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“Once in the military system, Israelis never fully exit,” writes the prizewinning journalist Patrick Tyler in the prologue to Fortress Israel. “They carry the military identity for life, not just through service in the reserves until age forty-nine . . . but through lifelong expectations of loyalty and secrecy.” The military is the country to a great extent, and peace will only come, Tyler argues, when Israel’s military elite adopt it as the national strategy.
Fortress Israel is an epic portrayal of Israel’s martial culture—of Sparta presenting itself as Athens. From Israel’s founding in 1948, we see a leadership class engaged in an intense ideological struggle over whether to become the “light unto nations,” as envisioned by the early Zionists, or to embrace an ideology of state militarism with the objective of expanding borders and exploiting the weaknesses of the Arabs. In his first decade as prime minister, David Ben-Gurion conceived of a militarized society, dominated by a powerful defense establishment and capable of defeating the Arabs in serial warfare over many decades. Bound by self-reliance and a stern resolve never to forget the Holocaust, Israel’s military elite has prevailed in war but has also at times overpowered Israel’s democracy. Tyler takes us inside the military culture of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu, introducing us to generals who make decisions that trump those of elected leaders and who disdain diplomacy as appeasement or surrender.
Fortress Israel shows us how this martial culture envelops every family. Israeli youth go through three years of compulsory military service after high school, and acceptance into elite commando units or air force squadrons brings lasting prestige and a network for life. So ingrained is the martial outlook and identity, Tyler argues, that Israelis are missing opportunities to make peace even when it is possible to do so. “The Zionist movement had survived the onslaught of world wars, the Holocaust, and clashes of ideology,” writes Tyler, “but in the modern era of statehood, Israel seemed incapable of fielding a generation of leaders who could adapt to the times, who were dedicated to ending . . . [Israel’s] isolation, or to changing the paradigm of military preeminence.”
Based on a vast array of sources, declassified documents, personal archives, and interviews across the spectrum of Israel’s ruling class, Fortress Israel is a remarkable story of character, rivalry, conflict, and the competing impulses for war and for peace in the Middle East.
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Patrick Tyler worked for twelve years at The Washington Post before joining The New York Times in 1990, where he served as chief correspondent. His books include Running Critical, A Great Wall (which won the 2000 Lionel Gelber Prize), and A World of Trouble. He lives in Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ben-Gurion: The Origins of Militarism
David Ben-Gurion was splayed across his sickbed at the President Hotel in West Jerusalem, down with a miasma of symptoms in late October 1955 as he often was in times of high tension, and, lately, Ben-Gurion appeared to be living on tension. He had complained of lumbago in August but now was suffering from dizziness, and his doctors, fearing an ominous turn, had hospitalized him for a battery of tests.1 Some thought that he might have suffered a stroke.2 At sixty-nine, Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, seemed to be near the end of his life. Dwight Eisenhower had been leveled by a heart attack the previous month, Winston Churchill had retired in April, Stalin was dead. The passing of a generation appeared to be at hand.
But in Jerusalem, the patient refused to stay down, and the reason Ben-Gurion was too restless and irritable to remain bedridden was the arrival of intelligence reports that Soviet cargo ships were landing in Egypt to deliver—from the Eastern bloc—all manner of heavy weapons: tanks, artillery, fighter jets, bombers, and submarines. Egypt’s power under the new military dictator, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, would double or triple within a year. The implication was alarming: Nasser would stand as the colossus of the Arab world.
How could Israel breathe with bombers and submarines lurking off its coastline? Ben-Gurion asked. He had been in London during the blitz, and anyone could imagine how totally exposed Tel Aviv stood on the Mediterranean coast, where it could be reduced to rubble in a surprise attack.
Abba Eban, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, had cabled from New York that it was time to consider a preventive war. Two top intelligence chiefs, Isser Harel of the Mossad, and Yehoshafat Harkabi of military intelligence, had both sent Ben-Gurion secret recommendations that a preemptive strike was necessary to stop Egypt’s military breakout. And of course Nasser was stoking Jewish anxiety by having Radio Cairo blare out a staccato of vitriol: “The day of Israel’s annihilation is approaching. There will be no peace on the border, for we demand revenge. This means death to Israel.”3
“Revenge!” Nasser’s call rolled across Sinai like the scourge of Pharaoh.
The white tufts of hair rose from Ben-Gurion’s balding pate like solar flares, and if his blood pressure was not spiking at that moment, it was under assault by waves of frustration over Israel’s failure, in his view, to act more decisively, more aggressively against the Arabs.
From his sickbed, Ben-Gurion called out to Nehemiah Argov, his military aide, instructing him to send a message to Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces. Tell him to cut short his vacation in France, Ben-Gurion instructed. He must return to Israel at once because—and this was not spelled out in the message—Ben-Gurion was ready to go to war even if Moshe Sharett and the rest of the leadership of Mapai, the Workers’ Party, were not.4
This was the beginning—the origins of Israeli militarism.
In the middle of Israel’s first decade, Ben-Gurion, infirm and apocalyptic about the future of the Jewish state, the loss of pioneering spirit among the Jews, the slowing of Jewish immigration, and the erosion of political support for his leadership, began to exhort his defense establishment to think beyond the self-evident tasks of securing the borders, finding weapons, and training recruits who spoke a polyglot of languages.
During an eighteen-month period of semiretirement from mid-1953 to early 1955, Ben-Gurion began thinking and speaking about a more ambitious national military strategy, one that contemplated with certainty a new round of warfare with the Arabs, called for expansion of the Jewish state through preemptive attacks with modern conventional forces, and—it seemed almost impossible for such a small state to think in such terms—the acquisition of atomic bombs as a fail-safe weapon to preserve the Jewish people. The new militant spirit was the culmination of Ben-Gurion’s long ferment about the conflict with the Arabs, but also, inescapably, it arose from his deep anxiety about the political lassitude of his people and their flagging support for his leadership. Ben-Gurion understood, or at least hoped, that war—militarism in the face of an Arab threat—might remobilize the Israelis. Faced with the prospect of retirement, Ben-Gurion also came to the conclusion that he had no equal in the Zionist hierarchy, and he seemed therefore determined to extend his political franchise as a paramount leader. He advanced with an irritable self-assurance and visceral compulsion to outmaneuver the stalwarts of his own political party, Mapai, who were treating him, because of his advanced age, like a dead relative.
* * *
At that moment in the mid-1950s, only a handful of people knew that the Israeli army—with Ben-Gurion’s encouragement and explicit approval—had been conducting clandestine raids into Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and other Arab territories. Despite the fact that he was not—for the time being—prime minister, Ben-Gurion advocated this policy of escalation, but the sitting prime minister, Moshe Sharett, was against the raids in principle.5
Ben-Gurion had exhorted the army’s commanders to go on the offensive and to do so covertly, to deceive the Americans, the British, and the United Nations, and to avoid the imposition of sanctions. The military had formed a special unit to carry out the cross-border operations. It was headed by a brash young officer named Arik Scheinerman—eventually to be known to the world as Ariel Sharon.
More disturbing for Israel’s young democracy, it was painfully obvious within the ruling party that the leaders of the defense establishment, especially Dayan, were making regular visits to Ben-Gurion’s retreat in the Negev for consultation and instruction at a time when Ben-Gurion was supposed to be in retirement. From his windswept porch, Ben-Gurion had schemed to circumvent the “old guard” of the Mapai—Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and their allies—in his quest to put the country back on the attack. In doing so, he relied extensively on the younger generation of sabras and their like-minded comrades throughout the army, where the thirst for combat with the Arabs—a “second round” of war—was far from quenched.
It was there, in the army, that Ben-Gurion had discovered Dayan, a tenacious fighter of the Jewish underground during the world war. (Dayan’s father, Shmuel, was among Ben-Gurion’s loyalists in the Knesset.) It was there that Ben-Gurion had spotted Yitzhak Rabin, the young officer of the Palmach militia, the elite fighting force, who had proved his loyalty to the state by attacking a rival militia—the Irgun of Menachem Begin—on the beach in Tel Aviv. (Begin had tried to land arms against Ben-Gurion’s order.) And it was there that Ben-Gurion had glimpsed young Arik Scheinerman, the bright-eyed and bullheaded commando who pushed the boundaries of every mission with a brutality that struck fear into the Arab camp.
* * *
Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, who since 1933 had worked at Ben-Gurion’s side in the Jewish Agency, which helped Diaspora Jews settle in Israel, seemed to be out of the loop in his own government. Before Ben-Gurion slipped away to the desert, he had surrounded Sharett with protégés who ignored or circumvented the acting prime minister’s prerogatives. That was the essence of the “plot”—it seemed the only word to describe it—that Ben-Gurion had laid to ensure that Sharett’s premiership would fail. And Sharett’s failure would, almost certainly, open a political path for Ben-Gurion’s return to high office.
Israel’s cross-border raids carried a high risk of international condemnation. They were violations of the armistice agreement that had ended the 1948–49 war. Both sides—Arab and Israeli—had agreed to take border disputes and refugee problems to the joint armistice commissions, where officers from both armies were charged by the United Nations to resolve disputes and defuse tensions.
Some of the secret Israeli raids were organized as reprisals for Arab infiltrations or acts of violence because about seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs had fled their ancestral homes—many under Israeli coercion—and it was inevitable that some would try to return. The refugees were living in squalid camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria with little food or shelter. From across the frontier, they watched Israelis take over their houses, orchards, and fields. Of those who risked returning, most came to recover property or to harvest crops. But some came to wreak vengeance, and that was a source of fear.
Israeli commandos crossed the borders to commit sabotage, shoot Arabs randomly, and engage in firefights with Arab frontier forces, all to deter the refugees from trying to return. Though these incursions were violations, Ben-Gurion and the most militant commanders in the army believed that the Arabs understood only force. Further, the Israeli army believed that the armistice lines could be changed to improve Israel’s position before they became internationally recognized borders.
The Israeli army had managed to seize 78 percent of the territory of the British Mandate as it existed in 1947, but the slender reed of Israel the country—merely nine miles wide just north of Tel Aviv—was far less than what Ben-Gurion believed was needed to support a modern state. No one in the Middle East, least of all Ben-Gurion, believed that the war with the Arabs was over. There would be a second round. He was counting on it.
So was Pinhas Lavon, who at fifty-six saw him...
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