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Reading List: Decoding the Arab-Israeli Conflict

With the Controversial Middle East Issue Back In the Spotlight, Experts Prescribe Materials to Keep You Informed

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is back in the headlines — if it ever had left.

A recent speech by President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fiery response to Congress have thrust the issue into the spotlight, but it’s a topic that typically has more heat than light.

Countless books have been written about the subject, but it is difficult to know which ones to read because the issue encompasses so much history and courts so much controversy.

To help out, we asked four experts for their recommendations: Kenneth M. Cuno, University of Illinois associate professor of history; Fred Lazin, visiting professor at American University’s Center for Israel Studies; H. Andrew Schwartz, senior vice president for external relations at the Center for Strategic & International Studies; and Ross Brann, professor of Judeo-Islamic studies at Cornell University.

“Palestine and the Arab-Israeli
Conflict” by Charles Smith

Cuno suggests starting with this textbook written by Smith, a University of Arizona professor, calling it “a good, thorough introduction” to the history of Palestine. Smith’s book provides both a historical and political overview of the Israel-Palestine conflict, while being careful to include current and historical perspectives from both sides.

A key strength of the book is that Smith provides numerous documents, maps and photographs that provide much-needed context and help readers get a better understanding of the region’s people.  

“The Jewish State: A Century Later” by Alan Dowty

Lazin suggests reading this book by Dowty, a senior associate for Middle East studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Lazin calls Dowty “a longtime scholar of Israeli politics” who “knows Israel both personally and academically.”

Despite being published in 2001, Lazin believes the book is “probably the most perceptive study of contemporary Israeli society.” In his book, Dowty explores the many subcultures in Israel, from the orthodox Jews to the Israeli Arabs. In fact, an entire chapter is dedicated to the often-overlooked issue of Palestinians living in Israel.

“The Missing Peace” by Dennis Ross

Ross has worked as top Middle East adviser and negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. More than just a history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, “The Missing Peace” provides a thorough overview of the rocky peace negotiations between the two parties from someone who Schwartz believes has critical firsthand knowledge.

“[Ross’] insider account of the discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians provides valuable insight for anyone who wants to gain a greater understanding of the history of peace talks between 1988 and 2000,” Schwartz said.

Ross mostly focuses on his own experiences working on the numerous discussions between the two sides from the 1991 Madrid Conference through the 2000 Camp David Summit and 2001 Taba Summit. Other notable events covered by Ross include the 1995 assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the election of Benjamin Netanyahu.

“A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” by Mark Tessler

Tessler, a University of Michigan political science professor and vice provost of international affairs at the school, seeks to lay out the history and context of the conflict in his book. Brann calls it “the very best.”

Tessler tries to go beyond simply providing a history of the conflict by also looking at the framework for future peace, while trying to spell out what that might mean. He also takes care to illustrate the perspectives and motivations of the Israelis and Palestinians

“The book engages the reader in the national narratives as well as the political history behind the conflict,” Brann said.

A strength of the book, according to Brann, is that it remains engaging and highly readable despite its length.

“It looks imposing because it is long,” Brann said. “But it is extremely well-written and accessible.”

“Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land” by David K. Shipler

Shipler, a former New York Times reporter, won a Pulitzer Prize for this book. Drawing upon his experience as the Israel correspondent for the Times, Shipler focuses on telling the story of the people, Israeli and Palestinian, by explaining who they are and what they want. Brann calls the book “well-written, thoughtful and accessible.”

More than just a dry history of the conflict, Shipler chooses to tell the story of the people embroiled in it by sharing their own words and experiences.

According to Brann, this book has the “virtue of letting various Israelis and Palestinians ‘speak’ through recounting their experiences, which illuminates the historical reporting.”

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