Review: Be Strong and of Good Courage — How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped its Destiny

The worst thing about this book is its title, which gives the impression that it consists of campaign biographies — it's far more sophisticated, writes Vernon Bogdanor


Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped its Destiny by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky (Public Affairs, £25)

The worst thing about this book is its title, which gives the impression that it consists of campaign biographies. It is far more sophisticated, as would be expected of its authors — David Makovsky, an adviser on Middle Eastern affairs to President Obama, and now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Dennis Ross, who has advised every president on the Middle East since Jimmy Carter except for the younger Bush.

Ross was accused by former Palestinian Foreign Minister Naabil Shaath of being “more pro-Israel than the Israelis”, while conservative Israelis branded him “self-hating”. This probably means that he holds sensible views. Lloyd George once said to the British Governor of Jerusalem: “Once either side stops complaining, you will be dismissed”.

Ross and Makovsky have written a subtle account of Israeli foreign policy, based in part on declassified documents from Israel, in the form of biographies of how four Israeli Prime Ministers — David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon — took risks for peace. It is a pity that they do not discuss two others who took such risks — Ehud Barak, who in 2000 proposed to return 95 per cent of West Bank territory captured in 1967, with East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a Palestinian state; and Ehud Olmert who, in addition, in 2007, proposed financial compensation to Arab refugees. No Israeli prime minister could offer more, and most would offer less. Had these proposals been accepted, a Palestinian state would already be in existence. It is often forgotten that, since the 1930s, the Zionist leadership has frequently proposed partition, but all such proposals have been rejected by the Palestinians.

Ross and Makovsky are rare among advocates of a two-state solution in insisting that proponents of it must first answer the question: “What sort of Palestinian state would result?” The 1968 Palestinian National Covenant calls for a “secular and democratic” state.

Such a state, if it came into existence, would be unique in the Arab world. Gaza is currently a terrorist state, while the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah is both corrupt and authoritarian. The last free elections there were held in 2006. Israelis cannot risk on their eastern border another failed state on the Syrian model; nor could they accept a Palestinian state which would be a mere jumping-off ground for further attacks on, and delegitimisation of Israel.

Ross and Makovsky appreciate that a two-state solution is not on the immediate agenda. Instead, they argue for a series of measures designed to separate Israelis and Palestinians “to preserve the possibility of peace, not make it more remote” — an end to the building of settlements, an end to the construction of Arab neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem, financial incentives to encourage settlers to move back to pre-1967 Israel, and an end to Israeli sovereignty east of the security barrier in the West Bank, with Israel’s security needs being preserved through a long-term lease of land along the Jordan river. These are practical proposals which deserve serious consideration.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, King’s College, London, and a member of the International Advisory Board of the Israel Democracy Institute

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