History revised

Politicide: Ariel Sharon's war against the Palestinians

Baruch Kimmerling <em>Verso, 240pp, £15</e

Ariel Sharon leads a country with fewer inhabitants than London or New York, but which is the object of intense fascination throughout the world. This goes far beyond even the disproportionate attention that all Israeli politics commands.

To many, he is a bloodstained monster; to a few, a hero and saviour; to pro-Israel lobbyists, a man they may privately detest but towards whom they won't tolerate any public criticism. For decades, his assiduously self-created image was that of the brave, blunt, simple soldier; now it is that of the elder statesman, seeking his place in history as a peacemaker. Since he became prime minister in 2001, even the most well-informed commentators have been polarised. How far, if at all, has he really changed? Can he deliver any kind of settlement on terms that even the most moderate or supine Palestinian might accept? Is he essentially an opportunist or a Machiavellian master strategist?

Baruch Kimmerling's answers are clear and uncompromising. Sharon has not changed. He cannot, and will not, deliver. He does indeed have a master strategy, one that has been pursued for decades. It is what Kimmerling calls politicide: "the dissolution of the Palestinian people's existence as a legitimate social, political, and economic entity". The polemic drives, and hits, hard. There can be no doubt about Kimmerling's moral fervour, nor of his analytical strength. The main lines of his indictment - not only of Sharon's record, but of the general rightward shift in Israeli political culture and the accompanying, increasingly ethnocentric, disastrous moral blindness - are undoubtedly accurate. Only the ever shriller voices of the "Israel right or wrong" camp (who predictably think that people such as Kimmerling are no better than traitors) and the equally strident cheerleaders for Palestinian extremism (who predictably complain that his censure doesn't go far enough) will disagree on those essentials.

Kimmerling's credentials are impressive. Since the 1980s, he has been a prime mover among the left-wing, "revisionist" Israeli scholars who have comprehensively punctured the country's self-image and undermined many of its most cherished historical myths. His book The Palestinian People: a history, co-authored with Joel Migdal, is probably the best general survey of its subject - more complete than anything yet produced by a Palestinian historian, though rather too focused on the elites. His The Invention and Decline of Israeliness is a sophisticated analysis of the country's fragmented, unstable sense of identity. Indeed, many of the most telling passages in Politicide are essentially abbreviated versions of arguments made much more fully in these other books.

Politicide itself is too brief, and bears too many signs of haste in the writing, to be a really effective arraignment of Sharon's career. Although Kimmerling sketches many of its more notorious episodes - most obviously, Sharon's complicity in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres - he also misses a great deal. He does not mention, for instance, the serious charges that Sharon was responsible for murders of prisoners in the 1956 war, nor the allegations of corruption that have surfaced much more recently. The language is sometimes too loosely accusatory, as with unelaborated references to "Israeli fascism" - calling contemporary Israel "a Thatcherist and semi-fascist regime" involves an elision that will doubtless annoy British Tories as much as it will the Israel lobby. Reference to "crimes that are possibly being considered, perhaps planned, and which wait only for the proper time for them to be implemented" is more ominous than it is lucid.

Kimmerling's coinage of "politicide" is useful, partly as a way out of the unproductive, sometimes hysterical exchange of accusations that Israeli policies towards Palestinians, or vice versa, are genocidal. But his label of Israel as a "Herrenvolk democracy" is less so: other critical analysts have used related, but less provocative and probably more fruitful notions of "ethnic democracy" or "ethnocracy".

When Kimmerling refers to events outside the Middle East, what he says is often surprisingly careless or inaccurate. He refers to "many" joint operations by the PLO and the IRA, when hard evidence of that kind of co-operation has been notably lacking. He says that "unlike Algeria, Zambia, or the Afrikaner state of South Africa, the Palestinians and the other Arab states were unable to get rid of their colonisers". In Algeria, almost all the white colonists did indeed flee, but in South Africa they have not done so, nor has the ANC tried to make them, while Zambia had almost none to begin with.

Politicide is padded with extracts from human rights reports and soldiers' letters - suggesting a rushed attempt to turn an essay into a book. The final sentences, with their odd combination of apocalyptic vision ("a new Jewish Holocaust" if Israeli policies don't change) and forced optimism, ring false. The greatest flaw, though, is the lack of any hard informa-tion or detailed analysis of Sharon's aims now. Near the end, Kimmerling acknowledges: "The present essay does not pretend to predict the future or guess Sharon's real intentions or plans." Yet surely insight into the latter - preferably by way of more than guesses - is exactly what readers expect.

Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP)