Monday, February 7, 2011

The Transforming Fire (book review)

Review of Jonathan Spyer, Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict

The mainstream understanding of Israel's conflict with the Arab world starts with Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories. There is a grudging acceptance that Arab resistance to Jewish sovereignty in the area was once the primary cause of the conflict, but somehow, so the accepted wisdom, the Arabs reconciled themselves to the Jewish state, and if only the Israelis would offer the Palestinians an honorable partition the entire conflict would be over, and the last significant rejectionists would fade away for lack of justifiable motivation for their grudges. True, even in the West there are people, mostly on the political Left, who regard any Jewish sovereignty as an injustice to Palestinians and an affront to Arab solidarity, or as an anachronistic Colonial remnant. Yet the unspoken assumption of the mainstream is that such voices, when they exist in the Muslim world, are as marginal as they are at home.

Here's a random example from the London Economist, one of the most important of mainstream publications in the world, writing this week about how Israel is unsettled by the democracy demonstrations in Egypt:
The Egyptian cataclysm slots into Israel’s endless national debate, much as Anwar Sadat’s assassination did in 1981, when Mr Mubarak assumed power. Then, as now, the Israeli right refused to recognise that the separate peace signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979, and Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, rendered the Israel-Egypt relationship both parlous and unpopular among large sections of Egyptian society and in most of the Arab world.
No matter that in 1981 the PLO's operative document was the Ten Point Program from 1974 which rejected any settlement with any form of Israel, and that only in 1988 would it grudgingly accept the UN's 1947 partition plan. No matter that the entire Arab world severed its relations with Egypt when it made peace with Israel, even though the terms of the treaty foresaw negotiations towards resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.

Jonathan Spyer's new book is like a breath of fresh air in the stifling public area of public Mideast discourse, not only for its bracing content, but also for its insistence that history is a combination of ideological motivations and real people who live by them.

Spyer is a political scientist by training, who reads Arabic and focuses on the Arab and Islamic world. The backbone of his book is an exposition of much he has learned over years of monitoring the intellectual trends of political discourse there. Yet he embeds the political analysis in the tale of his own participation in it. Thus the prologue tells how he and his fellow reservists were mobilized and prepared for battle during Israel's 2nd Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, which he sees as the first major engagement of the Islamist war against Israel.

I myself once wrote a book about history and policy, cloaked in a personal memoir of how it had been to live through the events I was analyzing; as a matter of fact, some of the events, most notably life in Israel during the Oslo process and the 2nd Intifada, overlapped with Spyer's. Yet Spyer has a very different life-style than mine. He lives a bachelor-like life of a journalist and bar-hopper, many of whose acquaintances are foreigners temporarily in Israel; I'm ten or 15 years older, a family man who mostly knows other similar-aged family folks, and don't think I've ever been to a bar in my life.

All the more interesting therefore, that Spyer's experiences have exactly the same ambiance as mine. The certainty in the 1990s that war was a thing of the past; the eager embrace of life in a "normal" country, centered around economic policies and the personal sphere rather than the national. The astonishment in 2000-2001 that we'd been exactly wrong. The all-pervading sense of dread and resolute defiance in the face of the tidal wave of suicide murders in 2001-2003. In some cases, Spyer and I have immediate memories of the exact same attacks.

As the book gets deeper into its subject, it becomes clear these personal narrations are not the narcissism which afflicts some reporters, nor an attempt to garner credibility by demonstrating immediacy. On the contrary, Spyer is listening closely to real people, discerning their underlying convictions, gauging the seriousness of their attitudes. Most journalists and too many scholars assume they already know the answers and seek mere confirmation.

Spyer's thesis is that the Islamist rejectionist Weltanschuung is serious and appeals to significant numbers of Muslims; indeed, in recent years it has replaced earlier regional ideologies and has become the leading ideology in the region. In response the Israelis have also shifted their understanding of reality, and have formulated a response geared to last for as long as needed.

The first chapter, about the Oslo process and its failure, introduces a novel perspective. Analyzing the motivations of Israelis and Palestinians to enter the process, Spyer tells how different their points of departure were. The Israelis had been at war for most of a century, and were eager to reach a compromise which would essentially complete the Zionist revolution. As Yossie Beilin and his fellow peace warriors often exhorted the Israelis, compromise with the Palestinians would be the ultimate Zionist victory, as it would enable Zionism to thrive as an accepted member of the regional family. The point, for the Israelis, was to put war behind them and enjoy the fruits of their forebears' efforts. This was never true for the Palestinians, who glumly entered the process from a position of weakness, having failed for over a century to dislodge the Jews, and having recently lost the backing of the defunct Soviet Block. The Palestinians may actually have been listening to Yossie Beilin, too, and if so, they couldn't have been happy. The disintegration of the Oslo Process in 2000 may not have been preordained but certainly shouldn't have been surprising.

Chapter two describes two responses to Oslo. The main one is Muqawama, the Islamist rejection of the West, its culture, and the expectation of its eventual self destruction. This is not a Palestinian ideology, but Spyer recounts various chilling encounters he had with its Hamas expounders. Even when they took place in an Israeli military jail, he compares the steely determination of a Hamas leader to the jocular pragmatism of the PLO man and the fumbling sloppiness of the IDF military police; when he travels to Ramallah to observe Hamas in action on election day in 2006 or interviews a Hamas commander, he tells of Palestinians with a clear purpose and well grounded sense of time: it will take generations but eventually the Jews will leave. Yet even as he presents Hamas as a serious foe, his tales of Jewish Jerusalem at the height of the suicide murders hints at the mirror image: the Jews aren't weakening, either.

