Israeli-Palestinian History and the Future Prospects for Peace

Joel Beinin reviews Gershom Gorenberg’s The Accidental Empire and Shlomo Ben-Ami’s Scars of War, Wounds of Peace.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was minister of public security in Barak’s government. Born in Tangier, Morocco, in 1943, he immigrated to Israel in 1955 and eventually received a PhD in history from Oxford with a specialty in modern Spain. After a successful academic career he entered politics, serving as Israel’s ambassador to Spain from 1987 to 1991 and as a Knesset member from 1996 to 2002. Barak was so impressed by Ben-Ami’s performance as a negotiator at Camp David that he awarded him the additional portfolio of foreign minister, which had been vacated by David Levy, one of several defections that led to the demise of Barak’s government…

Since 2001 Ben-Ami has written books in Hebrew, French and English about the Arab-Israeli conflict. His most recent effort, published four years after his resignation from the Knesset, is a fascinating–and deeply schizophrenic–book, alternating between a soul-searching history of the roots of the conflict, and political score-settling and self-aggrandizement when Ben-Ami turns to the record of the government he served. Ben-Ami’s account of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1930s until he joined the Israeli government in 1999 largely accepts, and on some matters is even more radical than, the arguments of Avi Shlaim in The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (1999). Shlaim is one of the leading Israeli “new historians,” who have shown that Israel bears far more responsibility than is commonly thought for the Palestinian ordeal of dispossession and occupation and for the absence of peace in the region. Ben-Ami’s adoption of their perspective is a measure of the triumph of the new history, although arguments about details, rectifications of errors and debates over interpretation will continue.