The Levant: New Faces, Old Themes
Business As Usual? Economic Reform in Jordan, by Katherine Blue Carroll. Lanham, MD, Boulder, CO, New York, and Oxford, UK: Lexington, 2003. 284 pages. Appends. to 292. Bibl. to p. 307. Interviews to p. 312. Index to p. 315. $80. Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel & Lebanon, by Robert Rabil. Boulder, CO and London,UK: Lynne Rienner, 2003. xii + 283 pages. Bibl. to p. 294. Index to p. 306. $58.50. Israel, the Hashemites and the Palestinians: The Fateful Triangle, ed. by Efraim Karsh and PR Kumaraswamy. London, UK and Portland, Or: Cass, 2003. 208 pages. Abstracts to p. 213. Index to p. 221. $26.50. Jordan in Transition, ed. by George Joffe. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. xxii + 367 pages. Index to p. 378. $65. Seeds of Hate: How America's Flawed Mideast Policy Ignited the Jihad, by Lawrence Pintak. 352 pages. $65 cloth; $22.50 paper. The Jordanian-Israeli War: 1948-1951, by Maan Abu Nowar. Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2002. xi + 434 pages. Appends, to p. 500. Bibl. to p. 505. Index to p. 515. $55. The Levant: A Fractured Mosaic, by William Harris. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener, 2003. xii + 179 pages. Notes to p. 192. Gloss, to p. 201. Refs. to p. 207. Index of names to p. 211. $22.95. The Palestinian Impasse in Lebanon: The Politics of Refugee Integration, by Simon Haddad. Brighton, UK and Portland, OR: Sussex Academic Press, 2003. x + 148 pages. Appends. to p. 161. Bibl. to p. 170. Index to p. 179. $65.
This review essay seeks to weave the main arguments and suppositions of the books under review into a brief analysis of the Levant's changing strategic geography. William Harris sets the scene and provides a perspective of the Levant from a longue duree. The Levant, he argues, is the geographical centre of the Middle East and the Arab world, and from the seventh century onward it became critical for the geographical continuity of Islamic civilization between Asia and Africa. Moreover, the Levant's strategic location has meant that it has been continuously fought over, by a variety of states and imperial powers.
The Levant has never coalesced into a durable political unit, and Harris attributes this factor to its compartmentalization between coastlands, uplands, and interior plains, with no natural center of gravity. Domination or possession, he argues, has conferred strategic advantage and moral prestige throughout the past two thousand years.
Harris provides the reader with a snapshot of the Levant's long history in a matter of 179 pages. It is a staggering race, and the reader can barely keep up with the pace of change. Although it is gratifying to cover so much history in such a short space, it reminds one of Schoolbook history. However, there is an inherent danger for the reader when an author gallivants through history, and pays scant attention to theory - unaccounted-for assumptions can creep into the text. For example, Harris casts doubt over the legitimacy of all Arab leaders in the Modern Levant without explaining his reasons; furthermore, he calls the Palestinian leadership "controversial and inept" - again, without explaining why. Throw-away lines, such as these, detract from the credibility of the work.
The principal contribution of The Levant: A Fractured Mosaic is its depiction of the Levant as an enduring gateway between civilizations, and one that is continuously vulnerable to major power interest. With the end of the Cold War, Harris notes, in the contemporary Levant, as elsewhere, the United States is the gatekeeper of the capitalist West. Moreover, it is the ringmaster of the Levant, wherein Israel, Turkey, and Jordan operate within the United States' sphere of benign influence, and Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories are vulnerable to its ideology, interests, and whims.
Robert Rabil's Embattled Neighbors recounts Syria and Israel's struggle for influence over Lebanon. The modern Levant has been characterized by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and within that context, Syria and Israel have sought to extend their hegemony throughout the Levant. …