Monday, 4 August 2008

Book Review: 34 Days - Israel, Hezbollah And The War In Lebanon, by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff (2008)

The September 2006 chapter of the Middle East war was triggered after the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid in July. Israel's unanticipated, disproportionate, and poorly planned response meant that 34 days later, 1,100 Lebanese were killed (the majority civilians), another 3,600 were injured, 10,000 homes were destroyed, and a further 95,000 damaged.

Hezbollah launched 4,000 rockets at Israel, resulting in 42 civilian casualties, and a further 119 Israeli soldiers died in combat.

And the kidnapped soldiers remained in Hezbollah's hands, until the prisoner-exchange deal brokered in the summer of 2008.

This is also a book about small, naive men (and a few women) with large egos, applying 17th century solutions to 21st century problems, and happy to sacrifice the lives of soldiers and civilians to serve their own political and power-hungry objectives.

The stories that Harel and Issacharoff focus on revolve around the war exposing two truths: First, the inexperienced, weak and incompetent Israeli leadership, personified by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. And second, the level of incompetence that the Israeli army has been reduced to, as lack of training and budget cut-backs take their toll.

The authors spend a lot of time and effort establishing the sequence of faulty decision-making by Olmert, Peretz and Halutz, and uncovering the reasons behind this incompetence. This is likely the book's strongest point.

While the authors trace back the failures of the military back to Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, they miss the overall strategic arch of Israel's military evolution. It is recognized that Israel's finest military hour was 1967. The 1973 Yom Kippur war exposed significant deficiencies, and the 1982 "first" war in Lebanon, and subsequent occupation of southern Lebanon to the year 2000, was the first time that that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) failed strategically. The 2006 war was confirmation that traditional armies can win every battlefield encounter, and yet strategically fail miserably against a determined opponent using guerrilla tactics and backed by a local population. See Vietnam, 1975, for when that lesson should have been learned by those who choose to pay attention.

By writing this book less than two years after the end of the war, it is not a surprise that Harel and Issacharoff, two journalists with Ha'aretz, focus on tactical details, in particular events at meetings (lots of meetings), phone calls, draft documents (lots of draft documents), telephone calls, and conversations in hallways. This may all be of historical value to some egg-headed researchers; as a narrative it fails miserably. The authors mix very clumsy battlefield descriptions with the minutia of who said what to whom, when, and where and then overlay the mess with their personal critique of everything -- battlefield tactics, political decisions, and military commands.

Maybe a lot got lost in the translation, but the book's writing style is very pedestrian, and the authors are very clearly journalists, not yet in control of the requirements of assembling a book.

and Isaacharoff would do well to read, or re-read, Howard Blum's The Eve of Destruction (2003) on the Yom Kippur war, for an example on how a highly compelling book can be woven out of wartime events.

As a simple example, literally hundreds of names of Israeli politicians, army commanders, soldiers, and even journalists are thrown at the reader, often with no introduction other than position or rank, and just as quickly most characters are abandoned within paragraphs or pages. It's as if the authors felt compelled to introduce every extra who participated in the war, with the result that the important characters and events get lost in muddle. And to add to the confusion, at some of the most critical passages, the authors switch to using some characters' first names after having referred to them by their surnames for several prior pages.

In terms of balance, the authors are clearly much more familiar with events in Israel than in Lebanon, and they had access to very few research sources outside of Israel. But to their credit, they at least make an attempt to portray events in Lebanon. They do however, slip into one-sided terminology on more than one occasion, most infuriatingly in this passage on page 95, describing an early draft of what eventually became the United Nations resolution that ended the war:

Most of the principles in the document, which was formulated two days after the war erupted, appeared in another version - Security Council Resolution 1701 - that was passed four weeks and 100 deaths later.

Clearly, the deaths of more than 1,000 people in Lebanon during these four weeks therefore meant very little to Harel and Issacharoff.

For those with interest in Middle East events, 34 Days is a must-read, but, unfortunately, not a good read.

Hardcover published in the US by Palgrave MacMillan. 261 pages, plus Notes and Index.

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