Arab Nationalism and its Discontents

Review of The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, by Fouad Ajami. 344 pp., Pantheon, 1998.

Avi Shlaim

London Review of Books (June 22, 2000).

Also published in Hebrew , as ‘A Disappointing History’, with section on A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East, by Amos Elon. 332 pp., Columbia University Press, 1997.

Ha’aretz (16 and 23 March 2001).

The Dream Palace of the Arabs is both an intellectual tour de force and a delight to read.  It offers an intimate and insightful portrait of the postwar Arab literary, cultural, and political scene.  Fouad Ajami was born in the Shia southern hinterland of Lebanon and raised in Beirut, and is the author of The Arab Predicament, The Vanished Imam, and Beirut: City of Regrets.  He has a rare ability to hear and render his culture’s inner voice.  Equally rare is the supple and subtle quality of his English prose.  Like Joseph Conrad, of whom he is an admirer, Ajami is a non-native English speaker who fell under the spell of the English language.  In his latest book Ajami uses all his skills as a scholar, as a stylist, and as a literary critic to brilliantly illuminating effect.  The result is a book of singular beauty and pathos.

Ajami borrows his title from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  In this classic work, Lawrence described his campaign in the Arabian desert during the First World War as an attempt to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give the Arabs the foundations on which to build the dream palace of their national thoughts.  Yet Lawrence, despite the legend that came to surround his name, was on the fringe of modern Arab history.  The task that Ajami set himself is to tell the story of the Arabs from the inside, through their own fiction, prose, and poetry.  He writes: ‘On their own, in the barracks and in the academies… Arabs had built their own dream palace – an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity.  In these pages I take up what had become of this edifice in the last quarter-century.  The book is at once a book about public matters – a history of a people, the debates of its intellectuals, the fate of its dominant ideas – and a personal inquiry into the kind of world my generation of Arabs, men and women born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was bequeathed.’

The ‘odyssey’ in the sub-title is the ideological journey of the intellectuals and poets who propounded a new vision of Arab culture, nationalism, secularism, and modernity and of the gradual disintegration of this vision in the second half of the twentieth century.  The battle of ideas is sketched against the turbulent backdrop of Arab politics and it is enlivened by Ajami’s account of his personal encounters with some of the protagonists in this battle.  His central theme is the fit, or rather the misfit, between ideas and politics in the postwar Arab world.  His method is to use the lives and writings of major literary figures in order to illuminate the larger themes of Arab history such as the revolt against Western dominance, the rise and fall of pan-Arabism, and the conflict between the liberal tradition and the more assertive Islamic tendency of recent years.  Albert Hourani called his great work on the history of ideas Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939.  Fouad Ajami would deny that there has ever been a genuinely liberal age in either Arabic thought or in Arab politics.  His view of the Arab condition is comprehensively and irremediably bleak.  His pet hate is Arab nationalism.  And he reserves his most withering critique not for the despots nor the dictators but for the intellectuals who, in his judgement, have led the Arabs down a blind alley. 

The Dream Palace of the Arabs
opens dramatically and symbolically with a nightmarish tale, the tale of a suicide and of the cultural requiem that followed it.  Khalil Hawi, a gifted Lebanese poet, took away his own life on 6 June 1982, the day that Israel invaded Lebanon.  ‘Where are the Arabs?’  Hawi had asked his colleagues at the American University of Beirut before he went home and shot himself.  ‘Who shall remove the stain of shame from my forehead?’ The eulogists told a simple tale: a nationalist hero against the background of the dark night.  The patriotic poet was portrayed as the sacrificial lamb for an Arab world that had fragmented.  In the poet’s death the world of Arabic letters saw a judgement on the Arab political condition.  ‘He was weary of the state of decay’, wrote Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, ‘weary of looking over a bottomless abyss.’
But there was more to the death than met the eye and more to Khalil Hawi than the cut-out that the political narrative had turned him into.  From Ajami’s researches a much more complex and richly-textured picture emerges.  The poet’s life had began to unravel long before Israel swept into Lebanon and there had been a suicide attempt a year earlier, when Hawi had taken an overdose of sleeping pills.  He had been in the grip of a long, deep depression and he never recovered from that earlier suicide attempt.

Khalil Hawi was born in 1919 to a poor Greek Orthodox family from
Mount Lebanon.  He was forced to leave school at the age of thirteen to earn a living as a stonemason.  More than a dozen years passed before he would return to school and in 1956 a scholarship took him to Cambridge, England, where he attained a doctorate in literature.  Along the road Hawi had fallen for Syrian nationalism, and later for pan-Arabism, only to return to his love of Lebanon.  Literary fame came relatively late in life.  Much praise was given to the batunji (bricklayer and builder) who became a professor and a poet, but the pain of the journey left its mark.  He had arrived but the journey broke him.  Private pain mingled with a progressively pessimistic assessment of the prospects of Arab nationalism.  A premonition of doom ran through his work.  By the time the Arab national movement suffered its most spectacular defeat at the hands of Israel in June 1967, Hawi had become an old hand at the politics of disappointment.  But the defeat of the pan-Arab dispensation with which he had become so closely identified was like falling through trap doors to a bottomless past.  ‘Let me know if Arab unity is achieved; if I am dead, send someone to my graveside to tell me of it when it is realized’, Hawi said on one occasion.  Death, in the individual and collective sense, was never far removed from his thoughts.  

Hawi had travelled far only to find great darkness and despair.  In his poetry he reflected the torments and the tribulations of Arab modernity.  He had known moments of public exaltation alongside his private pain but a nemesis lay in wait for him.  He was an avid reader of foreign books but all those books were to no avail.  He was a proponent of modernity but his modernity had been a false promise.  That dawn ushered in a ‘strange morning’, wrote Hawi in a volume of verse he published in 1979 under the title Wounded Thunder.  The sun had reversed its orbit, rising in the West and setting in the East.  Hawi wept for himself and for that ‘Arab nation’ whose rebirth and regeneration he so much wanted to see:

How heavy is the shame,
do I bear it alone?
Am I the only one to cover my face with ashes?
The funerals that the morning announces
echo in the funerals at dusk.
There is nothing over the horizon,
save for the smoke of black embers.

Earlier writers hailed Khalil Hawi as the voice of a new Arab generation and the expositor of a new kind of reality but they often missed the underlying gloom and doom.  Fouad Ajami shares their admiration for Hawi’s poetry but not his politics.  Indeed he considers Hawi’s life as emblematic both of the rise and of the ebbing of the tide of Arab nationalism.  He shows sympathy for Hawi’s existential predicament but he also suggests that the ideology of Arab nationalism was doomed to failure from the start, that it was bound to lead into a literary as well as a political cul-de-sac:

The failure of the written word convinced Khalil Hawi that the battle of his generation of Arabs had been lost.  The text had sustained the men and women of the Arab nationalist tradition.  Sweeping out all that stood in its way, the language of secular nationalism had been heady and sure of itself.  It had wished away great timeless truths that were everywhere in Arab life: the truths of the clans and the religious sects; the split between the thin layer of literary and political culture and the popular traditions below that mocked the optimism and bravado of the written word.  Hawi was ahead of his time in his despair of writing and the written word.  In the years to come, the problems of writing, the difficulty of matching Arab words and Arab things, became a steady lament in the world of letters.  Arab men and women of this century escaped into the word, and the word failed them.

Not long after Hawi’s death, the romantic poet Nizar Qabbani (who died in
London on 30 April) and the poet and literary critic Adonis offered their own autopsies of the Arabic political text.  For both men the crisis of letters was but a reflection of the Arab political condition.  There was a disturbing discontinuity between the written language of politics and poetry and the world the Arabs confronted each day.  It had become harder to write, both men seemed to be saying.  Qabbani borrowed the term jahiliyya, meaning pre-Islamic ignorance, to describe the Arab reality of the 1980s.  In that original time of darkness the poet was his tribe’s spokesman, chronicler, and scribe.  The new jahiliyya is darker than the old.  It has no use for the poet because it wants people on their knees; it wants them to crawl.  The Arab rulers, ‘the sultans of today’, want only supporters and sycophants, and this has had the effect of emasculating the language.  They fear the word because the word is ‘intrinsically an instrument of opposition’.  The conflict between the word and al-sulta, authority, is inescapable.

