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The soul of the sabra

(Jewish Ideas Daily) — 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 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.”

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 persistently focused on military solutions to Israel’s problems.  They are almost congenitally incapable of making peace and have regularly thwarted attempts to attain it.

Among many other things, Tyler holds the sabras responsible for fomenting the Six-Day War.  He does not deny 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 military action.  He 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 U.S. efforts to prevent war were going to remain fruitless.  By obscuring such salient details, he depicts the 1967 conflict as 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 he has to face a problem: some sabras are widely known precisely for their commitment to peacemaking: Such onetime hawkish generals as Ezer Weizman and Yitzhak Rabin became prominent advocates for peace.

Even Ariel Sharon, Tyler tells us, had a change of heart.  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.

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: “Rabin and the generals of Peace Now had persuaded” Israelis “that the end of the cold war had opened a window.  Who knew how long it would remain open?”  Rabin, says Tyler, “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. “Fortress Israel” 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. This article was first published by Jewish IdeasDaily ( and is reprinted with permission.)