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Tel Aviv University
[Ex-TAU, head, History Dept.] Shlomo Ben-Ami: "Refusing to admit that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained by the sins of Israel's birth"

Prof. Ben-Ami headed the School of History of Tel-Aviv University (1982-86).

         A War to Start All Wars
 Will Israel Ever Seal the Victory of 1948?
 By Shlomo Ben-Ami

 From Foreign Affairs , September/October 2008
 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War . Benny Morris . Yale
University Press , 2008 , 544 $32.50
 Summary: Israel should pull back settlements and give up its '67
gains in order to secure its '48 victory.

 Shlomo Ben-Ami was Israel's Foreign Minister in 2000-2001. He is
Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace, in Spain,
and the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab
 For 60 years, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have used the
past to illuminate the present and confer legitimacy on their nations'
respective founding myths. Of course, Zionists and Palestinian
nationalists were not the first to embellish the stories of their
nations' births or make excuses for their tragedies. Throughout
history, nations have been born in blood and frequently in sin. This
is why, as the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote, they tend to lie
about their pasts.

 The birth of the state of Israel in 1948 has long been the subject
of self-congratulatory historiography by the victorious side and
grievance-filled accounts by disinherited Palestinians. To the
Israelis, the 1948 war was a desperate fight for survival that was
settled by an almost miraculous victory. In the Arab world, accounts
of the war tend to advance conspiracy theories and attempt to shift
the blame for the Arabs' defeat. In both cases, the writing of history
has been part of an uncritical nationalist quest for legitimacy.

 Refusing to admit that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was
stained by the sins of Israel's birth and eager to deny the centrality
of the Palestinian problem to the wider conflict in the Middle East,
the Israelis have preferred to dwell on their struggle for
independence against the supposedly superior invading Arab armies. But
the war between the indigenous Palestinian population and the Yishuv,
the organized Jewish community of Palestine, was arguably the fiercest
phase of the conflict. It was during this period -- between November
30, 1947, and May 15, 1948 -- that the fate of the nascent Jewish
state really seemed to hang by a thread. Nevertheless, the popular
notion cultivated since then has repressed the memory of this fighting
and focused instead on the heroic stand of the tiny Yishuv against the
invading Arab armies during the second phase of the war, from May 15,
1948, to the spring of 1949. When the war was over, the Palestinian
problem practically disappeared from Israeli public debate, or it was
conveniently defined as one of "refugees" or "infiltrators." It was as
if there were no Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Palestinian people.
As Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously put it in 1969, "They
did not exist."


 During the 1980s, a group known as the new historians began to
challenge the Zionist mythology surrounding Israel's birth. These
Israeli revisionist scholars -- Simha Flapan, Ilan Pappe, and
Avi Shlaim, among others -- unearthed documents that challenged the
conventional view of the war as a clash between a Jewish David and an
Arab Goliath. They also argued that the war was really the story of
Arab states betraying the Palestinian cause and showed that there was
collusion between some Arabs and the Jews -- as when Trans-jordan and
the Yishuv conspired to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.
In other cases, the new historians argued, Arab states rushed to grab
land at the expense of the Palestinians or their own rivals in the
Arab coalition.

 But it was Benny Morris who addressed the most sensitive issue of
all: the refugee crisis. His book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee
Problem, 1947-1949, published in 1987, remains the single most
important work on the thorniest moral and political issue underlying
the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. It recounts the often violent
expulsion of 700,000 Arabs as Jewish soldiers conquered villages and
towns throughout Palestine. For bravely and masterfully advancing a
new narrative of Israel's birth, he paid a heavy personal price.
Denounced as an "anti-Zionist" after the publication of his 1987 book,
Morris was denied tenure by practically every department of history in
the country. It was not until 1996, when then President Ezer Weizman
summoned Morris to his office and asked him to affirm his belief in
Israel's right to exist that Morris was given a job at Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev.

 More than any other revisionist, Morris has singled himself out by
drawing a line between his views as a historian and his views as a
citizen, between his pathbreaking interpretation of the past and his
controversial and politically incorrect views about the present. Once
a peacenik with impeccable credentials -- he went to jail for refusing
to serve as an Israeli army reservist in the occupied territories
during the first intifada, in 1987 -- Morris has gradually drifted,
together with most Israelis, toward a position vehemently critical of
the Palestinians. He has blamed Palestinian leaders for the collapse
of the Oslo peace process and the al Aqsa intifada, which began in
September 2000.

