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 Washington.
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 backfired.
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 history.
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 the future.
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.