DevMode
New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. $29, 332 pp.

The "blood-dimmed tide" in the title of Amos Elon's new book comes from lines by the famous Dublin-born poet William Butler Yeats (1865--1939):

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.

The tide, in Elon's view as he writes from Jerusalem at the end of 1996 (after Netanyahu's election victory) "is not yet dammed." He quotes the warning by David Flusser, a distinguished historian of religion at the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem, a few days after Yitzhak Rabin's murder: "Ancient religions are reawakening (both in Israel and in the Arab countries), but behold they are vampires. It's really high time for God to intervene."
A Blood-Dimmed Tide consists of 21 dispatches, of which the first dates back to August 1967 and the Six-Day War, and the last to December 1995 and Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. Some of the essays touch on one of the central questions in the political history of the region: What opportunities, if any, existed for making peace after the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973?

Could It Have Been Otherwise?

The writer notes what he sees as the miscalculations on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of his criticisms of the Palestinian side is founded on his belief that, had they accepted the "full autonomy" offered in the 1978 Camp David US-sponsored Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, by now they would have had their independent state side by side with Israel. (He argues that "the thirteen American
colonies started out with very much less" than the autonomy proposal.)
As for the Israeli side, which the writer regards as his main concern in the book, it suffered from grave delusions, among them that after 1967 the Arabs had no military option and that the national aspirations of the Palestinians could
safely be overlooked. Hence Golda Meir's comment, "Who are the Palestinians? I am a Palestinian," or Moshe Dayan's answer to the author's question on the need for Palestinian self-determination: "Why see a problem where there is none… What is the West Bank? At the very most, five or six small townships." More delusions were to come - that the Intifada could be crushed by force, and that massive settlement would serve Israeli security when, in fact, the increasingly powerful settler lobby's opposition to territorial concessions had a diametrically opposite effect.
We now know, Elon thinks, that peace, at least with Egypt and Jordan, perhaps also with the Palestinians, was a practical proposition from the early 1970s. However, "the price for peace was the evacuation of territory occupied in the 1967 war. A succession of Israeli governments was in no mood to relinquish any."

No Common Denominator

All this comes from the author's twenty-page Introduction, written in November 1996, which attempts, not too successfully, to find some common denominator time-wise and content-wise between the essays. Though the author's approach
to the conflict, to the region and to Israeli society is consistent, no such common denominator can be expected from the essays themselves, written as they were (mostly in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books) on a wide range of topics over the course of some thirty years.
So the essays should be read and evaluated one by one. Because he observes the scene with such sensitivity, and since he writes so well, Amos Elon is always readable and enjoyable, but considering these articles in 1997, it is perhaps inevitable that one finds some are far better than others. On the whole, therefore, because of its lack of cohesion, this is a much less important book than the author's former works, like The Israelis: Founders and Sons; Herzl; or Jerusalem, City of Mirrors.
Before discussing some of the pieces, one must note that the editing and proofreading of this book leave very much to be desired. A competent editor would at least have prevented phrases, not to speak of whole passages, which appear in one
essay from being repeated word for word in another. As for typos, the first one appears on the front flap and too many more follow in the Introduction and in the text. The name of one of the PLO representatives to the Oslo negotiations in Chapter 16 is spelt differently within the space of six pages. Such unprofessionalism is unworthy both of the publisher and of the author.
The general topics of these essays are as follows: the 1967 war and the future of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT); Moshe Dayan; Kiryat Arba, a settlement in the OPT; three essays on Egypt; the Lebanon war; the Israeli political scene in the mid-1980s; Jerusalem; two essays on the Intifada; the Peace Now movement; the Gulf War and US Secretary of State James Baker's initiative; Yasser Arafat; preparing the Oslo Accords; Jordan; the impact of the Holocaust on Israel; politics and archaeology; and the ramifications of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination.

Worth Recalling

The importance of some of these articles, like those on the Intifada written in 1988-99, has by no means diminished since then. Sometimes the contrary is true. For example, about a decade after the event, it is worth recalling, as Elon does, that "as far as most Israelis are concerned [the Intifada] took place on a different planet." He records the reaction of leading Israeli novelist A.B.Yehoshua to the relative
indifference in Israeli public opinion to the futile attempt to crush the uprising by brute force: "He told an interviewer that he was now able to understand how many Germans could say after the Second World War that they had never seen or heard of the concentration camps." (Elon adds that "the statement struck a nerve and elicited a storm of protests.")
Elon himself writes of two decades of military occupation which "held 1.5 million Palestinians as pawns or bargaining chips, and as a source of cheap menial labor, while denying them the most basic human rights. The pawns have now risen (in the Intifada) to manifest their frustration, their bitterness and their political will with a vengeance and determination that surprised everybody." This sort of writing doesn't date.
Neither does the thought-provoking essay called "The Politics of Memory," on the ramifications of the Holocaust on Israeli life. Elon records that Menachem Begin "habitually described every major policy act of his government - in Lebanon or in
the virtually annexed occupied territories - as a milestone in Israel's historic march 'from Holocaust to Redemption.'"
When Shulamit Aloni of the dovish Meretz party was minister of education in the Rabin government, she discontinued the propagation by the state school system of what was called "values of the Holocaust"; the very term made her shudder and she decried the Israeli tendency to continue tearing open the wounds rather than trying to cure them. As for Amos Elon, he wants not to forgive and forget, but to seek "a new equilibrium… between memory and hope."
On the other hand, the 1990 piece on Peace Now, for example, is informative (and sympathetic), but better reading on this and other peace-oriented movements in English is now available, including some deeper insights into the changing problems related to the subject. So the dimension of time sometimes favors Amos Elon and sometimes doesn't. All in all, anyone tasting the 21 courses included in Amos Elon's rich menu will probably find something to savor and enjoy. Since there is no accounting for taste, let me write briefly about the two "dishes" which I found particularly tempting.

