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April 15, 2008

William D. Rubinstein on how the leading leftist Israeli historian changed his mind: 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War - Benny Morris

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

1948: The First Arab-Israeli War
by Benny Morris
New Haven and London: Yale University, 2008
Hardback, 19.99

The circumstances surrounding Israel's war of independence of 1948-49 remain one of the most controversial of any major conflict since the Second World War. They resulted in the achievement of an independent Jewish state for the first time in 2000 years, but also of the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, which of course persists to this day. Up to 700,000 Palestinians - the number is disputed, as is everything connected with these events - fled from their homes in controversial circumstances in the course of the 1948-49 war.

Benny Morris, who is professor of history at the Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel, is probably the leading figure among the so-called Israeli "new historians". In the 1970s and 1980s he controversially argued that the Zionist movement had a plan to expel most of the Palestinians from the areas assigned in 1947 by the United Nations to become the Jewish state. In his view at the time, the Palestinian refugee problem was deliberately created by the Israelis; the Palestinians did not flee because they were told to do so by their national leaders, as was often previously alleged, but because of the xenophobia of the Zionist movement.

Benny Morris's views became part of the baggage of the Western world's anti-Zionist left, and gave rise to fierce controversy among right-wing historians like Efraim Karsh, who specifically accused Morris of "fabricating" and "falsifying" the historical record. It was thus widely assumed that Morris was a committed leftist like the genuinely extremist Israeli (now, regrettably, British) historian Ilan Pappe, who argued that the Israelis engaged in ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.

In the past fifteen or twenty years, however, Morris has surprised the historical world interested in these events by performing a 180 degree volte face. In a series of recent works he has re-emerged as one of the main champions of a right-wing view of Israeli independence, which lays the blame for the Palestinian debacle squarely upon their leadership, with Israel's response to the presence of Palestinians in a Jewish state largely a reaction to the genocidal views towards Israel's Jews of the Arab world.

Above all, the main leader of the Palestinian people at the time, Muhammed Haj al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, emerges as the chief villain of the story, an incorrigible anti-Jewish extremist, also widely mistrusted by many Arabs, whose consistently poor advice and leadership cost his people dearly.

Divisions among the independent Arab states, each of which had its own agenda in the conflict, were also to blame, as was the fact that the war of destruction carried out by the Arabs against the Jewish state took place in the context of overwhelming Western sympathy for the Jews in the wake of the Holocaust, and of the United Nations' Partition declaration specifically creating a Jewish and a Palestinian state.

The war also took place when, for the last time for several decades, both American and Soviet opinion were agreed on the desirability of creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

While Morris's book is mainly an account of the Israeli war of independence, it has a much wider and up-to-date context, and is a welcome addition to the vast literature on the birth of Israel and on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Normally, accounts of battlefield conflict by military historians are, to those who were not there, among the most tedious of historical writings, but Morris also succeeds in making military history interesting.

One crucial point which neither he nor any other writers on these events stresses sufficiently, in my view, is that the Palestinian refugees fled for the most part to areas in Mandate Palestine which had specifically been assigned to them in the independent Palestinian state created by the U.N. in 1947 - where, presumably, most would have migrated anyway. No Palestinian state came into existence in 1947-48. The U.N. specifically created such a state in its Partition Resolution, to exist side-by-side with the State of Israel. The reason it did not come into existence is simply that these areas, an enlarged territory of what is now the West Bank and Gaza, were literally grabbed and absorbed by, respectively, Jordan and Egypt. Their occupation and absorption was welcomed by Israel, but Israel played no direct role in these actions.

The West Bank and Gaza remained under Jordanian and Egyptian control until 1967; there was never, at any time, a Palestinian state when the Arabs occupied the West Bank and Gaza.

Despite this, the Arabs and their Western leftist allies have consistently rewritten history to deny the genocidal intent and incompetent leadership of the Palestinians, and to disguise the fact that it was the Arabs, not Israel, who denied the Palestinians an independent state in 1947-48.

These forces often still insist on the Palestinian "right of return", an aim which is politically impossible, is demanded of no other group of long-term historical refugees and would amount to a demographic death sentence for Israel.

In its war of independence, the new State of Israel did not always have things its own way. Its armies failed to take the Old City of Jerusalem, with its holy sites. These remained in Jordanian hands until the 1967 Six Day War. The war was, in relative terms, unbelievably destructive, with about one per cent of Israel's Jewish population dying, a ratio higher than that of Britain in the Second World War. Arab losses were far higher (although, typically, never made public), and the Israelis did extraordinarily well against the vastly larger Arab armies.

Morris makes some interesting points about the war, such as that the Jordanian armies never attacked any area set aside by the U.N. in 1947 for a Jewish state. Jordan emerges from this discussion as the most moderate of the Arab states, with its King Abdullah seeking, it would seem, an accommodation with Israel; he was assassinated in 1951 by Muslim extremists for his pains.

As Morris notes, moderate Arabs were at all times frightened of "the street", of the hatred any accommodating Arab regime was likely to be shown by the impoverished Arab masses, driven by ultra-nationalist demagogues and Muslim religious fundamentalists. Regrettably, in sixty years little has changed.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

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