The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War
James L. Gelvin
Cambridge University Press, 2005, 312pp., $65.00 (paper, $22.99)
Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy
Oxford University Press, 2006, 368pp., $30.00
Of the making of many books on this subject there is no end, but here are two more that deserve much study. Gelvin's book, with maps, illustrations, a glossary, thumbnail biographies, and a lean, well-chosen list of suggestions for further reading, fits the genre of the academic textbook at its best. Gelvin sets out the historical context in which Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism have met and contended (and still contend) and keeps the narrative of this evolving confrontation on track even while shifting the focus from the international to the regional and back, and blending in the economic, ideological, and psychological dimensions. Throughout the book, he evokes seemingly banal incidents, such as the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the 1939-40 New York World's Fair or a poem by an eminent Palestinian poet, to illumine larger issues. Balanced, fair, and readable, this is a fine historical synthesis.
Israeli historian Ben-Ami left academia in 1987 to embark on a diplomatic and political career, leading him to serve as Israel's minister of foreign affairs and play a leading role in the ill-fated Yasir Arafat-Ehud Barak-Bill Clinton negotiations of 2000. One might well expect, given this background, a memoir by an official who "was there." It does offer just that -- an insider's view depicting Arafat as tragically unable to seize the opportunity that Barak, for all his faults, presented at Camp David -- but also much more. It is a brilliant interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, from mandate days to the present, that strips away the myths and official positions of both sides and offers an ongoing critique of why this asymmetrical conflict has resisted resolution. His tough, even harsh, criticism of "his" side makes even more acceptable his unblinkered analysis of the other. Telling the story largely in terms of representative political figures, Ben-Ami weaves a rich tableau of individual leaders and the more elusive social forces and mindsets that guided their actions. This is a book that the layperson will read with profit and the old Middle East hand will ponder and annotate.