Unexpected perspectives … Moshe Dayan visiting troops during the 1973 War.
Patrick Tyler has spent 30 years as a journalist for the New York Times and Washington Post, dividing his time between Washington, and tours in the Middle East, China, Russia and Europe.
As chief correspondent for the New York Times he reported from Baghdad on the first Gulf War and covered the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 2003. His latest book, A World of Trouble, unpacks the troubled and frequently chaotic history of American involvement in the Middle East
I have chosen these volumes because they come at the essential conflict in the region from an obtuse angle, casting surprising light on a situation that often seems all too familiar.
1 Jerusalem by Amos Elon
No city has “evoked such awe and wonder or at the same time given her name to Peace and to all that is tender in the human soul”. So says the author, a lifelong Israeli journalist who has chronicled the rise of the Jewish state and who sought, in this richly accessible volume, to convey the religious nationalism, zeal and paranoia of a city whose “inhabitants are poisoned by religion”, and where, “one hates one’s fellow man to the glory of God”.
2 Ropes of Sand by Wilbur Crane Eveland
An early insider’s account of disillusionment, by an American spy that mirrors TE Lawrence’s lament about the west’s inability to keep its promises to the Arabs. Eveland is an Arabic-speaking intelligence operative who gravitates from the Eisenhower White House to the CIA, where he advises Allen Dulles on coup plotting in Syria and managing the rise of Nasser in Egypt. His narrative stands out as a sincere attempt to understand the failed American seduction of Nasser at a time when Washington wanted desperately to harness his power for the west.
3 Secret Soldier by Muki Betser
A simple soldier’s story, but one of the most fabled soldiers in the Israeli army. It is not a political book: indeed, Betser confesses that he came to the conclusion that “no people can rule another people without their consent” and that there is no “realistic alternative” to sharing the land with the Palestinians. A story about overcoming fear in battle, the setting out for which “takes a leap of faith to believe that you will survive”. Betser tests whether the “psychological mechanism” that allowed him to charge the blazing muzzle of the enemy still worked after he was horribly wounded in the Battle of Karameh.
4 The Chariot of Israel by Harold Wilson
An impressive exposition of the half-century of debate in the British parliament, and more broadly in the west, over the creation of the Jewish state and its first decades of war against the Arab states. Wilson, having been there for the big decisions since 1948, carries us through the Suez Crisis and the Six Day War, which broke out while he was prime minister. He does not let his sympathies for the Zionist enterprise undermine a well-balanced narrative. He brings us the voice of Lord Milner, “the great imperialist proconsul,” all the way from 1923 to describe the nub of it: “Palestine can never be regarded as a country on the same footing as the other Arab countries. You cannot ignore all history and tradition in the matter … It is sacred land to the Arabs, but it is also a sacred land to the Jew and Christian.”
5 A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
An epic story of the author’s life intertwined with that of Israel. This book was given to me by the family I stay with in Tel Aviv. “If you read this, you will understand everything about us,” said my host. Oz’s journey touches on growing up in Palestine, his richly varied extended family, his mother’s long descent toward suicide and the perseverance of an irrepressibly curious intellect. As a boy, he thought “that soon, in a few years, the Jews would be the majority here, and as soon as that happened we’d show the whole world how to treat a minority … It was a pretty dream.”
6 Living With the Bible by Moshe Dayan
Almost a coffee table book – of anthropology, images and archaeology – by the most important military commander of Israel’s early decades. Dayan, the one-eyed Lord Nelson of the desert, was a predator in battle, getting close and going for the jugular. Together with David Ben-Gurion, he enabled the rise of Ariel Sharon as a practitioner of the disproportionate strike to deter Arab aggression. But in this volume, we find Dayan walking the ancient and equally brutal battlefields of the Bible. What comes through is a love of the land, of history and a deep admiration for the varied peoples of the Holy Land.
7 A People That Dwells Alone by Yaacov Herzog
This collection of essays, speeches and a famous debate was pulled together by the lifelong diplomat to help explain the Zionist outlook. It is the written work of an intellectual partisan in the diplomatic arena. Its centrepiece is Herzog’s debate with the British historian Arnold Toynbee in January 1961 at McGill University in Toronto. The debate turned on the question of whether there was a moral equivalence between “what the Nazis did to European Jews and what the Israelis did to Palestinian Arabs”. As in a good Oxford Union debate, it is difficult to turn away once engaged.
8 My Home, My Land by Abu Iyad
This memoir from one of the most articulate leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (written with the French journalist Eric Rouleau) is an introduction to the world of the Palestinian resistance which sprang from the radical ranks of Cairo University in the 1950s. Here Salah Khalaf, known as Abu Iyad, first met the excitable and manic Yasser Arafat. Khalaf describes the roots of his radicalism in the experience of fleeing Jaffa, under fire, with his family. Khalaf was 15, and the family made their way down the shore to Gaza, where they lived a life of misery and despair as Israelis built a country, visible from the Palestinian refugee camps.
9 Warrior by Ariel Sharon
The “bulldozer” of Israeli militarism tells the story of his life, sharing outsized opinions of every political fight and real-life battle. Along the way, there are many interesting stories from inside the security establishment, rivalries among the chiefs and between them and the politicians. Written with David Chanoff, Sharon charges through narrative as if he is crossing Suez, pausing periodically to floor the reader with moments of startling descriptive beauty: “In the Negev, winters are mixed with pain. The clouds blow quickly through the sky, bringing showers here and there – almost always, it seems, on your neighbours’ fields, not yours. But you try to be quiet about it, because where rain is concerned complaints are never in order, only thanksgiving. And when the rain comes, as it always does, the land seems to be moving upwards to meet it.”
10 The Iron Wall by Avi Shlaim
To top off the list, here is the definitive history of Israel and the Arab world by one of the new historians, a professor of international relations at St Antony’s College, Oxford, whose ruthless scholarship and crisp narrative pull all the threads loosely planted by the works cited above into a coherent skein.