THE SIEGE: THE SAGA OF ISRAEL AND ZIONISM : by Conor Cruise O’Brien (Simon & Schuster: $24.95; 298 pp.)


“Siege” we are told in the dictionary is the condition of being cut off from all sources of nourishment or reinforcement and thus becoming obliged either to surrender to the violence of the besiegers or to perish from famine and thirst. According to this criterion, Israel is just about the least besieged country on the face of the globe. No other human society is more in pursuit of external aid or more successful in obtaining it. The proportion of its resources that it receives from beyond its borders is without parallel. It is integrated into the international agencies and the major world economic systems, sells whatever it can produce, buys whatever it needs, travels and receives travelers in great profusion, addresses the media with a frequency and universal resonance that few other nations can command and now has openings into the Arab world through the Egyptian treaty, the open border with South Lebanon and the flow of people and goods from the Jordan-Palestine region. It is a small house with vast doors and windows. As Churchill would have said in a similar context of defiance: “Some siege!”

The siege syndrome which runs throughout this book by Conor Cruise O’Brien reflects Israel’s paradox; it lies in the tension between conventional belief and new reality. Israel combines the fact of power with the psychology of weakness and vulnerability. Its most successful and realistic former prime minister, Levi Eshkol, used to call Israel: “Poor little Samson!”

Those who read a large number of history books are likely to learn a great deal about historians, and our understanding of Conor Cruise O’Brien is immensely enhanced by this massive book. It might have been thought that compendious volumes about Israel from 19th- Century Zionism to the present day was almost every month accounted for, had reached saturation, but this judgment should not apply to “The Siege.” It bears the mark of a restless, original idiosyncratic mind and--more surprisingly--a talent for the patient toil required by meticulous research.

If the siege metaphor loses credibility before the end of O’Brien’s book, we should not hold it against him; for the greater part of the period that he covers, the term was acutely relevant. I am in a difficulty as a reviewer since one of his references in defense of the siege metaphor is to a passage in my speech in the United Nations in 1956: “Embattled, blockaded, besieged, Israel alone among the nations faces the issue of its physical security anew with every approaching nightfall and every rising dawn.” Now this was not an exaggeration at the time. Facing a united Arab world endowed with preponderant military power, assailed by wrathful superpowers and almost cut off from financial aid from outside, Israel was in a sense outside the shelter of the world society. But for most of the ensuing years and especially since 1967, the question for Israel has been how to manage its power, not how to parade its weakness.


O’Brien clearly regards Israel as a constant celebration of resilience. Only a healthy distaste for cliche deters him from recourse to the David-Goliath metaphor.

He finds it “astounding” that Israel’s cause should so often win against all the calculations of power. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, persuades the world leaders in the late 19th Century to take the Zionist dream seriously when it seemed a wild fantasy. Chaim Weizmann, an impoverished lecturer in chemistry, comes to London from Manchester in 1916 and within 18 months has converted Zionism from what most people saw as a bizarre fad into a recognized principle of international politics and law. After World War II, in the wake in the wake of the Jewish disaster, Ben Gurion leads the Jewish people from the moment of its unparalleled weakness to international recognition and victory in a harsh battlefield. In 1967, Israel seems to be trembling one day on the brink of extinction and a week later is in command of the field with enemy armies pushed scores of miles away from its population centers. In 1977 and thereafter, what seems to be a series of fatal errors in the Yom Kippur War sets off a chain of events that leads to a peace treaty with the major Arab state which had long been the first aim of Israeli strategy and diplomacy. “Saga” sounds like a pretentious word, but O’Brien’s dramatic sense and vivid language make impressive reading.

If “The Siege” had ended at an earlier stage, it would not have been subject to the swift volatility of Israeli political moods. O’Brien portrays an Israel dominated by annexationist fervor in which all Likud (right-wing party) supporters and many Labor voters would violently oppose the formula of “territory for peace,” which was the basis for the Egyptian treaty. We then hear O’Brien’s apocalyptic vision: “Likud and its allies of the farther nationalist right would immediately raise the flag of Masada. Labor and its allies would be branded as traitors for their willingness to abandon any part of the sacred soil of Judea and Samaria.”

If it was really as hysterical as this, Israel would not Deserve the author’s benevolence. The fact is that there is no vestige of anti-partitionism left in the labor movement at any recognizable level. Eighteen months ago, the labor conference voted unanimously for a platform expressing vehement revulsion at the idea of maintaining permanent Israeli rule in all the territory of Judea, Samaria and Gaza. It went on to say that such permanent rule “would violate the nation’s Zionist principles, undermine its moral foundation, contradict its democratic nature, thwart any possibility of peace in the future, and run counter to all Jewish and human ethics”; also that “the settlements located in the heart of the populated areas in Judea and Samaria constitute a security problem and impose a heavy political and economic burden” so that Labor “will not establish settlements in the areas of Judea and Samaria which are not expected to remain under Israeli sovereignty.”

Since more than 800,000 word-conscious Israelis in 1984 voted for these texts, which were presented by those who now control the premiership, the defense ministry, the police department and the education system, it would seem that O’Brien has done inadequate justice to the central block of Israeli opinion. There are not enough hot irons in Israel to “brand” 800,000 people as traitors, and when Israelis are among themselves, they are no more likely to go around ranting about “the flag of Masada” or “the sacred soil of Judea and Samaria” than Englishmen are to sing “Rule Britannia” after dinner.

Meanwhile, the Likud has now lost several leaders of its liberal wing to a new party with a policy of territory for peace including the mayors of Tel Aviv, Rehovot, Timona and the chairman of the World Zionist Organization. Religious party leaders, including a Sephardic chief rabbi, have come out for “territorial compromise,” and the Knesset has emphatically rejected an annexationist resolution by a vast majority. If a renunciation of Arab-populated territory would really bring peace, Israeli rejection would be negligible and fleeting.

For those who write books, the lesson is that Israeli rhetoric is one thing and Israeli policy and opinion are another. Americans would respond to the idea of coercively incorporating 80 million hostile Russians into their citizenry much as Israelis in their right mind will react to the idea of forcibly ruling an equivalent number of disfranchised Palestinians who do not wish to live under Israeli jurisdiction. Israel’s occasional obduracies, as Anwar Sadat discovered, are not autonomous or deep-rooted; they are largely the result of Arab refusal to negotiate, and they melt away when negotiation comes into view. When Conor Cruise O’Brien comes to update the inevitable later editions, he will find an Israeli reality more congenial to his own values. He will deserve this for he wishes us well.