Living Israel’s History
1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War
By Benny Morris
Israeli historians have always had a difficult task in telling their country’s story. Or to be more accurate, they have had a difficult task in telling it well. They must of course contend with the tired axiom that history is the past viewed through the lens of the present, but they are doubly cursed because their country, despite just having celebrated its sixtieth anniversary, is still undergoing birth pangs. Both Israelis and Palestinians rest the legitimacy of their claims in large part on their victimhood, and for both peoples, everything – every act, every statement, every crime – bears the mark of causation.
In the late 1980s, in the wake of a failed war in Lebanon and in the midst of the first Palestinian intifada, a group of historians emerged to challenge the conventional narrative of Israel’s birth. These “new historians” (a term Benny Morris coined as a “self-defense mechanism” against an onslaught of criticism), including Morris, Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe and others, argued that Israeli leadership bore some responsibility for the wretched state of the Palestinian people. In the most important of these new books, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Benny Morris claimed that while there was no explicit, all-encompassing policy of transfer (what we would now call ethnic cleansing), Arab flight was mainly a result of Israeli military action and occasional instances of deliberate and brutal expulsion.
Morris and his colleagues didn’t apportion all of their blame to the Israelis: plenty fell on the British and the venal and corrupt Palestinian leadership. Still, the implications were far reaching. Palestinians have long fought for a “right of return” to Israel, a claim the Jewish state has always resisted. The works of the “new historians” seemed to lend credence to that claim, which had, up to that point, been parried by the charge that Palestine’s Arabs had left voluntarily, or at the behest of their own leadership. More generally, this revisionist history chipped away at the triumphant Zionist narrative, which hailed the justice of Israel’s cause and its “purity of arms.” These revisionist historians laid siege to Israel’s moral high ground while the conflict was still ongoing. As Morris explained in an interview with The Washington Post last year, “there comes a stage in any revolutionary process when the movement relaxes its hold on the official narrative. The difference is that when that moment came in Israel, our long struggle with the Arabs remained an existential threat, as it still does today.”
Morris’ work won him no friends in the Israeli academic establishment. Unable to get a university position, he announced his intention to leave the country in 1996. Ezer Weizman, a participant in the 1948 war and then President of Israel, invited Morris to his office and asked if he supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Morris answered in the affirmative and Weizman got him a job as professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, where he teaches today. The Oslo peace process was trudging forward and in that relatively hopeful atmosphere Morris produced Righteous Victims, a tome widely regarded (and rightly so) as the best overall history of the Zionist-Arab conflict.
Today, however, Morris has been excommunicated from the “new historian” school. At the time his first book was published (1988), he supported the Palestinian uprising that made his book so relevant. “My feeling during the first intifada,” Morris said in that same interview, “was that they wanted us off their backs” (intifada literally means “shaking off”). With the collapse of the peace process in 2000 and the ensuing “al-Aqsa” intifada, which he blamed on Yasser Arafat and Palestinian society in general, his views hardened. “My sense of the second intifada was that they both wanted us off their backs and they wanted to destroy us.” Reflecting on the effects of this second, more violent outburst, Morris recalled that “it sent people politically, like a centrifuge, spinning in all directions. It polarized the Israeli left, driving those inclined to the far left farther that way and those of us in the Zionist left in the other direction.”
The change showed itself immediately, in the lectures and articles he produced after the collapse of peace talks at Taba. But it was a 2004 interview with Ha’aretz that propelled him to his current infamy.
Ben-Gurion was a “transferist”?
Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist.
I don’t hear you condemning him.
Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here…I think he made a serious historical mistake in 1948. Even though he understood the demographic issue and the need to establish a Jewish state without a large Arab minority, he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered.
I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying that Ben-Gurion erred in expelling too few Arabs?
If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job. I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country – the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake.
His fellow revisionist historians condemned him, and he’s even come into favor with some on the right. Among other things he now reviews books for the ardently pro-Israel New Republic.
Yet Morris’ overall conception of the conflict, despite its myth-busting, was never as radical as some have made it out to be. His was always an Israel-centered narrative. One reason is necessity: Morris purports to distrust oral history and deals mainly in documents. Israel’s documents are voluminous and those of its Arab neighbors are either nonexistent or locked away somewhere. He is also a self-avowed Zionist. So his books tend to focus on the nuances of the Zionist project – the actions, decisions and motivations of its principals – while their Arab counterparts are depicted in broader brushstrokes. Morris also, especially in the last decade, has taken to editorializing, and this is where his methodology and personal feelings can hurt him.
