Rethinking 1948

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Under Consideration: Benny Morris, 1948:
The First Arab Israeli War
, Yale University Press (2008),
524 pages.

Back
in the late 1980s and 90s, Benny Morris was identified, some would
say targeted, as the stormy petrel among Israeli historians. In
tomes such as The
Birth of the Palestinian Problem
(1988), Israel’s
Border Wars
(1993), and Righteous
Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict
(1999) he
slaughtered any number of sacred cows. He started with the heretical
idea that during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, 600,000
or so Palestinians did not leave their homes out of their own free
will but had been expelled by the Israeli army. He ended with the
equally heretical one that most of the Palestinians who were caught
(many of whom were shot) by the IDF while trying to “infiltrate”
across the border to Israel during the 1950s were unarmed civilians
who were simply trying to return to their former lands. It speaks
volumes about Morris’s work that for several years, no Israeli
university would give him a job. That work also earned its author
the undying hatred of many Israelis from Likud minister of education
Limor Livnat
down (or up: when it comes to nationalist stupidity, it is hard
to sink lower than she did). As the saying goes, it is by his enemies
that a man should be judged.

Then came the Second Palestinian Uprising. Morris, who hitherto
was considered the doyen of the so-called “new historians,”
changed his mind (though it took him some time to admit the fact).
Like many other dovish Israelis, for years on end he had placed
much of the blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel’s
own leaders who, in his view, had been far to harsh in their dealings
and with the Palestinians. To achieve that peace he advocated negotiations
with the PLO – in spite of all the terrorist acts the latter
had committed, and in spite of its refusal to recognize the Jewish
State – and withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Like many of his fellow doves, he simply lost patience with Arafat,
the PLO, and the Palestinian people as a whole. Much to the surprise
of those familiar with his works, the historian who had criticized
his government for so long started defending it and justifying it.
If that is bad news for the peace process and for the Palestinian
aspirations to obtain a state of their own, then so be it.

In 1948, Morris’ central message is simple. The Arabs, both
those inside Palestine and those who live in the neighboring countries,
hated the Zionist enterprise right from the beginning and did whatever
was in their power to stop it and – as many of their leaders
said – push the Jews back into the sea. They were, however,
hopelessly unable to resist the Zionist onslaught. In part this
was because of the extraordinary dynamism of the Zionist movement
itself; in the whole of history, it is hard to find a national liberation
movement that was more determined and more prepared to do whatever
it would take. In part it was because the international situation,
specifically including the great powers, often favored the Zionists,
and in part because the Palestinian community, for all that it outnumbered
the Jews in Palestine (as late as 1948, twice as many Arabs lived
west of the Jordan than Jews) was backward, disorganized, and corrupt.
Time after time, first the British Imperial Government and then
the United Nations came up with proposals to defuse the conflict
by dividing the country between Jews and Arabs. Time after time,
the former accepted whereas the latter refused.

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Martin Van Creveld is professor of history at the Hebrew University
in Jerusalem. He has written a number of books that have influenced
modern military theory, including Fighting
Power
, Command
in War
, and most significantly, The
Transformation of War
. He is also the author of The
Rise and Decline of the State
.

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