- Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy
Shlomo Ben-Ami is an Oxford-trained historian on the faculty of Tel-Aviv University. He was Israeli Ambassador to Spain, a Member of the Knesset, [End Page 183] Minister of Public Security, and finally Foreign Minister in the government headed by Ehud Barak. In the latter capacity, he played a critical role in the Camp David summit in 2000, as well as further negotiations at Taba and Sharm al-Sheikh extending into 2001. His perspective is thus informed by a combination of dispassionate scholarly insight and hands-on policy-making experience.
Despite Ben-Ami's involvement with the Labor Party, this is not a partisan tirade. Far from it. Some of the sharpest criticisms are aimed directly at such Labor luminaries as Shimon Peres, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, and even David Ben Gurion himself. Surprisingly, by contrast he has a good deal of admiration for Menachem Begin. Essentially, he argues that the much heralded Labor leaders all missed a series of opportunities to open peace negotiations with various Arab regimes, especially Egyptians. He is especially hard on Golda Meir, whom he regards as rigid and unimaginative. By contrast, he sees Begin as a visionary dramatist, enabling him to become the first Israeli prime minister to seize the diplomatic opening provided by Anwar Sadat, leading to the revolutionary Camp David summit of 1978 and the first formal peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state.
Ben-Ami further sees Camp David as laying the foundations for the Oslo process, in that it established an autonomy plan for the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, and the creation of a Palestinian police force. In other words, although Begin achieved his immediate goal of a free hand in the territories in exchange for full withdrawal from the Sinai, he was unintentionally laying the groundwork for future peace negotiations with the Palestinians. None of the Camp David principals (Begin, Sadat, and President Carter) favored or intended to permit the establishment of a Palestinian state, but Ben-Ami notes caustically that they nevertheless invited the Palestinians to join the Camp David process for the purpose of attaining limited autonomy. He regards this as an historic opportunity, one of a series which the Palestinian leadership ignored or rejected, noting that at this time there were practically no Israeli settlements in the territories.
Begin and Camp David also had a serious negative impact. The agreement with Egypt gave Begin and his Defense Minister, Ariel Sharon, a free hand to solidify the Israeli hold on the territories. This led to large-scale building of settlements in the territories, and to Sharon's audacious but utterly misguided attempt to bring Lebanon under the Israeli security umbrella. Ben-Ami argues that Begin was vulnerable to Sharon's blandishments because of his obsession with recent Jewish history and his perception of himself as "a God-sent vindicator of the legacy of the Holocaust." The entire Lebanese project culminated in the assassination of the Israeli candidate for President of Lebanon (Bashir [End Page 184] Jemayyel), the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Chatila, the apparent ignominious end of Sharon's political career, and Begin's own succumbing to deep psychological depression. He was followed in the Prime Ministership by Yitzhak Shamir, the hardest of the Israeli hardliners, who saw to it that Sharon's policy of settlement building with no apparent limits was vigorously pursued. The goal was to create a situation in the territories from which no future Israeli government would be able to withdraw. Shamir did not believe in peace with the Arabs and did his best to sabotage any budding developments in that direction.
A series of regional and international developments finally undermined the Shamir stance, however. Among those cited by Ben-Ami are: changes in Israeli society (the fading of the founding Zionist pioneering culture and the emergence of a market driven economy); the Gulf War of 1991, which saw Israelis in the uncharacteristic mode...