More than 60 years after its founding, the state that David Ben Gurion and other Israeli founding fathers built still does not know peace. Longtime enemies such as Egypt have laid down their arms, but Syria remains defiant, and in Lebanon, Hezbollah wages an on-again, off-again, low-level war. Most troubling, Israel rules uneasily over the West Bank and is in a state of near war with Hamas-led Gaza. The lack of resolution to the Palestinian problem is increasingly making Israel an international pariah.

Patrick Tyler, an eminent journalist who has reported for The Washington Post and the New York Times, offers a provocative explanation for Israel’s constant insecurity: Its leaders, particularly its security elite, are unable and unwilling to turn their guns into ploughshares. In the end, however, the argument of “Fortress Israel” does not survive close scrutiny, and the book, as its subtitle suggests, simplifies Israeli politics and the difficult security dilemmas the country faces.

Israel’s military class is far more conflicted than Tyler’s thesis suggests — a point often made clear by the various stories that compose the book. Ben Gurion pushed for war before 1956, but after that he was content with a U.N. monitoring presence in Sinai and did not want another crisis with Egypt. Israeli military intelligence director Aharon Yariv was hawkish in calling for war against Egypt in 1967 but also was one of “the first high-ranking officers among the military elite to propose negotiations with any Palestinian group that was willing to forswear violence.” Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the “force, might, and beatings” policy to put down the first intifada, was later assassinated because he sought to lead Israel to peace.

Today, leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak reportedly favor a preemptive strike on Iran, but former senior generals and intelligence personnel, the security elite whom Tyler decries as warmongers, strongly and publicly denounce this.

The Israeli public is often a passive bystander in “Fortress Israel,” but in reality the nation’s often-ferocious domestic politics drive its security decision-making. Years of war and terrorism have made ordinary Israelis, not just their leaders, wary of relaxing their guard, in turn making it hard for those leaders to make concessions or to refrain from using force. Palestinian paramilitary attacks in the 1950s frightened Israelis and convinced them that Arab states were constantly plotting the new state’s destruction — an exaggeration, but hardly a crazy one given the violence and the rhetoric of the time. Fifty years later, the staggering violence of the second intifada soured a generation of Israelis and destroyed the pro-peace left, leaving Israel a very different place than it was in the 1990s, when peace seemed around the corner.

‘Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country--and Why They Can't Make Peace’ by Patrick Tyler (FSG)

Tyler does not address the obvious counterargument that diplomacy often would have failed, even had Israeli leaders consistently embraced it. He notes that “Ben-Gurion’s militarism and Arab nationalism were feeding off each other” but doesn’t take the next step and explore whether that cycle could have been broken on the Arab side. Arab politicians led populaces whose opinion of Israel ranged from hatred to loathing, making it difficult for them to cut a deal (or, as former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat can attest, making the price too high).

In the lead-up to Israel’s preemptive strike on Egypt in 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran, signed a military treaty with Jordan and kicked out U.N. peacekeeping forces from the Sinai — while declaring: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.” Nasser may not have wanted a war in 1967, but Israeli leaders did not have to be paranoid to fear he would strike anyway.

Decades later, peace talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also failed, and Tyler shows that Israel deserves part of the blame. However, he also notes several examples of Arafat’s duplicity on terrorism issues, such as when he professed not to know Mohammad Dieff, a leading PLO figure whom Israel wanted arrested. Understandably, this perfidy and willingness to exploit violence soured Israelis on Arafat, but the logic of this is not given enough attention. Because the blame in “Fortress Israel” is often so one-sided, the skeptical reader may gloss over Israel’s real missteps, like its unwillingness to take seriously Sadat’s peace feelers before the 1973 war and its repeated bungling in Lebanon.

Military force has often worked for Israel. The real question is not whether it should use diplomacy instead of force, but rather the conditions under which each might work. Tyler criticizes Israel for using force and not going to the United Nations in response to the Syrian nuclear reactor crisis of 2007, but in hindsight that decision looks better and better: In the past year, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ignored world opinion as he slaughtered his citizens, and a Syrian nuclear program, even nascent, would be yet another nightmare for military planners.

On the most intractable issue, the Palestinians, Tyler contends that “there was no military solution in Gaza or the West Bank.” Even here, however, force has achieved some results: In 2002, at the height of the violence, Israel suffered a stunning 53 suicide bombing attacks. By 2005 this number was down to eight, and there were none in 2009. Israelis might be forgiven for thinking that killing terrorist leaders, making arrests and employing defensive measures can work in place of negotiations.

These gaps are a shame, as the book has much to recommend it. Tyler offers vivid stories, and his writing is compelling. For many American readers, the unflattering stories about Israel’s leaders and their disputes will be new, and they offer a useful corrective to the hagiography that has surrounded them here. As Tyler shows, Israel has often missed opportunities for peace, bungled its understanding of its adversaries, lied to close friends such as the United States over its nuclear program, and otherwise taken a bad situation and made it worse.

Tyler’s point that diplomacy is “stunted” is often painfully true, as the Foreign Ministry lacks the bureaucratic heft of its military counterpart. As Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, who opposed escalation with Egypt before the 1967 war, pointed out to the young hothead Ariel Sharon when the latter called for preemptive war, after the battle “the Arabs will still be there,” but without U.S. approval President Lyndon Johnson might turn his back on Israel. Today, Israel is increasingly alone on the world stage.

The biggest problem Tyler reveals is that Israel has had a constant civil-military relations problem — not so much a plot by the security elite to sabotage peace as a decentralized system that encourages low-level officials to take the initiative and allows military figures to act in defiance of their political masters. In the 1960s, the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, worked with the Moroccan government to kill Moroccan opposition figures — without consulting Israel’s prime minister. During the second intifada, Israeli leaders agreed to open the Gaza airport as a goodwill gesture. The military claimed to have done so but didn’t tell its political masters that it put up a roadblock and would not allow anyone to enter, making the airport unusable. Worst of all, then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon lied to the cabinet about the scale and purpose of the Lebanon war in 1982, paving the way to disaster.

Israel should not be excused for all its errors: Some result from crass politics, others from short-sighted decision-making. In “Fortress Israel,” however, Tyler tries too hard to find a simple answer when only an appreciation of the complexity of Israel’s problems will help readers understand why the country still does not know peace.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, research director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and the author of “A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.”


The Inside Story of the

Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can’t Make Peace

By Patrick Tyler

Farrar Straus Giroux. 562 pp. $35