It would be a mistake, however, to peg Morris as a polemicist. He is a rigorous historian, and takes great pains to present events as objectively as possible. The last book he wrote (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, an update of his first) bristles with this tension: the Zionist versus the historian. That paradox is part of what makes him such a thought-provoking writer (and it makes up for his occasionally dry prose). His latest work, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, evinces the same dichotomy: archival precision and a despondent pessimism about the future of his country.
The central dilemma of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – who gets the land, who deserves the land – has been unresolved since the first Zionist immigrants arrived in the 1880s in what was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the state of Israel comprises nearly eighty percent of historical Palestine, and maintains de facto sovereignty over the rest. In the interim, the Ottoman Empire crumbled, the British came and went, there were dozens of uprisings large and small, and Israel fought five wars with its neighbors. It is the first war, which Benny Morris covers here, that made the Israeli state and drove seven hundred thousand out of their homes.
There hadn’t been any organized Zionist-Arab violence by the time Britain supplanted the Ottoman Empire. Most of the surrounding Ottoman administrative areas were marked off for nationhood and the Hashemite clan (who had led a revolt against the Ottomans) was tapped to rule those future states with English patronage. But the French and British, in the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, had reserved the rest for themselves. The French were to gain dominion over what is today Lebanon, while the British were to exercise direct control over what is today Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, now permanently separated from the provincial capitals of Damascus and Beirut. Sympathy for Zionism in Britain (and able lobbying by Chaim Weizmann) led to the vague Balfour Declaration of November 1917, which made provisions for a “Jewish national home,” though it avoided the word “state.”
Two events proved instrumental in the formation of a separate Palestinian nationalism. One was the separation of Palestine from its former provincial capitals, Beirut and Damascus. The other was the French takeover of Syria. The British had installed the Hashemite Faisal in Syria, but when he declared himself “King of Syria and Palestine,” the French invaded and conquered Damascus. The French invasion was, as Morris tells it, “to prove crucial in the emergence of a separate Palestinian Arab national movement and a decisive moment in the evolving Zionist-Arab conflict.” Nationalist fervor struck a Palestine now separated from the rest of the Arab world.
It began with the assault on Tel Hai (later immortalized in an Israeli national holiday), a Jewish settlement in the sparsely populated Galilee Panhandle. A month later “pogrom-like Arab rioting” broke out in Jerusalem’s Old City. Six were killed, a few raped, and hundreds were injured. The British did little to stop it (their behavior over the next quarter century was to be fatally uneven). The Zionist leadership responded by forming the Irgun Haganah, an underground militia that would eventually become the Israeli Defense Force.
Further eruptions of violence occurred in the following decades, each more violent than the last. The fateful Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 was to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. Armed bands attacked Jewish traffic, and the Arab Higher Committee – the corrupt and ineffectual “government” of the Palestinians – called for a general strike. Britain responded by convening the Peel Commission, which produced a report in July of 1937 advocating a two-state solution and a transfer of populations. The transfer recommendation allowed many Zionists to speak openly about what they had long considered in private. Ben-Gurion and the rest of the Jewish leadership wholeheartedly accepted the commission’s proposals. The despotic and corrupt Haj Amin al-Husseini and his family, de facto leaders of the Palestinians, renewed the rebellion. Members of the Palestinian opposition had initially endorsed the Peel recommendations, but Husseini branded them traitors and they quickly slinked back into acquiescence. With the uprising in full swing again, the Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL) – military arm of the right-wing Revisionist movement – began a brutal campaign of terrorism against the Arab population.
Britain also responded forcefully, virtually annihilating bands of resistance and crippling what little social and political cohesion there was within the Arab community. This was to be a decisive factor in the failure of the Palestinian uprising that began the war of independence almost a decade later. And the Arab Revolt was to determine the character of British behavior until their withdrawal in 1948. Morris explains that
the rebellion, coming as it did as Britain faced a worldwide three-front war…almost succeeded – not militarily but politically. From [then] onward, Britain came to view its Palestine policy almost exclusively through the prism of its needs and interests in the forthcoming global struggle.
Indeed, this attitude would carry on past the war, when Britain would have to balance its interests in the Arab world against intermittent pressure from the United States and elsewhere to support a Jewish state. After World War II, English-supplied Arab states represented the last vestiges of the British Empire in the Middle East; they were rich in oil and acted as a barrier against Soviet influence. By the time of its withdrawal, England had tilted far from the Zionist sympathies of its first years in power.
So Britain responded with another proposal, the White Paper of 1939, which promised the Arabs a state and severely curtailed Jewish immigration. The Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) denounced the paper and the IZL initiated sporadic attacks on British installations. Al-Husseini was still not satisfied and demanded immediate independence, a complete end to Jewish immigration and a hasty British withdrawal. But the revolt had been crushed, and World War II was to dominate the next six years. The Yishuv continued to build the infrastructure of a state while thousands of Haganah soldiers gained vital military experience fighting the Nazis. And though the waning of European power and the spread of ethnic nationalism around the world was a boon to both sides, Arabs in Palestine passed the war years without building the necessary institutions to win a war against the Zionists.
International pressure, Zionist pressure (and occasional terrorism), and a homeland reeling from the Second World War prompted Britain, after a few more attempts to find a solution, to pass the Palestine question onto the United Nations, which eventually came up with a partition plan that gave 55 percent of the land to the Zionists, made Jerusalem an international protectorate and left the rest for the Arabs. The Yishuv had made an effective case for itself, while Arab leadership in Palestine and abroad made little effort to convince anyone of the rightness of their cause. The decision was broadcast over the radio on the night of November 29, and the Yishuv celebrated, passing the night “in noisy public rejoicing…the young poured into the streets and danced and celebrated around bonfires through the night.” David Ben-Gurion didn’t celebrate. “I could not dance, I could not sing that night. I looked at them so happy dancing and I could only think that they were all going to war.” He was right. The first shots were fired the next morning.
Despite the intensity of his feelings for Israel and about the Palestinians, Morris manages to contain most of his baggage and relate the story with commendable objectivity. Consider this paragraph about Zionist-British clashes:
The British decision of February 1947 [passing Palestine onto the UN] was firmed up over the following months by bloody events on the ground…Jewish provocations and British reprisals spiraled almost out of control. British efforts to block and punish Jewish terrorism and illegal immigration took on new, bloody dimensions – though, it must be added, British officials and troops by and large displayed restraint and humanity in face of Jewish excesses.
This is set alongside an accurate recounting of Palestinian atrocities and the despicable failure of Arab leadership. Factor in the stunning incompetence of the British, and modern-day partisans on both sides will have trouble reconciling the intricacy of events with their national mythology.
I have a few quibbles, though. One is a problem that crops up throughout the book: where are the characters? We’re told very little about the people we spend more than four hundred pages reading about. A few word and some biographical details are the best we can hope for. Chaim Weizmann, a crucial figure in the Zionist movement who did more for Jewish statehood than anyone excepting Ben-Gurion and Herzl is “able” and “charming.” That’s it. Ben-Gurion himself has a “penchant for hyperbole” and sums up events in biblical terms. He was, in his youth, stabbed by an Arab during a robbery. These are the primary actors in the story, and only a little more would have helped readers invest themselves in the narrative. And despite his efforts, our author sometimes allows his prejudices to creep in. In describing al-Husseini’s admittedly idiotic rejection of the 1939 White Paper, Morris slips this in: “al-Husseini – as was the Palestinians’ wont – managed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory.” To uniformly conflate Palestinians and their leadership, and furthermore to make, as an aside, an implication of collective guilt for the last 60 years is an amateurish mistake, and out of keeping with the balance that defines the rest of the book. But all told, these are blips on the radar. For the most part, Benny Morris is aware that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vexed subject, and he goes to great lengths to describe the often maddening complexity of it all.
Before the Yishuv and neighboring Arab states went to war, the Zionists and Palestinian Arabs fought a brutal civil war. The outcome was a foregone conclusion. Aside from the crushing series of events outlined above, it must be said that Arab society in Palestine was nowhere near as cohesive, as organized and – to use a loaded term – advanced as the Yishuv. Here Morris describes the Zionist forces:
The Yishuv entered the civil war with one large militia and two very small paramilitary or terrorist organizations: the Haganah…with thirty-five thousand members; and the IZL…and LHI [the “Stern Gang”]. The IZL had between two and three thousand members and the LHI some three to five hundred. During the civil war, the three organizations occasionally coordinated their operations and did not clash with one another…Before the war, the Haganah fielded territorially based infantry companies in the Yishuv’s towns and settlements. There was a skeletal General staff, with specialized branches (intelligence service, manpower, logistics, medical corps, and so on) and an embryonic “Air Service.” The reorganization and expansion [during the Civil War] resulted in the creation and deployment of twelve brigades…two armored.
The Palestinians “had nothing comparable to the Haganah.” Aside from armed bands occasionally numbering in the hundreds and a few (almost non-existant) youth organizations, there was only the Arab Liberation Army, mainly composed of volunteers and formed under the auspices of the Arab League. “In the main, Palestinian Arab military power was based on the separate local militias in the country’s seven to eight hundred Arab villages.” There was no coordination and barely more than half of these villages were involved in the conflict. Palestinian leadership didn’t wish to begin the civil war so early, but the diffuse nature of power didn’t allow them the control necessary to reign in villages or militias. The Haganah was better prepared, better equipped (though not so starkly as some have asserted), better motivated, and better organized.
The Arabs still had the element of surprise, and for the first four months of the conflict the Yishuv was on the defensive. Caught in the midst of reorganization, the Haganah slowly shifted from defense to “active defense” to aggressive warfare. Morris, however, cites two caveats to this restrained show of force. One concerns the paramilitary groups: “From the first, the IZL and LHI did not play along. Almost immediately, they responded to Arab depredations with indiscriminate terrorism (to the ire of the Haganah chiefs).” Second, and most incisive, was that “mainstream Zionist leaders, from the first, began to think of expanding the Jewish state beyond the…partition resolution borders.” Moshe Shertok, a future Prime Minister, said “we will get hold of as much of Palestine as we would think we can hold.” Morris’ restraint pays dividends here too. He avoids the tendency of a few other revisionist scholars (Ilan Pappe sometimes does this) to paint Zionism – and thus its participants – as a malevolent force. Zionist leaders were indeed expansionists, but most of their enemies did wish to push the Yishuv, brutally and bloodily, into the sea.
The sporadic Arab attacks begat stronger and stronger responses (Haganah operations but especially the paramilitary terrorist attacks) and, Morris writes, “gradually…the whole country – or at least the areas with Jewish concentrations of population – was set alight.” Arab forces were most effective in interdicting supplies and attacking civilians on the roadways, and by late March the Haganah found itself unable to navigate the roads to the besieged Jewish community in Jerusalem. A large-scale push to remedy the situation heralded the beginning of Plan D (or Dalet in Hebrew):
Haganah policy would be permanently to secure roads, border areas, and Jewish settlements by crushing minatory irregular forces and destroying or permanently occupying the villages and towns from which they operated. The Arab militias and their ALA reinforcements had to be crushed; the main roads had to be permanently secured; and the Haganah’s brigades had to be freed to deploy along the borders to fend off the expected pan-Arab invasion.
Recall as well that the groundwork for the Arab exodus had already been laid. Their society was fragmented and their leadership was corrupt and powerless.
Yet Morris eschews the Manichean tendencies of some of his colleagues. The Zionist goal of a relatively homogenous state had roots stretching back decades, but that was mostly in the background until the civil war broke out. What must be considered is the nature of the warfare. Two societies, their populations intertwined and intermixed, fought a brutal struggle for dominance. Even for those most sympathetic to the Palestinians, it must be admitted that strategic considerations were the spark that allowed population transfer to become Zionist practice. In this context, much of the moral ambiguity lies in the methodology of transfer, and the decision not to allow many Arabs to return (replacing their homes with Israeli settlements). Intended or not, the effect is the same. In any case, the end result, in May of 1948 was
a decisive Jewish victory. Palestinian Arab military power was crushed and Palestinian Arab society, never robust, fell apart, much of the population fleeing to the inland areas or out of the country altogether. The Haganah [was] transformed from a militia into an army…Important pieces of territory assigned in the UN Partition Resolution to Palestinian Arab or international control…fell under Zionist sway…Meanwhile, the prestate Zionist institutions transformed themselves into solid, relatively effective departments and agencies of state…Moreover, the decisive victory over the Palestinian Arabs gave the Haganah the experience and self-confidence necessary subsequently to confront and defeat the invading armies of the Arab states.
After the defeat of the Arab uprising and (in one of the book’s narrative triumphs) heated efforts to head off anti-statehood movements at the UN, Israel declared its independence on the afternoon of May 14, 1948. Again, Ben-Gurion was sober: “In the country there is celebration and profound joy – and once again I am a mourner among the celebrants.” The Arab armies invaded the next day.
The leaders of the Arab states were in a quandary. Their countries were young, and the modernization of their armies promised by the British had barely materialized. They had separate goals and no unified command. What compelled most of them to invade was the so-called Arab “street” (popular opinion), livid with the success of the Zionist enterprise. Indeed, having encouraged this attitude as a means of holding power, the members of the Arab league were virtually powerless not to invade.
The armies that marched across the international border marking the Palestinian Mandate were ill-prepared: under-equipped, often poorly-trained, small in size and – in comparison to their adversaries – unmotivated. Only Jordan’s Arab Legion could be considered a superior fighting force, but it was quite small, with no tanks and less than nine thousand soldiers. And the Arab states underestimated Israel’s capabilities, just as Israel overestimated its enemies. The Haganah estimated that the Arab armies numbered some 165,000 troops. The real number is far lower, and the initial invasion compromised only 20,000 or so, with another ten arriving the following weeks. By January 1949, the IDF was fielding 108,000 troops, the Arab armies 70,000.
The US, and later the UN, imposed an arms embargo on the participants, but Israel had an extensive arms procurement network (relying heavily on Czechoslovakia’s black market) that kept them supplied – with shortages to be sure – throughout the war. The Arab states had no such network. Their advantage in heavy weaponry meant less and less as the war went on. They had failed to state their case to the UN, failed to equip and supply themselves, failed to give themselves room to maneuver politically and failed to adequately plan the war they had just launched. Their stupendous incompetence sealed the fate of the Palestinians, the people they were supposedly fighting for.
It was the divisions within the invading states which were most important. They all wanted something different. Lebanon didn’t really wish to enter the war, and their contribution amounted to one useless attack on a few hundred yards of territory. Iraq, invading through Jordanian territory, wanted to secure land in the east for an oil pipeline. Syria wanted the Galilee and Egypt wanted the south and the Negev desert. A few other states sent token contributions.
King Abdullah of Jordan, like the rest of his co-invaders, had delusions of grandeur. He wanted to be King of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and probably more. But he harbored a pragmatic streak and was aware of any invasion’s prospect for success (more so, even, than the Zionists themselves). Abdullah had, in fact, been conducting secret negotiations with the Yishuv for years. Many in the Zionist leadership felt that a West Bank (or Judea and Samaria as they called it) controlled by Jordan would be preferable to an independent state with irredentist aims. Though these talks – in part conducted by future Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir – foundered somewhat near the end, they provided an opening that allowed Israel, in later stages of the war, to pick off Jordan’s allies one by one.
The Pan-Arab invasion made significant inroads in the beginning. Jordan gained control of West Jerusalem and much of what is today the West Bank. Syria gained a foothold in the northern Galilee and Egypt fought into the Gaza strip and the northern Negev desert, up to the Jordanian lines. But as Morris sums it up,
The result of the four-week contest between the Haganah/IDF and the invading Arab armies was an Israeli victory. The Arabs had enjoyed major advantages (the initiative, vastly superior firepower), and in retrospect, this was the only period in which they could have won the war or made major territorial gains at Jewish expense. But they failed….The Israelis had suffered many casualties. But they had contained the four-pronged assault. And their army was far larger and better armed at the end of the four weeks than at the beginning…The Israelis had held on to much of the territory earmarked for their state, and in some areas…had substantially added to their holdings. Moreover, after the first fortnight…the Haganah/IDF had moved over to the offensive on all fronts [and] had caused the Arabs sufficient casualties and shock to persuade them to shelve any thought of further advance…And, politically, the Israelis enjoyed hesitant international support whereas the Arabs were commonly seen as the aggressors.
A UN brokered truce beginning June 11 allowed both sides a much needed respite, but again the Israelis made the best use of it. The truce was scheduled to end on the 9th of July, but Egypt launched a surprise offensive in a bid to catch the IDF off-guard. The ensuing “Ten Days,” as it is known in Israel, saw the IDF launch offensives on all three fronts: north, south and west. Israeli military policy toward Palestine’s Arab population would harden further. “At the end of the First Truce, Israel was in a belligerent mood. It was still reeling from the impact and losses of the pan-Arab invasion.” The campaign would see successes against Egypt in the south and gains against Jordan near the coast. Syria, well-entrenched, held its own. The policy of transfer was, despite its initially haphazard application, becoming standard (though not universal) practice. “Following the Ten Days, the army carried out punitive operations in the newly captured villages…During the Second Truce the IDF not only barred refugees from crossing back into Israeli-held territory but systematically scoured the newly conquered areas for returnees [and] took a series of measures that helped assure the nonreturn of the refugees.” Villages were demolished, agricultural lands were seized and new settlements were quickly built.
