The Good War
For the last three and a half years the Israeli army has deployed American-supplied F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, armored Caterpillar bulldozers and Merkava tanks powered by engines made in the USA in an unsuccessful effort to suppress the second Palestinian uprising. According to both Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, Israel is engaged in a war despite the spectacularly unequal military balance in the conflict. Moreover, Palestinian civilians and the infrastructure of Palestinian society have been its principal victims. Almost all of the 2,886 Palestinian fatalities since September 2000 have been civilians, about eighty of them "collateral damage" to 230 extrajudicial assassinations, which are themselves violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In the same period there have been 950 Israeli fatalities, 672 of them civilians.
The typical pattern for the first several weeks of the intifada was that Palestinian civilians engaged in peaceful protest marches. Toward the end of the protests, youths taunted and threw stones at Israeli troops. The soldiers fired on stone-throwers and non-stone-throwers alike, rapidly escalating their responses to all demonstrations against over thirty years of occupation in accord with previously devised plans. Palestinian police, fearing they would be discredited if they remained passive, eventually returned fire using the rifles they were issued in accordance with the Oslo agreements. Secular and Islamist Palestinian factions revitalized their military wings. As it became clear that they were hopelessly outmatched by Israel's military force, they resorted to the strategically and morally catastrophic deployment of suicide bombers, targeting civilians.
The conduct of the Israeli army in the second intifada, in sharp contrast to its prevailing image, has been singularly unheroic. Its tactics have been condemned by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and even the State Department's annual report on human rights. This less than admirable performance forms the context for a spate of new books celebrating a better era for Israel's armed forces, when victories were gained fighting armies, not a civilian population resisting occupation and seeking national self-determination.
First there was Michael Oren's Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, chronicling the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Though widely acclaimed by mainstream reviewers as a definitive account of the war, Oren's book was aptly described by the tireless Norman Finkelstein as "Abba Eban with Footnotes"--a reference to Eban's eloquent but factually challenged speech at the UN General Assembly justifying Israel's pre-emptive strike of June 1967. While Oren's book is a serious work of scholarship, it essentially restates the traditional Israeli account of the war as a defensive strike waged against belligerent Arab states seeking to "throw Israel into the sea." Oren does not adequately address three arguments that challenge this view. First, according to interviews with former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan conducted in 1976 and 1977, which were kept secret for many years but published well before Oren's book, Israel had been intentionally provoking Syria since 1948 in order to establish sovereignty over the demilitarized zones on their common border. Second, according to the evaluation of several different intelligence agencies and the Israeli general staff, Israel did not face an existential danger in 1967 and could expect an easy victory. Third, Israel chose war because, as Shimon Peres wrote in the pro- Labor Party daily, Davar, its leaders did not want to negotiate over Israel's borders or the question of Palestinian refugees. The second of these matters remains off the table as far as Israel is concerned.
Now we have accounts of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war by two journalists, Abraham Rabinovich and Howard Blum. On October 6 Egypt and Syria dramatically launched a successful surprise attack against Israel in an effort to recover their territories occupied by Israel in 1967. In the Jewish calendar this day corresponded to Yom Kippur; in the Muslim calendar it fell during the month of Ramadan. Thus, in Israeli parlance this round of the conflict is known as the Yom Kippur War, while in the Arab world it is known as the Ramadan War. These terms reflect the increasing strength of politicized religion on both sides of the conflict since the early 1970s. In their initial thrusts, the Arab armies performed far better than Israeli military intelligence analysts thought possible. Egyptian forces crossed to the east bank of the Suez Canal and recaptured part of the Sinai Peninsula. After several days of ineptitude and disarray, Israel successfully counterattacked and occupied a large swath of territory on the west bank of the canal, cutting off the Egyptian Third Army. This inconclusive military outcome on the Egyptian front established the basis for the political negotiations that followed the war. The Syrians made impressive advances on the Golan Heights, and many Israeli leaders, including Moshe Dayan, feared that Syria would invade Israel proper. But the Syrian offensive stalled and was eventually driven back.
The archives of the Israeli, US, British and Russian governments have just been opened for this period, too late for either Rabinovich or Blum to have used them. Therefore, their books do not have as solid a documentary basis as Oren's work. They rely heavily on inherently contradictory and self-serving interviews and memoirs. Rabinovich draws extensively on the report of the Agranat Commission, which investigated Israel's military "lapse"--the failure to anticipate the Arab attack and to read the available intelligence properly. But important sections of that report are still classified, and the Agranat Commission avoided placing responsibility on political figures. It limited its scope of inquiry to military matters narrowly construed. As Rabinovich and Blum apparently decided in advance the stories they wanted to tell before beginning to write, lack of authoritative evidence was no deterrent to their endeavors. Consequently, their narratives are, for the most part, predictable.