Israel's Warlords

How the Military Rules in War and Peace

Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion speaks with Israeli Major General Ariel Sharon in January, 1971. (Lucy Nicholson / Courtesy Reuters)

Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country -- and Why They Can't Make Peace 

BY PATRICK TYLER. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 576 pp. $35.00.

Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy 
BY CHARLES D. FREILICH. Cornell University Press, 2012, 336 pp. $49.95.

In the early afternoon of November 14, 2012, an Israeli drone hovered over the Gaza Strip and zeroed in on its target: Ahmed al-Jabari, the military leader of Hamas. A precise missile strike blew up his car, leaving him and his fellow passenger dead. The assassination, which followed two Palestinian cross-border attacks in the previous days, marked the beginning of Operation Pillar of Defense, an intense weeklong campaign of Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Those were matched by a barrage of some 1,500 rockets that Hamas and other Palestinian organizations fired on Israeli cities.

Several hours before his fateful road trip, Jabari had received the final draft of a proposal for a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, mediated by an Israeli peace activist with ties to Hamas and Egyptian intelligence officials. Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak (and possibly also its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu), was aware of the back-channel talks that had led to the offer. But rather than wait for Hamas' response, the leaders instead opted to kill their Palestinian interlocutor and launch a large-scale military operation, believing -- as most of their predecessors had -- that reprisals were the surest way to restore Israel's deterrence and calm the border.

This sequence of events could have served as the perfect epilogue to Patrick Tyler's Fortress Israel. Tyler, a veteran foreign correspondent and the author of several books on U.S. foreign policy, portrays Israel as the Sparta of the modern Middle East, a country that "six decades after its founding, remains . . . in thrall to an original martial impulse." Israel's leadership duo during the campaign against Gaza, Netanyahu and Barak, were simply carrying this legacy forward. The former rivals' decision to join forces after the 2009 election, Tyler writes, "revealed a common faith in military action as more likely to yield results than diplomacy or negotiation, which they held in low regard."

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