HOW ISRAEL LOST: The Four Questions

By Richard Ben Cramer. Simon & Schuster. 307 pp. $24

The thing about reading a book by Richard Ben Cramer is that . . . one starts to write -- well, like -- like Richard Ben Cramer! It's a matter of the well-placed ellipsis . . . or perhaps not so much the well-placed as the prodigiously placed, the all-over-the-place ellipsis . . . the vagabond sentence that bends, that wends, that winds, that doubles back on itself -- until ending with the sudden exclamation! The short, sharp phrase! The inevitable denouement! The Tom Wolfe flourish!

Cramer is not just an idiosyncratic stylist but a marvelous, voraciously ambitious reporter. His masterpiece, a gigantically entertaining retelling of the 1988 presidential campaign entitled What It Takes, may offer more acute psychological insights than anything else on the American political bookshelf about what sort of person dares believe that he could be president.

Fans of What It Takes (myself very much included) will be eager to see what Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for covering the Middle East, can do with the Israeli-Palestinian meltdown. All of which makes it a downer to report that How Israel Lost is a disappointment.

Then again, disappointment is one of the book's key themes. Cramer used to think of Israel as "a nice little socialist country, with one problem." But now, the conflict with the Arabs "has eaten up the rest of the country." And "as for the 'nice' -- well, it's not-so-nice, now." As Cramer's provocative subtitle -- an echo of the four questions that Jews ask at Passover seders -- makes clear, his disenchantment with Ariel Sharon's Israel is pretty personal.

For Cramer, the nub of the problem is Israel's corrosive post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Cramer offers some affecting portraits of Israeli-Palestinian agony: the flinty ultra-Orthodox Jew who gathers shattered body parts at suicide bombings for burial, the immigrant mother whose daughter was one of the Russian teenagers murdered in the June 2001 bombing of Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium nightclub, the Palestinian laborer wantonly shot dead at an Israeli army checkpoint. Nevertheless, what's most striking about How Israel Lost is that Cramer's empathy -- the virtue that let him so thoroughly inhabit the minds of such hard-to-know characters as Bob Dole and Michael Dukakis -- so often deserts him when it comes to an Israel wracked by the al-Aqsa intifada. Arafat's corrupt, venal autocracy takes its lumps, but as a whole, the Palestinians get off easily, even lazily; the mother of a suicide bomber, for instance, has "to accept the honor of [her son's] death for the family," and failure to do so would be "unthinkable." Cramer's sympathy for the Palestinians cohabits uneasily with his excoriation of Israel's misdeeds, his disdain for the 1990s peace process and his inattention to the logic of terror undergirding the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

This last point is particularly frustrating. Palestinian terrorism is a provocation strategy; Hamas aims not just to murder Jews but to drive Israel to overreact, draw external opprobrium and boomerang pressure on itself. At least as far back as the Irish nationalist Michael Collins, terrorists have decided that while they may be too small to defeat a powerful foe, their foe is quite big enough to defeat itself. But Cramer is so busy scoring Sharon for falling into the trap that he neglects to describe how Palestinian terrorists set it. Moreover, Cramer implies that Israelis' fears are overstated. "In defense of Arafat -- at least he buys his loyalty with hard currency," he writes. "Sharon obtains his with the cheesy scrip of fear. It's easy to manufacture -- easier still to put in circulation. His countrymen are so ready to fear, so given to fear, so comfy with fear . . . it's almost too easy, it's child's play." Anyone who's thought about what it's like to ride a Jerusalem bus these days will find this cheap.

Cramer also lacks rigor on the late and unjustly maligned Oslo accords, which he insists constituted "a phony 'peace process' " designed to pen the Palestinians in. In fact, before Israel's Labor Party was gored by Arafat, it was deeply serious about a real two-state solution. Fouad Ajami has called Oslo "the orphaned peace," an attempted partition that Arab intellectuals abandoned. But it was also orphaned by writers like Cramer. Next time Labor produces the type of leader Cramer says he wants -- "an impeccably tough (and electable) ex-general" bent on peace -- he shouldn't count on any more support from Cramer than Ehud Barak and the late Yitzhak Rabin get in this book. All of which is a shame, because Cramer has a sharp eye for everyone else's unexamined verities. Indeed, he's so good at the by now rather old form known as the New Journalism that one almost hates to scrutinize the weft of his argument rather than treat it as the sort of sloppy ear-bending you'd get over beers with a voluble, smart friend playing with ideas about the Middle East mess. This book may not explain how Israel lost, but it does tell you a lot about how Israel lost Richard Ben Cramer. *

Warren Bass is the author of "Support Any Friend: Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance."