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“Once in the military system, Israelis never fully exit,” writes the prizewinning journalist Patrick Tyler in the prologue to Fortress Israel. “They carry the military identity for life, not just through service in the reserves until age forty-nine . . . but through lifelong expectations of loyalty and secrecy.” The military is the country to a great extent, and peace will only come, Tyler argues, when Israel’s military elite adopt it as the national strategy.
Fortress Israel is an epic portrayal of Israel’s martial culture—of Sparta presenting itself as Athens. From Israel’s founding in 1948, we see a leadership class engaged in an intense ideological struggle over whether to become the “light unto nations,” as envisioned by the early Zionists, or to embrace an ideology of state militarism with the objective of expanding borders and exploiting the weaknesses of the Arabs. In his first decade as prime minister, David Ben-Gurion conceived of a militarized society, dominated by a powerful defense establishment and capable of defeating the Arabs in serial warfare over many decades. Bound by self-reliance and a stern resolve never to forget the Holocaust, Israel’s military elite has prevailed in war but has also at times overpowered Israel’s democracy. Tyler takes us inside the military culture of Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Benjamin Netanyahu, introducing us to generals who make decisions that trump those of elected leaders and who disdain diplomacy as appeasement or surrender.
Fortress Israel shows us how this martial culture envelops every family. Israeli youth go through three years of compulsory military service after high school, and acceptance into elite commando units or air force squadrons brings lasting prestige and a network for life. So ingrained is the martial outlook and identity, Tyler argues, that Israelis are missing opportunities to make peace even when it is possible to do so. “The Zionist movement had survived the onslaught of world wars, the Holocaust, and clashes of ideology,” writes Tyler, “but in the modern era of statehood, Israel seemed incapable of fielding a generation of leaders who could adapt to the times, who were dedicated to ending . . . [Israel’s] isolation, or to changing the paradigm of military preeminence.”
Based on a vast array of sources, declassified documents, personal archives, and interviews across the spectrum of Israel’s ruling class, Fortress Israel is a remarkable story of character, rivalry, conflict, and the competing impulses for war and for peace in the Middle East.
“Tyler offers a provocative explanation for Israel’s constant insecurity: Its leaders, particularly its security elite, are unable and unwilling to turn their guns into ploughshares . . . Tyler offers vivid stories, and his writing is compelling.”—Daniel Byman, The Washington Post
“[A] readable and informative new history . . . timely.”—The Economist
“Fortress Israel is the definitive historical and analytical account of the role that Israel’s military has played both in Israel itself and in the wider Middle East. In Patrick Tyler’s deeply reported and very well written account, one learns how a militarized Israeli culture has permeated the decision making of Israel’s governments for decades and how that culture affects the calculus of its politicians today. If you want to understand Israel’s future—and also how that future may play out in the Middle East—this book is mandatory reading.”—Peter L. Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad
“In this exceptional book, Patrick Tyler demonstrates with meticulous documentation and revealing interviews with the country’s national security experts how Israel’s founding military and intelligence leaders were essential to the survival of a young nation. Tyler also tackles the vexed question of our era: Will Israel’s warrior ethos and its legacy of zero-sum strategies for dealing with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians prevent it from crafting a lasting peace? Tyler’s analysis of how much the world lost with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is definitive and heartbreaking. Fortress Israel is essential reading for students of the Middle East.”—Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times
“With Fortress Israel, Patrick Tyler takes his place in the first rank of historians of Israel and the modern Middle East. He presents a provocative but objective look at the militarism that has driven Israel’s leaders since the founding of the state and explains vividly—without ideological cant or bias—why generations of tough-minded sabras have found it so difficult to convert their battlefield successes into a lasting peace.”—Terence Smith, Israel correspondent for The New York Times during the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars
“A rare and often disturbing portrait of Israel’s military elite, with all its foibles, rivalries, and vicious infighting.”—Martin van Creveld, author of The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel
“Tyler presents a sharp critique of the close relationship between the Israeli government and the officer corps of the Israeli military . . . [he] researches deeply and does not pull his punches.”—Booklist
“[A] revealing chronicle of Israeli foreign and defense policy . . . Tyler’s well-researched account illuminates an ugly and troubling dimension of Israeli policy and politics.”—Publishers Weekly
Patrick Tyler worked for twelve years at The Washington Post before joining The New York Times in 1990, where he served as chief correspondent. His books include Running Critical, A Great Wall (which won the 2000 Lionel Gelber Prize), and A World of Trouble. He lives in Washington, D.C.