until the birth of Israel displaced them. Yes, there were far-left intellectuals, mostly Baghdad Jews, who imagined themselves to be Arabs. (I had one as a colleague, the late academic Sasson Somekh.) But Friedman’s heroes undertook aliyah before the state, and some made the supreme sacrifice to launch it.

In 1948, the vast majority of Israeli Jews came from Europe or European parents. Of the 37 signatories of Israel’s declaration of independence, 35 were born in Europe. But Friedman shows that other Jews assisted at the birth, and his book is an effective way to remind American Jews (as Friedman does in this interview with Jonathan Silver) that today’s Israelis are as much Middle Eastern as anything else.

Dangers from the north still loom over Israel, but thwarting them is now a high-tech enterprise. Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, has reconstructed the most dramatic case in Shadow Strike: Inside Israels Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power (St. Martin’s, 320pp., $28.99)It’s amazing just how much information Katz collected on one of Israel’s most secretive operations: its discovery and 2007 bombing of Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear reactor, then under construction. Most of the people involved eagerly talked to Katz, who weaves an artful narrative of technology, intelligence, and politics. (He did the same in this interview with the Tikvah Fund chairman Roger Hertog.)

It’s also a cautionary tale. The George W. Bush administration had thrown a whole army against supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, on the basis of flawed intelligence. But when Israel proposed that the United States act against a proven nuclear facility in Syria, it demurred. At least Bush stood aside when Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Olmert told him bluntly that Israel would act alone. It’s a repeat of an old lesson: at crucial moments, Israel’s staunchest ally is just as likely to balk, which is why Israel needs the means and independence to defend itself against any threat—alone.

Finally, and still on the subject of journalism, one reason America isn’t an entirely reliable ally is that its elites get much of their notion of Israel from the New York Times. The Wellesley historian Jerold S. Auerbach has undertaken the dour task of plowing through more than a century of the paper’s reportage, to demonstrate not just the infamous bias of the Times but its peculiarly Jewish origins, dating all the way back to its publisher Adolph Ochs. Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism, and Israel, 1896-2016 (Academic Studies Press, 322pp., $29.95) is a must-read for anyone who relies even a bit on the Gray Lady for news and opinion (and an essential companion to Laurel Leff’s 2006 book Buried by the Times, on how the paper botched its coverage of the Holocaust). An excerpt from Print to Fit appeared in Mosaic.

Trump’s Mideast strategy: disaster or opportunity?

Over at Mosaic Magazine, Michael Doran published a long essay on the preferred American strategy in the Middle East, a piece that’s been popular among supporters of Donald Trump’s plan for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Middle East. Elliott Abrams offered the first response, and I’ve offered the second, below. (Original title: “Is the American Withdrawal from Syria a Disaster, or an Opportunity, or Something Else?”) Be sure to return to Mosaic Magazine for additional responses, and for Doran’s “last-word” rejoinder.

I have immense respect for the judgment of Michael Doran. So it’s significant that he thoroughly opposes Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Wait a moment, you say. Doran doesn’t write that in “The Strategy Washington Is Pursuing in the Middle East Is the Only Strategy Worth Pursuing.” If anything, in his latest essay for Mosaic, he acquiesces in Trump’s Syria decision, and indeed regards it as “inescapable.”

To which I’d answer yes—but, before Trump announced his decision, Doran was all against it. And since he was just as persuasive then as he is now, what’s a sworn Doran fan like me supposed to conclude?

Continue reading “Trump’s Mideast strategy: disaster or opportunity?”

Patrick Seale in Israel

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on April 14.

Patrick Seale, journalist and author, best known for his reportage on Syria and his mediation between Hafez Asad and the West, has passed away at the age of 83, after a battle with brain cancer. Here are a few impressions of my few encounters with him, from an Israeli point of view.

In the world of Israeli Middle East expertise, Seale’s 1965 book The Struggle for Syria had an almost iconic status. When it first appeared, there weren’t a lot of books on contemporary Syria, and Israeli analysts parsed every word. Seale didn’t just rely on published sources, he interviewed all the actors, and he became renowned for his access to otherwise taciturn Arab politicians. Ma’arachot, the publishing house of the Israel Defense Forces, published a Hebrew translation of the book in 1968, and it quickly found its way to every relevant shelf.

In 1988, he published a biography of Syria’s ruler, under the title Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East. There was that word “struggle” again, although this time his book had the flavor of a semi-official enterprise. Indeed, Seale ended it with this sentence: “When asked how he would wish this chronicle to be concluded, Asad replied: ‘Say simply that the struggle continues.'” Footnoted: “Interview with President Asad, Damascus, 18 March 1988.” Of course, this only enhanced the aura surrounding Seale in Israeli eyes, and the biography immediately appeared in Hebrew translation. (In contrast, the book’s distribution was banned in Syria. Seale’s account was fine for Westerners, but some passages weren’t sufficiently obsequious for consumption in Damascus.)

