(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Israeli journalists Schiff and Ya’ari, who also wrote Israel’s Lebanon War (1984), turn their attention to Israel’s “third front,” the intifada, which they regard as a war wholly new to Israel because it is a popular war fought by civilians using not standard weapons, but rocks, pamphlets, and strikes. Since the war is still in progress, the authors face a substantial interpretive challenge. They must diagnose a patient without the benefit of an autopsy. As the authors point out, the evolving positions of the involved political entities (the PLO, Jordan, the United States, and Israel) since the inception of the intifada on December 8, 1987, have also made an assessment of theintifada more difficult.

In the foreword to their book Schiff and Ya’ari state that the point of the book is not “to establish guilt, impute blame, or grade the parties on their conduct or performance.” If grades were to be awarded, both the Labor and Likud political parties would be issued failing grades because they failed both to anticipate the results of their socioeconomic policies and to control the intifada once it began. Though the intifada was a “surprise” to Israeli officials, there were many warning signals (a rapid increase in civil disturbances such as demonstrating, blocking roads, throwing stones, and burning tires) that were simply ignored by the Israeli government, which preferred to “touch up reality in pastel colors.” In fact, the authors do blame, individually (Ariel Sharon building an apartment in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem) and collectively (the vigilante actions of the Jewish settlers), the Israelis for making an already bad situation worse.

The authors maintain that their only reason for writing the book is to “contribute to a better understanding of the tempest that has been raging in our country for two years so that the necessary conclusions can be drawn.” To that end, they present not a chronological account of what transpired during the two years, but a series of chapters devoted to the separate threads in that pattern. After chapters on the early development of the intifada, there are separate chapters, organized chronologically, on the roles played by the proletariat, the Israeli Palestinians, the Unified National Command, the Islamic Resistance Movement, and the United States. Conspicuous by their relative absence, ostensibly because of the minor role they played in the intifada, are the Communists, the PLO, and King Hussein of Jordan.

While few Middle East experts believe that the Communists did play an important part in the uprising, the roles of the PLO and King Hussein are debatable. Certainly Yasser Arafat has attempted to associate the PLO with the intifada as part of his strategy to gain credibility for himself and for his Palestinian country without a homeland. He may, moreover, have actually been as surprised by the intifada as the authors claim, but the authors’ assessment of Arafat is hardly objective. According to Schiff and Ya’ari, the PLO simply assumed, through a power play, control of an essentially apolitical popular movement. Understandably unwilling to give their formidable adversary any legitimacy, the authors describe the “astounding degree of estrangement between the self-styled popular leader and the people he presumed to have led.” The words “self-styled” and “presumed” reveal the biased attitude toward Arafat, who is elsewhere described as “ideologically supple.” Jordan’s King Hussein is also denigrated, first snidely as “the once and future regent of the West Bank” and then for brooding “in one of his periodic depressions.” Their evaluation of King Hussein hardly squares with his international reputation as a statesman and mediator, and it definitely does not acknowledge how Jordan’s tenuous existence—Israel’s plan for Jordan becoming the Palestinian state is itself a threat—affects policy.

From the authors’ perspective, the intifada is primarily the product of Israeli socioeconomic policy rather than Palestinian nationalistic pride or Islamic religious fervor. This interpretation has several implications: It fails to address the legitimacy of Palestinian demands for statehood; it suggests that Israeli authorities could have avoided, by using enlightened policies, the intifada problem; and it implies that if Israeli authorities had benefitted from their mistakes they could have suppressed the intifada, which was, the authors believe, an Israeli creation, not a Palestinian one. Despite their disclaimer about not wanting to establish guilt or impute blame, Schiff and Ya’ari catalogue many Israeli policy mistakes and create the impression that the post-1967 situation could and should have been sustained.

Their insistence that the intifada was not politically motivated is the subject of “The Enraged...

(The entire section is 2028 words.)