Shlomo Ben-Ami is something of a maverick wunderkind in Israel. In
a society - and especially its academic elite - dominated by
Ashkenazim, he is a Mizrachi, born in Morocco. His academic
specialty was Spanish history, not Middle Eastern, and in his 40s,
after a highly successful academic career, he was chosen as Israeli
ambassador to Spain. Elected to the Knesset in 1996, he was quickly
recognized as a leader and joined Ehud Barak's government in 1999
as minister of public security (that is, police), an odd
appointment as it was a portfolio for which he had no experience or
qualifications. (This was a hallmark of the Barak government,
putting highly qualified leaders in jobs for which they had no
background.) As David Levy, Barak's first minister of foreign
affairs, became increasingly dysfunctional, Ben-Ami assumed his
role, and when Levy resigned just before the Camp David Summit of
July 2000, he found himself acting foreign minister.
Ben-Ami's almost unbroken string of successes ended there. As
everyone knows, the summit failed, the causes of which are hotly
disputed. On September 28 of the same year, the second intifada
broke out and, shortly thereafter, 13 Arab citizens of Israel were
killed by police while demonstrating. Ben-Ami, still the minister
of public security, was thus tarred with the responsibility for the
killings and was angrily blamed by the Israeli Arab community, a
key Labor Party constituency. After Barak lost the premiership to
Ariel Sharon in February 2001, Ben-Ami refused to join the ensuing
coalition government, resigned from the Knesset in 2002 and now
spends much of his time in Spain as vice-president of the Toledo
International Centre for Peace.
Ben-Ami's career is of particular interest in evaluating this book,
which represents something of a bombshell, coming from someone who
not only walked the corridors of power, but identifies himself
freely as a Zionist. However, his own point of view, like his life,
is unique and somewhat idiosyncratic. A reader would be forgiven if
he thought large chunks were written by a revisionist historian.
Yet Ben-Ami clearly does not see himself as one. "I lose no sleep"
over Israel's actions in 1948, he told me recently in
I have reviewed Ben-Ami's background because it is an essential
element of what is perhaps the most important book on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in years, perhaps decades. While the
conflict has already been over-examined, seemingly from every
conceivable point of view, Ben-Ami's rare combination of
professional historical training and political and diplomatic
experience, plus a rare gift of empathy (needed but not always
found in both these professions) has produced a remarkably
fair-minded book that should shake up the preconceptions of both
partisans and informed observers.
Ben-Ami's book is, in one sense, a history of the conflict from the
1930s to the present. But it is written for the reader who is
already informed about the basics and, as is often the case, one
who has already signed on to some version of either the Israeli or
Arab narrative. Any such person will find much to ponder and,
likely, much to get angry about on almost every page, from the
preface to the conclusion.
Israeli partisans will likely be angriest. The picture which
Ben-Ami paints of the leadership of the Yishuv and then the State
is one of un-idealistic and ruthless realpolitik, unwilling to
grant any quarter unless it was overwhelmingly in their interest.
To take an example almost at random, in a discussion of Israeli
policy in the early 1950s, he writes: "Peace was not a priority for
Israeli leaders; settling the land and absorbing immigrants was"
(p.51). This is a far cry from the view of Israel held by most
Israelis and Jews, for whom peace has always been a priority, until
the olive branch was struck from their hands.
It should be noted that Ben-Ami does make a distinction between the
weaker and needier Yishuv leadership that knew how and when to
compromise in the hope of making things better later, and the
leadership of Israel, the regional superpower, which has generally
been unable to do so in pursuit of a larger goal of peace. A
frequently recurring theme is the myopia of the Israeli leadership
in not recognizing that the Palestinian need for a state cannot be
finessed, and that attempts to do so have invariably
Ben-Ami, while critical of Israeli policy, is almost in despair
over the continual mistakes made by the Arab world and in
particular the Palestinian leadership, especially in the Camp
David/Taba period. Nevertheless, as he does with Israeli policy, he
tries to explain and understand, rather than condemn.
It must be emphasized that Ben-Ami, highly critical as he is of
much of Israeli foreign policy, is by no means a "revisionist" (as
the term is usually understood in Israeli historiography), let
alone a post-Zionist. He believes in Israel as a Jewish state and
as a historical necessity for the continuation of Jewish history
and culture, and accepts that brutality was necessary in its
establishment and maintenance, especially before 1967. However,
very much unlike a repentant revisionist such as Benny Morris, he
believes that Israel has to recognize and deal with the
consequences of these actions in its policies, and must come to
terms with what these policies, unavoidable as they may have been
at the time, have wrought.
One can easily imagine an Arab partisan mining this book for its
rich store of criticisms against innumerable Israeli policies and
actions, and announcing that "the former Israeli foreign minister
admitted …" Undoubtedly that will happen, but it is to be
hoped that that partisan will mine the book for its even more
valuable insights into the national ethos of Israel, and an
understanding of Israeli perceptions of Arab actions. For example,
Ben-Ami dissects, without either excusing or justifying it, how
Jewish history, especially the Holocaust, makes it difficult for
Israelis to see themselves as anything other than supremely
vulnerable potential victims, thus often precluding the confidence
that comes from bargaining from a position of strength.
The tone of the book changes markedly in those chapters which cover
Ben-Ami's short-lived career as a statesman, from the waning days
of the Oslo period through the failed Camp David and Taba
negotiations. While he unsparingly criticizes the mistakes of all
sides, he is far more defensive of Israeli policies at these
negotiations, where he was a major figure, than of seemingly
similar situations where he is a highly informed observer. This is
not a shortcoming, much less hypocrisy; as opposed to the rest of
the book this portion is closer to memoir than it is to
Ben-Ami is particularly critical of the usual Israeli left-wing
analysis of Taba, that is, that the two sides very nearly came to
an agreement, and that Taba represents the shape of an
Israeli-Palestinian agreement, should it ever come to pass. Ben-Ami
maintains that Yasser Arafat was simply not interested in a deal at
Taba, perhaps hoping to get a better deal from the incoming U.S.
President George W. Bush. He emphasizes that serious and principled
differences remained on fundamental issues such as the Right of
Return and Jerusalem, and criticizes his colleague in the Barak
government and at Taba, Yossi Beilin, for glossing over them.
The only disappointing section of the book is the conclusion.
Apparently written less than a year ago in late 2005, before Ariel
Sharon's coma, the accessions of Ehud Olmert and Hamas,
respectively, not to mention Lebanon II, Ben-Ami's hopes seem
remarkably dated. Not that he expected "peace," but for all his
insight into the conflict in the past, he does not have the keys to
Despite this minor criticism, this is a work that can be read and
reread for the insight it provides into aspects of the conflict we
thought we knew. While subsumed within the broader Israeli
narrative, it forms a subgenre of its own; neither "old" nor "new"
history; Zionist but not self-centered, recognizing the traumas of
Jewish and Israeli history but not in thrall to them. It is by no
means a "joint" narrative, but it is a fair and fascinating one.