Book review: Who'd want to live there?

ISRAEL: A History by Martin Gilbert Doubleday pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
THE STATE of Israel is 50 years old this year, but most Jews in Europe and the United States now look on the great Zionist experiment with mixed feelings. The general perception is that Israel lost its way around 1982, the year of the notorious "smiting" of Lebanon, and that the dominance of Likud and Jewish Orthodoxy has turned the old dream of a liberal, westernised, pluralist society into something close to nightmare. If there is a general theme to Martin Gilbert's book, it is that the current overt tension between western and eastern influences, Ashkenazim and Sephardi Jews, and between moderates and fanatics, has been there in latent form since the very inception of the nation-state.

One of the first tasks of the Ben-Gurion government in 1948 was to clamp down on the zealots of Irgun and the Stern Gang; the Israeli army was even forced to open fire on Irgun irregulars while the war with the Arabs was going on. It is from the right-wing in Israel that all the opposition to a lasting peace in the Middle East has come, and it is from this sector that the assassins have emerged: notable victims include Lord Moyne, Count Bernadotte and Yitzhak Rabin. There is no doubt where Gilbert's sympathies lie. He quotes this from Chaim Herzog, on Ariel Sharon, angel of the far- right but demon in left-wing opinion: "Few if any of his superior officers over the years had a good word to say for him as far as human relations and integrity were concerned."

From a liberal standpoint, Israel's problem is that its immigrants overwhelmingly come from the eastern Sephardic countries, with no real commitment to democratic, pluralistic values, tolerance, human rights and the open society; it is not just the Arab nations that have a fundamentalist problem. An allied issue is that, whereas Jews in the West have an emotional affinity with Israel and do not want to see the Zionist experiment fail, they draw the line at going to live there.

Statistics, notoriously mendacious according to Disraeli, surely tell the truth in this area. In the final years of the Soviet Union, when Jewish emigration from the USSR was still restricted by quotas, almost all the emigrants headed straight for the USA, even though they had been allowed to leave on the understanding that they would be going to Israel. Out of 8,155 emigrants in 1987 only 2,072 went to Israel; for 1988 the figures were 18,961 and 2,173; and in 1989 an astonishing 71,000 and 12,117. It is not surprising that in the end the USA had to haul up the drawbridge against the flood and force the emigrants to go to the Promised Land. But the obvious consequence is that among Israel's current population of six million, there are hundreds of thousands who do not really want to be there. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that their internalised rage finds an easy transmogrified target in the Palestinians.

This reflective part of Gilbert's book is excellent but, alas, for most of the volume he is afflicted by his old disease of chronicle-itis: masses of facts without any analysis. Much reads like extended broadsheet journalism: exact numbers, names and ages of people killed in bomb blasts 40 years ago, of Arabs "taken out" in raids and of the victims of atrocities on both sides. The entire narrative is done in terms of personalities, high politics, ideologies and, above all, warfare. There is no class analysis of the state of Israel, no significant treatment of the economy, no real cultural history. At one point Gilbert tries to plug the gap with a wildly irrelevant one-page account of the early operatic career in Israel of Placido Domingo. Most of all in this book there is war. Although actual campaigning has not occupied more than four months of Israel's history, it is the campaigns that he concentrates on: there are 35 pages on the Yom Kippur War alone.

Gilbert almost seems impatient with the years when there was no fighting. The years 1957-60 get a page each, all bar the sensational Eichmann trial, even though 1958, with American forces in Beirut and British troops in Jordan, saw one of the great post-war Middle East crises, which President Eisenhower compared to Munich; none of this receives a mention here. 1971, another warless year, is dispatched with a single quote from Fodor's guide to Israel, and the author's impatience to pass swiftly from the Six-Day War of 1967 to the Yom Kippur conflict of 1973 no doubt accounts for the howler whereby Jimmy Carter, as US President in 1972, calls for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Perhaps the error is significant, as the weakest part of the book deals with the vital role of the USA in the creation and maintenance of Israel. Gilbert grudgingly divulges through the words of an Arab opponent the salient fact that up to 1992 Israel had received $77 billion of American aid and claims, falsely, that relations between Israel and the USA have been close only since 1963. We may perhaps allow Gilbert to get away with the anodyne conclusion that the Israeli attack on the US ship Liberty during the 1967 Six-Day War was a "regrettable mistake" - although recent research has demolished this defence. But wholly missing from his account is any mention of the key role played by the USA in the very creation of Israel.

In 1947-48 the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was under extreme arm-twisting pressure from Washington to accede to the demands of the Zionist lobby. Essentially Bevin faced the choice of consenting to the creation of Israel on American terms or losing aid and having to put the British people on a ration of under 2,000 calories a day. Not surprisingly, he bowed to Washington. None of this appears in Gilbert's narrative of 1947-48, which reads instead like a slightly more scholarly version of Leon Uris's Exodus, wherein the heroic Haganah by their own unaided efforts break the will of a despotic British government. Gilbert solves the old terrorists-or-freedom fighters conundrum unhesitatingly in favour of Zion, but I wonder if he would be so liberal in according the same "heroic" status to the men of violence fighting for a united Ireland. In short, despite his misgivings about the direction an increasingly fundamentalist country is taking, Gilbert's book is not really an objective history of Israel but a celebration of that nation-state, and should be read with this in mind.