Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

The Soul of the Sabra

For those who have been taught—by Peter Beinart or some other recent chronicler of Israel’s history—that Zionism only began to go awry after 1967, Patrick Tyler’s new book, Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace, might come as a shock.  Israel’s aggressive territorial ambitions didn’t emerge after the Six-Day War, Tyler argues, but antedated that (to his mind) avoidable conflict by more than a decade. 

Relevant Links
And on the Seventh Day?  Hillel Halkin, Wall Street Journal. A new book argues that Israel could have made peace after the Six-Day War; but three unfounded assumptions undermine the author’s claim.
Soldier Number 30743  BBC. Yitzhak Rabin devoted his life, as soldier and then as prime minister, to his country. But were his peacemaking efforts too much for Israeli society? (Video)
Dayan’s Lesson  Stephen Daisley, Standpoint. The European media may see the rise of Likud as a sign of the Israeli public’s lurch to the Right, but since Dayan and Rabin the Israeli Left has produced no one prepared to act.
Disengagement Plan  Ariel Sharon, Jewish Virtual Library. Here, the speech in which Ariel Sharon announced one of the most memorable peacemaking attempts in recent history.

Tyler, a former military correspondent for the New York Times, places the “origins of Israeli militarism” in October, 1955, when the thoughts of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who had long been ruminating about a more ambitious military strategy, matured into a plan.  Instead of merely talking about a “new round of warfare with the Arabs” and the “expansion of the Jewish state through preemptive attacks,” he decided to take action. 

But Ben-Gurion’s plan did not spring from his head alone.  The Prime Minister had merely “embraced the rugged militarism of the native-born generation of Israelis—the “sabras”who aspired to build a powerful and heavily militarized state,” not only for self-protection but to “expand its borders in a second and third round with the Arabs.”  That it was the Arabs themselves who initiated the talk of another round, and not the “sabras,” is something of which Tyler seems to be utterly unaware. 

For Tyler, the word "sabra" is a term of abuse, signifying “the class of native-born Israelis who grew up socialized to violence with the local Arabs with whom they jousted over land and grazing rights.”  Shaped by this experience, Tyler claims, these people have prided themselves on being “tough and self-reliant fighters,” and have persistently focused on military solutions to Israel’s problems.  They are almost congenitally incapable of making peace and have to this day regularly thwarted attempts to attain it.

Tyler describes Moshe Dayan, Ben-Gurion’s protégé, as the prototype of this group.  He spends a lot of time sketching his character and beliefs, but he also devotes a great deal of attention to later models, including Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, Meir Amit, Ezer Weizman, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu.  If they have nicknames, he cites them as if they were their gangland monikers, and when he reviews their biographies he concentrates mostly on their most unsavory aspects, especially their cruelest blunders.  Sometimes he has some bewilderingly weird things to say about them.  Barak, for instance, “had been well educated, attending Stanford University in California, but at home he spoke Hebrew like a patriarch.”  But most of all Tyler wants to show how the sabras wrenched control of Israel’s affairs out of the hands of more reasonable and conciliatory civilians, such as Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol. 

Among many other things, Tyler holds the sabras responsible for fomenting the Six-Day War.  He does not deny, to be sure, that the Arabs conducted themselves in a threatening manner in 1967, but he tries to indicate (without coherently arguing) that the menace to Israel was low-level enough to have been managed without recourse to military action.  While referring repeatedly and portentously to the efforts on the part of the United States to put together an international flotilla to break the Egyptian blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, he somehow manages to avoid noting what every respectable historian of the Six-Day War has shown: Israel only launched its preemptive attack once it was unmistakably clear that those efforts were going to remain fruitless.  By obscuring this and other salient historical details, he depicts the 1967 conflict as above all the outcome of a “sabra rush to war.” 