Qabbani was born in Syria but made his home in Beirut, the capital of Arabic letters and the city of the Arab enlightenment.  He witnessed the enchanted city of his youth destroyed by the civil war and the ordeal prompted him to speak of the death of Arab civilization.  Beirut’s wars showed how all the grand ideas resulted in endemic violence and a return to primitive tribalism.  His own wife was killed in 1981 in one of Beirut’s daily episodes of violence.  In his grief he wrote ‘Balqees’, a long lament of heartbreaking intensity:
Balqees. . . oh princess,
You burn, caught between tribal wars,
What will I write about the departure of my queen?
Indeed, words are my scandal. . . .
Here we look through piles of victims
For a star that fell, for a body strewn like fragments of a mirror.
Here we ask, oh my love:
Was this your grave
Or the grave of Arab nationalism?
I won’t read history after today,
My fingers are burned, my clothes bedecked with blood,
Here we are entering the stone age. . . .
Each day we regress a thousand years.
What does poetry say in this era, Balqees?
What does poetry say in the cowardly era. . . ?
The Arab world is crushed, repressed, its tongue cut. . . .
We are crime personified. . . .
Balqees . . .
I beg your forgiveness.
Perhaps your life was the ransom of my own,
Indeed I know well
That the purpose of those who were entangled in murder was to kill
    my words!
Rest in God’s care, oh beautiful one,
Poetry, after you, is impossible. . . .

Adonis’s account of his predicament went beyond Qabbani’s grief.  It is given in a book of literary criticism, al-Shi’riyya al-Arabiyya (Arabic Poetics), published in
Beirut in 1985.  Here Adonis depicts the Arab writer as being under a ‘dual siege’, caught between Western thought on the one hand and the hold of Islamic tradition on the other.  Adonis advances the argument that the marriage between the West, or the kind of modernity that the Arabs imported from the West, and tradition has issued in an arid and artificial world.  ‘Our contemporary modernity is a mirage’, he writes.  As long as the Arabs fail to grasp that there is more to the West than they have found in it – its spirit of curiosity, its love of knowledge, its defiance of dogma – the ‘Western’ modernity of the Arab world is doomed to remain a ‘hired’ form of modernity.  Real modernity can only be attained, says Adonis, when the contrived world of the foreigner and the contrived world of the ancestor are transcended. 

Adonis, like Qabbani, endured
Beirut’s carnage and breakdown, and like him he was driven into exile.  Reality had surpassed their worst fears.  Is it any wonder that many of those in the Arab world who traffic in words felt that they had so little to say? asks Ajami.  Moving back and forth in time, he keeps returning to the false premises and to the baleful consequences of Arab nationalism.  From its origins in the late nineteenth century, he says, Arab nationalism had been a project of the intellectuals but the political crisis that set in the early 1980s made it difficult even for the most passionate to persist.  Arab society, he observes, had ran through most of its myths and what remained in the wake of the proud statements Arabs had made about themselves and their history was a new world of waste, confusion, and cruelty.

The oil-based economic boom of the 1970s did nothing to sustain the myth that a collective Arab condition prevailed from one end of the Arab world to another.  On the contrary, the windfall fortunes of oil created a fault line between those classes that could partake of this wealth and the ‘modernity’ that came with it and those large sectors of the population on the fringe of the new order.  The petro-era unsettled the
Middle East and catapulted the Arabs into an unfamiliar world.  Ajami himself sees only shadows and no lights in the new order.  A powerful current of nostalgia for the old order suffuses his entire study:
Whatever its shortcomings, the old world… had been whole:  It had its ways and its rhythms.  At least people knew who they were and had some solid ground to stand on.  The winners may have been a little uppity or cruel, but they could not fly too high:  There were things that people were ashamed to do, limits that marked out the moral boundaries of their deeds.  The permissible (halal) was distinguishable from the impermissible (haram).  Scoundrels and bullies knew what they could and could not get away with.  There was, in sum, a moral order.  Then all this was blown away.  The continuity of a culture was shattered.  All attempts to reconstitute the wholeness, to ignore the great rupture by means of cultural chauvinism or a hyperauthentic traditionalism, brought only greater confusion and breakdown.

