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Historical Novel of Israel's Birth

`THE Hope,'' or ``Ha-Tikva,'' is the stirring Zionist hymn which became the Israeli national anthem. It also provides the title for Herman Wouk's historical novel chronicling the fortunes of the fledgling state from its 1948 war of independence to the mixed blessing of its triumph in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Readers familiar with Wouk's historical novels of World War II -

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``The Winds of War'' (1971) and ``War and Remembrance'' (1978) - will recognize many of the same techniques at work here: solid historical research; a large canvas where fictional characters of Wouk's own invention rub shoulders with real-life historical figures like David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Mickey Marcus, and John F. Kennedy; and straightforward, old-fashioned story-telling that makes it easy to follow the complicated maneuverings of soldiers, statesmen, diplomats, and other key players on the stage of history.

Wouk's narrative takes readers through ``Independence,'' the Suez crisis, the ``Missions to America'' that helped transform the United States from a not-very-friendly critic to a close ally, and the famous ``Six Days'' in 1967 that gained Israel the respect of many who doubted its ability to defend itself and also gained it a great deal of problematic occupied territory. One of this novel's virtues is its lucid presentation of what actually went on, in the public arena and behind the scenes, where split-second timing, tough decisions, and the power of persuasion could spell the difference between defeat and victory.

In a brief section called ``Historical Notes,'' Wouk helpfully lays out which incidents and characters are offered as reliable history and which are merely fictional or apocryphal.

The two leading fictional characters are Haganah captain Zev Barak, at 24 a battle-seasoned veteran when the story begins, and Yossi Blumenthal, an engaging, slightly goofy 16-year-old refugee, whose willingness to plunge into the fray earns him the nickname ``Don Kishote'' (a sort of Hebraized ``Don Quixote'').

Zev is a brilliant strategist and soldier, who increasingly finds himself assigned to duty away from the front line - as far away as Washington, D.C., where he acts as a liaison between the Israeli government and an austere, but sympathetic, American intelligence officer named Christian Cunningham.

``Don Kishote'' meanwhile becomes a first-rate tank commander and finds himself torn between two very different women. The romantic story lines, while not exactly ground-breaking explorations of the human heart, are believably portrayed and do add some personal dimension to the novel.

But history is the main attraction of this story. The military, diplomatic, and political events, from bitter debates in the United Nations to Israel's long-deferred dream of capturing the Old City of Jerusalem, are this book's raison dtre. Especially interesting are the parallels and contrasts Wouk draws between the Suez campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day War 21 years later.

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Wouk's viewpoint throughout is avowedly and unabashedly pro-Israeli, but not at the cost of distorting the facts or presenting the other side as villains or monsters. Whatever its merits as literature, ``The Hope'' succeeds in evoking a time when the tiny state, vastly outnumbered by hostile neighbors intent on its destruction and lacking the support it would later receive from the US, managed through vigilance and courage to hold its own.

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