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Israeli politics have been notoriously tempestuous: a multiparty system in permanent crisis running a country that is in perpetual war and whose society is fractured by ethnic and religious divisions. For all the elections and cabinet changes since 1948, the cast of characters in government has remained remarkably constant. This makes experience the key to political success, with Israelis recycling former leaders, even after years of political exile, in the hope that the second go-round will be better than the first. The longevity of Israeli political careers ensures that no personal wound ever heals and that public debate often revolves around the past rather than the future. Add a national tendency to improvise and you get a chaotic, self-absorbed political arena in which words take precedence over actions.
A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. By Howard M. Sachar. Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
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Politics in Israel: The Second Republic. By Asher Arian. CQ Press, 2005.
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These are good reference works on Israel's history and political system. Historian Howard Sachar provides background on actors and events from Theodor Herzl and the origins of Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century to the Oslo peace process at the end of the twentieth. Meanwhile, Asher Arian, a prominent Israeli political scientist, analyzes the key structural and ideological themes of Israeli politics.
This classic memoir by James Mcdonald, America's first ambassador in Tel Aviv, remains relevant today. There is no better primer on U.S.-Israeli relations or sharper observation of Israel's founders through an American prism. Several weeks after he recognized the Jewish state, U.S. President Harry Truman dispatched Mcdonald -- who had formerly dealt with Jewish refugees in Europe -- to Israel as his representative. The War of Independence raged, and the fledgling diplomat was involved in shaping the early stages of what turned out to be an endless exercise in conflict management. In those early weeks, the mold of American-Israeli dialogue was cast, undergoing only minor changes in the decades since. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, like his successors, needed American consent to turn Israel's battlefield success into political gains. Mcdonald describes how the three "core issues" of Mideast diplomacy -- Israel's borders, Jerusalem, and the Palestinian refugees -- came to the fore. "Israel wanted peace -- but on the basis of the status quo," he writes. "Our government, too, wanted peace in Palestine. However, not convinced that this could be had on Israel's terms, we were unwilling to recognize Israel's possession of any territories beyond the  partition line, unless Israel made territorial concessions elsewhere to the Arabs." Change the 1947 "partition line" to the 1967 "Green Line," and you could print the same sentence in a current news story on a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Shabtai Teveth's book reads like a thriller and gives the best account of the Lavon affair that ended Ben-Gurion's political career. Full of intimate details of espionage operations, political power plays, news manipulation, and sexual adventures, Ben-Gurion's Spy leads the reader through the first political upheaval in Israel's history -- which moved the country away from its founder's patriarchal rule toward a less centralized political system. The affair started with a botched covert operation in Egypt in 1954. Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon and Director of Military Intelligence Binyamin Givly blamed each other for approving it, and in the first round, Lavon was ousted and Ben-Gurion returned to the helm from a self-imposed political exile. Then, in 1960, following the discovery of Givly's cover-up, Lavon demanded rehabilitation. Key leaders of the ruling Mapai party -- including two future prime ministers, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, who feared Ben-Gurion's effort to sidestep them and promote his younger cronies Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres -- joined Lavon's cause and eventually pushed Ben-Gurion out.
By far the best account of the crisis leading to the Six Day War of 1967, Ami Gluska's masterpiece describes the delicate relationship between the military brass and civilian leaders in Israel. Based on unmatched access to internal military documents, Gluska shows how generational mistrust between war-thirsty generals and hesitant politicians brought the country to the verge of a military coup. Gluska tells the tragedy of Levi Eshkol, the prime minister who tried to avoid war but could not fend off pressure from military commanders (led by future national leaders Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, and Ariel Sharon) to respond by preemptive attack to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's threats of annihilation. The author credits Eshkol's diplomacy -- seen at the time as cowardice -- with buying Israel the necessary "waiting period" to mobilize and prepare for its eventual victory. But the prime minister lost his grip on the political system, which joined the military in forcing Eshkol to give the top defense job to Moshe Dayan, and launched the war that changed the Middle East.
Though written two decades ago, when Ariel Sharon was the champion of Israel's extreme right and a sidelined politician, his early autobiography gives an excellent account of the background and mindset of a future prime minister. Sharon describes his childhood during the British Mandate of Palestine, his battlefield experiences in Israel's wars, his creation of the settlement project, and his dealings with the country's leaders and fellow politicians. The book shows its author's cynicism, appreciation of power, and dislike of Arabs -- three key factors for understanding his policies during his tenure as prime minister from 2001 to 2006: namely, the reoccupation of the West Bank and the pullout from Gaza.
Before rising to the top of Israeli politics for the first time in the 1990s, Netanyahu laid out his analysis of Jewish history, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and Israel's role in the Middle East. Some readers may find Netanyahu's tone too propagandist and his opposition to the old "land for peace" formula overly pessimistic, if not depressing; but the author correctly predicted the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process years before the Camp David crisis of 2000. Netanyahu was elected prime minister for a second time in 2009, and while a decade out of date, the book still provides a good introduction to his thinking.