The non-weakening Israelis are the theme of the third chapter, which I found deeply moving. Spyer launches it with a frontal critique of the bastion of weakening Israel: the demonstration on Rabin square of November 2006, and the memorable speech of David Grossman, one of Israel's premier public intellectuals, who's son Uri died in battle that year. Grossman's speech is etched in Israel's common memory for his excoriation of the "hollow leadership" that went to war but doesn't know how to make peace. Not long ago the New Yorker had a long profile of Grossman, in which this speech was a central piece, for he is widely held as Israel's foremost prophetic voice.

Nonsense, says Spyer. The labor wing of Zionism indeed created the country and bore it on its shoulders for decades, but now it has wearied – and been replaced. One group which has replaced it is the national religious camp, and he tells some moving stories about some of its members. Most significantly, however, it has been replaced by the Samohas of Hod Hasharon. Alon Samoha was a friend of the author who was killed at his side in southern Lebanon; Hod Hasharon, he correctly says, "is one of the many towns in Israel rarely visited by foreign correspondents, which is a pity. It is a place where not everyone speaks English, and not everyone is looking to get their message through to the outside world. But the real Israel lives in such towns". The message of this "real Israel" is concisely summed up by Alon's father, who tells the author that "If we're tired then we won't exist. If we're tired then we'll have to accept any script that they want to write for us. But we're not tired" (p. 85). Two bereaved fathers, two strikingly different messages.

Chapter four describes the rise of political Islamism in the broader Middle East. Iran is the mother ship, Syria Hisballah and Hamas are forward bases, and there are political beachheads in many Arab and Muslim countries. Common to all is an understanding of history which sees Zionism as an aberration, and the liberal West a waning force. To which Spyer responds with more tales about Israelis, this time the ones who used to be labor-Zionists or Ashkenazi secularists, who have reconciled themselves to war with an enemy who thinks in generations or centuries (chapter five). In chapter six he steps back even further, not to Iran but to London. Again, his personal experiences inform his basic understanding. In this chapter we learn that as a graduate student in London he used his dark complexion to join meetings of local Islamists: and lo and behold, they turn out to have been the same sort of hard, patient and utterly ideological men convinced of the supremacy of their brand of Islam over the West. Eventually they began blowing up targets in London, and in 2003 sent two suicide murderers to Tel Aviv.

Chapter seven describes the Lebanon war; the author's perspective, for all his service as a mere grunt, serves well. In the 1990s Israel thought it had put the conflict behind it. After 2000 it went back to fighting, but focused only on the Palestinians, forgetting to be prepared for wars of larger scale. This set the stage for the poor showing against Hisballah in 2006, which Spyer describes in painful detail. Then, true to his daredevil image, chapter eight describes how he used his British passport to travel to Lebanon, and once there cajoled some Beiruties to drive him down to where he had fought. (He seems not to have informed his hosts who he was). It's a depressing trip, as the area is controlled by Hisballah, normal Lebanese don't go there, and preparations for the next war are underway – it will be more violent and destructive than the war of 2006.

If you were a Palestinian, imbued with the humiliation of the Jewish invasion but comforted by a worldview which thinks in centuries and is assured of its superiority over the weak West and the Jewish interlopers who stole your land, would you see a two-state resolution of the conflict with Zionism as a goal, as the way to end the conflict? Or would you agree with Nizar, the Hamas commander Spyer interviewed in Ramallah, who scoffed at the Zionists for their dwindling hopes: first they wanted to control the entire Mideast. Then they wanted the land between the Jordan and the sea. Now, all they want is to be left alone in the lines of 1967. Soon, they won't even have the will to hold on to that, and history will be back on its natural track (p. 221). Spyer concludes his sobering but excellent book with reflections on the implacable wills on both sides of the conflict, the Islamists on the one, the determined Israelis on the other: since it's going to be along conflict yet, Israel had better not stumble again. Someday, he muses, the Islamist side will prove weaker, since it doesn't produce societies people actually enjoy living in.

It's an excellent book. Read it.


Silke said...

thanks Yaacov

you sure know how to wet one's appetite for a book.

I first came across Spyer in his interview with Michael Totten.

and what a timely review now where pundits are all falling over themselves to convince the world that the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is going to be something - I can't remember what exactly but something that bodes well for the future and never mind their anti-Zionism, as long as they come to power through democracy all is going to be wonderful and Israelis are just too dumb to see the chances for a bright future.

it all reminds me of psychos pleading that all an abusive spouse needs for him/her to stop the abuse is proper understanding

NormanF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NormanF said...

The Arabs have tried everything but Islamism. That ideology will be encourant for a generation maybe longer before they're going to admit it doesn't work. Iran could have taught them that but the appeal of the home faith is just too strong not to try its prescription. I can already make two predictions. Islamic obscurantism won't overcome Israel and the Arabs by rejecting the changes in the West will find themselves even further behind than they are they today. And its not Israel that be will responsible for their continued backwardness and for the Arabs, anti-Zionism has become a catch-all alibi for their not dealing forthrightly with all the pathologies that have crippled Arab societies.

I understand what Silke is saying here and if people think Arabs discovering freedom is going to make them reconsider all they're doing wrong and set it right now, they're going to be in for a big disappointment. Like the battered spouse, the Arabs remain in deep denial and the embrace of Islamism will only intensify it and nothing will really get better in the Middle East in our lifetime.

Silke said...

but since it is also about history
here is a review of a book on the Pledge of Allegiance - I would never have thunk that it was such a recent and disputed about again and again affair

quite a read - enjoy!!!
and remember next time an Israeli proposition creates brouhaha i.e. that brouhaha around pledges is the norm and not the aberration.