Once the great chronicler of Israel's war crimes, he now laments Ben-Gurion's failure to clear all Arab inhabitants from Palestine in 1948. What has become of Morris and the Israeli left?by David B Green / August 22, 2004 / Leave a comment
The Israeli historian Benny Morris achieved a modicum of fame in 1988 with his first book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. It was one of the first works to look objectively at the factors that led 700,000 Palestinians to leave their homes during the 1947-49 war that followed the partition of mandatory Palestine by the UN. It is seen as a landmark because, by citing places and dates, it provided evidence that members of Israel’s army had carried out war crimes and that the actions of Israeli forces had intentionally contributed to the flight of the Palestinians. It also blamed the Arab states for having rejected the UN plan that called for the creation of both a Jewish state and an Arab one, but the major significance of the book for Israelis was that it challenged the official Zionist story that the Jews had done all they could to keep the Palestinians from leaving. Morris became a self-loathing troublemaker in the view of some jingoistic Israelis, and a hero both for Israelis on the left and for supporters of the Palestinians. But in February 2002, nearly 18 months into the al-Aqsa intifada, the Guardian published a long piece by Morris in which he effectively told British readers that he was sending back his membership card of the Israel left. He had, he wrote, become convinced that Yasser Arafat, symbol of “his people’s miseries and collective aspirations,” had no intention of reaching a compromise with Israel. He had reached this conclusion, he said, not only because of Palestinian behaviour since the failed Camp David summit in July 2000, when Arafat had turned down a “generous offer” from Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, but also after having spent most of the 1990s researching Righteous Victims, a book on the century-long history of the conflict. “By the time I had completed the book,” Morris wrote, “my restrained optimism had given way to grave doubts,” as he began to understand that a common thread of rejection of the Jewish national movement ran through the entire history of Palestinian nationalism.
Morris described himself as disillusioned, but not as someone who had changed his basic sense of what peace might entail. His belief that the two-state solution was the only practical and morally correct possibility, and that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza was misguided, had not changed, he said, but he no longer felt convinced that his peers on the Palestinian side shared his outlook.
To Morris himself, this expression of frustration and anger seemed a natural consequence of the horrific events that had overtaken the region since the breakdown of peace efforts at Camp David. To others, however, the champion of the Palestinians had crossed over to become their prosecutor. As Morris wrote, with characteristic self-consciousness, readers couldn’t be blamed for thinking he had undergone a “brain transplant.”
That was only the beginning. Earlier this year, Morris gave an interview to Ha’aretz, the Tel-Aviv based daily broadsheet. He explained that his research for a recently revised edition of the Palestinian Refugee Problem had turned up more evidence of murder and rape of Palestinians. In addition, he had found confirmation of numerous cases in which ethnic cleansing of Arabs from territory Jews were trying to consolidate had been policy and not just the by-product of a defensive war. “Transfer,” he wrote in the book, “was inevitable and in-built into Zionism – because it sought to transform a land which was ‘Arab’ into a ‘Jewish’ state and a Jewish state could not have arisen without a major displacement of the Arab population.”
Yet far from wringing his hands over these new revelations, Morris explained that Israelis, at least, would probably have been better off had they completed the expulsion of the Palestinians from the entire land – the Mediterranean to the Jordan river – in 1948. Israel’s leader, David Ben-Gurion, he argued, had got cold feet. “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. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself.” As a consequence, Israel was burdened not only with some 3.5m Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also with a large minority population of Arab citizens in Israel proper (today 1.2m out of a total population of 6m), and they constitute a “timebomb” and a “potential fifth column.” He contemplated (some might say relished) the possibility that some day, if Israel were exposed to an existential threat from, say, Egypt and Syria, it might have no alternative but to complete the expulsion begun more than 50 years earlier.
Morris was careful to distinguish between expulsion and atrocities like murder and rape, which he said were always unjustified, though he also stressed that the number of Palestinians whom he estimated had been slaughtered by Jews in the war (as opposed to killed in battle) did not exceed 800, and that was “peanuts” compared with, say, Bosnia. In any case, Morris said, “when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the genocide of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.”