Tyler similarly credits the irremediably bellicose sabras with responsibility for most of Israel’s subsequent military entanglements.  But much as he would like to substantiate the bold assertion in his book’s title that these people “can’t make peace,” he has to face a problem: some of them are widely known precisely for their commitment to peacemaking.  It is curious, therefore, to see how he explains the seemingly aberrant behavior of such onetime hawkish generals as Ezer Weizman and Yitzhak Rabin.

“An influential sabra,” Weizman first looms into full view in Tyler’s account as one of the “leading hawks for war” who in May 1967 pressed for “a surprise attack on the Egyptian forces.”  A little more than ten years later, when Menahem Begin appointed him to be his Defense Minister, Weizman’s first official act “was to reinforce Israeli troops in Sinai, fearing that Sadat might strike a preemptive blow.”  Shortly afterwards, in November 1977, as Sadat gave his famous speech in the Knesset, “he passed a note to Dayan saying, ‘We have to prepare for war.’”  Classic sabra behavior, as Tyler would have it, in the best of sabra company.  “But in the course of observing Sadat in public and in private conversation,” he is compelled to note,

Weizman became deeply impressed by the Egyptian’s personal courage and statesmanship.  Weizman talked through the night with Sadat’s advisers, all of them from prominent Egyptian families, and he came to understand the enormous risk the Egyptian leader had taken and the importance he attached to a meaningful Israeli response.  For Weizman, Sadat’s act radiated integrity.

Integrity is just what comes into question when one considers Tyler’s assessment of behavior that runs so much against the grain of his book’s governing idea. The fact that one of the most iconic sabras could change his stripes so completely, literally overnight, begs for an explanation from the author of Fortress Israel.  And what does he say?  “Not all Israelis looked at it this way,” he grudgingly reports, “certainly not Sharon, who believed that Weizman had gone soft.”  Yet it wasn’t long before Sharon had a change of heart too, Tyler soon tells us. 

On the final day of the Camp David marathon, when Begin and Sadat were on the horns of deadlock, a pragmatic general on the Israeli negotiating team, Avraham Tamir [another distinguished sabra, Tyler somehow forgets to note, and the author, curiously enough, of a volume entitled A Soldier in Search of Peace: The Inside Story of Israel’s Strategy], had the idea of getting Sharon’s endorsement to give up the Sinai settlements.  If Sharon, the self-styled architect of settler ambition, agreed to make the eleventh-hour concession, it would have a big impact on Begin.  Tamir convinced Weizman and Dayan that it was worth a try, and soon they had Sharon on the telephone.

When Sharon showed pragmatism, stating that he could support the compromise, it changed Begin’s view of how the peace treaty would sell to the military elite of the country. 

Indeed, the Camp David peace was a political watershed in Israel, with polls showing more than 80 per cent of the public in favor of the accords, a strong affirmation that the martial impulse could be overpowered by a strategy based on accommodation with the Arabs.

Still more evidence against the book’s main thesis.  Even the meanest and cruelest of the sabras can make peace after all—when they are offered a reasonable deal. 

Or even a questionable deal.  As everyone knows, it wasn’t easy for Yitzhak Rabin, a “sabra son of Israel,” to attempt to make peace with a Palestinian enemy he didn’t trust.  But he tried to do so anyhow.  Tyler has a circumstantial explanation for this—for a sabra—incongruous behavior, one that extends not only to Rabin but to others of a similar ilk:

Yet the Israelis—and many sabras within the military establishment—turned Shamir out and gave the election [in 1992] to Rabin in a landslide, not because the martial impulse had dissipated but because Rabin and the generals of Peace Now had persuaded them that the end of the cold war had opened a window.  Who knew how long it would remain open?  Iran or a resurgent Iraq could threaten in the future, but Rabin thought Israel had a decade or more to make peace with Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians, and that such a peace might fortify the region to withstand the rise of a new threat.

Granted, Rabin and his main supporters were not pacifists.  Nevertheless, this account of the situation in the early 1990s is impossible to square with the idea that the military elite that runs Israel is inherently incapable of making peace. 

