Patrick Tyler, Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 576 pp., $35.00.
AS PART of its negotiations with the United States, Israel promised to freeze “all settlement activity” (including natural growth of settlements), a pledge later enshrined in the “road map” agreed upon in 2003. Later, Israel argued that it had arranged a private deal with the Bush administration, in exchange for its withdrawal from Gaza, to allow settlement growth within the “construction line” of such settlements—in other words, to build up but not out.
Daniel C. Kurtzer, then the American ambassador to Israel, denies discussions between the United States and Israel resulted in what he called “an implementable understanding.” But I have a vivid memory of a conversation with him in his ambassadorial office in which an exasperated Kurtzer complained that he had been unable to get any satellite photos or detailed maps from the Israeli government or army showing where these construction lines were.
Yet I had just spent a few nights watching Israeli troops patrol in the occupied West Bank. The Israeli commanders showed me their maps. Every building in that area of the West Bank had been photographed by satellite, mapped and given an identification code. Presumably, that was true for the entire West Bank. Yet somehow the Israelis could not come up with maps of their own settlements for Kurtzer and their closest allies, the Americans.
Another strong memory: With much fanfare, Condoleezza Rice traveled to Israel in the context of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza to negotiate an agreement on travel and access for Palestinians and goods, not only through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza but also between the West Bank and Gaza. She pressed hard to get a deal that included a regular bus route to be run by the Israeli military between the two parts of the future Palestinian nation. It never happened. A senior Israeli commander in Gaza told me bluntly that “we never intended to arrange such a bus.”
Another: During the 2006 war in southern Lebanon, Rice visited Israel to try to negotiate a cease-fire. While she was there, on July 30, Israeli airstrikes on an apartment building killed twenty-eight civilians, half of them children, in Qana in southern Lebanon—the same town Israeli forces had shelled in the 1996 Lebanon conflict, killing more than one hundred civilians sheltered in a United Nations compound.
Rice, angry and embarrassed, gave a terse press conference after staying up most of the night to get an Israeli agreement for at least a forty-eight-hour halt to airstrikes. It was broken quickly, even before she landed at Ireland’s Shannon Airport to refuel. Finally home, she went straight to the White House to see President Bush. He said to her, Bush told Olmert, “Calm down, Condi.”
There are numerous examples of Israeli politicians shading the truth with even their best ally, the United States, and finding reasons to dilute or renege on their promises. And there are many instances in which the security mind-set in Israel, which always thinks of itself as embattled, overrules the willingness to take political or strategic risks.
“No one ever got demoted for being too careful,” a senior military-intelligence officer once told me. “Security is about reducing risks, not taking them.”
But it is a major leap from this reality to the assertion that a cohesive Israeli military elite not only runs the country but also has so distorted Israeli politics by its own aggressive view of the world as to make peace impossible. Yet that is the thesis of Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace by journalist and historian Patrick Tyler. To his credit, even he doesn’t seem to believe it by the end of this historical inquiry, at least not with the crassness and simplicity of his own subtitle.
After all, Israel’s military and intelligence “elite” has been arguing, both privately and publicly, that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities now would be either ineffective or counterproductive, even deeply damaging. This has infuriated the elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In this instance, the military elite seems dead set against war, certainly without American support.
Of course, Tyler is really talking about the Palestinians, but he both begins and ends his book with Iran.