 In January 2004, Morris famously lamented that the architects of
Israel's 1948 war strategy had not more thoroughly purged the Jewish
state of its Arab population. Morris told the Haaretz journalist Ari
Shavit, "If [David] Ben-Gurion [Israel's first prime minister] had
carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country -- the
whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River . . . he would have
stabilized the State of Israel for generations. . . . If the end of
the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be
because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948." His
statement shocked many of his old admirers and fellow revisionist
scholars. But even if his left-wing critics consider him a
controversial citizen of the present, Morris remains an honest and
superbly professional student of the past.

 The ability to engage in a sober inquiry into the past is an
essential test of free societies and truly democratic academic
institutions, and the challenges that the new historians have posed to
traditional myths surrounding the birth of Israel represent a major
contribution to both historiography and the country's identity. The
revisionists' work has had political consequences as well: the
Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s was nurtured by their
reshaping of the national Zeitgeist in Israel. The introduction of
powerful new arguments about 1948 has influenced the views of
politicians and peace negotiators, too, whether they admit it or not.
(The speech I gave as head of the Israeli delegation during the 1992
multilateral talks on Palestinian refugees in Ottawa, Canada, was
profoundly influenced by Morris' work.)

 No such new history has yet emerged in the Arab world, nor have any
Arab archives been opened to allow for such a fresh perspective. Most
Arab historians continue to absolve their countries' militaries of all
responsibility for the defeat. By exonerating the Arab armies and
attributing their failure to the treachery and incompetence of
conservative civilian elites, such scholars provided legitimacy for
the revolutionary military regimes that took power across the Arab
world after 1948.


 Morris' latest book, 1948, is likely to become the most definitive
study of the first Arab-Israeli war. On each and every facet of the
conflict -- military strategy, human rights abuses, the refugee
crisis, diplomacy, and propaganda -- it is an extraordinary tour de
force. Exhaustive, although at times exhausting, it is a meticulous
and authoritative narrative.

 Morris' scholarship spares no Israeli founding myth, especially not
the notion of Israel's "purity of arms" (one element of the Israel
Defense Force's code of ethics, which dictates that force be used only
in the pursuit of soldiers' missions), an idea that remains central to
the nation's self-image as morally superior to its enemies. Morris
supports his arguments with vast numbers of primary sources and always
places his findings in their proper context. The atrocities and
evictions suffered by Arab communities took place sometimes in the
storm of battle, sometimes as the Yishuv's forces sought to secure
roads linking Jewish settlements, and frequently in response to
explicit orders from generals on the battlefield. Morris shows that
the Zionists committed more massacres than the Arabs, deliberately
killed far more civilians and prisoners of war, and committed more
acts of rape. The Arabs, he claims, were responsible for only two
large massacres: the December 1947 killing of 39 Jewish workers at the
Haifa oil refinery and the Kfar Etzion slaughter of 150 Jews in May
1948. With painstaking detail, Morris exonerates the Arab side for
what others have called a massacre: the destruction of a convoy of
doctors and nurses on Mount Scopus in April 1948. According to Morris,
this incident was simply a battle.

 In 1948, Morris transcends the arithmetic approach -- with its
emphasis on the number of troops on the ground -- that characterizes
so many other revisionist accounts of the 1948 war. Certainly, the
organizational capacity of the Yishuv was formidable; it managed to
mobilize 13 percent of the Jewish population in the name of protecting
the nation's precarious existence, a level of mobilization practically
unknown in the annals of military history. Yet as Morris rightly
points out, battlefield strength was never the Zionists' only concern;
even more troubling was the fact that the Yishuv was encircled by
large, hostile Arab states whose armies could easily retreat, recover,
and be ready for the next round. Accounts that focus on the number of
troops on the ground ignore the traumatic memory of the destruction of
European Jewry, the Yishuv's deep sense of insecurity, and its
tendency to see every battle in apocalyptic terms. Even today, Israel
has not overcome the legacy of the Holocaust; its status as a regional
power has not diminished its existential fears.

 The Palestinian Arabs' war against the Yishuv in 1947-48 may have
been disorganized and spontaneous, but the Palestinians almost
succeeded in causing the United States to reverse its support for a
Jewish state. The White House backed partition, but the State
Department opposed it for fear of alienating Arab states. Zionist
leaders were convinced that if the Yishuv appeared to be losing, the
State Department's position would gain sway in Washington. Morris
makes the compelling argument that the Yishuv's shift from a defensive
stance to an offensive strategy in early April 1948 stemmed not only
from signs of an impending Arab invasion but also from its fear that
the superpowers would abandon their commitment to partition. The
Yishuv's military doctrine -- as it had been conceived by the Jewish
militias in the 1930s and was masterfully put into practice in the
spring of 1948 -- was essentially one of offensive defense. The
leaders of the Yishuv understood that crushing the Palestinian
militias and securing control of the main roads were vital to
repelling the imminent Arab invasion and convincing the international
community to maintain its commitment to an independent Jewish state.
And the victories they won as a result helped demarcate the boundaries
of the new state.