Why go on?  There is no need, after this, to proceed through the rest of Fortress Israel and to demonstrate how Tyler’s own narrative repeatedly subverts his governing conceptions. It provides neither a coherent account of the past nor a preview of what is likely to happen in the future.     

Allan Arkush is a professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University, and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


jacob arnon on September 6, 2012 at 8:38 am (Reply)
Excellent review, Mr. Arkush, there is something tendentious about a history book dealing with an almost 70 year conflict between two antagonists to place all the blame on one side.

Does the book explore the mindset of the Arab strongmen’s who preached the annihilation of the Jewish people daily in Syrian, in Egypt, in Iraq, in Jordan (the king could only meet his Jewish adversaries in privat lest he be assassinated by “his people” who didn’t and don’t like making peace with the Jews.
It’s as if one were to write a history of the Hundred Year War, or First World War from only the side of the conflict.
Patrick Tyler, a former, New York Times, correspondent isn’t an historian and one wonders if and in what manner did he deal with the original record. Does he read Hebrew or Arabic? How did he deal with Israelis’ “adversaries of the conflict the Arab dictatorial powers (the Baath parties in Syria and Iraq, the Arab Socialist Generals in Egypt?) These strongmen had their own ideologies that would not have allowed to make real peace with Israel. Even Arafat made it clear that the peace he signed was but a first step for the liberation of “Jerusalem.”
The “history book” will probably be praised by Israel bashers in the media who seem to accept calumnies against the Jewish State without checking to see if the charges are true or false.

Besides, would any publisher accept the a book about the Arab Elite establishment arguing that they possessed a warlike mindset which made them incapable of making peace with Israel?

Patrick Tyler’s thesis is a throwback to the good old days of history writing when the mentalities of the major players were proved through stereotypical notions like “mindsets.”

Finally and this was brought up in this excellent review, how could warlike Generals agree to unilateral withdrawals from say, Lebanon (Ehud Barak), or from Gaza (Ariel Sharon)?

I should also add that no set of warlike Generals would have allowed the country to become so unprepared for war that the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack in 1973 would find them totally unprepared for war in 1973.

The book has been written at a time when Israel faces the possibility of a nuclear threat from Iran. Is this a coincidence or is it an attempt to cast the blame on the Israeli government should it decides on preemptive action against Iran.
Beatrix on September 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm (Reply)
Boy this guy must be young. When I was growing up, Jews were always depicted as the nerdy weaklings, incapable of fighting back. We were even blamed for the Holocaust. When European countries that were 99% Christian capitulated to the Nazis, Jews were criticized for not fighting back more effectively.

Then came Israel. Not only did her people stand up to the much larger Arab armies, she actually won her wars. After what happened in Germany, Jews knew they had to win. Most of the world was astounded. America's relationship with Israel was finally based on respect, not pity.

Now some inexperienced idiot comes along and criticizes Israel for being too warlike.

How Jews went from nerd to warrior in one generation would make an interesting and inspiring story in the hands of someone capable of telling it.
Caterin Victor on September 6, 2012 at 5:07 pm (Reply)
l am very sory, but this Patrick Tyler`s oppinions are GIBERIsh. Befor writting such stupidity abaout the Sabras, he was obliged to inquire, and to understant. Sabras name is for a fruit, with a very sweet inside, and not at all a "Brute, Cruel and Militare fighters and war lovers. Not Barack, and not Rabin are the first ones, and long before, our Grand, Grand Fathers came to Zion, in poor and dificult condition, to build, and help the first and second Aliah settlers, a home for the Jewish people, even before the Holocaust, because their children, the SABRAS, persecuted since more than 2.000 years, need a safe,peaceful, and flourishing home, the one and only, that belong to us since God gave us. We are not, and never habe been a people of fighters, we are just oblige to assure the security and peace for the ones that learn, study,treat the sick an discover the new treatements, that gave us the possibilitis to receive all the NOBEL prices, now and in the future. Before blaming the Sabras,just look and judje allso to the Peaceful Arab people, our neghbours, to understand more.
Caterin Victor on September 6, 2012 at 5:21 pm (Reply)
Please believe me, my intention was not to be abusive. l am not a writer, but allso my Sabras are not at all warriors, and criticizen them,.....
pinchas on September 7, 2012 at 1:21 am (Reply)
"Patrick Tyler, former military correspondent for the NYTimes"--- need one continue?
Isn't it almost predictable what this shnook hired by this wretched paper will say?
Jerry Blaz on September 7, 2012 at 7:32 pm (Reply)
It is difficult to discusss a book based on a review, and the review does not make us want to read the book. If the reviewer faithfully reports the contents of the book, then the book represents a great distortion of the fairly recent history of the State of Israel.

