The veteran Washington hand Ben Wattenberg once said that for 500 years, "America has been the biggest story in the world, page one above the fold." The modern state of Israel is a far newer enterprise, but it has received similar attention, if less favorable treatment.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has fought five full-blown wars, two intifadas, and two mini-wars against quasi-states run by Hezbollah and Hamas. At the same time, it has built one of the world's most formidable armies, a $200 billion economy, a thriving high-tech sector, and won more Nobel Prizes than all its neighbors combined, including Iran and Turkey. Thus, a short history of this epic story is long overdue—particularly one that does not get bogged down in the basic political questions about Israel's right to exist. In The Land of Blood and Honey, the Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld has succeeded, to a degree, in his mission to write a "brief but comprehensive outline of the rise of Israel, from its Zionist beginnings at the end of the nineteenth century to the present day."
Yet although Van Creveld covers most of the necessary ground in his survey—a difficult feat—he falls short in his goal of illuminating the way forward for a lasting peace.
Van Creveld begins with the primitive, Ottoman-controlled land of the late 19th century. He notes that the land that would become Israel had at that time no deepwater ports, few roads, little arable land, and most of its cities were "walled, gated, and locked at night." It was also a public-health disaster, with a host of prevalent diseases poorly handled by the Ottoman authorities. As late as 1913, Van Creveld reports, there was only one automobile.
In the same period, some European Jews, many inspired by the vision of Theodore Herzl, saw this seemingly backward land as the answer to their unpopularity in Europe. Jews began moving to Israel beginning with the first aliyah in 1881, then came in greater numbers after the turn of the century, and eventually found Israel to be the only fully open door for Jews following the devastation of the Holocaust.
It is after all this that the dynamic story of Israel takes off, as its founders and citizens worked to build a modern economy in the midst of a tumultuous region and while saddled with some very dangerous enemies, both in her own backyard and among the world's media and political elite. Of particular importance is the economic undercurrent of the story, as Israel's socialistic economy was close to collapse for decades before emerging in recent years as both a freer market and a relative sea of calm. Van Creveld rightly gives a good bit of the credit for Israel's recent economic stability to ex–finance minister and current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who took the tough steps needed to modernize and de-socialize Israel's economy.
Despite this praise for Netanyahu, Van Creveld's views are, to put it mildly, idiosyncratic. He is critical of the Jews, the Arabs, the Orthodox, and the socialists, among others. More strangely, he is an unabashed backer of Israel's various peace deals, yet also claims credit for the security fence and argues that "if Israel wants to have a future, it must rid itself of as many Palestinians as it can."
No Israeli leader, left or right, escapes unscathed from Van Creveld's somewhat intrusive opinions. -David Ben-Gurion was "egocentric to the point of rudeness." He characterizes Ariel Sharon as "brutal" no fewer than three times. Yitzhak Rabin is described as "somewhat of a slow thinker" who drank too much. Shimon Peres had "a facial expression that sometimes made him look almost like a tired dog." Menachem Begin is simply "the demagogue." Netanyahu is known "for the difficulty he has in separating truth from fiction." At the same time, Van Creveld genuinely respects Israeli accomplishments—he describes Israel as "a country that, while coping with every imaginable obstacle, in many ways is perhaps the greatest success story in the entire twentieth century." How this squares with his apparent dislike of Israel's leaders and institutions is an inconsistency readers must work out for themselves.
Van Creveld's approach is reminiscent of the old description of the sabra as prickly on the outside yet sweet in the middle. What works as a descriptor of a nationality, however, may not be the best approach to history; he actually boasts that he relied exclusively on secondary sources and did not look at any primary sources. More concerning, however, is Van Creveld's approach to the seemingly intractable problem of peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, which goes beyond idiosyncratic to simply naïve. As noted, he supports all of Israel's peace "deals," even the failed Oslo Accords, which led to the deaths of 1,000 Israelis in the second intifada and has resulted in more than a third of Palestinians living under the untenable Hamas regime in Gaza. Clearly, not all peace deals are equal. Van Creveld, in his zeal for deals, fails to capture the consequences of this disastrous pact.
The book fills an important place in providing a concise history of an extraordinary country. But one must wonder how that nation would have fared had Israel's leaders consistently pursued Van Creveld's preferred positions. Absent extensive preliminary concessions on the part of the Jewish state, Israel's supposed peace partners are not showing much willingness to come to the table. Given this situation, pressure on Israel to make peace deals will not bring any of the parties any closer to peace, which is a lesson that would be informative to both the author and the current occupant of the White House equally.