Book review: In need of daring leaders

Ross and Makovsky use their insider view of negotiations to argue for taking risks for peace.

By COLIN SHINDLER
September 18, 2019 17:52
3 minute read.
Book review: In need of daring leaders

DENNIS ROSS, flanked by Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, meet during peace process negotiations in 2000.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

‘Even if conditions prove reasonable, the loss of faith in a peace agreement has been so profound that it would take a lot to overcome the psychological hurdle – both sides believe that their leaders are unable to face making historic decisions.”

This quote at the beginning of Be Strong and of Good Courage, an unusually well-written book by two seasoned American diplomatic and academic commentators, is at the kernel of their thesis – that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike his predecessors in both Labor and Likud, enjoys the politics of stagnation and is fearful of change.

The book looks at four previous prime ministers – David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon – and recalls how they were prepared to avoid entrapment by past ideology and to offend life-long supporters in the patriotic belief that hard decisions were ultimately for the good of the nation. Sharon often spoke of “the solitude of the leader.”

Using standard historical works, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky recall Ben-Gurion’s decision to declare a state, Begin’s agreement with Sadat at Camp David, Rabin’s meeting with Arafat on the White House lawn and Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. These episodes underpinned Sharon’s understanding of leadership. He believed that he was the last of the founding generation – those who would act strategically. He feared that his successors would act only out of domestic political considerations and did not possess the ability to predict future consequences.

This book is also directed at essentially an American audience – British foreign secretaries become British foreign ministers – in an attempt to convince US opinion makers and Jewish leaders that complacency today will lead to disaster tomorrow. In particular, the authors take aim at Yoram Ettinger’s belief that there is no demographic problem and the growing global belief that experts are elitists in disguise who can be safely ignored. While praising Netanyahu’s cultivation of the Russians, they systematically disassemble Naftali Bennett’s “stability plan” for the West Bank. They point to an ethereal drift toward a future binational state and an eventual reversal of the Zionist experiment.

Yet this is not a polemical account. As diplomats wishing to entice their audience, they use “soft language” and avoid contentious subjects such as the complexity of the exodus of the Palestinian Arabs in 1948.

The book is best when dealing with recent negotiations and contemporary problems. Ross was a pivotal figure in many of the discussions during the Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations, and emerged as a conduit for Yitzhak Rabin. Makovsky’s analytical skills as an insightful commentator – as well as a senior journalist for The Jerusalem Post – have often been praised.

Their rendition of traditional history in the earlier chapters, however, does not reflect their expertise depicting more recent events. For example, Begin never referred to himself as “a Revisionist” – he was opposed to the official Revisionist movement and even stood against it in the 1949 election – and described himself only as “a member of the Jabotinsky movement.” The authors characterize Begin as having doubts in 1942 about “the direct efficacy of a Jewish role against the Germans.” Then why did Begin advocate, at meetings in the Yishuv at that time, the desperate need for a Jewish army rather than to serve in the British forces?

Rabin is described in almost saintly terms, exuding “an instinctive pragmatism” and utilizing back channels to Arafat and Abu Iyad. Significantly neither the murders of both Anwar Sadat and Rabin by political opponents nor Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt were able to destroy the peace between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Rabin is held up as the moral contrast to today’s politicians – writing a resignation letter beforehand in case the Entebbe rescue would go wrong. The blunt warning of Rabin is quoted by the authors, regarding the path to the future:
“We will have to choose, on the one hand, between the road to zealousness, the tendency toward dreams of grandeur, the corruption of Jewish values as a result of ruling over another people, the blind faith, the hubris of ‘I am and there is no one else beside me’ and, on the other hand, the road of maintaining a Jewish, democratic, liberal way of life, with consideration for the beliefs of others.”
This statement perhaps encapsulates the raison d’être for this book and the latent polite appeal of the authors to Netanyahu not to shirk from taking difficult decisions. It is certainly a stimulant to shake off the cobwebs of apathy – a work that provides food for thought.

The writer is an emeritus professor of Israel Studies, SOAS, University of London.


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