Objective look at Israel's `siege mentality'

The Siege: the Saga of Israel and Zionism, by Conor Cruise O'Brien. New York: Simon & Schuster. 798 pp. $24.95. Conor Cruise O'Brien is a distinguished author, journalist, and academic. He's also a former member of Ireland's Parliament and was deputy chief of its United Nations delegation from 1956 to 1961.

With respect to Israel, he can claim the objectivity of the outsider. Yet he also has an insider's knowledge of the workings of the UN (he was involved with the UN peacekeeping effort in the African Congo in 1960-61), as well as an insider's feel for the tenor of public opinion in Europe and the third world -- particularly those opinions that are formed and conveyed by the press.

As editor-in-chief of The Observer, a respected London newspaper, Mr. O'Brien found himself reading -- and often, against his better judgment, running -- ``sensible'' editorials urging a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

In writing ``The Siege,'' O'Brien has endeavored to explain to other ``outsiders'' what he discovered in the course of his own investigations into the tangled web of Middle Eastern affairs: that no satisfactory compromise solution is in sight, only an ongoing state of siege which can be mitigated in some ways but is not likely to disappear.

Mr. O'Brien's central insight is twofold: First, that Israel's policies and perceptions can be understood as manifestations of a siege mentality -- not an ethos of racism or imperialism as sometimes charged, but a defensive nationalism. Second, that this defensive siege mentality is no mere delusion, but a distressingly accurate reflection of a history of a persistently hostile environment.

Although polemical in conception, ``The Siege'' is, as promised, a ``saga.'' It is a richly detailed history of Zionism. O'Brien surveys this history as it was formed in the crucible of anti-Semitism: its alarming resurgence in the late 19th century, and its still more monstrous permutations in our own century.

The links between the Nazi Holocaust, anti-Semitism in general, and the founding of the State of Israel after World War II is so obvious as to need no further elaboration.

But O'Brien's signal achievement is that he is able to present so much recent history as though it were being seen and comprehended for the first time, freshly, painfully, with all the intellectual and emotional impact of knowledge that is, in the best sense, ``news'' as well as history.

While O'Brien believes that Palestinian Arabs ``have every right to say they are . . . victims of what happened to the Jews in Europe,'' he thinks that European statesmen ``might have the grace to be more sparing in their admonitions'' to Israel, insofar as Israel's predicament is ``also the creation of . . . those who attacked and destroyed the Jews in Europe, and those in Europe and America who just quietly closed our doors.''

Written in a pithy, fast-paced prose that immediately engages the attention, equipped with a chronology and a helpful glossary of Hebrew and Arabic terms, ``The Siege'' is expressly designed for the general reader, but it contains material that will be new to readers already familiar with the subject.

O'Brien's vigorous, at times even colloquial, style masks the immense research and solid scholarship on which it is based, but it is this firm foundation that lends authority to the telling.

O'Brien's sober conclusions will doubtless provoke controversy -- not only from anti-Zionists, but from Zionists still committed to a more open, pluralistic Israeli society.

But there is no mistaking the penetrating realism of his insights, the honesty of his conviction, or the courageous compassion of his vision.

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