But when I first met Seale, it wasn’t in connection with his Syria work. The date was February 5, 1992, and the place, the Chicago studio of Milt Rosenberg’s highly regarded talk show, “Extension 720.” I was a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, and Seale was passing through town to promote a new book, Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire. It was a wretched piece of conspiracy mongering (the Economist called it “ludicrous”), claiming that the Mossad was behind the Palestinian terrorist Sabri al-Banna (Abu Nidal). Seale didn’t bring a single shred of evidence. I read and annotated the book, and came to the studio loaded for bear. In the waiting room, where we met, Seale seemed almost apologetic: “I’ve written something of a potboiler.” In the on-air exchange, I quoted his claims line by line, pressing him to produce even a scintilla of evidence, of which there was none. At one point, I told Seale that I respected his Struggle for Syria, but each of his subsequent efforts was less rigorous than its predecessor, and with Abu Nidal he’d scraped bottom. Maybe one day I’ll put the exchange online (I have the tape). I remember thinking it was a nice evening’s work; it certainly wasn’t the beginning of a friendship.

I didn’t expect to encounter Seale again, but later events in the 1990s set in motion Israel-Syria feelers and intermittent peace talks, and when the Labor party prevailed in the May 1999 elections, prime minister-elect Ehud Barak indicated that he wanted to relaunch negotiations. It was Barak who asked my colleague Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s preeminent Syria hand, to invite Seale to Israel to speak publicly. (Seale knew and respected Rabinovich, although the tie had been severed for a few years, after Rabinovich disparaged Seale’s Asad biography in a review.) I headed the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University at that time, and that’s how I came to co-sponsor and co-chair Patrick Seale’s first and only public address in Israel. The date: June 9, 1999.

Hebrew translations of The Struggle for Syria and Asad

I’ll not forget the Seale-fest that ensued in the lead-up and sequel to his appearance. Everyone wanted to know Asad’s real redlines, and everyone assumed Seale was on a quasi-official mission to relay a message from Damascus. The media besieged us with requests to interview him. When he came to the university to speak, more than five hundred people packed the hall. He had audiences with Barak (a “red-carpet reception,” said one source), President Ezer Weizman (who gave Seale a Golan-must-go interview), and former prime ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Shimon Peres. Uri Saguy, a former head of military intelligence and Barak’s expected point man on Syria, took Seale to the Golan, where Saguy told Israeli settlers, with tears in his eyes, that “hard decisions may be coming.”

Rabinovich was the go-to for these meetings, but I also found myself consumed with the management of Patrick Seale, media star, for the better part of a week. He was charming, diplomatic, and precise in his formulations, and he clearly enjoyed the limelight. Seale genuinely yearned to facilitate a breakthrough—on Asad’s terms, of course. Later that month, Seale published side-by-side interviews with Barak and Asad, in which they signaled hope for this and that. Seale denied being a go-between, but that’s exactly how Israelis regarded him.

It turned out to be a bridge too far, for reasons that will keep historians busy for years to come. When Asad died a year later and his son Bashar took over, Israelis concluded that Seale didn’t have the same access in Damascus that he’d had under the old man. Failure at Camp David, Intifada II, Barak’s departure, Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush, 9/11, and the Iraq war all pushed Syrian-Israel peace off the agenda, and put Syria on the defensive. Seale slipped into Israel-bashing on a scale unprecedented even for him. Read the columns yourself.

And that’s where my Seale story ends, but there’s a footnote. Whenever Seale came up in Israeli discussions, there usually would be a fair bit of winking and nodding about his ancestry. His father, a Russian Jew born (I think) in Jerusalem under the name of Ephraim Sigel, converted to Christianity, changed his name to Morris Seale, studied theology in Belfast (where Patrick was born), and became an ordained minister of the Irish Presbyterian Church. Sigel-Seale then went out as a missionary to Damascus, where Patrick spent his childhood. Nothing more excites speculation among Israelis than the discovery that a foreign friend or foe is a blood member of the tribe. (Albright, Kerry… it happens all the time.) Did Hafez Asad and his cronies know that their Patrick wasn’t purely Irish? Did it matter? How could it not? Etcetera—for what it’s worth. (Not much, I think.)

Seale has left a world in which even the idea of Syria is in peril, as nearly every achievement of Hafez Asad unravels. In the preface to a 1986 reedition of The Struggle for Syria, Seale wrote that Hafez Asad

seeks to discipline Lebanon, Jordan, and the Palestinians, preventing them from entering into any relationship with Israel without his consent, trying to turn the Arab Levant into a bastion against Israeli expansion… But just as Asad needs to unite the Levant in order to recover the occupied territories, Israel needs to divide it in order to keep them… “Greater Syria” is a sort of mirror-image of “Greater Israel” and its inevitable opponent. Both cannot win.

It might not be as black-and-white as all that, but if Seale was right, there can be no doubt today who the winner is. Syria is prostrate, an arena for the meddling of others, while the Arab Levant continues to divide and subdivide into its smallest parts. As the old man told Seale back in 1988, “the struggle continues,” but it’s not the one he or Seale envisioned. Theirs will be a sad reunion.