Cursed Victory by Ahron Bregman, book review: A tragedy for Israelis as well as Palestinians


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The Independent Culture

The "cursed victory" of Ahron Bregman's title is Israel's triumph over the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the 1967 Six Day War, one that unexpectedly left it in control of the Sinai peninsula, the Syrian Golan heights, Gaza, the West Bank, and Arab East Jerusalem.

Cursed, because except for Sinai, handed back to Egypt in 1979-82, Israel remains the occupying military power in all that territory 47 years later. And because it has steadily made its extrication from the West Bank and East Jerusalem all the more difficult by progressively implanting way over half a million of its citizens in civilian settlements which are illegal under international law.

Bregman's narrative up to 2007 lucidly conveys Israel's oscillation between the "the two opposing impulses" of "de facto annexation" of the occupied territories and "the occasional bout of political will" to make peace. The book is timely since the first of these impulses appears to have prevailed yet again. But Bregman has assets which lift this account above many on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One is access to some hitherto secret material. Over Ehud Barak's abortive negotiations with Syria on the Golan, the chief interest of his transcript of Bill Clinton's end of a phone call with Hafez Assad is the implication that Israeli agents were listening in (prompting the question of whether a formidable intelligence machine is a help or hindrance to peace-making). But a letter from Madeleine Albright to Barak, promising "a thorough consultation process" with Israel before sharing peace proposals with Israel and the Palestinians, tellingly confirms the US's partiality as a peace broker at the time. Another is a sense of engagement.

Bregman, now a University of London academic (King's College), served in the Israeli military – not a bad credential for an ultimately damning critique of the occupation – though he refused to serve as a reservist in occupied territory during the first intifada. Nor does he ignore Gaza. But while he rightly says that impoverishment and Fatah corruption helped Hamas to electoral victory in 2006, he could have made more of Sharon's refusal to give Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a political dividend by co-ordinating disengagement from Gaza with him in 2005.

Bregman intends to continue the story in a later book, which would do well to explain more fully Israel's exercise of influence over the US Congress as an obstacle to peace. But this is a highly readable study, an excellent starting point for those wanting to know more about how military victory turned into a tragedy, certainly for the Palestinians, but in the long run perhaps also for Israel.