Egypt has always held an endless fascination for Ajami because of its subtlety, its resilience, and its civility amid great troubles.  ‘In the Land of Egypt’ opens with a dramatic, defining episode in modern Egypt’s life: the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat on 6 October 1981.  For Ajami the tension in the Egyptian psyche and in the country’s history was illuminated by Sadat and the angry young men who struck him down.  Years earlier Ajami had been mesmerized by the tale of the assassination and read practically all the court proceedings and police investigations that surrounded it.  Something that the principal assassin, a young lieutenant with strong Islamic convictions, said lodged itself in Ajami’s mind.  ‘I shot the Pharaoh’, proclaimed the lieutenant.  Writing this book gave Ajami an opportunity to resume his explorations of this seminal episode.

Ajami elaborates on the duality of Egypt: the modernity at the core of its national aspirations and the nemesis that stalks it in the form of theocratic politics.  During a recent visit to Egypt Ajami had the good fortune to spend four evenings in the company of the great novelist Naguib Mahfouz.  In his eighties, Mahfouz is still recovering from a knifing by religious fanatics that nearly cost him his life and paralyzed his writing hand.  To Ajami, Mafouz epitomizes at once the modernity of Egypt and the siege of its men and women of letters.  Ajami considers Egypt as too wise, too knowing, too patient, and too tolerant to succumb to a reign of theocratic zeal but he notes with sadness that the theocratic alternative has seeped into the culture of the land.  ‘The danger here’, he writes, ‘is not sudden, cataclysmic upheaval but a steady descent into deeper levels of pauperization, a lapse of the country’s best into apathy and despair, Egypt falling yet again through the trap door of its history of disappointment.’

Predictably, Ajami does not think much of the resurgence of Egypt’s pan-Arab vocation.  The great Nasserist revolt against the West, and a series of Arab-Israeli wars had ended in futility and defeat and then in dependence on America, he argues.  He dismisses the calls of the pundits and intellectuals to assume a larger regional role as a warmed-over version the pan-Arab creed of the 1960s that had brought Egypt failure and frustration.  The pan-Arabism that the Mubarak regime and the intellectual class wish to revive is for Ajami nothing but a mirage.  Egypt’s primacy in Arab politics is a thing of the past.  Arab states have gone their own separate ways.  Egypt was the last to proclaim the pan-Arab idea and, under Sadat, the first to desert it.  If Egypt succumbs again to its temptation as a distraction from her intractable domestic problems, Ajami warns, pan-Arabism would have visited twice: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.

The last part of the book, ‘The Orphaned Peace’, is devoted to the Arab intellectual encounter with Israel.  Ever since its birth as a state fifty years ago, Israel has occupied a paramount place in Arab thinking.  The Jewish state, so close yet so distant, has both fascinated and repelled her Arab neighbours.  Talking about Israel has been an indirect way for Arabs to talk about themselves and to take stock of their own condition.  Yet, despite this fascination, the Arabs have remained profoundly ignorant about Israel, her political institutions, her culture and society, her language and literature.  Israel has been a forbidden land and the forbidden, Ajami remarks, is always a tangled matter.

Progress towards a settlement at the diplomatic level has done surprisingly little to break down the psychological barrier that set the two societies apart or to lift the taboos on direct dealings between them.  No sooner was the Oslo accord signed in Washington in September 1993 than a new campaign was launched in the Arab world, fuelled by the fear that Israeli military supremacy would be replaced by Israeli cultural hegemony.  The matter of Israel was bound up with Arab modernity.  Some Arab intellectuals admitted it was time to cease looking at Israelis as thought they were extraterrestrial beings who had descended on the region from an alien world.  Adonis was one of their number.  But they were a distinct minority.

The Oslo accord was greeted with dismay in some quarters of the Arab world.  It was peace without justice and without honour, charged the critics.  But it fell to the Arab world’s most popular poet, Nizar Qabbani, to catch the widespread opposition to this particular peace agreement.  He did so in a prose poem, ‘al-Muharwiluun’ (those who rush or scurry), which he wrote from his new home in London and published in the daily al-Hayat in 1995.  Qabbani’s bitter disappointment with the Oslo accord, and his anger with the Arab leaders who made it, were given free rein in this poem:
We stood in columns
like sheep before slaughter
we ran, breathless
We scrambled to kiss
the shoes of the killers. . . .
They stole Jesus the son of Mary
while he was an infant still.
They stole from us the memory of the orange trees
and the apricots and the mint
and the candles in the mosques.
In our hands they left
a sardine can called Gaza
and a dry bone called Jericho.
They left us a body with no bones
A hand with no fingers.
After this secret romance in Oslo
we came out barren.
They gave us a homeland
smaller than a single grain of wheat
a homeland to swallow without water
like aspirin pills.
Oh, we dreamed of a green peace
and a white crescent
and a blue sea.
Now we find ourselves
on a dung-heap.

Qabbani’s poem reverberated through the Arab lands.  It also triggered an exchange between the poet and the venerable Naguib Mahfouz.  Mahfouz, a supporter of peace since the early 1970s, praised the beauty of the poem while noting its political weakness.  There is no peace without negotiations, argued Mahfouz, and since the option of war was not available to the Arabs, there was no justification for this attack on the pragmatic Arab negotiators of the peace.  Qabbani took refuge in poetic license.  ‘As a poet I am constitutionally of the party of peace’, he wrote in response to Mahfouz, ‘for poetry cannot be written in the shadow of death and desolation.  But what we are offered here is not peace but a pacifier made of rubber with no milk in it, a bottle of wine with no bottom, a love letter written in invisible ink.  What we are offered takes from us what is above us and what is under our feet, and leaves us on a mat….  Nothing remains for us of
Palestine in the shadow of this ruinous peace.’

In Egypt the debate surrounding relations with Israel had been going on for decades.  Anwar Sadat’s peace with Israel, the pharaoh’s peace, had been allowed to stand but his successors let it wither on the vine.  The state did not engage in the intellectual battle on behalf of peace.  A tacit understanding was reached between Hosni Mubarak’s regime and the chattering classes.  Diplomatic accommodation was to remain the order of the day but the opposition was allowed to rail with abandon against the unloved peace.  No one who reads the Egyptian daily al-Ahram would think that Israel and Egypt are at peace.  Its columnists and contributors wage a steady campaign against normalization.  They conjure up the spectre of Israel as an enforcer of Pax Americana, an enemy bent on diminishing Egypt’s power and influence.  On all other subjects clear limits are laid down from above, but on Israel there is a free-for-all.  The language, the preserve of the intellectual class, was used as a weapon by the opponents of peace.  In a play on words, normalization, tatbi, was equated with tatwi (domestication) and peace, salam, was dismissed  as nothing other than surrender, istislam. 

There was no honour in this unequal peace, the true believers said.  Mohamed Heikal, a former editor of al-Ahram and a keeper of the Nasserite flame, depicted the peace with Israel in dramatic terms:  Just as the 1950s and 1960s had been an ‘Egyptian era’ of nationalism and political struggle, the 1970s and 1980s a ‘Saudi era’ of wealth and petro-dollars, the 1990s had turned into an ‘Israeli-era’.  The peace that was emerging in the 1990s, Heikal told his readers, was sure to reflect the facts of Israel’s power.  It was pointless to blame the Palestinians for their acceptance of a truncated peace, he said, because they were at the end o their tether, because the world had wearied of them, and because their leader was on the ropes.  Nevertheless, a new map was being drawn for the region and this map was a ‘birth certificate’ for a new order destined to subjugate the Arab world.

