It’s Not About The Money

5. Oktober 2011 0

Book Review on Daniel Byman: A High Price

Counterterrorism and trauma go hand in hand, yet this relationship has been a deeply neglected topic in Middle East Studies and in other political conflicts. The best research on both has been coming out of Israel since before the creation of the State. A High Price begins with the British Mandate Period writing forward, up through the present in a balance manner covering not only the Arab based Palestinian terrorism expanding out to the rigidly religious ideological groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to the global Al Qaeda and the Shia Hizbollah but also very importantly the Jewish terrorist groups, the extreme streak within the settler movement, Tag Mechir (Price Tag) and even such lone wolves as Yigal Amir.


Daniel Byman (2011): A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. Oxford University Press, 496 pages, 27,99 Euro. Buy at Amazon.

A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism is written by a leading scholar, Professor Byman, who teaches at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service. He is also senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. Author of Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism (2007), The Five Front War (2007) and Keeping the Peace (2002), he is deeply involved in counterterrorism. He has served on the 9/11 committee. Hence, he is eminently qualified to research and produce such a book. Moreover he has linguistic, cultural and historical knowledge of the Middle East. He conducted in depth interviews with some of the major players in Israel like Avi Dichter, Boaz Ganor, and Yoram Schweitzer just to name a few. In addition he has uncanny psychological insight concerning the actors, the violence and the function of terrorism.

Byman’s narrative adeptly describes these interlocking conflicts, showing how one action precipitates a counter response often with the escalation of violence rather than its diminution. Byman develops the context within which these interlocking dynamics occur as it diachronically plays out. He is brilliant in documenting, detailing and plotting the scope and depth of how Israelis are famous for “tokh c’dei t’nuah” improvising as they go but faltering terribly when it comes to long term planning, especially with the interplay between national security planning and counterterrorism. One could even see this in the “Israeli summer tent protests” and their chants for social justice. The lament is the same, that there is no leadership, only politicians. Byman’s section on “A System Designed for Chaos” puts it well:

In over sixty years of fighting terrorism Israel has at times empowered radicals at the expense of moderates, tarnished its diplomatic image, allowed terrorists to use propaganda to turn defeat into victory, and otherwise failed at strategic level. Such failures are in part due to the difficulty of the challenge Israel has faced and continues to face. But many of these mistakes must be laid at the door of the country’s poor national security decision-making system. Israel’s national decision making is as disastrous as its military and intelligence services are impressive.”

The final section of the book on Findings and Conclusions does not disappoint as it deals with interrogation dilemmas to targeted killings, the security fence or wall depending which side you are on figuratively and literally along with what needs to be reorganized in order to be more effective in countering terrorism. He ends on a realistic but pessimistic note of fading hopes for peace with a splendid chapter concerning “What Israel can teach the world and what Israel should learn.”

Byman unwittingly provided tons of information indirectly concerning the dynamics of terrorism’s violence and its squeal of trauma, disclosing the elephant in the room, a dysfunctional Palestinian family system (shame honor culture) with its attendant devalued female and over idealized mother supported by extremist religious ideologies as in the case of Hamas, etc. that yields impoverished social skills and causes the perpetuation of grievances across the generations, perpetual victimhood, i.e. intergenerational transmission of trauma. All of this impedes healthy psychological infrastructure for an individual still trapped in cult-like clans/hamula and tribes, whose challenged familial dynamics, to put it diplomatically, replay as shoddy civic infrastructure lacking democracy.

To cite only a few examples that to a large degree ummi, the Arab mother, is the terrorist’s Achilles’ heel and to a lesser extent Imaleh, the Israeli Jewish mother serves as a kind of mirror image making it difficult for counter terrorist experts to deal with the blind spot. Byman offers some anecdotal moments for an unwritten history of the role of the mother in political terrorism. See page 31 on the orphaned motherless Arafat, as an example of many terrorist leaders who were abandoned orphans. It is not unusual that he would be likely to recruit young terrorists with no purpose in life as they would be perfect targets to work under his warped tutelage. His lifelong anger and split personality derives from this early deprivation. He was known to be a pervasive liar. See also pages 54,106, 146, 189, 337 alluding to the terrorist mother and read most especially Duha, the four year old daughter of the female suicide bomber Reem Riyashi, singing to her dead mother in a Hamas made for tv children’s program. “My mother , my mother… Instead of me you carried a bomb in your hands; I know what was more precious then us,” and promising, “I am following Mommy in her footsteps.”

Byman does not let the Israelis off the hook, and rightfully so, for falling into the trap of stooping to the level of the Palestinian terrorist’s maternal conflict when he takes the Givati Brigade to task about a T-shirt “displaying a bull’s eye on a pregnant Palestinian woman…” See pages 142 and 241 concerning Imaleh, the Israeli Jewish mother.

The Egyptian sociologist, Halim Barakat, has written that the family is the microcosm of the society. Byman also notes that “The family and the tribe often form the basis for recruitment, particularly for the more elite units that carry out terrorism.” He quotes Shai Nitzan’s argument before the Israeli Supreme Court, claiming that “the family is a central factor in Palestinian society” and through it terrorists can be deterred.”

These maternal moments were probably unintended as such to carry the narrative weight of A High Price. Yet they give a human dimension to such triumphs and failures and they are at the eye of the storm.

I quibble with Byman over one omission concerning the settlers’ movement toward violent behavior and the withdrawal from Gaza. There were in fact two self-immolations. One by a settler Russian woman and one by a young man. This is part of the slippery slope phenomenon into what could have become Jewish suicide bombings and still may in the future. There is no guarantee. Judaism in extremis could participate in this kind of perverse aberrant hysterical phenomenon. Suicide bombing is incredibly imitative, it degrades some of those it comes in contact with, murders many, maims brutally and spreads like wild fire. Immolation is key to suicide bombing. The second quibble concerns Yahiya Ayash the Hamas Engineer and exactly whom was he told that was on the other end of the cell phone call that blew off his head — his mother or father? Byman offers two conflicting reports which just goes to show the reader what a careful researcher he is. Finally, I wish that Byman had underscored the symbolic meaning of stoning and stone throwing by Palestinians as well as Muslims when he cited the Mitchell Commission’s investigation. Stone throwing is considered a crime in Israel. But more than that, stone throwing is revealing behavior — potentially lethal, concrete and autistic.

Byman repeatedly notes the difficulty in breaking through those terrorists that hold to a religious ideology. Could this be an indicator of a much more recalcitrant psychopathology, showing a cognitive paranoid deficit? It would behoove counter terrorist experts to move beyond the surface of this phenomenon to factor in an earlier developmental problem which is perhaps similarly shared by those non Arabs who become radicalized. Ultimately neuroscience will probably help us understand their glaring lack of empathy for the other.

To conclude, A High Price is not about the money, rather it is about learning to develop balance between countering terrorism and national security needs for its citizenry. This book should be required reading for every student in political science, conflict resolution, counterterrorism and national security studies to say nothing of the need for all diplomats dealing with the Middle East as well. Above all the text needs to be translated into Hebrew and Arabic so that all Israelis and the Arab Springers can come to understand the dilemma which they mutually face – how to make Israel safe and the Arab minority better integrated into Israeli society, while at the same time making the Arab regional majority safe and democratic. Byman’s A High Price enters the canon of counterterrorism studies. I place it at the center.

Daniel Byman (2011): A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. Oxford University Press, 496 pages, 27,99 Euro. Buy at Amazon.

Leave A Response »