Review of ‘The Transforming Fire’ by Sol Stern

The second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 forced Israelis to come to grips with the definitive end of the Oslo era and the shattering of two fundamental assumptions about the nature of their conflict with the Palestinians. The first was that the struggle was over real estate and borders and the “occupation.” The second was that economics mattered: that is, that an improvement in the material conditions of Palestinians would nudge their leaders finally to accept a compromise peace based on dividing the land.

No Israelis came face to face with the new reality more brutally than the soldiers on the front lines of the war zone. And few have documented the experience or analyzed its lessons with greater acuteness than Jonathan Spyer, a thirty-something scholar and journalist specializing in the Middle East conflict. Spyer, who emigrated from England at the age of nineteen to serve in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is now a reservist in an armored combat unit. Appropriately enough, his new book, Transforming Fire, both riveting and politically timely, begins like an Israeli war memoir, with an automated phone call ordering him to report immediately to an assembly point in one of Jerusalem’s Orthodox neighborhoods.

From there, it was but a two-hour bus ride to the northern border with Lebanon and the latest battlefield. After a few days spent checking equipment and ducking Hizballah rockets, Spyer’s armored unit was ordered to engage the enemy forces firing at Israel from the town of el-Khiam about five miles across the border.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong with this ill-conceived mission did go wrong. It was planned to last three days, but just as the Israeli tanks reached the outskirts of el-Khiam, they received an order to turn around and head back. Unfortunately, the message arrived at the break of dawn when the unit should have been seeking cover; instead, they were fully exposed to Hizballah’s missiles. The company commander’s tank was disabled, and Spyer’s crew had to try dragging the vehicle behind them with cables. Unable to move faster than 5 kilometers an hour, both carriers took several more direct hits, killing one reservist. Abandoning their tanks, Spyer and his comrades scrambled for cover through an irrigation ditch, barely eluding the hundreds of Hizballah fighters in the area until, through a stroke of luck, they were rescued by an Israeli armored vehicle. The entire harrowing operation spanned a mere thirteen hours.

What makes Spyer’s description of his brief sojourn in Lebanon all the more chilling is his use of this near-death experience as a metaphor for the IDF’s general lack of preparation for war and the government’s strategic and diplomatic bungling of the fighting and its aftermath. Israel was led in 2006 by Ehud Olmert, a distracted prime minister facing charges of financial corruption; by a defense minister, Amir Peretz, who had spent his entire public career as a trade-union apparatchik; and by a chief of staff, Dan Halutz, whose previous military experience had been confined to the air force. For good measure, the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, was a neophyte.

Such were the unsettling political facts that agitated Spyer’s fellow reservists—all responsible adults and in many ways a cross-section of Israeli society—in the hours after their return to base. And against this backdrop, Spyer raises the most profound questions about Israel’s future. In his judgment, the reality is that the Jewish state now faces a new mode of warfare: Islamist/jihadist (rather than political/nationalist) in character and relentless in its seriousness. With Hizballah and Hamas sitting on its northern and southern borders, and with Iran, the principal backer of these two terrorist organizations, about to go nuclear, the Jewish state has entered into what Spyer characterizes as a permanent cold war. By its nature, this overarching struggle is wholly unrelated to whether or not Israel ends its “occupation” of the West Bank.

It is hard to disagree with Spyer’s diagnosis. If anything, his cold-war analogy is inadequate to describe the situation. Israel’s mortal enemies are not an ocean away as in the U.S.-USSR cold war; they are a short bus ride from Jerusalem in either direction. Nor are the Islamists interested in any territorial or political settlement; they are interested in Israel’s elimination. This is, in sum, a 30- or 40-year or perhaps even longer hot war, on and off, that will challenge Israel’s democratic society and severely test the fortitude of its people in unprecedented ways.

Indeed, the Islamists have already scored a partial success by launching and pursuing a world-wide campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. Even as they decry Israel as aggressive, expansionist, and all-powerful, their strategic outlook is based on an assumption of the opposite—that is, of Israeli weakness and loss of nerve. And, among some of Israel’s supporters or erstwhile supporters in the West, this strategy has already produced a failure of nerve of its own. The New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick, for instance, has recently let it be known that “even people like me, who understand that not only one side is responsible for the conflict and that the Palestinians missed an historic opportunity for peace in 2000, can’t take it anymore.”

It is the particular contribution of Spyer’s book to make it clear that, for their part, Israelis have no choice but to keep on “taking it.” Hearteningly, and despite failures like the Lebanon war, he also shows that the country’s center is in fact holding; that a new political consensus has formed, transcending the old divide between “greater Israel” and “land for peace”; and that at the heart of this consensus is popular support for a re-partition of the land, tempered by a mature skepticism regarding the existence of a partner ready to strike such a deal. Would that the Remnicks of the world possessed a fraction of the resolve-under-fire shown by Jonathan Spyer and his countrymen.

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