Benny Morris was one of the earliest and most important Israeli “new historians” whose scholarship and courageous truth-telling refuted a number of mythologies about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, among other things by demonstrating that the Palestinian refugee problem was deliberately created by the Zionists, who engaged in what we today call “ethnic cleansing.” Morris and others proved beyond reasonable doubt that in 1947-48 the Zionist military forces and political leadership drove a large part of the Palestinian population out of the lands under Zionist control, often by means of massacres and other acts of terrorism against the Arab civilian population.
“Transfer”-- the preferred Zionist euphemism for driving Palestinians from their homes, farmland, property, and villages—sometimes was motivated by revenge for resistance to the expanding Jewish control of Palestine, but more importantly it was deliberate state policy, designed to seize Palestinian land and property for distribution to the new wave of Jewish immigration from postwar Europe, and even more importantly, to ensure that Jews would be a large majority within the borders of what became Israel.
Today Benny Morris can no longer be regarded as a scholar and historian, but merely a propagandist, indeed a particularly shameful one, for he has traded on his former status and reputation as a fearless truth-teller in order to lend credibility to his ongoing series of disingenuous comments on current issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The latest example is a Morris essay in the September 29 issue of Haaretz, “No Love For Muslims, Unless They’re Palestinians.” Morris begins by discussing a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as recently employed by Jeffrey Goldberg and Christopher Hitchens; it is worth quoting at some length:
“Hitchens approvingly cites (and expands) a metaphor coined (I think) by Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic: A man (the Zionist Jew), to save himself, leaps from a burning building (anti-Semitic and Holocaust Europe) and lands on an innocent bystander (a Palestinian), crushing him. To which Hitchens adds - and the falling man lands on the Palestinian again and again (the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, the suppression of the intifadas, the construction of settlements in the territories, etc).”
“But the metaphor is disingenuous, and it requires amplification to conform to the facts of history. In fact, as the leaping man nears the ground he offers the bystander a compromise - let's share the pavement, some for you, some for me. The bystander responds with a firm "no," and tries, again and again (1920, 1921, 1929, the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and the 1947-48 War of Independence), to stab the falling man as he descends to the pavement. So the leaping man lands on the bystander, crushing him. Later, again and again, the leaping man, now firmly ensconced on the pavement, offers the crushed bystander a compromise ("autonomy" in 1978, a "two-state solution" in 2000 and in 2008), and again and again the bystander says "no." The falling man may have somewhat wronged the bystander, but the bystander was never an innocent one; he was an active agent in and a party to his own demise.”
To begin, this is laughably bad writing, a consequence of Morris’ lame and increasingly absurd effort to make an extended argument within the confines of a forced metaphor. The far more important point, of course, is that Morris’s three main arguments in the essay are all bad ones. It is not that what he says is flatly false so much as that what he omits—and surely deliberately so, since he knows better—effectively makes the argument a dishonest one.
First, the “leaping man,” the Zionists, never truly offered the Palestinians a fair compromise before Israel was created, despite Morris’s argument, which refers to the several partition plans suggested in the 1930s and 1940s as the best practical compromise to solve the conflict between the Zionists and the overwhelming Palestinian majority, particularly the 1947 UN partition plan that formed the basis for the creation of Israel in 1948. The UN compromise partition plan was rejected by the Palestinians, but supposedly accepted by David Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership.
However, that is another part of the Israeli/Zionist mythology that has been decisively and repeatedly shown to be essentially false: the evidence is irrefutable that Ben-Gurion “accepted” the plan and sold it to his reluctant co-leadership, solely as a temporary tactic to allow the Zionists to gain a foothold, from which they would build a state and powerful military forces that could later expand and take over all of historical Palestine—the West Bank, all of Jerusalem, and even parts of Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan.
Here, in Ben-Gurion’s own words, was his plan. In a 1937 letter to his son, he wrote:
“A partial Jewish state is not the end, but only the beginning. The establishment of such a Jewish State will serve as a means in our historical efforts to redeem the country in its entirety….We shall organize a modern defense force…and then I am certain that we will not be prevented from settling in other parts of the country, either by mutual agreement with our Arab neighbors or by some other means….We will expel the Arabs and take their places…with the force at our disposal.”
And in early 1949 Ben-Gurion told his aides: “Before the founding of the state, on the eve of its creation, our main interest was self-defense….But now the issue at hand is conquest, not self-defense. As for setting the borders—it’s an open-ended matter. In the Bible as well as in history there are all kinds of definitions of the country’s borders, so there’s no real limit.”
In Morris’s second argument, he criticizes Christopher Hitchens for “seeming to accept the Palestinians’ definition of themselves as ‘natives’ struggling against an ‘imperialist foreign enemy.’” Actually, he strongly implies, it is the Jews who are the true natives of Palestine, not the Palestinians: “What of Jewish residence in the Land of Israel between the 1th century BCE and the late Byzantine period (5th and 6th centuries C.E? And what of Jewish residence and ‘nativeness’ in Palestine since 1882, nearly 130 years ago? If residence grants rights, surely Jewish residence counterbalances Arab residence in Palestine since 636 C.E.”
In effect, in an only slightly qualified manner, Morris is repeating the standard Zionist argument that Jewish rights in Palestine are greater than those of the Palestinians because the Jews were there first. It is emblematic of the poverty of thought on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that this argument is not immediately recognized as simply preposterous, outside the realm of even minimal intellectual respectability.
What’s Right and What’s Wrong with the Zionist Argument?
In evaluating the case for Zionism, the first step must be to separate the original Zionist argument for the necessity of a Jewish state from the arguments that such a state must be in Palestine. When Jewish nationalism or the Zionist political movement emerged in Europe in the early 20th century, its core belief was that the Jewish people had both an overwhelming need for and a moral right to a nation-state of their own. In light of the often murderous persecution of the Jewish people throughout history, it is hard to imagine any other people who have had a more powerful case for possession of a state of their own.
Where that state should be located, however, was a very different matter. The terrible paradox of Zionism is that while the arguments for the right and need of the Jews to have a state of their own were so strong as to be nearly self-evident, most of the arguments for the right to create that state in Palestine were quite weak.
The founder of the Zionist political movement, Theodore Herzl, initially considered the question of where the Jewish state should be located as an open one, a practical issue rather than an ideological or religious one. Thus, for awhile the Zionists canvassed a number of possibilities. However, the search for alternatives to Palestine was quickly abandoned. The turning point—and the origin of the Palestinian-Israeli and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict—came at the Zionist Congress of 1903, which decisively rejected any effort to create the Jewish state in any place but Biblical Palestine.
From the 19th century to the present, Zionists have made a number of arguments for exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine. The first is the religious or Biblical argument: God promised the Jews that Palestine would be theirs forever, following which they established a Jewish Kingdom throughout the land, ruling for centuries until they were conquered and later expelled from the land by the Roman Empire. That is not an impressive argument, in the first instance because religious arguments convince only those for whom religious arguments are convincing. In any case, Christianity and Islam have their own religious claims to Palestine.
Moreover, a growing number of Israeli archaeologists, anthropologists and Biblical scholars have concluded that the Zionist argument that purports to rest on the actual history of the land is tendentious and largely mythological, lacking serious historical evidence to support it. Still, for the sake of argument let us assume that those modern scholars who challenge the mythology—the stories of Abraham, Moses, the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish conquest of Palestine, and the later expulsion of the Jews by Rome--are in error. Assume further that the historical evidence supports the Zionist argument that Jews lived primarily in the ancient land of Palestine for many centuries, over which they established political sovereignty, losing this Jewish homeland only because they were forcibly conquered. Would all these presumed facts establish a modern Jewish claim to the land of Palestine?
Hardly. In no other place in the world is it accepted—in law, moral reasoning, or in plain common sense--that an ancient claim to a land has precedence over two thousand years of a different reality: eight centuries of Christianity, followed by thirteen centuries of an overwhelming Islamic majority. Indeed, nowhere else in the world does it even occur to anyone to make such a manifestly absurd argument.
To elaborate, Palestine has been repeatedly conquered by outside invaders since ancient history: by Assyria, Babylon, Alexander the Great, the Roman empire, the Crusaders, the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire—indeed, if the Old Testament is to be the historical source, in the Biblical era by the Jews themselves! On each occasion, many or most of the previous inhabitants of the land were killed, driven into exile, or subjugated by new rulers, who then held sway for centuries. Who, then, are the “rightful” claimants?
Put differently, by what objective criteria are the claims of one set of victims—the Jews supposedly driven out by the Romans over two thousand years ago—privileged over all other such claims? If ancient victimization is the criterion, then the descendants of the Canaanites (for example, the Syrians!), who lived on the land until the Jews conquered them, must have priority over the descendants of the Jews. On the other hand, if recent victimization is the criterion, then all victims of conquest after the Roman expulsion have priority over the Jews.
There is scarcely any place in the world that has not at one time been conquered, subjugated and populated by previously external forces. Consequently, absent a religious basis (“the Promised Land”) accepted by everyone, including those of different nationalities and religions, the stopping of the clock as it marches backward in time to 20 centuries ago, neither earlier nor later, must be completely arbitrary and self-serving. Thus, a kind of common sense statute of limitations on land claims by right of previous inhabitance has evolved. Of course, there can be no precision in ascertaining the point at which the passage of time has nullified the moral or legal validity of previous land claims, and certainly there are hard cases.
The Zionist claim, however, is not one of them. While the metaphorical statute of limitations is vague, we can at least establish a morally plausible range:
*The passage of a few months or years is not enough to wipe out past rights. Thus, no unbiased observer challenged the moral right of the Bosnians, the Croatians, and the Kosovar Albanians to reverse Serbian ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia—even though force was often necessary and it required the dispossession of Serbs who had recently taken over the abandoned homes and villages.
*The passage of some decades creates a complex problem. Thus, the question of whether the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes and villages in what is now Israel is one of the most vexing issues in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not easily resolvable, either in practice or in moral principle—except by some kind of fair compromise.
*Two hundred years or so is too long. For example, while there is no doubt that in the 19th century Americans illegitimately and forcibly conquered much of what became the United States from the Native Americans and from Mexico, it does not follow that today’s Native Americans have even the theoretical moral right to reconquer the West, or that Mexico could legitimately drive out the Texans today.
This is not to deny that the Native Americans still have some persuasive legal and moral claims for some forms of restitution. After a century and a half, however, the use of force to assert previous territorial rights would be an entirely different matter. For example, there seems to be no doubt that a couple of centuries ago my home in Buffalo was once on land inhabited by the Seneca Indian Nation—but I don’t think that would give the modern Senecans the right to demand I return it to them, or to violently drive me out if I refuse.
*If this line is reasoning is persuasive, then a territorial claim based on previous inhabitance two thousand years ago is beneath serious consideration. To be sure, even after the Roman conquest there continued to be a substantial Jewish community in Palestine. However, over time most became Christians or Moslems as a result of the consecutive foreign conquests and occupation of Palestine, leaving only a small minority that preserved its Jewish identity.
As a result, by the end of the 19th century, prior to the beginning of the Zionist immigration, only some 15,000-30,000 Jews remained in Palestine, about 3-7% of the Arab population. Different studies have come to somewhat different estimates, but none remotely support Morris’s claim that “Jewish residence counterbalances Arab residence in Palestine since 636 C.E.” (emphasis added)
There is only one good argument for the Zionist claim to have a Jewish state in some part of the land of Palestine, but it is a sufficient one. Unlike the other arguments I have discussed, the fact of centuries of murderous Jewish persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant in legitimizing the creation of Israel. To be sure, the matter is complex: the conflict between the Jews and Palestinians long preceded Nazi Germany, and in any case the Palestinians were in no way responsible for the Holocaust or, for that matter, for the earlier history of murderous European anti-Semitism that produced Zionism. As the Palestinians always ask: Why should we be made to pay for evils we did not commit?
On the other hand, the Holocaust made the case for the creation of a Jewish state and a haven for the victims of anti-Semitism not only irrefutable but urgent. And by the late 1930s the die was cast; it was far too late to consider alternatives other than Palestine. In that context, the Palestinian plea of innocence lost much—though not all—of its force. The answer to the “why should we pay” question was this: it had become a tragic necessity, for the alternative, in terms of the human consequences, was worse.
In that case, could the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been averted, or at least settled long ago? Perhaps it might have, if two things had been done by Israel at the time of its creation, or at least since. First, Israel should have jettisoned its untrue, infuriating, and irrelevant “narrative” and simply rested its case for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine on historical necessity in general, the Holocaust in particular, and the absence of a practical alternative to the land of Palestine. And since 1948 the only argument necessary to the Zionist case is that Israel exists, new moral as well as factual realities have been created, and Israelis have the right to live.
At the same time, however, Israel should have publicly and repeatedly acknowledged that the creation of Israel had created a grave injustice to the Palestinian people, that the subsequent Israeli expulsion, occupation, and repression of the Palestinians had compounded the injustice and the pain it has long inflicted on the Palestinian people, and that as a result Israel would do everything in its economic and political power to remedy those injustices and alleviate the pain-- short of abandoning its state.
Even today, it is probably not too late for Israel to do this, and it may very well be the case that such an acknowledgement—accompanied by major Israeli economic assistance to the Palestinians—is the necessary psychological prerequisite if there is ever to be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But first the Israelis (and their allies in the American Jewish community) must go through a painful demythologizing process; sadly, they will get no help from Benny Morris, despite his earlier work.
Morris and the Two-State Solution.
Morris’s last argument is based on a serious distortion of the fistory of the two-state solution, especially in 2000 and in 2008. Morris simply reasserts the standard mythology: that in 2000 Ehud Barak offered Arafat a genuine two-state solution but that Arafat flatly rejected it, made no counteroffers, walked away from the negotiations, and began the violent intifada. No part of this mythology has survived serious examination. The issue is far too complex to be examined here, but it has been refuted in great detail by a number of scholars, journalists, and former policy makers—most of them Israeli. (For my own analysis, see here)
Here are the most salient points:
*Even as the negotiations were proceeding, Barak was continuing to expand the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, continuing the Israeli practice of creating “facts on the ground” that precluded their return to the Palestinians.
*No one knows for sure what Barak “offered” to Arafat in 2000, since he refused to put anything in writing and even refused to talk directly to Arafat at what was supposed to be a “summit” meeting at Camp David in July 2000. As for what Barak seemed to be hinting he might finally offer, at most it would have left the largest and most important Jewish settlements beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders under Israeli sovereignty—not least because they had been deliberately placed there to ensure Israeli control over some of the best agricultural land and largest West Bank water aquifers.
*On the crucial issue of Jerusalem, Barak not only continued to insist on full Israeli sovereignty over the entire city, including over the Muslim mosques in the Old City, he actually hardened the Israeli position over Jerusalem by demanding for the first time that Jews be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount plateau, adjacent to the mosques. As many Israelis and others have noted, Barak’s position on Jerusalem alone doomed the negotiations to failure.
*On another crucial issue, the Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel, Barak was also completely uncompromising, later stating that no Israeli prime minister would ever accept “even one refugee on the basis of the right of return.”
*Barak continued to demand a demilitarized Palestinian state, Israeli control over Palestinian borders and air space, and even a long-term Israeli military presence and settlements deep within the projected Palestinian state, especially in the Jordan river valley and adjacent mountain tops.
In short, if the Palestinians had accepted Barak’s apparent proposals—assuming that in the end Barak would have formally offered them--they would have gained only a tiny, economically nonviable and water-starved Palestinian “state”—or perhaps, better said, Bantustans--divided into a number of noncontiguous parcels separated by Israeli armed forces, roads, and Jewish settlements, denied a capital in East Jerusalem or even sovereignty over the Muslim religious sites on the Temple Mount.
No wonder that Shlomo Ben-Ami, Barak’s foreign minister, later said that “Camp David was not a missed opportunity for the Palestinians, and if I were a Palestinian I would have rejected Camp David, as well,” and that Barak himself later boasted that he had given the Palestinians “not a thing.” And even then, the overall conclusion of investigations by European, U.S and even Israeli intelligence organizations is that Arafat did not make a policy decision to abandon negotiations and turn to violence; rather he was unable to contain the Palestinian intifada, which at least initially was a revolution from below.
What Happened in 2008?
Morris writes that the Palestinians again rejected a compromise two-state solution in 2008, supposedly offered by Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. The facts are murky, but there have been some indications of what happened. Olmert, who had a long history as a hardline rightist before his election, was prime minister from May 2006 until he was defeated for reelection by Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2009. Throughout his term in office he not only continued but stepped up the expansion of Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and two months before his term expired he instituted the infamous Israeli attack on Gaza and resisted efforts by members of his own Cabinet to cut short the attack before even more Gazan civilians were slaughtered.
Still, it is true that in the last few months of his time in office—and when there was no longer any doubt that he was about to be decisively defeated by Netanyahu—Olmert made some surprisingly strong public statements about the need for a genuine and fair two-statement settlement with the Palestinians, perhaps including some form of shared Israeli-Palestinian sovereignty over the Old City and other sites within Jerusalem of religious importance to both Jews and Muslims.
There were some preliminary talks between Olmert and high-level Palestinian leaders on the basis of these promising Olmert statements, but there were no official Israeli proposals, no formal negotiations, no public documentary record, and in any case the process was quickly aborted when Olmert authorized the Israeli attack on Gaza and Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister.
And because Morris knows all this, today he is nothing more than a propagandist for the indefensible, and a particularly dangerous one at that, precisely because before he betrayed his calling he had gained great credibility as a fearless teller of the truth. Put differently, while once Morris told truth to power—often described as the highest calling of intellectuals-- now he tells the lies that power wants to hear. So it is hardly surprising that Morris, once a pariah in his country, today is a thriving and celebrated defender of Israeli policies and a close adviser to top Israeli political leaders.