Review: A History of Modern Israel

By Ahron Bregman, May 2, 2008

Colin Shindler
Cambridge University Press, £14.99

Though Colin Shindler’s is not the first book on the history of modern Israel, his timing is spot-on, coinciding with the state’s 60th anniversary.

Shindler adopts a chronological approach, tracing Israel’s history across six decades, from optimistic beginnings — immigration, settlement, the creation of institutions — through its conflicts with Arabs and Palestinians, to the present.

From time to time, he switches to a thematic approach to expand on such topics as “Who is a Jew”; “The ideology of occupation”; “Who are the Palestinians?” and so on. This shifting between chronological narrative and specific themes works well. Reader in Israeli and Modern Jewish Studies at London University, Shindler is a leading specialist on Zionist ideology and Jewish nationalism, and this expertise is especially apparent in his book’s rich and thorough opening chapters. Less convincing are the sections dealing with relatively recent events, particularly the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab peace process of the 1990s.

It is not entirely Shindler’s fault as, in contrast with Israel’s earlier history — where there is abundant archival material, and a great many books and articles — there is relatively little on the modern era. This obliges the writer to turn to press reports, a much less reliable foundation for a book and potentially a source for errors.

Thus, for instance, while it is true — as Shindler points out — that former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s friend, the US businessman Ronald Lauder, met President Assad to discuss peace (not twice, as Shindler says, but 10 times in 1998), Netanyahu never agreed, in this secret channel, contrary to what Shindler tells us, to withdraw from the Golan Heights to the June 4 1967 border.

Nor, we should add, did former Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, again contrary to what Shindler claims, promise Assad to withdraw to the 1967 line. They all talked in terms of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan to a “mutually agreed” line “based” on the 1967 border (as, later, did Ehud Barak) or they resorted to such wording that would ensure that Syria had no access to the precious water of the Sea of Galilee. When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Shindler rightly refers to the important “Clinton Parameters”, the US President’s peace proposal to Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat in December 2000 (after the collapse of the Camp David summit).

According to Shindler, Barak accepted the deal while Arafat “refused to respond to Clinton’s proposals. Instead he went travelling”. This is inaccurate. For, as Shindler rightly says, while the Israeli government on December 28 2000 officially accepted the Clinton Parameters as a basis for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Prime Minister, on January 1 2001, phoned Clinton to say he could not accept the deal before the general election.

As for Arafat, he indeed travelled… to Washington, where he met Clinton on January 2 and rejected the parameters. These matters are critical as they are still at the heart of Israel’s ongoing disputes with the Syrians and the Palestinians. Apart from these occasional flaws, A History of Modern Israel is a lucid and timely account and certainly appropriate reading at this moment of the 60th anniversary.

Ahron Bregman is the author of Elusive Peace, the companion book to a three-part BBC TV documentary

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011