The Soul of the Sabra

By Allan Arkush
Thursday, September 6, 2012

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. 

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.

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