Athens or Sparta?
Back in 1988, I refused to do a stint of reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces and was sentenced to a twenty-one-day prison term. It was at the height of the First Intifada and my unit was to serve thirty-five days in the casbah—the old town—of Nablus, in the heart of Samaria. I refused because I thought that Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip was oppressive and that Israel should make peace with the Palestinians based on a two-states-for-two-peoples solution. The First Intifada, from 1987 until 1991, was a popular uprising, largely consisting of strikes, boycotts, street demonstrations, and riots, in which the rioters almost invariably employed non-lethal means. (By contrast, in the Second Intifada, from 2000 to 2004, the Palestinians employed highly lethal means—suicide bombings in buses and restaurants—and their target, in my view, was not so much the occupation as Israel itself.)
The judge at my trial was our division’s deputy commander, a lieutenant colonel who was obviously uncomfortable with the situation. He said something like “not all of us in the military are happy with what’s happening” and coaxed me to relent. But the following Sunday I went off to Prison No. 4, in Sarafand, where I served out a relatively pleasant seventeen days (I arrived two days late, and two days were taken off for good behavior). A year or two later, I was again called up for reserve duty (not in the territories), and a while later I was honorably discharged from the IDF at the age of 44, in line with the custom at the time for combat soldiers.
I was reminded of this personal episode while reading Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace. As the title makes clear, Tyler charges Israel with being a modern “Sparta.” How were conscientious objectors punished in Sparta? I don’t know if Leonidas suffered conscientious objectors before the Hot Gates, but I do know how they were treated in Wilhelmine Germany, the classic modern “militarist” society. And I know how they fared in the United States, France, and Great Britain when these countries were at war and had conscription and reserve duty. The norm in each case was either a few years behind bars or some form of internal exile.
Tyler’s book is a gossipy overlong pseudo-history of Israel, which is noteworthy mainly for what it indicates about the standing of Israel among the chattering classes. For Patrick Tyler is the former chief correspondent of The New York Times and the former Middle East bureau chief of The Washington Post, and his book comes festooned with blurbs from former Times executive editor Howell Raines, CNN’s national security analyst Peter L. Bergen, and others lauding its scholarship as “meticulous” and describing it as “the definitive historical and analytical account” of the role of the military in Israel. Incidentally, Tyler does not know Hebrew or Arabic, and the only archive he appears to have visited is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in his home state of Texas.
For decades Zionists and their supporters have described Israel as a latter-day Athens, and Tyler seems to take it personally, insisting instead on describing Israel as “a modern Sparta in a region of weak states.” Indeed, at one point Tyler seems preposterously to liken Nasser’s Egypt to Athens:
Thucydides had written of the Peloponnesian War: “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” But in this case there was no growth of Athenian power. Nasser’s strength was declining … It was Israel—Sparta—whose power had grown . . .
I will return to Tyler’s perverse and implausible account of the lead-up to the Six-Day War. For now, let us ask: Is Israel Sparta? Well, let’s see. It is true that Israel has a powerful army and spends a large part of its annual budget (say twenty to twenty-five percent) on defense; true, too, that generals and security chiefs, past and present, have a major say in shaping defense and foreign policy and have had substantial representation in successive cabinets, though only three—Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon—out of Israel’s twelve prime ministers were former generals. All the others, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Olmert, were civilians. It could be argued that Begin and Shamir, as former commanders of guerrilla organizations in the pre-state period, also had “security” backgrounds. (Shamir also served for a while in the Mossad.) But then Israel has been under siege from without and terrorist threat from within since its establishment. So security, personal as well as collective, is understandably a paramount consideration in the minds of Israelis. This is hardly surprising. American ex-generals have often risen to political prominence during or after wars: Washington in the 18th century, Jackson and Grant in the 19th, Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, and Colin Powell in the 20th, to name just a few.
In his Prologue, Tyler asserts that “militarism” is the ruling spirit in Israeli society:
Once in the military system, Israelis never fully exit. They carry the military identity for life . . . through lifelong expectations of loyalty and secrecy. Many Israeli officers carry their “top secret” clearances after retirement, reporting back to superiors or intelligence officers items of interest gleaned from their involvement in business, finance, and interactions with foreigners.
On the next page, he writes, “the specter of the security state remains a dominant aspect of life,” and a little later, “The military is the country to a great extent.” This is all nonsense. Had Tyler been writing about Israel during the late 1940s and 1950s, perhaps he would have had a point. Perhaps. But the Israel of the past several decades, Israel today, is another animal altogether. For most Israelis, individual achievement and interests trump the old collectivist Zionist ethic. Indeed, fewer and fewer Israelis actually serve in the army or do reserve duty (as the few who carry the burden are constantly complaining). It is true that among eleventh and twelfth graders, there is still great competitiveness to get a slot, once inducted, in one of the IDF’s elite units or in pilot training, but this has more to do with adolescent competition and machismo than militaristic ideology. Indeed, a good argument can be made for depicting the Israeli army as one of the world’s least “military.” Since its inception in 1948, the IDF has abjured saluting (the practice exists only in formal parades), and the men, after completing basic training, generally address their non-coms and officers on a first-name basis. The dress code in the army ranges from informal to sloppy and always has (except in the Armored Corps), and breaches of discipline tend to be punished lightly. While females are still kept out of combat units, women non-coms and officers are playing a major role in training combat troops (in armor and artillery, for example), and there are growing numbers of women pilots and navigators, also flying combat aircraft. All of this points to a liberal rather than “militarist” military.
As with poker players, books have tells. At one point in Fortress Israel Tyler writes that Israel’s paratroops wear black berets. Had he interviewed any Israeli, even a child (even an Israeli Arab child), he would have known that, as in Britain and France, paratroopers wear red berets. Sadly, Tyler knows nothing about the nuts and bolts of Israel or its military.
Israel is, in sober fact, a small, flawed, and embattled democracy, with a strong and unusually egalitarian military that has produced an extraordinary stream of writers, academics, and artists, supported by world-class academic and artistic institutions. In short, it is more Athenian than Spartan.
Tyler is as weak on the history of Israel as he is on its sociology, though he is chock-full of opinions and judgments, all of them anti-Zionist. Let’s return to the causes of the Six-Day War. The history of the countdown to this conflagration is clear, generally agreed upon, and pretty well documented. The opening of the relevant Israeli military and cabinet papers—closed for another four years by Israel’s fifty-year rule—is unlikely to offer much added enlightenment. And the Arab archives, which might shed new light, remain closed, as they are for every period of the Israeli-Arab conflict (dictatorships do not open state archives). The slide to war began with Syria’s sponsorship of Palestinian operations against Israel across the Lebanese and Jordanian borders and Syria’s own efforts at diverting the headwaters of the Jordan River. Syria’s leaders spoke frequently and publicly of a coming “war of liberation” for Palestine. Israel warned Syria that it was playing with fire and might even provoke an Israeli assault.
In early May 1967 Damascus and Moscow, Syria’s chief international backer, passed on intelligence to Egypt that Israel was massing troops on the Syrian frontier. The implication was that Israel was about to launch a massive attack and that Egypt, with whom Syria had a defense pact, would have to come to Syria’s aid. Moscow spoke of ten to twelve Israeli brigades and of May 17 as D-Day. This “intelligence” was untrue. The UN armistice supervision organization, UNTSO, checked the border areas and dismissed the reports. Indeed, Nasser sent his army chief, Muhammad Fawzi, to Damascus to find out what was happening. In his memoirs, Fawzi later wrote, “I did not find any concrete evidence to support the information received. On the contrary, aerial photographs taken by Syrian reconnaissance on May 12 and 13 showed no change in normal [Israeli] military positions.”
Tyler fails to tell his readers any of this. Instead, he slyly implies that there was something to the Syrian and Russian reports: “The Soviet information was mostly disinformation”—note the carefully placed modifier “mostly.” “It was clear,” Tyler goes on, “that the Israeli army was in a heightened state of alert along the northern frontier.” Again, the implication is that an attack was being prepared. It wasn’t.
Tyler then proceeds to justify Nasser’s subsequent actions, which directly provoked the Six-Day War:
Still, it was impossible for Nasser to ignore the [Soviet-Syrian] intelligence reports . . . For Nasser, it didn’t matter whether the intelligence reports were false . . . What mattered was that Nasser was in an untenable spot as the putative leader of the Arab world.
So, on May 13 he ordered his armored divisions to cross the Suez Canal into Sinai, which had been demilitarized after the 1956 War, threatening southern Israel. Nasser then compounded this with two steps that, in the absence of international intervention, made war inevitable. On May 16, he ordered the UN peacekeeping force in Sinai (UNEF), which physically separated the Egyptians and Israelis, to leave, and on May 22 he announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and aircraft, blocking the port of Eilat, which was Israel’s port of access to Africa and southern Asia, and its air-link to South Africa. All of this was in violation of international law. At the end of the month, Nasser signed a defense pact with his old enemy King Hussein, and battalions of Egyptian troops were flown to Jordan; Iraq made ready to send armored divisions to bolster Hussein’s defenses. Israel felt a pan-Arab noose tightening around its neck.
Tyler describes these Egyptian moves, each of which was a clear casus belli, but then blames Israel for the war’s outbreak. He writes that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol tried but failed “to restrain the generals and quell the surge of enthusiasm for war that was becoming more and more pronounced in the officer corps.” Meanwhile, the Americans failed to put together an international flotilla that would force open the straits—Tyler writes as if this idea was still in play when Israel struck on the morning of June 5, but it wasn’t—or to send in their own ships, which is why Washington in the end gave Israel a “yellow light” (the phrase is William Quandt’s) to attack.
One other Six-Day War matter that Tyler elides and distorts is the Israeli conquest of the West Bank, an area that Jordan had ruled since conquering it in 1948. Early on the morning of June 5, Israel told King Hussein—through the UN and U.S. channels—that if Jordan held its fire, no harm would come to it. The Jordanians nonetheless opened fire, including artillery fire, on Israeli West Jerusalem and the coastal plain. Israel re-contacted the Jordanians, promising not to open fire if they immediately ceased. But the Jordanians continued firing, and around noon, Israeli troops began to push into the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Within three days, the territory down to the Jordan River was in Israeli hands.
Tyler omits any mention of these June 5 warnings and assurances to Jordan, and instead writes:
After Jordanian artillery batteries had opened fire on Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Yigal Allon and Menachem Begin joined in proposing . . . that the shelling gave Israel the pretext it needed to liberate Arab East Jerusalem, including the Old City and the Western Wall.
One wonders if Tyler would describe the American response to a comparable attack (say the shelling of Washington, D.C. and New York) as a “pretext.”
In the aftermath of the war, on June 19, the Israeli cabinet resolved, in secret session, that Israel would agree to withdraw from all of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt and the peninsula’s demilitarization and from all of the Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Syria and the Heights’ demilitarization. (The cabinet could not agree on the fate of the West Bank, so nothing was offered to Jordan.) Tyler, as usual when trying to downplay Israeli peace-mindedness, puts it vaguely: “Eshkol, Meir, and Dayan convinced [the ministers] . . . that they should at least offer to return some of the Arab territories if they could do so on favorable terms.” Which is not quite the same thing.
It is worth adding that there are historians who are convinced that this cabinet decision never reached Cairo and Damascus, though the truth, on this score, will only be definitively known if and when the Egyptian and Syrian archives are opened. What is certain is that in September 1967, in response to the Israeli victory and perhaps to these peace proposals, the Arab governments unanimously resolved never to negotiate with Israel, never to recognize it, and never to make peace—the famous “three nos” of Khartoum.
One other point Tyler makes about the war’s aftermath is worth quoting because it is so blatantly untrue: “It seemed that with few exceptions, everyone in Israel had embraced a creed that envisioned a Greater Israel, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. There were differences [only] about how to achieve it.” It is true that a semi-messianic euphoria took hold, but post-1967 Israel was nonetheless a deeply divided society and remains so down to the present. Many opposed, or were uncomfortable with, retention of the Palestinian-populated territories. Tyler forgets to tell his readers that Ben-Gurion, whom he repeatedly brands an arch-expansionist and warmonger, immediately advised Eshkol to withdraw from the whole of the West Bank except East Jerusalem, nor does he mention that Labor Party minister Yigal Allon quickly formulated a plan which called for withdrawal from the bulk of the West Bank in exchange for peace with Jordan. The “Allon Plan” was never formally adopted as the Labor Party’s platform or Israeli government policy, but it guided Labor’s policies for a decade. (Settlements were not established in the areas earmarked for transfer to Arab sovereignty.) In the immediate post-1967 years, Israel’s leaders, in secret meetings, repeatedly proposed the plan to King Hussein as a basis for a bilateral peace settlement to no avail.
Following the Six-Day War, Egypt’s president, Nasser, launched a “war of attrition” against Israel’s forces in the Sinai Peninsula, hoping to wear down Israeli resolve to remain in occupation of Egyptian territory. This consisted of artillery strikes against the Israeli forts built along the Suez Canal’s eastern bank (the so-called Bar-Lev Line) and of commando raids against the forts and the roads through which they were supplied. The Egyptians enjoyed overwhelming superiority in artillery, which caused serious Israeli casualties on an almost daily basis. (I was wounded by a shell splinter in one of the forts, codenamed Zahava Darom, on the southern edge of Small Bitter Lake.) To offset this Egyptian advantage, in the summer of 1969 the Israelis sent in the Israel Air Force (IAF) to hit the Egyptian artillery and frontline trench system on the west bank of the Canal. By the end of the year the Egyptian artillery had not been silenced, so in January 1970 the Israelis sent the IAF and commandos to attack army bases and anti-aircraft missile emplacements deep inside Egypt. Thousands of Egyptian soldiers and military construction workers were killed and injured during the half-year air campaign. On two occasions, bombs went astray or the targeting was mistaken and an Egyptian factory and an elementary school, which was situated inside a military compound, were destroyed, causing dozens of civilian deaths. Tyler summarizes the Israeli air assault as follows: “The air force . . . [dropped] an estimated eight thousand tons of bombs on military and civilian targets over these months . . . U.S.-made F-4 Phantoms terrorized Egyptian cities.” In effect, Tyler tells his readers that Israel indiscriminately killed Egyptians, deliberately targeting civilians. In fact, during these months life went on as normal in Egypt’s cities, since its government and citizenry knew full well that they were not being targeted.
The War of Attrition came to an end after the Soviets sent in thousands of their own personnel to man anti-aircraft missile batteries and fighter squadrons to counter the IAF. In one incident, Israeli Phantoms shot down five Soviet-piloted MiG-21s. At this point, both sides called it quits. The Egyptians were now thoroughly exhausted, and the Israelis feared an open-ended clash with the Russians. Tyler, as usual, has the story all wrong. He tells us that Soviet pilots “shot down half a dozen Israeli Phantoms.” This never happened.
Tyler replays the same atrocity card when describing Israel’s First Lebanon War, against the PLO and Syrians in Lebanon in 1982, when he writes of “the saturation bombing of the city [of Beirut].” Of course, there was never any “saturation” bombing. Tyler himself writes of six hundred civilians killed; in Dresden on February 13-15, 1945 Allied bombers killed an estimated twenty-five thousand civilians—older estimates put the number at around one hundred thousand or even higher. That’s saturation bombing. In 1982, the IAF very carefully targeted PLO buildings and camps in and around Beirut, and while hundreds of civilians no doubt died collaterally, some of them Lebanese rather than Palestinian, this was not the result of deliberation or intention. That’s what happens during wars in built-up areas—even when the more powerful side is careful. Tyler’s description is agitprop, not history.
The subtitle of Tyler’s book carries a clear message: Bloodthirsty Spartan generals “run” Israel and that is why it has not achieved peace with its neighbors. The actual history of the various post-1967 Israeli-Arab peace processes gives the lie to this argument. IDF generals and ex-generals have actually loomed large in these peace processes, both those which succeeded and those which didn’t.