 The notorious Plan D, a controversial measure adopted by Ben-Gurion
in March 1948, was part of this offensive strategy. Morris' impressive
treatment of this phase of the war demonstrates that Plan D was not,
as is commonly believed, a master design for the complete occupation
of Palestine and the massacre or forceful eviction of its Arab
population. Rather, it was a push to extend the frontiers of the
future Jewish state beyond the partition lines by linking Jewish
population hubs to outlying settlements. The armistice lines were
determined later, after the Arab front collapsed, Jewish forces won
unexpected victories, and the Yishuv's leaders seized the opportunity
to occupy more and more land. As Arab villages, towns, and then entire
regions fell to Jewish forces, the Yishuv sought to bolster its claim
to statehood by creating facts on the ground.


 In many ways, the Arabs of Palestine had already lost the 1948 war
-- or the nakba (catastrophe), as it is also known -- ten years
earlier, during the Arab revolt of 1936-39. That revolt, which sought
to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine and halt the Zionists'
acquisition of Arab land, reflected rage and blind despair more than
organization or careful strategy. As Morris, the Palestinian American
historian Rashid Khalidi, and others have shown, the Palestinian Arabs
suffered a crippling defeat that left them in a state of fatalistic
disarray. During the years that followed, the Palestinian community
was so dismembered that when it faced the challenge of partition and
war in 1947 and 1948, it was no longer master of its own destiny.
Outsiders from neighboring Arab states had begun to play an
increasingly central role in determining its fate.

 By intervening in May 1948, the Arab states sought to kill the
partition plan, acquire new territory, and placate public opinion at
home. The Arab leaders constantly blundered due to their penchant for
belligerent rhetoric and their deeply held view that the Jewish
presence in Palestine was merely transitory -- a repetition of the
crusaders' failed experiment to put down roots in the Holy Land. Their
defeat in 1948 underscored what would be the central paradoxes of Arab
politics for years to come: How would Arab leaders reconcile their
proclaimed intention to do away with the Jewish state with their fear
of its military power? How would they placate and control the "Arab
street," which they had themselves incited with bellicose language?
And how would they demonstrate their support for the liberation of
Palestine while advancing their own particular agendas at the
Palestinians' expense?

 Israel's leaders were not blind to the evolving Palestinian tragedy.
It was Ben-Gurion's profound awareness that a monumental disaster had
befallen the Palestinians that eventually turned the prime minister
into an incorrigible pessimist about the prospects for Arab-Israeli
peace. The hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who flooded
surrounding Arab countries during the 1948 war were not evicted under
instructions from the Israeli cabinet. Still, the lack of explicit
government directives does not absolve the Israelis of responsibility.
In an update to his earlier study on the subject, Morris found that
far more Palestinians were expelled on explicit orders from commanders
in the field than fled for fear of military attacks. And in some
cases, Ben-Gurion personally authorized such orders without informing
his government.

 This is not surprising given that the idea of population transfers
had a long and solid pedigree in Zionist thought. The evictions of
1948 stemmed from an ideological predisposition in the Jewish
community and a cultural and political environment that made military
commanders feel comfortable initiating or encouraging the mass
eviction of Arabs. Zionist leaders differed on many issues, but they
generally agreed, as Morris points out, on the benefits of "transfer"
-- a euphemism for "expulsion." The idea of forced transfer was
explicitly endorsed by the British government's 1937 Peel Commission
on Palestine, and Jewish forces began to implement it in the storm of
battle in 1948. In October of that year, on the eve of Operation
Hiram, which led to the expulsion of many of the Arabs of the northern
Galilee region, Ben-Gurion declared, "The Arabs of the Land of Israel
have only one func'tion left to them -- to run away." And they did;
panic-stricken, they fled in the face of massacres in Ein Zeitun and
Eilabun, just as they had done in the wake of an earlier massacre in
Deir Yassin. Operational orders, such as the instruction from Moshe
Carmel, the Israeli commander of the northern front, "to attack in
order to conquer, to kill among the men, to destroy and burn the
villages," were carved into the collective memory of the Palestinians,
spawning hatred and resentment for generations.

