Becke on Barak, 'State Expansion and Conflict: In and between Israel/Palestine and Lebanon'

Oren Barak
Johannes Becke

Oren Barak. State Expansion and Conflict: In and between Israel/Palestine and Lebanon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 292 pp. $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-41579-8.

Reviewed by Johannes Becke (Heidelberg Center for Jewish Studies) Published on H-Diplo (October, 2019) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

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Comparing Israel to its neighbors comes with a number of challenges. Throughout the entire research process, from conference talks to peer reviews, so to speak, questions will be raised about case selection, relevance, and political bias: What exactly could be gained from comparing a liberal democracy to entrenched authoritarian regimes? Why should we force the sui generis phenomenon of Israel into a comparative framework in the first place? And what might be the tacit agenda behind comparing Israel to its neighbors—perhaps a secret desire to normalize Israel as yet another Middle Eastern state despite over fifty years of military rule over the occupied territories?

It is this distinct denial of comparability that makes Oren Barak’s book State Expansion and Conflict: In and between Israel/Palestine and Lebanon so crucial and refreshing. In contrast to a widespread “politics of uniqueness” that shapes research and teaching on Israel/Palestine, Barak emphasizes the critical value of developing comparative-historical frameworks for the study of seemingly unique cases, such as Israel and Lebanon—even more so if these cases are closely entangled.[1] In sharp contrast to the “post-post-Zionist” micro-history, which has come to dominate the field of Israel studies, Barak presents a convincing case for a theory-guided macro-history of Israel and its neighbors—in this case by studying both Lebanon and Israel/Palestine as “expanded states that are also divided societies” (p. xv).[2] While Barak’s emphasis on Lebanon is unique, he is not alone in pursuing a regional-comparative approach to the study of Israeli state formation and Israeli state expansion: Barak belongs to an emerging network of scholars (often trained in Middle East studies) who emphasize the entanglements between Israel and its neighbors, for instance, by exploring the parallels between Moroccan, Turkish, and Israeli expansionism.[3] Clustered around the Forum for Regional Thinking or Manarat: The Van Leer Center for Jewish-Arab Relations, this school of thought tends to defy the assumptions of the settler-colonial paradigm as defined by Gershon Shafir (Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict [1989]), Ian S. Lustick (Unsettled States, Disputed Lands: Britain and Ireland, France and Algeria, Israel and the West Bank-Gaza [1993]), and Baruch Kimmerling (Zionism and Territory: The Socio-Territorial Dimensions of Zionist Politics [1982]). What can we learn from Barak’s insightful study?

Barak’s point of departure consists in a common talking point among Israeli politicians and Middle East specialists, namely, the decline of the Maronites in Lebanon—deployed as a warning signal against a similar fate for Israeli Jews in a binational state between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. As Barak points out, despite a long-lasting Jewish-Israeli interest in the demographic and political fate of the Maronites, “no attempt has been made to follow through with a more detailed—and explicit—comparison between the formation of Greater Lebanon in 1920 and the creation of Greater Israel in 1967” (p. 2). Consequently, the core of Barak’s argument consists in a comparison between Lebanese and Israeli state expansion, followed by a study of their entanglement. In 1920, under French colonial rule, the Maronite-dominated mutasarrafiya (Ottoman administrative subdivision) of Mount Lebanon (as well as its proto-state institutions) was joined with Beirut and four neighboring Muslim-majority districts to form the “State of Greater Lebanon.” In contrast, in 1967 Israel conquered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula and launched a large-scale project of demographic engineering and partial political inclusion. While Israel never formally annexed the occupied territories (or declared a “State of Greater Israel”), Barak argues that we should treat Israel’s conquest in 1967 as an informal state expansion that created a new and “single political unit,” namely, “Israel/Palestine,” which deserves to be compared to “other expanded states,” including, for instance, “Morocco and Western Sahara, China and Tibet, Turkey and North Cyprus and, most recently, Russia and the Crimean Peninsula” as well as “Jordan and the West Bank (1949–1967), Indonesia and East Timor (1975–1999), and Syria and Lebanon (1976–2005)” (pp. 3, 221).

