The Sword and the Olive: A Critical History of the Israeli Defense Force
By Martin Van Creveld
PublicAffairs, 1998, 448 pp.
For many years the Israeli Defense force was regarded by enemies, friends, and professional observers alike as an exceptionally skillful and powerful military. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, however, Israeli journalists and reserve officers began to criticize the IDF; by the 1980s a wave of historical revisionism had begun. These two books, one by a young sociologist, the other by a world-class military historian, are savagely critical. Ben-Eliezer argues that the predominance of the "military way" -- a preference for military solutions to political problems and an inappropriate extension of military roles into society -- goes back to pre-state years, resulting from a close relationship between old elites and a rough, native generation of Israelis. Meanwhile, van Creveld mercilessly traces the IDF's failures, describing it today as "soft, bloated, strife-ridden, responsibility-shy, and dishonest." This surely goes too far, although van Creveld, like Ben-Eliezer, has drawn widely and effectively on Hebrew-language sources that most English-speaking readers never see. Both authors are capable scholars and undoubtedly point to some truths. Like most militaries, the IDF has had its share of failures, tactical, strategic, and moral; the same can be said of Israeli society, or for that matter, of the U.S. military and American society. Unfortunately, both scholars let their fury at the contemporary Israeli scene mar otherwise impressive scholarship. It will take time, and perhaps a foreign viewpoint, to set the stories they tell in proper and more understanding perspective.