But it was some of the other observations Morris made in his interview with Ari Shavit, spoken in Hebrew, that got people emailing the piece around the globe. Feeling that the situation granted him licence to generalise about Arab and Muslim cultures, he noted that the Arab world today was “barbarian,” and that in Islam, “human life doesn’t have the same value as it does in the west,” which explained why they “will commit genocide.” He compared the Palestinian adversary to “a wild animal that has to be locked up.”
Not surprisingly, the interview elicited strong reactions. Ha’aretz printed many angry letters, and historians and middle east buffs filled internet sites with essays criticising Morris. One reader concluded that Morris served as “a case history in the psychopathology of colonialism.” Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, who has written several histories of the Palestinians, dismissed Morris the historian as no more than an “archivist,” and Morris the political thinker as someone who applied his own “prejudices and stereotypes” of Islamic and Arab culture to fit the embattled zeitgeist in “the Israeli-Jewish world and some parts of western political culture since the 9/11 calamity.”
Speaking to the web magazine Salon, Tom Segev, a historian who has shared the loose mantle of “new historian” with Morris – along with Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim – concluded that “Morris flipped out as a result of three years of terrorism. Happens to many of us,” he added nonchalantly.
As if to highlight the break that he had made with his past, Morris also published a long review of Ilan Pappe’s A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples in the New Republic in March 2004. Opening the piece on a personal note, Morris told readers that although he and Pappe had once “walked together in uneasy companionship,” they had now “parted ways.”
Even when they were fellow new historians, Pappe and Morris had been some way apart. Morris is a Zionist, and Pappe (together with Shlaim) a “post-Zionist,” believing that only a single state for Jews and Arabs can lead to a just society. Nonetheless, the intifada has sharpened the differences between the two. In Morris’s review, and in a response that Pappe posted on a website, both men attacked one another personally as well as professionally. Morris listed dozens of errors in the book and recommended that readers “run vigorously in the opposite direction” of what is “truly? an appalling book.”
Pappe, in turn, denied that he and Morris had ever been intellectual companions, but “as he seemed to trust me” in the late 1980s, he had shared with Pappe what were already then “his abominable racist views” of Arabs. Morris “was never a historian,” but a chronologist, and also a liar and a “charlatan.”
Why does it matter what Benny Morris has to say about the intifada or the Palestinian mind? The reason he is important is that the questions he is asking and answering are the same ones that have occupied tens of thousands of thoughtful Israelis over the past few years. The only difference is that he expresses his opinions loudly and clearly before a world audience.
Israel today is not the same country it was four years ago. What is new is a deep disillusionment among that segment of society that used to call itself the left. Its members for the most part still believe in the two state solution. At the same time, however, they fear that this solution is no longer attainable. Like Morris, they have become convinced that Israel lacks an adversary who shares its understanding of political bargaining. There is, they fear, “no partner.” And much as they would like to feel regret over the harsh measures Israel has imposed on the Palestinians in the past few years, the blows that Israel has endured – above all the suicide bombings – have hardened their hearts to their enemy’s suffering.
This explains the stunning victory of Ariel Sharon both in the 2001 direct prime ministerial election, and his re-election 18 months ago, once Israel had reverted to its original party-based electoral system. It explains the nearly unanimous support of Israelis for the construction of the security barrier between the state and the West Bank (despite a lack of consensus on what the course of the fence should be), and the fact that more than two thirds of the public is behind Sharon’s plan to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza strip. And finally, the disillusionment of the left explains in part the near total collapse of the Labour party as a political organisation offering a coherent approach to the country’s problems and a vision for its future. Labour’s inability even to agree on a leader for the past three years (its interim leader continues to be Shimon Peres) is a symptom of this collapse.
I met Benny Morris recently for morning coffee at a caf? in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighbourhood. The place is not far from where a city bus was blown up earlier this year, and not much farther from Caf? Moment, which was hit by a suicide bomb in March 2002. Because of a mix-up, I arrived an hour early. Concerned that I had missed Morris, I called his home, where I was greeted with a recorded message saying the line had been disconnected. Luckily, Morris showed up soon after, and explained that he had just moved house. He had, he said, moved to a “settlement” – understood here, as it is worldwide, to refer to Israeli communities in the occupied territories. Chuckling at my surprise, he quickly explained that it wasn’t really a settlement, but rather a community, near the city of Beit Shemesh, inside Israel. He may have moved to the right, but Morris is still no right-winger.
Morris was born in Israel the same year as the state, 1948, but his father, from Belfast, and his London-born mother had immigrated to pre-state Palestine from England in 1947, and his mother tongue is English. This is what he spoke with me, rapidly, eloquently and precisely, in an English accent. His appearance is disarmingly sloppy and approachable. He is friendly, unpretentious and direct. His enemies claim that the changing political climate has led Morris to lower his guard so that his “natural racism” can emerge, but I felt his cheerful demeanour and open manner might be masking the fear and even hurt that he has experienced in the last few years. In an interview he gave to the Atlantic Monthly’s website, he acknowledged that he may well be “basically depressed,” adding that he had become convinced that “unless there is a basic change of heart and mind? among Palestinians and in the Arab world in general about Israel, we’re in for a continuous struggle over the coming decades.”
As members of the Hashomer Hatzair socialist movement, Benny’s parents lived briefly on Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, where he was born, and then were involved in the establishment of Kibbutz Yasur, in the western Galilee (founded, as their son says, “on the ruins of an abandoned Arab village, Al-Birwa”). When Benny was a year old, the family moved to Jerusalem, which remained their home, although his youth was punctuated with two long periods in New York, where his father Jacob served as Israeli consul. (Later, in the 1980s, Jacob was Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand, about which he published a book of poetry.) Benny too was a member of a socialist youth group connected to the kibbutz movement.
After receiving his BA in modern European history from the Hebrew University, Morris did a doctorate at Cambridge, England, finishing his thesis, on Anglo-German relations in the 1930s, in 1977. Unable to find a job in academia, he took up a position as a reporter on the Jerusalem Post, which was then a left-leaning English-language daily owned by Israel’s labour federation. He explains in the introduction to the revised edition of his 1988 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited that his interest in studying Palestinian refugees began during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when he interviewed residents of a Palestinian refugee camp outside Tyre, in the south of the country. He had earlier planned to write a book about the history of Israel’s army, but had to abandon it when his access to the archives of the Palmah (the elite commando force of the pre-state Haganah militia) was withdrawn – though not before he had glimpsed top secret documents testifying to the role of Jewish soldiers in expelling Palestinians from their homes.
In 1988, the year that he published the first edition of the refugee study, Morris – who was still working as a journalist – was jailed for refusing to report for reserve duty as a soldier in the West Bank city of Nablus. It was during the first intifada and, he told his Salon interviewer recently, “my sympathies were with the rebels. I thought the Arabs really meant what they said and they were out to liberate the West Bank and Gaza from military occupation. I thought that was just. And therefore, I refused to fight them.”
By the early 1990s, Morris had left the newspaper and begun searching in earnest for a university job in Israel. But his efforts were in vain. “I was blackballed for years,” he told me. “I was already well known, because of my first book, but I was not even invited to a single interview. Eventually, in 1996, I gave an interview to the newspaper Ma’ariv, and I told the reporter that I would starve if I don’t find a job here. I had literally been searching for five or six years. The headline of the story was, ‘Benny Morris is leaving Israel.’ The same morning the story ran, I got a call from the office of [Israeli president] Ezer Weizman, who I was told wanted to meet me. I went by a few days later, and we talked for about an hour. He quizzed me about 1948: I guess he wanted to see if I was just one of those anti-Zionists, and I think he reached a positive conclusion” – that Morris was kosher. Weizman apparently asked his chief of staff to make some calls, and a few minutes after Morris had made the short walk back to his home, “I received a phone call from the president of Ben-Gurion University assuring me I had a job.” Today he is a professor of middle east studies at Ben-Gurion University, in the Negev city of Beer Sheva.
At heart, Morris told me, he still believed that the creation of a Palestinian state was a practical necessity. “I’ve always believed that we must separate from the Palestinians, that they must have their own state in the West Bank and Gaza strip, alongside Israel, along more or less 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, which must be returned to Arab sovereignty. I think that’s just and I think that’s practical.”
But Morris, along with many other Israelis, has found himself wondering over the past four years just which war he was revisiting: 1967, when Israel took “temporary” possession of the territories? Or 1948, when a coalition of Arab states fought to prevent the newly declared state from coming into existence? In other words, was the intifada about how much of the territories Israel would withdraw from, or was Israel still fighting for its very existence?
This question seemed all the more relevant coming, as the intifada did, in the wake of the failed summit hosted by President Clinton at Camp David in July 2000. Israelis have overwhelmingly accepted Ehud Barak’s claim that between Camp David and January 2001, Israel made a series of proposals that seemed to answer most, if not all, of the Palestinian demands: the withdrawal from nearly all the territories and dismantling of most of the settlements; the ceding of Arab Jerusalem to the new Palestinian state, as well as of the Temple Mount, which is central to both Islam and Judaism; and there were also indications that Israel was open to a compromise formula in which it would accept joint responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and offer to take in a symbolic number of refugees. Arafat’s rejection at Camp David of the terms, followed not by a counter-offer or a proposal to continue negotiating but rather, several months later, by an armed uprising, was taken as evidence that the Palestinians were unwilling to bring the conflict to an end.
This is the way Barak presented Camp David to the world, and subsequent memoirs not only from Israelis who were involved but also from Clinton himself (as well as his middle east special negotiator, Dennis Ross), have generally corroborated this version. There have been several journalistic accounts of the Camp David talks from a more Palestinian point of view – including a piece in the New York Review of Books in 2001 by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley that outlined the tactical mistakes of both sides – but for the most part the Palestinians who were present have remained silent for the past four years, and this has given Barak’s version a clear run.
When Barak responded in the New York Review to the Agha-Malley piece, he did so via an interview he gave to Benny Morris. Barak insisted that his offer to Arafat had been sincere and comprehensive, and that the claim that he had offered a Palestinian state composed of “Bantustans” was an “embarrassing lie.” But lying, he explained, was endemic to Arab culture, and largely defined Arafat’s style as a leader.
Barak, and subsequently Morris – who accepts Barak’s version of events almost entirely – make special note of Palestinian unwillingness at Camp David to acknowledge Israel’s claim to a historical connection to the Temple Mount. The issue came up during discussions over the future of the old city site, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians. There are many legends attached to the mount, but there are a number of facts that most secular sources agree on, among them that in 70AD, the Romans destroyed the Hebrew temple that stood on the site, and that the Western, or Wailing, Wall, where Jews have prayed for much of the past two millennia, is a remnant of the retaining wall built by Herod the Great to support the mount in the first century BC.
Yet even the Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, an urbane, western-educated mandarin, was reported to have told his Israeli counterparts that he did not believe that there had been a temple at the site, reflecting the wider Palestinian view. If that denial was just Israeli propaganda, no Palestinian spokes-man has taken advantage of the past four years to correct the record and state clearly that since the mount is holy to both peoples, a way must be found to share it. Aside from the significance of this to Jews anxious to know that their holiest site will remain accessible, the symbolic meaning of the Palestinian position cannot be overstated. Negation of the Jewish link to the Temple Mount – denial that there ever was a temple – is equivalent to rejection of the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, which in turn is like asserting that the Jews have no claim to Palestine in general.
Morris told me that he was not a “determinist,” and believed that “a mindset can change over a generation or two.” The problem with the Arabs was cultural, not racial, he believed. But this did not make him any more optimistic. And it was his historical research for Righteous Victims that forms the basis of his pessimism. “I spent time lo
oking at the whole thing, from its origins in the 1880s until the present day? and the thrust of Palestinian history from the beginning of the Palestinian movement in the 1920s? was rejectionist. It opposed the idea of Jews coming here, it opposed the idea of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine. ‘Not one inch’ – that was basically the slogan, and unfortunately, my study of the last 100 years shows me that they’ve been uniform, monolithic, linear about this.” He then recounted all the opportunities for the Palestinians to accept a compromise – in 1937 (when a British commission called for partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, and population ex-changes between them, with the former getting some 70 per cent and the latter 20 per cent), and 1947, and 1978, and, finally, four years ago. And each time “they reject a peace offer and a compromise based on two states, they lose territory. The Jewish population grows, Jewish greed grows, and Jews take over more and more territory. And then there’s less territory available for Arabs, and they’re offered less.”