Ajami sees the Mubarak regime’s hostility to Israel as a safety valve for a political order that has been in the grip of a long season of troubles.  The silent peace with Israel is an olive branch held out by the regime to its critics in the professional syndicates and the universities.  Ajami goes back in history to the pre-Murbarak era.  He writes with evident admiration about the towering intellects who were there to sustain Sadat in the 1970s, of the older generation of writers and thinkers who wanted to end the conflict with Israel.  This group included, in addition to Naguib Mahfouz who is still alive, the likes of the critic Louis Awad, the playwright Tawfic al-Hakim, the historical writer Hussein Fawzi, and the novelist and short story writer Yusuf Idris.  All of them, says Ajami, were individuals of large horizons and wide-ranging interests.  They had seen the pan-Arab vocation of the Nasserite state and the wars that came with it as an unmitigated disaster for Egypt, a betrayal of its promise, and a warrant for despotism.  They had no love for Israel but they wanted to extricate their country from the conflict and from the authoritarian political culture that it fostered and justified.  For these men peace with Israel was a precondition of modernity and an open society. 

Ajami’s own sympathies are clearly on the side of the modernists.  Time and again he berates the Arab intellectuals for refusing to look reality in the face, for failing to incorporate the cold logic of power into their programme.  For modernity to have a chance, he argues, the Arab political imagination will have to go beyond the old enmity, to let bygones be bygones, to bury the hatchet and to start probing in a more serious way Israel’s place in a region at peace.  He realizes that as the world batters the modern Arab inheritance, the rhetorical need for anti-Zionism grows.  But he concludes his eloquent book with a plea ‘for the imagination to steal away from Israel and to look at the Arab reality, to behold its own view of the kind of world the Arabs want for themselves.’

Fouad Ajami is no stranger to controversy.  With his latest book he is likely to generate at least as much controversy in the Arab world as he did with his first book The Arab Predicament.  For Ajami represents one school of thought, the school that blames the Arab predicament on the Arabs themselves.  At the other end of the spectrum there is the much larger school of thought which blames the Arab predicament on the West.  In between these polar opposites, there are many intermediate strands of thought on the Arab predicament.  Ajami’s implicit assumption is that all the failures and frustrations of the Arabs are due to factors that are inherent and innate in Arab society and this leads him to Cassandra-like conclusions about the prospects of a better future.  Another feature of Ajami’s analysis is the tendency to exaggerate the role of the intellectuals in shaping Arab politics and the role of poets in shaping, as opposed to reflecting, public opinion in the Arab world.  But whatever weaknesses there might be in his analysis, there can be no doubt that Ajami himself is an authentic Arab voice or that his book makes an exceptionally valuable contribution to the study of Arab culture and society. 

In Israel Ajami’s view of Arab society is unlikely to meet with serious challenge or criticism.  His book confirms what many Israelis believe.  Ajami himself is far too sophisticated a writer to trade in stereotypes.  But cruder minds may read such stereotypes into his portrayal of his fellow Arabs.  Were Binyamin Netanyahu to read this book, for example, it would no doubt reinforce his perception of the Arabs as shifty, unreliable, unrealistic, and hopelessly impractical.  It is also likely to confirm him in his belief that he can continue to ride roughshod over the Arabs because they have no option but to accept his terms, however derisory and humiliating.  He would be wrong on both counts.  For if the history of the last few years teaches anything, it is that genuine coexistence between Israel and the Arabs is possible but not on Netanyahu’s terms. 

The Israeli side in the Arab-Israeli equation is the main concern of Amos Elon’s book.  Elon is a gifted writer whose books include The Israelis: Founders and Sons; Jerusalem: City of Mirrors; and Founder: A Portrait of the First Rothschild and His Times.  As a journalist he has been reporting on Middle East politics for over thirty years.  A Blood-Dimmed Tide consists of 21 dispatches the first of which is on the Six-Day War and the last on Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination.  Most of these dispatches were originally published either in The New Yorker or in The New York Review of Books.  The dedication reads: ‘For Bob Silvers, a prince among editors’.  The book, however, is marred by some minor mistakes which would have surely not survived Bob Silvers’s meticulous editing. 

The ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in the title is borrowed from the famous lines by the Dublin-born poet William Butler Yeats:
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned;
the best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.

The tide is not yet dammed, Elon observes in the Introduction to his essays written shortly after the defeat of the Labour Party and the election of Binyamin Netanyahu.  Mindless acts of violence by Islamic suicide bombers suggest to Elon that
Israel is still at the mercy of blind forces.  The parallels to Bosnia and Northern Ireland easily come to mind: ‘It is that same confluence of blind forces, political demagogy and ethnic hatreds, that same explosive mixture of nationalism and religion.’ 