Israel so far has signed two peace treaties with Arab states, with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994, both of which are still in force (though how they will fare in the coming years, with fiercely anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic Islamists on the ascent in Arab politics, is anyone’s guess). Negotiations with Egypt were led by Menachem Begin, a civilian who had headed the pre-state right-wing Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL). But the two men who pressed and persuaded him to make the requisite concessions, including handing over to Egypt the whole of Sinai, were his foreign minister Moshe Dayan and his defense minister Ezer Weizman, both of whom had spent most of their lifetimes in the IDF. Dayan was a former chief of general staff, and Weizman was a past commander of the Israel Air Force. The peace treaty with Jordan, in which Israel ceded several hundred square kilometers of territory in the south, was negotiated and signed by Yitzhak Rabin, also a former IDF chief of general staff.
In the late 1970s, the public drive to pressure Begin to make peace with Egypt was spearheaded by the Peace Now movement. Tyler says, almost correctly, that its importance “was that it arose in great measure from the military establishment.” Most of the original signatories of the letter that launched the movement were, in fact, IDF reserve officers. But of course this contradicts Tyler’s own thesis that the Israeli military “can’t make peace.” He seems not to notice.
After the Sadat-Begin treaty, the Israeli public, which according to Tyler had by then been tutored to “militarism” and expansionism by its leaders and generals for decades, immediately endorsed the government’s conciliatory posture, and some eighty percent of Israelis supported giving back all of Sinai to Egypt in exchange for peace. How does Tyler explain this? It was, he writes, “a strong affirmation that the martial impulse could be overpowered by a strategy based on accommodation with the Arabs.” What this fluff means is anyone’s guess. But what a more honest and plain-spoken commentator would have written would have been something like this: The Israeli public, when persuaded that there was a sincere, genuine Arab partner ready to make peace, would overcome its security-driven hesitations and rush headlong to sign on.
The basic problem with Fortress Israel is that Tyler dismisses, or is simply unaware of, the pan-Arab desire to rid the Middle East of the Jewish state and its periodic efforts to do so. According to Tyler, Israel alone is to blame for the wars, for the absence of peace, for the hopelessness. Thus, he fails completely to deal with the 1948 War, about which all acknowledge that the Arabs—first the Palestinians and then the neighboring Arab states—were the aggressors; thus, he fails to come to grips with the very real Arab threats to Israel in 1956 and 1967 and, indeed, ever since. He pooh-poohs Saddam Hussein’s effort to achieve nuclear weaponry in the early 1980s and writes off Israel’s destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 as merely “a new phase of [Israeli] militarism.”
Indeed, Tyler kicks off the book with a description of how, in 2011-2012, Israeli agents “murdered” two top Iranian nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran. “The astonishing thing,” Tyler writes, “was that Iran might not have been engaged in clandestine nuclear weapons development at all.” Rather, Israel’s “highly provocative” killing of the scientists pushed Iran into pursuing, or resuming the pursuit of, nuclear weaponry. All of this flies in the face of what almost all the world’s intelligence agencies believe, which is that Iran aims to build nuclear weapons and has been trying to do so for more than two decades. A few years ago, the American intelligence community suggested that the Iranians might have halted their nuclear weapons program in 2003, but it has since concluded that Iran is still pursuing nuclear weapons. Israeli intelligence has never believed that there was a real halt and continues to believe that Iran’s theocratic, brutal government is bent on building nuclear weapons as soon as possible. Israeli intelligence also takes the Iranian leaders at their public word and believes that the Iranian regime seeks to destroy Israel. A division of opinion exists among the Israeli intelligence assessors about whether the Iranians, once they build an arsenal of such weapons, will unleash them on Israel or whether they will use them to strategically overawe and defeat Israel in some more subtle and staggered manner. In any event, returning to Tyler and his thesis, according to press reports, it is the IDF general staff and the heads of the security services who held back and are currently holding back Netanyahu from launching a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which, once again, upends the author’s thesis.
