The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of those doomed subjects where the more you read the less you know. Passionate politicking on all sides means that the ‘facts’ are usually disputed and the arguments are often compromised. So which books are actually useful or trustworthy for wading through the controversy? For breadth, balance and insight, here are my top ten:
1. A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 2ndEdition by Mark Tessler
When students ask me where they should start with reading on Palestine and Israel, I like to thud Mark Tessler’s tome loudly onto the desk. It’s still the best overview and reference book out there (and, at over a thousand pages, also doubles as a useful doorstop or lethal bludgeon). Read Tessler over and over again and throw away your copy of Martin Gilbert’s outdated Israel: A History.
2. The Israel-Palestine Conflict: Contested Histories by Neil Caplan
You know that Israeli, Palestinian and broader Arab histories disagree, but do you understand exactly how and why? Caplan does a great job of breaking down the talking points, making this a really useful primer for further reading (and for dominating the inevitable arguments with friends and family).
3. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate by Tom Segev
This book inspired me to do my PhD and is a must-read for all British observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Segev’s work is detailed and entertaining, painting a slightly horrifying image of British anti-Semitism and paternal racism in the Levant (and why that’s still relevant today).
4. Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood by Rashid Khalidi
What have Palestinian leaders done right and wrong in the pursuit of independence? Khalidi delivers brutal criticism of just about everyone in this fiercely well written take on the British Mandate, Israeli occupation and Palestinian politics. If you like this, try Yehoshua Porath’sThe Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement (volumes I and II) for an immersive level of detail.
5. Israel’s Wars: A History Since 1947 by Ahron Bregman
War is an unavoidable topic in the history of Israeli-Arab relations, and Bregman provides a straightforward rundown of all the major clashes. This one is clear, informative and very easy to read. Rely on Bregman and avoid the flowery descriptions in Fortress Israelby Patrick Tyler.
6. The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World by Avi Shlaim
Shlaim shines a helpful light on the militarized Israeli mind set, tracing diplomatic failures back to the philosophies of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Read this dark and introspective interpretation instead of James Gelvin’s more detached version in The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War.
7. Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren
As a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Oren probably wrote this book in an appeal to American voters to stay invested in the Middle East. Propaganda value aside, this is a fascinating exploration of how the region has been influencing American politics and society since before the Declaration of Independence – counterintuitive and full of ‘ha!’ moments.
8. The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace 1989-2011by Daniel C. Kurter, Scott B. Lasensky, William B. Quandt, Steven L. Spiegel and Shibley Z. Telhami
An all-star cast of tank-thinkers and former diplomats produced this frank assessment of American peace-making efforts in the Middle East. Read this instead of Dennis Ross’s individual account in The Missing Peace.
9. Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflictby Elliott Abrams
Speaking from within the Neo-Conservative camp, Abrams has written an authoritative and delightfully gossipy account of the good intentions and poor management of Bush-era adventures into conflict mediation. To date, I’ve not met any other scholar who has bothered to read it because of Abrams's political affiliation. That’s their loss.
10. Inglorious Disarray: Europe, Israel and the Palestinians Since 1967 by Rory Miller
Europeans are famously incapable of solidarity, least of all when it comes to foreign policy. In this easily digestible volume, Miller highlights how those fault lines crossed and ruptured over Israeli-Palestinian politics – a unique little book that’s worth reading twice.