Moshe Dayan: Loving the Land, Not the People

The first are the chapters on Moshe Dayan which start with the words "this gloomy, lonely, gifted man - too cunning, too admired, too hated, too ambiguous, too extravagant, too famous… this home-bred Talleyrand who has served (nearly) all the political regimes of the last thirty years… emotionally blocked, estranged from his sons as he himself had been from his father. A lover of power, money, good food, fast cars and all manner of creature comforts." Not bad, one might say, for "the first child born in the first kibbutz."
The first senior Israeli-born politician, behind his back Golda Meir called him "that Arab." Elon sees him as conducting a passionate love affair with "the sights, the topography, the weather, the sun and the wind, the fauna and flora, the rocks and thistles and antiquities of the Holy Land." He nearly died in one of his beloved archaeological digs. "He has been conducting his clandestine (and illegal) excavations for almost forty years. As in an old Humphrey Bogart movie, where the villain is cast in the role of a sympathetic safe-cracker, we end by falling in love with him."
Dayan's love of the land is apparently not accompanied by a love for its inhabitants, except those Bedouins, shepherds and fellahin who remind him of what Elon calls "the ancient Hebrew barbarian." Once having resigned from the government, he said that his conscience was clear, to which Abba Eban retorted: "Anything stays clean if you don't put it to use." Underestimating his Arab enemies, he failed as minister of defense in the Labor government to prepare the army for the 1973 war. He was forced to resign, only to bounce back in the Begin government.
The Dayan cult, nevertheless, flourished in Israel since Dayan was seen as the "quintessential Sabra," without Diaspora complexes who "knew despair but never, apparently, fear." Referring to the Dayan cult ("for a time Dayan was probably the world's best-known Jew since Jesus Christ"), Elon thinks that "charisma is always irrational, as is religion" and that Dayan was an improviser who "in the last resort had no true sense of politics and of history."

Oslo Peacemakers

My second favorite item is something totally different: the chapter called "Peacemakers" which describes the role of Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundik et al. in preparing the ground for the Oslo Accords (the Declaration of Principles) with the
Palestinians late in 1993. The two Israelis were in Elon's words "obscure freelance peaceniks," in those of an Israeli Foreign Ministry official "accidental tourists in history," and in those of Shimon Peres "crackpots." Therefore, one is bound to ponder the question: would the accords have been achieved without them?
The blow-by-blow account of the negotiations is fascinating. It involved a number of personalities, all playing their particular roles, on the Palestinian, Israeli and Norwegian sides. Elon writes of "an adventure - some would call it an intrigue," leading to "one of the most surprising volte faces of recent diplomatic history." The longish list of those involved, in one way or another, included prominent PLO people, like Abu 'Ala (the main Palestinian negotiator) and Hanan Ashrawi, as well as Hassan Asfour and Maher al-Kurd and Arafat himself; leading Israeli officials, like then-deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin, Uri Savir and Yoel Singer (and later Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin); and Norway's Terje Rod Larsen and his wife, Mona Juul, as well as Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Egeland.
There seem to be two schools of thought about the protracted proceedings. The first, as Elon puts it, is that they were "propelled by impulse, contingency, improvisation, and coincidence." The second is the conspiracy theory, according to which two independent intellectuals were used by two-faced politicians. Elon discounts the latter view and quote the British historian A.J.P. Taylor as remarking that the greatest acts of statesmanship were made by people who did not know what they were doing.
Everyone praised the Norwegian contribution and PLO representative Asfour said, "We all became a little Norwegian in the end." Incidentally, it is interesting that, bearing in mind past rivalry between Rabin and Peres, Amos Elon quotes novelist Amos Oz who compared them to "two elderly women in an old-age home who were constantly quarreling but who realized that to cross a street they had to hold hands."
Shimon Peres is reported to have said after the Oslo negotiations that "history is such a clown. It makes all of us look like fools."
For his part, Ron Pundik, writing on the Oslo process in the Winter 1995 issue of this journal, stressed that we must "create irreversible facts before the 1996 elections, in case an ultra-right government comes to power in Israel... The only alternative to a political solution is a stalemate which will bring many more years of bloodshed." Perhaps he too shares the view that the danger of "the blood-dimmed tide" in Yeats's poem and in Elon's book still looms before us.

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