Elon is also troubled by the rise of religious chauvinism in Israel and by the growing number of those who want to turn Zionism into a holy war, a Jewish  jihad which will only end with the coming of the messiah.  He quotes the warning by David Flusser, a distinguished historian of religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a few days after Yitzhak Rabin’s murder by a young Jewish fanatic: ‘Ancient religions are reawakening (both in Israel and in the Arab countries) but behold they are vampires.  It is high time for God to intervene.’  The fact that similar trends manifest themselves simultaneously on both sides of the Jewish-Arab divide bring to mind the quip by the late and much-lamented Isaiah Berlin: ‘The Jews are like any other people, only more so.’

Amos Elon is a highly perceptive and penetrating observer of the Israeli political scene.  In these essays he charts the progress of relations between Israelis and Arabs and among Israelis themselves.  Among the topics covered here are the Six-Day War, the first flight from Israel to Egypt days after the signing of the 1979 peace treaty, the Lebanon War, the Peace Now movement, the intifada, and the Gulf War.  There are also sharply observed portraits of Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, King Hussein of Jordan, and an interview with Yasser Arafat.

The essays in this volume are not held together by a single, central theme but one question keeps popping up, the question of missed opportunities in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Were there any opportunities for making peace between Israel and the Arabs after the guns fell silent in 1948, 1967, and 1973?  If so, who missed them and why?  The concept of missed opportunities is highly problematic but any student of the conflict must have some thoughts on the subject.  Elon notes that there has been no shortage of miscalculations by Israelis and Palestinians, the principal parties to the conflict.  The worst miscalculation of the Palestinians, he thinks, was their rejections of the autonomy plan after at Camp David, within the framework of the US-sponsored Egyptian-Israeli peace process.  Had the Palestinians accepted the offer of autonomy, he argues, they would have had by now their independent state alongside Israel.  In support of this argument he notes that the thirteen American colonies started out with very much less.  But his argument is open to question.  For one thing, he fails to mention that Menachem Begin’s autonomy plan applied only to people and not to territory.  The Palestinians had a point even though they were guilty of a rhetorical excess when they said that the only autonomy on offer was the autonomy to collect their own garbage and to squat their own mosquitoes.  The territorial issue was crucial and it could not be fudged.  As Yigal Allon observed at the time, it is only in Marc Chagall’s paintings that people float in mid-air free from the force of gravity and it is not possible to translate this artistic quirk into any meaningful political reality.  The Oslo accord, for all its shortcomings, at least addressed the territorial issue.

One of the most fascinating stories in this collection is the story of the secret negotiations in the Norwegian capital that culminated in the 1993 agreement between Israel and the PLO.  The Oslo accord would seem to vindicate Abba Eban’s claim that nations are capable of acting rationally – when they have exhausted all the other alternatives.  Elon treats it as an adventure that led to ‘one of the most surprising volte-faces of recent diplomatic history.’  In ‘Peacemakers’, he gives a blow-by-blow account of the negotiations, with pride of place occupied by two academics who started the ball rolling: Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundik.  The two Israelis were in Elon’s words ‘obscure freelance peaceniks’, in those of an Israeli Foreign Ministry official ‘accidental tourists in history’, and in those of Shimon Peres ‘crackpots’.  Hirschfeld and Pundik prepared the political and psychological ground that enabled the professionals to join them after the seventh meeting.  The politicians, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, managed to overcome their longstanding personal rivalry and to carry the negotiations to a successful conclusion.  Amos Oz, the novelist, compared them to two elderly women in an old-age home who were constantly quarrelling but who realized that to cross the street they had to hold hands.  Hirschfeld and Pundik were shabbily treated by the government they had served so well.  They were not invited to attend the signing ceremony in Washington.  When Peres was asked why they had been excluded, he said blandly: ‘Nurses and midwives were not invited.’  After the merciless pounding of Arab intellectuals by Fouad Ajami, it comes as a relief to hear of the positive part played by the two Israeli academics in the quest for peace in the Middle East.