Occupation, Desalination and a Feel-good Story: New Books on Israel-Palestine

Six books that anyone from politicians to plebs can add to their reading list.

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IllustrationCredit: Ilya Melnikov
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

As Republican and Democratic candidates continue to duke it out in the battle to prove who loves Israel most – the winner gets the chance to run for president, apparently – it’s clear that some of the campaigners need help to prove that Jerusalem is even closer to their heart than their sternum is.

They can start by cramming on the subject. And luckily for them, there have been plenty of books on Israel, and its conflict with the Palestinians, in recent months. Below are some they may want to add to their reading lists:

The American angle

One book of particular interest to the candidates is Jonathan Rynhold’s “The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture” (Cambridge University Press, paperback, 311 pages, $29.99).

Rynhold is a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA) at Bar-Ilan University, and occasional Haaretz op-ed contributor. Ironically, his book was released in the United States the week before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his stump speech in Congress, possibly causing it to get lost amid the real-time conflict between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office.

The book analyzes the U.S. discourse on the Arab-Israeli conflict in the years since 1991 – a time that has seen Democratic support for Israel waver, just as hard-line Republicans do everything but tattoo a Star of David on their foreheads.

As well as assessing the differing Republican and Democratic approaches to Israel, Rynhold also considers the increasingly passionate embrace Israel has received from Evangelical Christians, while liberal U.S. Jews reassess their feelings about the relationship.

GOP candidates will probably want to skip over the chapters about why the Democrats are just as important to Israel as their own party. As Rynhold told Shmuel Rosner in the Jewish Journal last April, ‘’It is a very important Israeli interest to protect bipartisan support for Israel in the United States After all, the Republicans are not going to win every election from here to eternity.” (Maybe Bibi didn’t get that memo.)

Conflict thinking

One of 2015’s most talked-about books on the Middle East is Padraig O’Malley’s “The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine – a Tale of Two Narratives” (Penguin Random House, hardcover, 512 pages, $30.) Dublin-born O’Malley is clearly a man who relishes conflict: Having been involved in chronicling and tackling the problems in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Iraq, the only question is what took him so long to get to this part of the world.

O’Malley interviewed dozens of Israeli and Palestinian participants in the peace process before reaching the same conclusion as a growing number of people in the region: the two-state solution is dead. In case nobody was reading his book, the University of Massachusetts professor repeated his message in a Boston Globe op-ed in August called “A two-state solution is dead.”

Haaretz correspondent Carlo Strenger, an unceasing advocate of the two-state solution, admitted to finding O’Malley’s reasoning persuasive. However, writing in The New York Times, another Haaretz correspondent and two-state advocate, Peter Beinart, argued that the book’s biggest problem was O’Malley’s refusal to come up with an alternative for the solution he had just buried.

O’Malley’s argument, however, seems to be that if the two peoples involved in the fight can’t be bothered to look for a solution, who the heck is he to try?

Tale of the occupation

Ahron Bregman’s latest book could prove a fascinating counterpart to O’Malley’s tome. In “Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, 1967 to the Present” (Pegasus Books, hardcover, 416 pages, $28.95), the author – an academic at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London who served in the first Lebanon war – attempts to shed new light on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Those of a cynical persuasion might question why he didn’t wait another few years for the 50th anniversary, given that nothing is likely to have changed by 2017.

Ariel Sharon and Moshe DayanCredit: Reuters

Bregman’s book was actually first published in Britain in June 2014, and took a further year to be released Stateside. Its political message – Bregman calls Israel “a heavy-handed and brutal occupier” – will never emerge from the lips of a GOP candidate, but many U.K. pundits deemed it a fair and accurate assessment.

Bregman was also able to go the behind-the-scenes of various peace talks (remember those?) by unearthing secret documents, and points the finger at those he deems culpable. Like who? Well, let’s just say that Ehud Barak won’t be suggesting Bregman’s tome for his local book club.

The feel-good story

Every politician loves a feel-good story, and that’s certainly on offer in “An Improbable Friendship” (Arcade Publishing, hardcover, 312 pages, $24.99.) This is not the story of Donald Trump and the people of Mexico but, to quote the full title of Anthony David’s book, “The Remarkable Lives of Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil and Their Forty-Year Peace Mission.”

Given the increasingly separatist nature of Israelis and Palestinians (in a Haaretz poll in June 2014, over 40 percent of Israelis said they had never actually met a Palestinian,) any friendship between people on the two sides is depressingly newsworthy. But the Dayan-Tawil kinship is unique, largely because of what these two women represent.

Two years shy of her 100th birthday, Dayan is one of Israel’s best-known women: She was married to former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan for nearly 40 years, founded one of Israel’s iconic fashion houses (Maskit) back in the day, and remains a prominent voice in the peace movement. Tawil, meanwhile, is an Acre-born Palestinian journalist whose fearless writing earned her the nickname “The Lioness of Nablus.” A passionate feminist, she was the first woman to drive in the West Bank and became a confidant of Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat after he married her daughter, Suha, in the 1990s.

Dayan and Tawil first met when both were delivering presents to a children’s hospital in Nablus soon after the Six-Day War in 1967. From inauspicious beginnings (Tawil’s first, angry, words to Dayan were, “Do you know what your husband is doing to us?”), the two forged a relationship that lasts until this day.

David spent nearly five years working on the book, interviewing Dayan at her Tel Aviv home and Tawil at her Maltese residence. Tawil hopes the book will be “a strong message to end the bloodshed,” with Dayan adding, “The only thing is to communicate.” In a week in which Australia appointed its first female defense minister, one can only wonder what Israel’s history would have been like if Moshe had established the fashion house and Ruth had called the shots at defense HQ in Tel Aviv.

The Startup Nation report

Seth M. Siegel’s “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World” (Thomas Dunne Books, hardcover, 352 pages, $27.99) recounts the Jewish state’s success in making the desert bloom and its even more blossoming desalination industry, which has transformed salty Mediterranean seawater into freshwater. As Siegel notes, more than half of Israel’s potable water now comes from the sea.

Of course, by so explicitly positioning Israel as a “light shower unto the nations,” the author has opened himself up for the inevitable backlash – even the title itself suggests a “Let There Be Waters” riposte. Perhaps ex-Pink Floyd man Roger Waters will offer his own take on what Israel’s water industry has done for the Palestinians.

The Palmachim Desalination PlantCredit: David Bachar

Still, with neighbor Egypt expected to endure a severe water shortage by 2025, the world can clearly learn something from Israel’s approach. “With a global water crisis looming,” Siegel writes, “the Israeli inclination toward taking bold steps may be the most important contribution of its water philosophy to an increasingly water-starved world” – something for Republican candidates to consider the next time they’re in California (which some Israeli water-tech firms are already targeting as their next big challenge.)

The Palestinian narrative

The final book on the prospective reading list is Noga Kadman’s “Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948” (Indiana University Press, paperback, 280 pages, $32). First published in Hebrew seven years ago, Kadman’s book details the 418 Palestinian villages that were erased, both physically and mentally, from the Israeli landscape following the formation of the state in 1948.

A researcher and tour guide, Kadman also co-edited “Once Upon a Land: A Tour Guide to Depopulated Palestinian Villages and Towns” (in Hebrew and Arabic), but this is the first work of its type to be translated into English.

The cover photograph provides a perfect snapshot of the ramifications of 1948: the tomb of an Arab sheikh sits in the middle of an Israeli vacation village near Caesarea. With blue skies overhead, it all looks so idyllic – almost like one of Donald Trump’s golf courses.

An Israeli soldier holding a girl at the village of Ikrit in 1948.Credit: Government Press Office