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Review: History of Israel-Palestine conflict would make good presidential reading

I hope copies of this book will be laid at once on the desks of President Obama and his special negotiator for peace in the Holy Land, George Mitchell. It tracks the efforts of every American president since Truman to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reviews the reasons why each one failed.

Bringing a novelist's violin to the dissonance of modern history, Patrick Tyler illuminates the dilemmas deadlocking the Middle East's contenders and overloading the conflict's weighmasters in Washington.

A reporter for the St. Petersburg Times in the 1970s, Tyler learned the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and then for the New York Times. He brings a ruthless fairness to his examination of more than a half century of U.S. policies' reach from the White House to their cratering in the bloody deserts beyond the Mediterranean.

This brisk history of wars fought and peace sought can guide and instruct this century's seekers in a new way. It clearly defines what hasn't worked and clothes the reader with a new comprehension of how this part of the world got to the murderous mess it's in.

One may have discerned the heroism of Israel's Yitzhak Rabin, but here is told the full range of his fatal courage. One may have guessed at Saudi Prince Bandar's essential access to American presidents and Arab kings, but here the measure of his influence is revealed.

Watergate and Lewinsky were bound to undermine Nixon's and Clinton's respective capacities to govern, but few could have grasped how seriously these disabilities disarmed these two presidents at points critical to the Middle East. Everybody knew Henry Kissinger had his deceitful side; many will be appalled at finding here that, in his withholding information from Nixon in the Yom Kippur war, "Kissinger's duplicity was so plain as to raise questions of constitutional propriety, not to mention loyalty," and that overall "Kissinger found it impossible to advocate a course in the Middle East that ran counter to the prevailing consensus of Israel's leaders, even to the detriment of the U.S. national interest."

Equally astonishing is the disclosure that Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger simply disregarded President Reagan's order to launch an air strike on Hezbollah in retaliation for the 1983 Beirut bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks that killed 241 — and that Reagan did nothing about it.

Tyler's catalog of past botches, betrayals, retreats and failures creates a compelling case for American insistence on a fair peace agreement that will allow Arabs and Israelis to get on with their lives in place of preparing for their deaths.

Both Israelis and Palestinians make impassioned cases as to why peace is impossible. But we are reminded that Israel and Egypt made peace under pressure from President Carter. Jordan and Israel made peace under President Clinton.

George Mitchell is going east for President Obama. This book makes the issues clear — at base, they are political — and the fact is plain that every day without peace between Israelis and Palestinians protracts an increasingly dangerous ordeal for the peoples of the Middle East and weakens the security of the United States.

Eugene Patterson is retired chairman and chief executive officer of the St. Petersburg Times.

A World of Trouble: The White House and the Middle East — From the Cold War to the War on Terror

By Patrick Tyler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 628 pages, $30

Review: History of Israel-Palestine conflict would make good presidential reading 02/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 7, 2009 3:30am]
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