This book is part of a large series covering a wide range of topics, but it is the first in the Oxford University Press' "Very Short Introduction" collection to address the question of Palestine-Israel. Responsibility for the task was given to Professor Martin Bunton, an academic based at the University of Victoria, Canada.
Bunton divides the book into six clear, chronologically-ordered chapters that cover the Ottoman era, the British mandate, the partition of Palestine and the Nakba, Israel's rule over the West Bank and Gaza from 1967 onwards, culminating in the first and second Intifadas and the international peace process.
The book has some important strengths: it is well written, provides insightful maps and timelines, and serves as an historical summary of key events and developments. The series of which the book is a part aims to make "challenging topics highly readable", and in this, Bunton succeeds.
Bunton also includes plenty of material that will challenge perceptions shaped by long-standing myths – such as the fact that in 1948, the number of Haganah/Israeli Defence Forces troops outnumbered the "total number of Arabs committed to the war", with Israel also benefitting from disorganisation amongst Arab forces.
The book also makes it clear that a Jewish state was established through the forced displacement of the indigenous Palestinian population. "Upon independence", Bunton writes, "the new state was determined to establish a democratic government" – he then adds drily "at least for Jews".
While there is much to commend the book for, there are also some important problems. According to OUP, the book "gets to the heart of the problem" and reduces it "to its very essence: a struggle between two nations over land", a "territorial contest between two nations".
This framing is repeated over and over again. In the preface, Bunton talks about "the problem of sharing the land", and states clearly that, for him, "the main challenge" for "resolving the conflict" is "essentially one of drawing borders". He summarises the lamentable history of the last century was a failure of various attempts to "satisfy the claims of both Jewish and Palestinian nationalism to the same territorial space", a parity he frequently emphasises.
What makes this particularly striking is that Bunton also describes the Zionist colonisation process during the British Mandate as an effort "to settle a European population among indigenous inhabitants with whom there could be no accommodation". He notes that for Palestinians, Zionism was a "settler-colonial movement". But he leaves that verdict hanging – a Palestinian claim which he does not dismiss or support.
His summary of the failings of the Oslo process is somewhat flimsy and rests on another series of statements of equivalence: "both sides", "mistrust felt by everyone", "each side accused the other". The danger of seeing the "conflict" as being about drawing borders is that one obscures the power asymmetry and ongoing, active dynamic of Israeli settler-colonial expansion and consolidation (both inside the West Bank as well as in the pre-1967 lines).
Bunton's own views are further clarified in the conclusion. The "basic outlines" for a resolution "are clear", he tells the reader, before laying them out: two states, land swaps, "limitations placed on the Palestinian military forces", and a "mutually acceptable negotiation of the Palestinian refugee problem" that does not threaten "the Jewish character of the state".
This final section is a microcosm of the book's strengths and weaknesses: a concise, readable summary, constrained by assumptions about what constitutes a practical or moral solution. The book's final remarks, warning of the death of the two-state solution, only serves to highlight the failings of the metanarrative shaping Bunton's otherwise useful historical introduction.