Certainly, nationalisms come in all nuances, but I lived during the period when the Arabs and the Jews were still fighting as Israel was established. I was and am a zionist, so I am familiar with these different kinds of nationalism (zionism).Certainly, there were great animosities created by the actual need for the two peoples, the Jews and the Arabs, to fight each other as enemies. And there is no doubt in my mind that any attempt by the Jews to make peace with the Arabs was rejected. (I have heard that Arabs were not as abdurant as we might believe, but I've not seen any evidence behind these conjectures.) During this time, the Jews offered their hand; the Arabs scoffed at the idea of permitting a Jewish state in the Middle East. When the 1967 war was concluded with the three famous Khatoum "no's," those elements whose version of Jewish nationalism was more "ultra" were able to gain a greater foothold after the Yom Kipper war, which, on the other hand also represented the final attempt to create an "unadulterated" Arab Middle East from Mesopotamia through North Africa, the final attempt to recreate the Caliphate, as Israel moved to a more rightist stand in defending their nationalism.

In 2002, the Saudi government presented a plan for Israel to make peace with all the members of the Arab League in return for agreeing with the Palestinians to have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza. I am not informed about any approaches on this offer by Israel, but I have heard a sneer from the right and a constant reminder from the left that the offer still stands.

Any book that fails to note these features fail as history.
jacob arnon on September 9, 2012 at 5:46 pm (Reply)
One can discuss a book that argues that members of a certain race, ethnicity, or class of people have something in common which makes them inferior or evil without having read it because no race or ethnicity can be reduced to a certain essential characteristics. Variety is the rule and not sameness.

Patrick Tyler’s book does just that it assumes an essentialist mentality on the part of the all military commanders in Israel. This is false as the review and many respondents have argued.

Moreover, Jerry Blaz also says that:

“In 2002, the Saudi government presented a plan for Israel to make peace with all the members of the Arab League in return for agreeing with the Palestinians to have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza. I am not informed about any approaches on this offer by Israel, but I have heard a sneer from the right and a constant reminder from the left that the offer still stands.

Any book that fails to note these features fail as history.”

I don’t know how this fits in with your argument, Mr. Blaz but it should be clear that a “peace proposal” is not the same as a peace treaty.

If the Saudis are serious about making peace with Israel they should pressure the Palestinian Authority to start negotiations. Many Israeli governments including the current one have said they are ready to negotiate a “two State solution.” It takes two warring parties to negotiate peace. Does Mr. Tyler have anything to say about the “generals” in the PA including Abbas who are unwilling to negotiate?
Jerry Blaz on September 10, 2012 at 7:38 pm (Reply)
Jacob is very right in saying that negotiations for peace is not a peace treaty. However, without negotiations there can never be peace, and my first piece of evidence is the "turnover" of the Gaza Strip without negotiations. I am certain that were feelers to be sent out to the PA that Israel wants to negotiate in response to the Saudi government, the very weak PA administration would appear at the negotiations table more quickly than I can state it here. For the Arabs, the Palestinians are some "unfinished business" that interferes with many plans for their development and, also, for their ability to coordinate their efforts against the Al Qaeda and other Jihadist elements which are even a greater danger to them than they are to Israel.
Zionist on September 18, 2012 at 8:51 am (Reply)
Jerry, the Saudi plan included a demand for the return of all Palestinian "refugees" to Israel.
Jerry Blaz on September 18, 2012 at 6:19 pm (Reply)
I am not convinced that the Saudis made return of Palestinians to their original homes was a part of the Saudi plan. And if it were, let us remember that I am talking about negotiations. I am quite certain that the Israelis will not stick their heads in a noose. However, without talking about what the Palestinians want and what the Israelis want and put on the table, no negotiations can begin, and no peace can be attained. The status quo of living in fear will continue on both sides.
Zionist on September 20, 2012 at 11:57 am (Reply)
>I am not convinced that the Saudis made return of Palestinians to their original homes was a part of the Saudi plan.

It's not you who has to be convinced; it's the people and government of Israel. And the Arab world has made quite clear the plan insisted upon Right of Return:
" to accept a just solution to the refugee problem according to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194"
Jerry Blaz on September 22, 2012 at 3:29 am (Reply)
Of course it is the people and government of Israel who must be convinced, but I was under the "misapprehension" that I was addressing another individual who was discussing the question with me, and not the government of Israel, not the people of Israel, nor klal yisrael.
Zionist on September 23, 2012 at 4:44 pm (Reply)
Jerry, you're equivocating - just as the Saudis did in their plan. They included "just solution" in the hope that Jews/Israelis would gulibly think the Arab world ready to compromise; then the Arab world explained (mostly in Arabic) that "just solution" mean the same old same old - "return" of millions of Palestinians to Israel and elimination of the Jewish character of the state.

Why is anyone surprised that the average peace-seeking Israeli is still not interested in the Saudi plan?

That's why Israel has "shifted right"; the average Israeli now realises the peace envisioned at the time of Oslo, is a chimera.

It will be decades before the Arab/Muslim world resigns itself to its inability to eliminate Israel.
Carl on September 25, 2012 at 2:44 am (Reply)
It should be noted that the peace agreement with Egypt has also been seriously violated by the Egyptians in the form of cutting off the natural gas that they are obligated to sell to Israel and numerous cross-border attacks.
Jerry Blaz on September 28, 2012 at 3:49 am (Reply)
It has been a fact acknowledged by both Egypt and Israel that the "cutting off of natural gas" was the result of extremist elements, associated with those terrorists who have made several attempts to get into Israel from the Sinai. I believe that in one year, the gas line had been blown up around 17 times. This was not done by the Egyptian government but was an act against that government. Israel granted permission to allow the Egyptians to increase their forces in the Sinai, as such permission was needed according to the Egyptian-Israel peace treaty, so the Egyptians could regain control of the pipeline along with other factors needed to protect the peace treaty.

In fact, Israel has just given permission to Egypt to introduce Egyptian aircraft into the Sinai to help them gain control of the territory that has become a "no-man's land" since the overturn of the Mubarak regime. The cutting off of gas was not an intentional violation. After all, the same pipeline extends into Jordan, and each time the pipeline was blown, the Jordanians were deprived of the natural gas, too. Additionally, because gas was not delivered to both Israel and Jordan, it meant that Egypt also lost revenues.

While Egypt is technically responsible for the delivery of gas and the prevention of terrorist attacks, the internal problems of Egypt under the post-Mubarak government has created problems for the Egyptians. Until these problems are resolved, Egypt is also being deprived of tourist revenues, too. A factor in all this are groups which are not particularly motivated by anti-Israeli motives, like the various encampments of Bedouins, who recognize no governments, including the Egyptian government, of which there are an estimated 40,000 in Sinai. They're generally "loyal" to the highest bidder.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham