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A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

By Mark Tessler. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994. 966 pp. $57.50 cloth, $27.50 paper.

Of all the issues that involve religion and politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict ranks among the top in complexity and endurance. It was upon religious grounds that the Zionist movement based its claim to Palestine, a land holy also to Christianity and to Islam. Tessler's book, although not written specifically within that framework, is an attempt to provide meaning for the conflict. Thoroughly researched and comprehensive in scope, this book is an impressive achievement by any measure. Tessler offers the reader, in eleven chapters densely packed with information, a close-up view of the conflict from the beginning of the twentieth century to the Palestinian Intifada and the peace process started at Madrid.

The unique approach that Tessler took in his book, zero-sum gain, is commendable, especially at a time when the two sides seem to be coming closer to a solution. It is this objective that led Tessler to take what at times seems a labored neutrality in recounting the often horrible events of this tortuous conflict. Yet, despite his efforts and regardless of his objectives, advocates of both sides will find much to criticize in this incredibly detailed history of the conflict.

For one thing, not all of the details that Tessler musters are relevant. While the aim of giving a detailed Jewish and Arab history from time immemorial is laudable (to dispel the myth that Jews and Arabs were enemies before this century and also that they have symmetrical histories), the discussion meanders so much that important points about the conflict between the Zionists and the Palestinians are diluted. Tessler makes it seem that modern Zionism is an organic outgrowth of the ancient past and fails to situate Zionism within the context of European colonialism. Otherwise, how should we understand the proposals to settle Jews in Uganda, Argentina, or Cyranica? And how should the Balfour Declaration and the insertion of that declaration in the responsibilities of the British Mandate be understood other than in the context of British colonialism? Reading on, one finds that some subjects could have benefited from further elaboration and that some relevant issues were altogether missing, such as the Israeli army's massacre of villagers at Kufr Qassem on the eve of the Suez war.

Even-handedness in detailing such an emotionally ridden conflict, as Tessler attempted to do, is a fete in itself. But to be consistent is another. In discussing the June 1967 war, for example, Tessler claims that domestic political and economic problems led Syria to cultivate a belligerent attitude toward Israel. Meanwhile, Israel's domestic political and economic woes in the mid-1960s, if we forget for a moment its provocative actions, led Israel, according to Tessler, to stand up vigorously and heroically to the challenges of the Arabs! Thus, Tessler gave the reader the facts, the propaganda, and even the hyperbole. His aim to let the reader discern facts from propaganda misses the mark, a point that opens the work to further criticism.

Finally, while at present the most sound and long-lasting solution should be based on mutual recognition and co-existence in secure and recognized boundaries, is it really even-handed to state that based on a biblical promise Jews have as much claim to Palestine as the Palestinians? Put differently, how should Palestinians view their history prior to 1948 and how should they explain their presence on the land and their experience to their children?

The above points should not be taken to mean that Tessler's book is not worthwhile. To the contrary, it has an enormous amount of information, and one is bound to find much to admire and to learn from. It is a testament to Tessler's perseverance and commitment to find the energy to research and to write such a book of tremendous proportion. It is only hoped that his efforts do not go in vain.
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Author:Ibrahim, Mahmood
Publication:Journal of Church and State
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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