 There are only two points on which Morris' splendid analysis
falters. He is unconvincing in his attempt to pardon some of Israel's
original sins by creating an awkward symmetry between the Palestinian
refugee crisis and the forced emigration of 600,000 Jews from Arab
countries and Iran, which Morris quotes Israeli leaders as calling "an
unplanned 'exchange of population.'" Regimes hostile to Israel were
not alone in getting Jews to leave; envoys from the Mossad, Israel's
intelligence agency, and from the Jewish Agency were working
underground in several Middle Eastern countries to encourage Jews to
go to Israel. More important, for many Jews in the region, the very
possibility of immigrating to Israel was the culmination of
millenarian dreams. It represented the consummation of a quest to take
part in Israel's resurgence as a nation. No matter how painful the
memory of their eviction or how humiliating their second-class status
in Israel, these new Israelis never sought to return to their lands of
origin. By contrast, the Palestinian refugees were forced into the
wilderness of exile with no guarantee of a new national home and no
prospect of returning to their native land. The yearning for return
thus became the Palestinians' defining national ethos.

 Morris' characterization of the conflict of 1948 as an Islamic jihad
against Jewish-Western infidels in Palestine is also unpersuasive. It
is true that the figurehead of Palestinian nationalism at the time was
the fanatically religious and viscerally anti-Semitic mufti of
Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. And Arab discourse during 1948 was
occasionally peppered with the rhetoric of holy war: the Syrian author
Vadi'a Talhuq's book A New Crusade in Palestine, published on the eve
of the Arab invasion, compared the war to the liberation of Palestine
from the crusaders. Yet Israel in 1948 was no tool of the West. On the
contrary, it could not have won the war without arms shipments from
the Soviet bloc. The socialist nature of Israeli society at the time
prompted Egypt's prime minister, Mahmud al-Nuqrashi, to define Israel
as an agent of "atheism and nihilist Communism." And the Zionists'
Arab enemies were hardly under the control of Islamic movements. They
were all ruled by decadent conservative elites who paid nothing more
than lip service to Islamic values and the religious hysteria on the
Arab street. Broadcasters and agitators rallied the masses under the
banner of a holy war against the nascent Jewish state. But the Muslim
Brotherhood sent only one battalion to fight in Palestine. It was
ill-trained conventional armies, not Hezbollah-style guerrilla units,
that led the Arab assault in 1948. After the defeat, rather than
pursuing jihad against Israel, the conservative Arab regimes signed an
armistice agreement granting legitimacy to Israel's 1948 borders. And
between 1949 and 1952, they all attempted to reach permanent peace
agreements with the Jewish state.


 The past still casts its shadow on the present in disturbing ways.
Morris' scrupulous research shows how the 1948 expulsion of the
Palestinian Arabs was in no small measure driven by a desire for land
among Israeli settlers, who grabbed it and then actively pressured the
Israeli government to prevent the Arab refugees from returning to
their villages. In 1967, a powerful group of settlers in the Galilee
region pressured the government to take over the Golan Heights. The
hunger for land persists to this day, as settlers lobby politicians to
allow the expansion of outposts in the West Bank. The redemption of
the land of Israel by settling it -- which was encouraged just as
enthusiastically by Labor Zionists as by those on the right -- was
always central to the Zionist enterprise. So, too, was the creation of
strategic settlements along the state's borders that could serve as
its defensive shield in the case of an invasion. These border
kibbutzim served their purpose during the 1948 war, curtailing
Palestinian assaults and obstructing the path of the invading Arab

 Unfortunately, Zionist thinking got fossilized at that point. What
had worked in 1948 was no longer useful during the Yom Kippur War of
1973, when the Golan Heights settlements had to be evacuated to give
the Israeli army proper freedom of movement. And in today's era of
long-range ballistic warfare, the belts of Jewish settlements in the
West Bank along the Jordan River and the old Green Line offer Israel
no military advantage whatsoever. The Zionist tradition of support for
settlements should be challenged on political grounds as well; after
all, a normal state is not supposed to occupy land beyond its
legitimate borders. The Zionist movement created a state that was
admitted to the United Nations and aspires to have orderly relations
with the international community. Yet this state continues to behave
as if it were the old Yishuv bent on outsmarting a colonial occupier
and the local Arab population. And the complex web of settlements it
has spread across the West Bank now make negotiating a two-state
solution a logistical nightmare.

