The Arab-Israeli Conflict: a History

Ian J. Bickerton, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: a History

Published by Reaktion Books (London 2009), pp. 244, price £15.95


This is a broad and familiar narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The author believes that violence has not solved anything and argues concisely that only concerted diplomacy will bring results. While this is clearly logical and moral, the reality often testifies that change occurs once there has been an outrageous surge of murderous conflict. The first chapter is devoted to the attack on Gaza in January 2009 – and a traditional rendition of events is given. Unfortunately events take place for a reason. In this case, it was the fivefold increase in the range of missiles fired from Gaza since 2001. The author writes about the lack of proportionality in the conflict – would this have been rectified if the Hamas engineers had developed longer-range missiles which would have hit civilian areas in Tel Aviv? After all, Ben-Gurion University was closed during the Gaza conflict due to this threat.

Israel under successive right wing governments during a period of Islamist militancy developed a policy of brutal deterrence. Yet following the devastating attack on Gaza, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other minor groups signed an agreement whereby they agreed not to resume firing missiles into Israel. How then should Israelis evaluate the policy of deterrence which caused so much destruction? After all, inaccurate missiles fired into Israel do not distinguish between peace lovers and war-mongers.

The author makes a valiant attempt to maintain a balanced view without disguising his own pained views on this tortuous conflict. But since he defines it in terms of the use of violence, then any narrative must reflect a Palestinian tint, given that Israel is the stronger side militarily.

Although this is a relatively short book for such a complex subject, little attention is paid to the rise of Jewish and Arab nationalisms.  There is little about Zionist ideology which would explain why the Jews came to Palestine. This deficiency sometimes leads to a lack of perception of Israeli actions and occasionally inaccuracy. For example, Jabotinsky never advocated the expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs and did suggest negotiating with them in his article ‘The Iron Wall’ in November 1923. Moreover, there is a clear difference between Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism and Begin’s Irgun. Begin transformed the Irgun into Herut, the forerunner of today’s Likud party – and stood against the official Revisionists in the first Israeli election in January 1949.

The author does not seem to have consulted Benny Morris’s seminal work on the plight of the Palestinian refugees – which deflated both the Israeli and Palestinian versions of what happened in 1948. Morris is clear that Plan Dalet was not a blueprint to expel the Arab population wholesale from Palestine, but designed to control the invasion routes when the Arab armies decided to move.

The author misses the point that the first Intifada after 1987 was profoundly different from the second Intifada after 2001. The former was run essentially by the PLO in the West Bank and banned lethal weapons – and so gained the support of the Israeli peace camp. The second Intifada was led by the Islamists who delighted in the use of the suicide bomber – hence the brutal Israeli response and the undermining and obliteration of the peace camp. Moreover, Hamas’s intention in sending suicide bombers into Israel proper in the spring of 1994 was not simply a response to the murderous actions of Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, as the author believes, but a concerted effort by the Islamists to destroy the Oslo accord and any prospect of reconciliation.

Oslo itself was necessarily flawed because the two sides could only come together on the basis of a constructive ambiguity. Arafat and Rabin understood this. With Rabin’s assassination and Netanyahu’s election, this was replaced by Likud’s deference to the letter of the agreement. So-called reciprocity arose therefore under Netanyahu and not Rabin. Like the approach of Hamas, this served to destroy the Oslo accord.

The author regards the disengagement from Gaza in 2005 as essentially a cost-cutting exercise. Perhaps this was a secondary factor, but the essential reason was that Sharon, as a disciple of Ben-Gurion rather than Begin, was a pragmatist who believed in security and not an ideologue who believed in territory.

The author believes that ‘the Israelis are obsessed by the idea of national vulnerability’. No doubt that this is the case which leads to unsavoury policies, but maybe they also have good reason to be concerned.

Asian Affairs vol. 42 no. 1 January 2011

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