As a child, I heard news and occasional adult conversations about Arabs, Israel, oil and the fate of the Temple Mount. Yasser Arafat's characteristic dress was both familiar and unfamiliar. The wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973 were discussed as possibly fulfilling biblical prophecy. My paternal grandparents had a large National Geographic map of "The Holy Land," presumably from the mid-1970s, on a wall in their home. I recall gazing at this map with puzzlement, compressing as it did the geographic, political, historical and religious dimensions of the subject of the state of Israel.
What we did not, and perhaps could not, hear were the voices of Israelis and Palestinians themselves, unfiltered by the partisan chatter of the news media and Western political leaders. The problem remains.
Where to go for helpful recent analysis? I recommend three sources:
1. Lonely Planet's guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Not the first choice you might consider, but well written, succinct and sufficiently neutral. The latest edition was published in 2007. There's a two-page snapshot of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict; 13 pages (in small print) of history, half of it on the period after 1948; and more on culture, food and the natural environment. Sections on regions and cities include commentary on political and historical issues.
2. Alan Dowty, Israel/Palestine (Polity Press, 2005)
Dowty is Professor Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, USA, and Kahanoff Chair Professor in Israel Studies at the University of Calgary. This is one of Polity's series on "Hot Spots in Global Politics." It offers accessible though detailed introductions to the historical background to the confrontation in Palestine; chapters on "the Jewish story" and "the Arab story"; chapters on the rise of the Israeli state and the "re-emergence of the Palestinians"; and three chapters on analysis of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords ("the high point of the peace process"), the impasse (as it existed in 2005), and concluding reflections. Required reading, identifying the major problems and potential ways forward, and giving a sense of the complexity of the situation. There's also a helpful chronology at the back of the book. 216pp. A second edition will be out in early 2008. Buy it here.
3. Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press, 2007)
Khalidi, a prolific academic and op-ed writer, holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia University, where he heads the Middle East Institute. The rigid "iron cage" to which he refers is a metaphor for the constraints hemming in the Palestinians in the period prior to 1948 (the year of Israel's founding as a nation state), and the enduring nature of these constraints for the Palestinian people in succeeding decades. The cage, he says, has physical, political and economic dimensions. Khalidi also assesses how the Palestinians and their leaders have performed within the context of these constraints, and this has drawn strong criticism. The book focuses on the Palestinian component to the conflict, concluding on a pessimistic note. Also required reading. 220pp plus extensive notes. Buy it here.
There are numerous other books on the Arab-Israel conflict, including two that are frequently recommended to me: former US President Jimmy Carter's much touted and derided Palestine: Peace not Apartheid (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and Australian Jewish free-lance journalist Anthony Lowenstein's My Israel Question (Melbourne University Press, 2006). If you can recommend others books, tell readers using the "comment" function below.