Along the way, Tyler also makes another argument: that the warmongering generals have traditionally controlled their peace-prone civilian superiors. But here, too, history ill-serves him. During the 1948 War, which Tyler generally avoids, Ben-Gurion repeatedly overruled the army. In May 1948 he forced the generals repeatedly to launch assaults on the Latrun Police Fort, against their better judgment. Later in 1948 and again in March 1949 the army (meaning OC Southern Front, General Yigal Allon) pleaded with Ben-Gurion to order the conquest of the West Bank. Ben-Gurion turned Allon down flatly, though the IDF could easily have managed the conquest, militarily speaking.
During the early and mid-1950s, some IDF generals, including then-head of operations and, from 1953, chief of general staff Dayan pressed prime ministers Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett (1953-1955) to launch a war against Jordan to conquer the West Bank in order to give Israel a more secure, natural frontier or to launch wars of pre-emption and conquest against Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Ben-Gurion occasionally toyed with these expansionist ideas, but he and Sharett always held back, checking Dayan’s annexationist proposals. Only in 1956, after Nasser acquired large amounts of advanced Soviet weaponry and launched massive fedayeen attacks on the Israeli heartland did Ben-Gurion agree to launch a pre-emptive war against Egypt.
A decade later, in the summer of 1967, with Nasser provoking war, the IDF General Staff, to a man, pushed and pressed their civilian master, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt. But it took him three long, nail-biting weeks to decide that international diplomacy had failed and would continue to fail. In other words, from May 15 until June 4 Eshkol held off his generals and the dogs of war. If Tyler’s thesis were right, Eshkol would have crumpled before the military elite who have “always run the country” in mid-May.
In the early 1970s then-Prime Minister Golda Meir scuppered peace or interim peace initiatives by Moshe Dayan, her defense minister, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that might well have resulted in averting the October War. Dayan at the time was supported by two of the IDF’s top generals, Ariel Sharon and Israel Tal, but opposed by chief of general staff Haim Bar-Lev. In 1981, when Begin pressed the motion for the IAF attack on the Osirak reactor, he was opposed by the head of IDF intelligence, the head of the Mossad, and the head of the opposition, Labor Party chief Shimon Peres, who for years had headed the country’s defense establishment (though he was no general). A decade later, in 1991, when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched 39 Scud missiles against Israel’s cities, it was the hardline prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, who faced down much of the defense establishment and checked the IDF.
In other words, the picture that emerges from the actual history is clearly one in which there is complete subordination of the military to the Israeli civilian authorities. Sometimes, the generals are the ones pushing for action and war and the civilians are successfully putting on the brakes; at other times it is the civilians who are gung ho, while the generals persuade their bosses to exercise restraint. At all times, it is the prime minister and the cabinet who have the final say.
Tyler’s purpose in writing this book was not to offer his readers an honest history, it was to blacken Israel’s image. Fortress Israel is just the latest in a spate of venomous perversions of the record that have appeared in the past few years in the United States and Britain, all clearly designed to subvert Israel’s standing in the world. Deliberately or not, such books and articles are paving the way for a future abandonment of the Jewish state.
I am reminded of the spate of books and articles that appeared in Western Europe in 1936 through1938 repudiating the legitimacy of the newly formed Czechoslovakia before its sacrifice to the Nazi wolves. In 1934, the Conservative weekly Truth hailed Czechoslovakia as “the sole successful experiment in liberal democracy that has emerged from the post-War settlement.” By the end of 1936, The Observer was writing it off as “a diplomatic creation with no sufficient national basis either in geography or race.” By March 1938 The New Statesman, in the past a great friend to central Europe’s only democracy, was writing: “We should urge the Czechs to cede the German-speaking part of their territory to Hitler without more ado.” Of course, as all understood, this meant leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless. Hitler conquered the rump of the country a few months later without a shot. The appeasement of the Arab-Islamist world at Israel’s expense is in the air and Tyler is one of its (very, very) minor harbingers.
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