Aluf Benn’s thoughtful review of my book Fortress Israel (“Israel’s Warlords,” March/April 2013) fails to grasp one essential aspect of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Benn paints the Israel Defense Forces’ dominance of Israeli politics as immutable, arguing that since only the military can offer the government timely solutions in a crisis, Israel “inevitably” relies on the use of force. But it is a misperception of history to suggest that Israel has had no alternatives to military solutions. Diplomacy and negotiation have not been tactical responses to urgent contingencies. They have been part of a long-term strategy to avoid conflict.
In fact, many Israeli leaders, including generals, have sought to build a rival institution to balance the military’s power. After Israel’s disastrous losses and poor judgments in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) and the Foreign Ministry were brought in as a “red team” to counter the military’s assessments of the outside world. Israeli prime ministers have tried to set up a viable National Security Council with connections to policy planners at think tanks to balance the military. These efforts have mostly come up short, but under strong prime ministers, especially those who have sprung from the army, the military has been forced to give way to diplomacy, as it did under Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.
Benn states that I accuse Barak of disingenuous trickery in his diplomacy with Syria and the Palestinians. There is no such accusation in my book. Most unfairly, he also writes that I mention the obstinacy of the Arab leadership “only in passing.” Although Fortress Israel is a biography of the Israeli leadership, it includes a detailed rendering of Arab motivations and failures in every major encounter throughout the text.
Benn concludes that some Israeli military leaders have opposed wars and militarism. But he fails to help readers understand how peace can once again become Israel’s main national strategy. He leaves them with the cold conclusion that the generals are unlikely to “retreat to their bunkers anytime soon.” Where does that leave Israel?