Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Reading Fortress Israel made me realise that the normal word for the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – is an abbreviation. Its full name should be Knesset of Vipers. Even by the standards of the political class, its level of internecine warfare is both high and constant.
It soon becomes apparent in Tyler’s dense book that the Israeli Army is much more embedded in national life than in most other countries - to the extent, usually, of dominating it. The narrative starts with the battle for independence against the British, and continues to 2009. The theme noted in those early days that the “most militant commanders in the army [many of whom were trained at Sandhurst and Camberley] believed that the Arabs only understood force”, remains a depressing part of the national continuum. Given the endless political turmoil and backstabbing, the military establishment provides the only thread of national continuity, and hence has an unhealthily strong powerbase. Indeed the book does not make for a happy read.
We learn that no nation is safe from one or other aspect of the Israeli government/ military machine. Even in 1955, the US and the UK, ostensible allies, were the target of covert operations. It is as though these alpha males (and occasionally an equally terrifying alpha female), seeking to extend the bounds of their quite large cage, are engaged in an international chess game, but for very high stakes, and never quite figuring out second effect consequences, or what their next but one move might be. Hence a guerrilla attack on Egypt pushed that country towards Russia as an arms supplier.
Tayler does not allow the French off the hook: a nation with a poor record in North Africa in the twentieth century, it invited Israel to join with them against Egypt and Algeria to develop nuclear weapons jointly. Later of course, it was France that supplied Iraq’s nuclear capability. Tayler, an American journalist, can also dispassionately sketch Eden’s incompetent handling of the Suez crisis.
Israel seems to specialise in fomenting the sort of inevitable slide to war that afflicted Europe in 1914. The bellicose Ben Gurion was almost running a dictatorship – by lying to his colleagues and withholding the facts. With Dayan also a complete hawk, it is still surprising that there was a willingness to use the country’s (crude) tactical nuclear weapons in that engagement with Egypt. As depicted by Tayler, the government had deployed traditional high level disinformation skills in suggesting at the outset that ‘it was Egypt wot started it’. Once in train, Dayan ran the war “like Caesar”. The military success was tarnished by a political vacuum, which the military did not hesitate to fill, and appropriated the right to govern the occupied territories.
Every conflict is seemingly characterised by disproportionate retribution exacted by Israeli hawks – the destruction of 13 MEA airliners at the end of 1968, being a good example. LBJ thought that by supplying Israel with adequate conventional weapons, he could prevent their becoming a nuclear nation (little did he know). Kissinger & Nixon saw the Middle East as a proxy cold war. But, like a rabid bulldog in a suburban park, Israel successfully raised the temperature by launching 3000 bombing sorties into Egypt, prompting Russia to send massive defence aid.
In 1971-2 Sharon led forces into Gaza camps and killed 104 terrorists in extrajudicial killings over a 7 month period. Tayler is relentless in his cataloguing of the misdeeds. The research must have been of Beevor-esque proportions.
He notes that successive leaders, particularly Meir, seem philosophically unable to negotiate with their Arab opponents. The scale of retributions after Black September in Munich becomes almost apocalyptic. It is ironic that when Egypt launched the Yom Kippur war, the performance (at least in the early stages) of the generals was erratic and poor. It was Meir, beset with cancer and heart disease, who created order out of chaos (although she was still resistant to negotiation).
The lack of concern for non-Israeli civilian casualties is simply staggering, and must have made life difficult for those foreign politicians whose natural inclination was to support the Jewish state. After the March 1978 PLO raid, 1000 Lebanese civilians are killed by in the reprisal action. A while later he recounts an astonishing bombing raid on the PLO Beirut HQ in which 150 civilians die, for a body count of only 30 PLO staff. Tayler is clearly discomfited by the behaviour of some US statesmen: e.g. Al Haig’s benefaction of the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Its ultimate failure caused the retirement of most of the senior politicos involved. Begin was a broken man. The episode set up the resurgence of the Hezbollah, but also signalled a rise in the peace movement in Israel: Peres opportunistically shifted that way.
Tayler judges that both the West and Israel massively miscalculated Saddam, whose energy and money could be directed towards them after the Iran-Iraq war. Reading Tayler’s writing, it is clear that one of the Coalition’s successes in Gulf War 1 was in preventing Israel becoming embroiled in the conflict. Saddam was acutely aware of what fissures that would have opened up. Quite typically, Barak was plotting to assassinate Saddam well after that war’s conclusion. Disaster arrives when the Israeli military – in full view of cabinet members – stage a dress rehearsal of the assassination mission in the desert, but the strike team mistakenly use a live weapon for their hit. The faux Saddam and colleagues vaporise.
With so many vipers, they could not always be contained in the Israeli vivarium, or relied to bite on behalf of the nation: Manbar, an ex-soldier, exported to Iran all that nation’s chemical weapons capability. As the twentieth century drew to a close, the Israelis could not escape from this cycle of retribution. In Operation Grapes of Wrath they deliberately started a war to create a stampede of refugees to panic the Lebanese government. Artillery targeted a UN refugee centre, leaving 100 dead. ½ m refugees created – mission a success then.
Even against some odious comparatives, Netanyahu’s rule was disastrous. Some opponents realised “we are breeding terrorists”. Swiftly followed by Barak – “who least understood Palestinians” and threw away the chance of a peace with Arafat (brokered by Clinton). According to Tayler a terrible statesman, and an ineffectual politician. The war that started at the close of 2000 merely had the secondary effect of pushing moderate Palestinians into suicide bombing.
Taylor despairs at the lack of restraint exercised by GW Bush over Sharon. The almost out of control assassinations of Hamas leaders very nearly drew a cataclysmic response from the Saudis. Then Sharon orders a F16 to drop a 2,000lb bomb on a Hamas leader. Bush continued to indulge the wayward son.
If this sounds incredible and incredibly depressing, it is because the book is just that. Tayler does not dilute the strength of this narrative by diverging to pursue the corruption that surrounds many of the nation’s leaders. But he mentions it sufficiently to arouse one’s suspicion that, even by the standards of the world’s politicians, it was rather widespread – it was fortuitous that Sharon had a stroke just after a corruption investigation into his family had started.
In 2006 another pointless war is launched, this time by Olmert. Tayler notes that the US had wanted Israel to strike Damascus and topple Assad. The ultra-hawkish duo of Olmert and Cheney worried that Bush lacked the moral strength to bomb Iran’s newly discovered nuclear reactor. In the event, Israel bombed it in September 2007. Secondary effect - the Arab states did not like Israel’s emerging role as regional policeman. Tyler’s ironical conclusion? - Israel may be now a regional superpower but it is one with no real influence. And where are we now in 2012? So little progress in the Middle East, despite an over-remunerated “peace envoy” ostensibly in situ.
There are many times in the book when one longs to hear the Arab side of whatever conflict or failed negotiations are being described. But that would have stretched one author, and in any event, the book is already long enough – because Tayler has chosen to cover such a long period. Well written – but profoundly depressing.
Patrick Tayler - Portobello Books, 2012