The next half year saw more outbursts of fighting, mostly IDF initiatives, punctuated by UN-imposed cease-fires which would engender Israelis with a perpetual mistrust of that institution. Egyptian forces were rolled back to the Gaza strip, with an isolated force surrounded to the southwest of Jerusalem. Jordan, after losing its grip on villages near the coast, retreated to West Jerusalem and the West Bank, largely staying out of the rest of the war. Syrian gains in the north were rolled back to almost nothing, and Iraqi forces in general did very little. Fittingly, the drawn out cease-fire agreements between Israel and the invaders were protracted and never produced a lasting peace. That would be, with Egypt and Jordan, decades in the making. The rest is yet to be resolved.
The second half of the conflict, the Pan-Arab invasion and Israeli victory takes up more than half the book. Though Morris makes a commendable effort to suppress his feelings, they occasionally pop up as they did earlier. Most of his opinions, which are not sympathetic to the Arab side, are cordoned off from the rest of the book in the last chapter. At the end, he sounds a near-apocalyptic note:
Viewed from the Israeli perspective, however, 1948 wasn’t the irreversible triumph it at first appeared…the dimensions of the success had given birth to reflexive Arab nonacceptance and powerful revanchist urges. The Jewish state had arisen at the heart of the Muslim Arab world – and that world could not abide it. Peace treaties may eventually have been signed by Egypt and Jordan; but the Arab world – the man in the street, the intellectual in his perch, the soldier in his dugout – refused to recognize or accept what had come to pass. It was a cosmic injustice. And there would be plenty of Arabs, by habit accustomed to think in the long term and egged on by the ever-aggrieved Palestinians, who would never acquiesce in the new Middle Eastern order. Whether 1948 was a passing fancy or has permanently etched the region remains to be seen.
It’s hard to disagree with the idea that peace is unlikely in the short term. But I wonder if Morris has succumbed to the psychic malaise the title of his earlier book, Righteous Victims, made reference too. How, after decades of research, can he come to the conclusion that blame resides almost entirely with one side? He’s similarly fatalistic about the Iranian nuclear crisis.
In a recent article for the Jerusalem Post, he writes that “the second holocaust will be quite different. One bright morning, in five or 10 years, perhaps during a regional crisis, perhaps out of the blue, a day or a year or five years after Iran’s acquisition of the Bomb, the mullahs in Qom will convene in secret session, under a portrait of the steely-eyed Ayatollah Khomeini, and give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by then in his second or third term, the go-ahead.” Never mind that Ahmadinejad is not in control of the military, and must answer to the Ayatollah and his council, who have shown hints (sporadic though they are) of pragmatism.
Maybe Morris’ transformation is a microcosm of Israeli society at large, a society where many have resigned themselves to continued violence and the idea that few on the other side would have it any other way. One imagines that their counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza feel much the same. Or maybe that ties too neat a bow on it. There seems to be something uniquely Israeli in this morbid cynicism. The novelist David Grossman, who lost a son in the Israel’s second failed invasion of Lebanon (in 2006), has come as close as anyone to explaining it. He told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic:
I think that this fear, this idea that Israel will not exist anymore – I cannot even utter specific, clear words because it’s really frightening – this idea or fear hovers above us all the time. It is so present, even though we suppress it almost violently. Whenever it infiltrates the consciousness, it’s almost paralyzing. You can see if you look at the numbers – how few we are, how many they are, how hostile this region is, how we have never been accepted into this region. If you see the tendencies of fanaticism, the way in which at every crossroads both sides almost always choose the more violent approach, if you see the fact that other religions, parts of the West, never really accept the idea of Israel…It means something deep about us (and even more about everyone else), about Judaism and the state that we are still in, after 60 years of sovereignty – we have not accomplished statehood, the realization that this is a legitimate state. And we have a lack of confidence in our own existence. We also don’t really believe in our own existence. We have the formal symptoms of a normal state, but we still do not believe we are a state. Throughout history we were regarded, and we regarded ourselves, as a larger-than-life story, since the time of the Bible. We’re a story that other nations read and borrow. But if you’re a story, you can end.
Benny Morris’ greatest success in this book is in challenging the conventional mythology of both sides and laying out a mostly even-handed account of the first Arab-Israeli war, but a definitive history of Israel’s founding has still not been written. Such a history would include documents that are presumably still locked up somewhere in the capitals of Israel’s neighbors. That history’s narrative would give equal attention to both sides of the story. But that history hasn’t been written yet because the conflict is still ongoing, and the feelings are still are too intense. In the meantime, Morris’ books, including this one, are among the best we have.
Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.