While this broad comparative setting might sound like analytical overreach, Barak’s comparative case study emphasizes the differences between Lebanese and Israeli state expansion. While “Greater Lebanon” created relatively weak state institutions but enjoys high levels of legitimacy (even in areas “captured” in 1920), “Greater Israel” stands out for much stronger state institutions but also decidedly lower levels of legitimacy, particularly among the population that was captured in 1967. According to Barak’s theoretical framework, this insight would put post-1967 Israel into the same category as the “USSR and Yugoslavia before their disintegration,” “South Africa before 1994,” or “Syria before 2011” (p. 28). In this context, Barak emphasizes different patterns of intercommunal relations in the divided societies that were created by Lebanese and Israeli state expansions, ranging from control and repression (Israel’s rule over the occupied territories) to a stalemate of power or even different patterns of power sharing (Lebanon both before and after the Civil War). In this context, Barak’s empirical chapters emphasize the path dependence of intercommunal relations in proto-states. While Lebanese power sharing already existed in the mutasarrafiya, no such confidence building took place in Mandatory Palestine. In addition, the comparative analysis points to the security sector as a key instrument of national integration (Lebanon) or community dominance (Israel/Palestine).

Building on a wide selection of primary and secondary sources (in both Hebrew and Arabic), the book provides a detailed and theory-guided comparison of the relations between state, society, and the security sector in Lebanon and (as Barak would put it) Israel/Palestine. The comparative case study is especially convincing in its critique of Israeli Orientalist clichés of “Lebanon as a quagmire ... in stark contrast to the way that many Israelis have come to see their own state...: Western, civilized, democratic, homogenous, and peace-loving” (p. 209). As Barak points out, the stability of Israeli-Lebanese relations was systematically undermined by Israel’s foreign policy, and over time, the two “vicious circles” of state weakness (in Lebanon) and state illegitimacy (in Israel/Palestine) became interlocked (pp. 152-53). Throughout the comparative-historical analysis, the book offers numerous provocative insights, ranging from comparisons between the Likud and the Phalanges (as “communal entrepreneurs” that challenge the “statist” status quo [p. 189]) to comparisons between Hezbollah and the Jewish settler movement (as “rising ... peripheral actors” [p. 141]).

However, in its emphasis on the comparability of “Greater Lebanon” and “Greater Israel,” the book sometimes underestimates the relevance of religious-messianic irredentism in the Jewish-Israeli case. The covenantal logic of Jewish-Israeli claims to the occupied territories is fairly different from Maronite claims to an economically viable “Greater Lebanon” in 1920. The comparative case study also glosses over the fact that Lebanon under Syrian occupation should not be described as an independent political entity. If Barak labels post-1967 Israel as “Israel/Palestine,” we might have to describe post-1989 Lebanon as a mere part of “Syria/Lebanon,” a political conglomerate that existed until Syria’s state contraction in 2005. In contrast, the book tends to overemphasize the “actual existence of Israel/Palestine as a single political unit” (p. 115). The author is correct in pointing out that Israel’s 1967 expansion transformed the Israeli-Arab confrontation from an interstate conflict (between Israel and its neighbors) back to an intercommunal conflict (between a dominant Jewish-Israeli community controlling the Palestinian-Arab community). Nonetheless, by arguing that neither the First Intifada, nor the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, nor the Second Intifada represented tipping points for Israel’s rule over the occupied territories, the book somewhat neglects the impact of Palestinian mobilization against Israeli expansionism. “Greater Israel” as a “single political unit” might have existed between 1967 and 1979, but the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula (1979) created a crucial precedent for the reversibility of Israeli state expansion. The substantial demographic growth in the Jewish-Israeli settler exclaves should not make us forget about additional cases of Israeli state contraction, namely, from Area A (1995), from South Lebanon (2000), and from the Gaza Strip (2005).

Nonetheless, Barak’s book is a strong and well-structured argument against both Israeli and Lebanese exceptionalism. Given the detailed introduction, the book will be highly valuable not only for scholars who specialize in Israel and Lebanon but also for comparative scholars interested in state expansion, state contraction, and intercommunal relations in highly divided societies. The comparative framework deserves to be applied widely to other case studies of postcolonial state expansions mentioned throughout the book.


[1]. Michael N. Barnett, “The Politics of Uniqueness: The Status of the Israeli Case,” in Israel in Comparative Perspective: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom, ed. Michael N. Barnett (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996), 3–25.

[2]. Assaf Likhovski, “Post-Post-Zionist Historiography,” Israel Studies 15, no. 2 (2010): 1–23.

[3]. Oded Haklai and Neophytos Loizides, eds., Settlers in Contested Lands: Territorial Disputes and Ethnic Conflicts (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).

Johannes Becke teaches Israel and Middle East studies at the Heidelberg Center for Jewish Studies.

Citation: Johannes Becke. Review of Barak, Oren, State Expansion and Conflict: In and between Israel/Palestine and Lebanon. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. October, 2019. URL:

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