I was inspired to read Ben-Ami’s book when I saw his debate with Norman Finkelstein on democracy now. Unlike most debates between a intellectual concerned with Palestinian rights and an Israeli interlocutor, this debate did not devolve into bickering about facts and repeated accusations of lying on both sides. Instead, Ben-Ami seemed to accept the basic facts, and even accept Finkelstein’s corrections on certain points – while maintaining a disagreement in the realm of values. And while I may not like listening to someone who talks about the tragic events of the Naqba while justifying them as part of the greater purpose of Zionism, it is at least refreshing to hear an Israeli politicien who does not dismiss “Naqba” as a dirty word, as part of project of denying the Palestinians a narrative.
Ben-Ami’s work tells the history of Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian relations from before the establishment of the Israeli state right up to the point where the peace process most nearly reached a settlement – the Taba Summit in the year 2000. The book talks almost entirely about political relations, from the perspectives of different leaders and the various forces that play upon them. What’s interesting is that he doesn’t seem to have an agenda of displaying Israel is a particularly positive light. While he is not as critical as Uri Avnery of figures like Ben Gurion and Moshe Dayan, he does come to roughly the same conclusion – that Israel’s militaristic frame of mind, the way the golden calf of “security” dominated over all other inter-state considerations, was an essential bulwark against peace in many different situations.
At the same time, the book is clearly partisan – Ben-Ami’s portrayal of Arafat is decidedly negative, the picture of a a leader who never understood the conditions of the time and therefore failed his people repeatedly. His depiction of Arafat, however, does not make Israel look good – he’s remarkably honest about the way Israel used the PLO during the first intifada to avoid negotiating with the Palestinian leadership in the Occupied Territories at that time. And near the end of the book he does show a greater sympathy for Arafat’s position – contrasting the political situation in Israel in which a government could move forward with a proposal unpopular to the opposition without fear of the political system breaking down (although they did need at times to fear a coup by the military), whereas the Palestinian political situation depended on holding together a lose alliance of different forces within the PLO, and even appease dissent from the hardline within Fatah, Arafat’s own party.
This is a useful book for Palestinian activists who desire a greater understanding of the inner-political workings of the Israeli state, and want to get past simplifications like “Israel is a military dictatorship” (which is at least partially true), or “Israel has made generous concessions for peace” (which is only ever true only if you compare their offers with their original territorial aspirations). It’s a complex a window into the psychology of Israeli leadership, and on the tense relationship between the civilian and military leadership, and it being written from an insider’s perspective makes it all the more valuable.
Surprisingly, I think the amount of information and analysis the book gives you up to this point really allows you to make up your own mind on the reasons for failure at Taba and afterwards, and on which party to place blame. Ben-Ami’s perspective is unsurprisingly that Arafat missed his chance at Taba, failed to recognize his opportunity, or why the offer on the table before the election would no longer be there afterwards. But who you choose to blame here depends on which side your allegiances lie – if you are sympathetic to Israel you will probably blame Israel’s shift to the right in the election following Taba on “Palestinian terror”, and call the Palestinian leadership short-sighted for not understanding the likely political effect of an armed campaign on the psychology of the Jewish Nation. On the other hand, if you are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause you’ll likely blame the Israeli populace for voting in a far right government headed by a war criminal, for whom any kind of “generous” peace with the Palestinians would be replaced by an invasion of the West Bank, who’s ramifications on Palestinian society are not properly understood, either in the West or in Israel itself.