In this piece, Carly Beckerman-Boys reviews Ahron Bregman’s latest book Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories. Ahron Bregman is an Israeli academic and journalist based in King’s College London who has written extensively on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Following another brutal conflict between Israel and Hamas in which civilians bore the brunt of violence, Ahron Bregman’s weighty account of the ongoing occupation is a hard-hitting, topical read.
Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories takes readers on a gruelling journey through the West Bank, Jerusalem, Golan, Gaza, and Sinai between 1967 and 2007. Using a chronological structure, Bregman dissects the three pillars of Israeli occupation: military force, law, and ‘facts on the ground’. Each chapter draws on personal interviews to expose the politics and practices of Israeli occupation.
Bregman’s characteristic use of anonymous sources and Top Secret files lends the tome an air of investigative reporting. No stranger to controversy, the author served in the Israeli Defence Force in Lebanon before leaving Israel to protest against its treatment of Palestinians during the First Intifada. His work as an academic at King’s College London has involved consulting for two major BBC/PBS documentary series on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but Bregman is most famous for outing Ashraf Marwan – the deceased son-in-law to Gamal Abdel Nasser – as Israel’s man in Egypt during the 1973 War.
Drawing on this previous work and clandestine research style, Cursed Victory unfolds like a tragedy in three acts. Part One sets the scene and details the first decade of Israeli military rule. Most interestingly, this section highlights Moshe Dayan’s Machiavellian attempts to create an ‘invisible occupation’ that could render the Palestinians apathetic to Israeli governance. This was combined with ad hoc, bottom-up policies, such as the army’s surreptitious transferring of Palestinians into Jordan using buses marked ‘To Amman – Free of Charge’ before forcing travellers to sign declarations of voluntary emigration. Bregman traces how the Israeli attempt at ‘enlightened occupation’ quickly soured during these initial years.
Part Two of Cursed Victory, like many second acts, focuses on the rise of an erstwhile villain, after elections in 1977 brought Menachem Begin to power at the head of a Likud-led coalition for the first time in Israeli history. Much of the analysis Bregman offers – Begin’s tactical sidestepping around Palestinian autonomy, his scheming to retain the West Bank and events leading to the First Intifada – is not new, but these short chapters provide an accurate overview and entertaining plot device.
The real arguments, and, potential criticisms of this book, therefore, arrive in Part Three: the most richly detailed section dealing with Ehud Barak’s tenure as prime minister and the failure to achieve a settlement with Syria in 1978 or at Camp David in 2000. Bregman draws on classified sources (including tapes of Clinton speaking to Hafez al-Assad on the telephone) to explain precisely how Barak vacillated between spearheading revived talks and stalling on purpose due to a lack of public support, frustrating everyone involved and facilitating a diplomatic disaster. Likewise, although President Clinton famously (and publicly) blamed Yasser Arafat for the failure at Camp David, Bregman provides a convincing analysis that shifts some responsibility onto Barak’s indecisive shoulders – the strongman was not steely enough for diplomacy.
And this is the underlying crux of Cursed Victory: the issue of blame. One of the famous witticisms uttered by former Israeli Diplomat, Abba Eban, was that, “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Reading Bregman’s account of war and diplomacy during the Barak premiership and up to 2007, the same charge is being levelled at both Israel and the United States. This tragedy is definitely a morality tale, in which Bregman asserts that both the Clinton and Bush administrations showed Israel too much deference, allowing the Israeli psyche to opt for continued occupation in the name of security rather than face the hard task of agreeing on a final settlement.
This argument is a popular one, especially in Europe, but the rich detail Bregman uses to expose Israeli intentions and actions vis-à-vis the occupied territories since 1967, does not overly support such a conclusion. His next book on the relationship between Israel and the United States Congress will be eagerly anticipated in this regard. The reader might also feel a little let down by the diplomatic focus of Bregman’s analysis from the 1980s onwards. Those hoping for a catalogue of unconventional Israeli tactics, such as the Dahiya Doctrine or policies aimed at decreasing Palestinian fertility, will be sorely disappointed. The author also sums up recent years in a brief conclusion, leaving the reader yearning for more information about Israel’s handling of Hamas and the Arab Spring.
The real tragedy, Bregman asserts, is that the occupation continues, but Cursed Victory closes with a whisper of hope: it will, at some point, come to an end and be remembered as a ‘black mark’ on Israeli history. Ultimately, the author provides a beautifully written page-turner, full of interesting details, anecdotes and revelations, (complete with a reasonably healthy dose of unsubstantiated opinion) that leaves the reader wanting more – especially a happy ending.
Dr Carly Beckerman-Boys joined the MEC as visiting fellow in March 2014. She is also Visiting Lecturer at London City University. Her research interests include Decision-making during the Palestine Mandate, Politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Poliheuristic Theory and Third-party mediation. She also maintains a personal blog on politics related to the Middle East: middleeaststateofmind.com. Carly tweets at @CarlyBBoys.