 This geographic puzzle has prompted certain observers to call for a
binational state. Some, such as the British historian Tony Judt, are
disillusioned former Zionists. Others, such as Pappe, believe
that exposing the lies of the past requires reversing the course of
history: undoing the Jewish state and going back to the supposedly
happy days of Arab-Jewish coexistence in a binational community. The
notion of returning to a peaceful paradise lost is not new, but it has
never been practical. It was severely damaged during the Arab revolt
of 1936-39 and then shattered by the 1948 war, when Arab-Jewish
fighting over the same piece of land and for demographic superiority
deflated lofty dreams of coexistence. As Morris describes both in his
previous book Righteous Victims and in 1948, separation became a
logical goal for the Zionists after the Arab revolt. But the idea was
never natural for the Palestinian national movement. Many Palestinian
nationalists wanted an Arab state with a Jewish minority; it was Yasir
Arafat who eventually imposed the two-state solution on them. Now that
he is dead, there is no one left to lend it legitimacy.

 Morris' somber concluding chapter is fatalistic about the chances
for peace, because the catastrophe of 1948 still haunts the Arab
world. Yet the 1990s did offer some glimmers of hope. The irrational
all-or-nothing politics that dominated both sides after the 1948 war
faded as the Arab-Israeli conflict went through an unmistakable
process of secularization. The same Arafat who had joined the Muslim
Brotherhood's battalion in 1948 in its holy war against the Jews in
Palestine accepted the idea of two separate states in 1988 and led his
people into the Oslo process in 1993. The pragmatic peace agreements
that Israel concluded with Egypt and Jordan, Israel's peace
negotiations with Syria's secular Baathist regime, and its signing of
the Oslo accords with Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)
all reflected a sober drive to transform the conflict from an
apocalyptic clash into a soluble political dispute.

 However, the collapse of the Oslo process damaged the popularity of
the two-state solution. The failure of the Camp David talks in the
summer of 2000 left the al Aqsa intifada in its wake, and Israel's
persistent policy of expanding the settlements has severely undermined
the Palestinians' trust in the two-state idea. Arafat's exiled PLO
leadership (the "outsiders") had imposed its rule on young local
leaders committed to resistance (the "insiders"). So long as Arafat
was alive, he managed to control these detractors. But after his
death, in 2004, insiders in both Fatah and Hamas returned in full
force to challenge the decrepit Oslo-era clique led by Arafat's
nominal replacement, Mahmoud Abbas. Secular nationalism in the
Palestinian territories, and throughout the Arab world, is now in
decline. It is being swept away by Islamic fundamentalism. Everywhere,
loyalty to the state and the nation is being superseded by loyalty to
Islam. Palestinians are moving away from Arafat's pragmatic
nationalism toward revolutionary and maximalist positions on issues
such as the return of refugees and the liberation of prepartition

 It is worth remembering that Arab armies did not invade Palestine in
1948 for the sake of the Palestinians; it was their war against the
Jews that drew Arab governments into the Palestinian question. Still,
any future resolution of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict will depend
on a final settlement of the Palestinian question. Israel has already
managed to force the entire Arab world to accept the legitimacy of its
1967 borders prior to the Six-Day War -- as evidenced by the peace
plan offered by the Arab League in 2002. It must now belatedly seize
this unique opportunity and negotiate peace agreements with Syria,
Lebanon, and the Palestinians for a return to the June 4, 1967, lines
-- essentially the same borders established in the aftermath of
Israel's crushing 1948 victory.

 A failure to do so, coupled with rapidly shifting demographic trends
-- namely, a higher birthrate among Arabs than among Jews -- will
permanently destroy the credibility of the two-state solution,
allowing the binational model to gain sway among the Palestinians as
they become a majority. A binational state would lead to a situation
resembling the old South Africa, with two classes of citizens
possessing vastly different political and civil rights. Worse, such a
development would not lend itself to a peaceful South African-style
solution, because Israel, with its superior might, would never concede
power to a Palestinian majority as white South Africans eventually did
to the black majority in 1994. The only alternative scenario would be
Israel's unilateral disengagement to lines determined by the
separation barrier, which annexes about eight percent of the West
Bank. And this would, in all probability, leave a Hamas state on
Israel's borders.

 To avoid these disastrous scenarios, Israel must admit once and for
all that the territorial phase of Zionism has ended, dismantle most of
the West Bank settlements, and help create a viable Palestinian state
as soon as possible. This is Israel's only chance to seal its 1948
victory -- which has been constantly challenged ever since -- before
the swelling tide of Islamic fundamentalism drowns the existing Arab
regimes and dooms the prospects of an enduring Arab-Israeli peace.

 Copyright 2002--2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. All rights


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    1.  It is frightening to think that Ben Ami
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