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Contemporary Israel: Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, and Security Challenges

Contemporary Israel: Domestic Politics, Foreign Policy, and Security Challenges, edited by Robert O. Freedman. Westview Press, 2009, 352 pp.

Contemporary Israel takes the reader on a journey through the rough and tumble world of Israeli politics shaped by bloody struggles and spasmodic peace efforts with the Palestinian people and the wider Arab world. Robert O. Freedman, professor of political science emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University, presents the works of 14 American and Israeli scholars addressing three subject areas: domestic politics, foreign policy, and security challenges. The contributors offer political viewpoints ranging from far left to extreme right and cover the pivotal religious and Russian parties and the fractured Israeli Arab parties on the margins. The political impact of Israel’s activist supreme court and its recently liberalized economy are also addressed along with perceived existential threats and foreign relations with Turkey, India, and the United States. In sum, Contemporary Israel is an excellent reference for the novice and expert alike.

Writing on Israel’s security challenges, Steven David observes, “it is impossible to understand the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israeli’s relations with the rest of the world, and American policy toward Israel without taking into account the impact of those who challenge Israel’s right to exist” (p. 299). He plays down the existential threats posed by the Palestinians’ birthrate far outpacing that of Israel or the increasingly well-trained and much larger Arab military forces. Only Iran’s nuclear threat stands out as a “pressing and immediate threat” (p. 315). Elli Lieberman focuses on Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah. His most insightful observation is that Israel’s method of deterrence does not work well with weak nonstate actors that do not control territory (p. 327). Ironically, for Israel’s deterrence to be effective against Hamas and Hezbollah, it must let them acquire the trappings of a nation-state. While David and Lieberman provide a clear sense of Israel’s insecurity, they fail to provide opposing perspectives. Furthermore, they miss an opportunity to discuss the emerging threat posed by hybrid warfare (the melding together of irregular warfare tactics and conventional weapons) that gave Hezbollah the ability to fight Israel to a draw in 2006.

Barry Rubin examines Israel’s foreign policy and lays the blame for the failure of the “peace process” on the Palestinians. In his assessment, the Palestinians could not make peace because of “their goals, their ideology, their internal politics, and their leaders’ need for the advantages of continuing the conflict” (p. 176). David Lesch takes a less-pointed approach as he charts the deterioration of the peace process, beginning with the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, who many Arabs and Israelis believed to have been the only man capable of brokering a comprehensive peace (p. 197). Efrain Inbar goes beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict to look at Israel’s relations with Turkey and India. He posits that the end of the Cold War enabled those countries to form an alignment over shared security and economic interests, including confronting militant Islam and China’s rise and taking advantage of globalization (p. 229). In a wider sense, Inbar believes that Israel’s improved relations with India and Turkey support US interests in Central Asia and parts of the Indian Ocean littoral (p. 247). Freedman makes the debatable case that Israel’s relationship with the United States is mutually beneficial (pp. 254–56). This may have been true during the Cold War, but today some argue that America’s support for Israel and its policies toward the Palestinians is a root cause of Islamic-inspired terrorism directed at the United States. Political science heavyweights John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt support this position in their controversial article, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” published in the London Review of Books in 2006.

Regarding Israel’s domestic politics, Llan Peleg, points out the fundamental cleavage in Israeli politics that began when Zionism broke into the “pragmatic-moderate ‘Left’ and the idealist-maximalist ‘Right’ in 1922” (p. 21). This cleavage continues to influence the majority of Israeli politics today. On the “Right,” Likud focuses on security and expanding Jewish settlements on occupied lands to fulfill its Zionist vision of Eretz Israel (Palestine) regardless of Palestinian and Syrian demands (p. 21). On the “Left,” the Labor Party is more willing to trade occupied land to gain peace with the Palestinians and Syrians. Many on the Left blame the Right for creating the poisonous political atmosphere that led to the assassination of Rabin and the subsequent breakdown of the peace process (p. 21). On the fringe, the ultra-orthodox Jewish religious Shas and United Torah Judaism parties are more interested in socioeconomic issues than foreign policy (p. 78). Both support whichever party delivers the resources they want unless they promote policies that undermine the Jewish character of Israel (p. 93). The Russians émigré parties lack unanimity but are still gaining influence in domestic politics. Vladimir Khanin observes that, like the hard-right religious parties, “the religious and Russian émigré parties have become quite powerful with the splintering of Labor and Likud by selling votes to gain resources for pet social programs. The marginalized Arab Israeli parties split along confessional, nationalist, and fundamentalist lines, making it difficult for them to form a single interest block (p. 123). Adding to cleavages in Israel’s domestic politics are the activist supreme court and the new “capitalist” economy. According to Pnina Lahev, the court is responsible for the deepening political divide between the Left and Right and the fragmentation of Labor and Likud, which gave rise to the special interest parties. Additionally, the shift to a market-based economy and the impact of globalization contributed to Israel’s sense of crisis and disorientation (p. 148).

Overall, Contemporary Israel is an informative, easy read. It presents an Israeli view of the complexities of its domestic and foreign politics shaped by perceived internal and external threats to its security. The compellation lacks the voices of its Arab Israeli citizens, which make up 20 percent of the total population. To gain a fuller view of Israeli politics and the context in which they play out, the reader is encouraged to seek other points of view.

Lt Col Bruce K. Johnson, USAFR

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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