Although Barak and, following him, Morris, now seem certain about the depth of Palestinian intransigence, other Israelis, even some in the very thick of the military establishment, are not so sure. In mid-June, the journalist Akiva Eldar reported in Ha’aretz that Amos Malka, who had been head of Israeli military intelligence at the time of Camp David, was claiming that his division’s assessment had always been that Arafat was interested in making a deal; the turn to violence in 2000 was a continuation of diplomacy by other means, not a sign that the two-state solution had been discarded. Malka’s remarks were meant to discredit the analysis of his then deputy Amos Gilad – now an outspoken political adviser to the defence minister – who has been called “the high priest of the ‘we have no partner’ creed.” Malka charged that Gilad had no basis for his assertion that Arafat’s ultimate goal was the destruction of Israel, and that his insistence on the right of return was intended to achieve that goal demographically.
Gilad has defended his position, and reactions to this dispute from other observers have predictably divided along political lines. But while one has to wonder why Amos Malka has chosen to speak now, one cannot help but have doubts about the entire science of reading the mind of the Palestinian president. When I discussed this with Gidi Grinstein,who served as secretary of the Israeli delegation to Camp David, and today heads the Re’ut Institute for strategic planning, he told me that he “wouldn’t claim to know what’s in Arafat’s heart.” But Israel, he said, will always be at a disadvantage in negotiations, not because of unclear Palestinian intentions but because of a more basic “structural mismatch” between the Israeli and Palestinian political systems. Grinstein observed that whereas Arafat “has been the Palestinians’ leader for 40 years, the average Israeli prime minister is in office for two and a half to three unstable years. This gives the Palestinian side an incentive to prolong negotiations.” He also noted that the Palestinians made decisions via deliberation and consensus. “Thus you can’t carry and enforce a decision with a one-person majority” – the way that the Knesset passed the Oslo II agreement (mandating the withdrawal of Israeli forces from most Palestinian urban centres in the West Bank) in October 1995, after two parliamentarians switched to Labour. “For the Palestinians to reach a more significant majority, you may need an agreement that will be unacceptable to the Israelis. Without external pressure, why should Arafat take any risks in putting his coalition to the test of a challenging agreement with Israel?”
I wondered also if Morris, in the wake of 9/11, now saw the intifada in a more Islamic context. He responded by suggesting that the conflict be viewed on two levels: a “territorial conflict between two peoples, unfortunately turned into a zero sum game by the Palestinians,” and as “a war against the existence of the state of Israel.” This, he said, has “merged with the pan-Arab, pan-Islamic radical struggle against the west, against modernism, against liberal values and democratic values. They see the west as a threat to their own culture, and they see Israel as an outpost of this west. So when Hamas wages the struggle against this entity called Israel, they’re also waging the pan-Islamic struggle against the west itself. And we are on the front line.”
The picture Morris draws is a gloomy one, but if it misrepresents the Palestinians, few politicians or intellectual leaders from that side have tried hard to challenge it (Sari Nusseibeh, the liberal academic and Al-Quds University president, is one of the few exceptions). This does not mean that most Israelis have an alternative solution, or want to claim the West Bank as their own. Morris told me how, a year or two ago, he received a call from a leader of the Council of Jewish Communities in the territories, asking him to speak at a rally in Tel Aviv. “I said to him: ‘I’m not there yet, I’m not quite there.'” Then he added, in case I had misunderstood his point, “That was a joke. I’ve never identified with the settlers. I think that the settlement movement was a mistake from the beginning.”
Similarly, two thirds of Israelis told pollsters in June that they supported Sharon’s plan for unilateral Israeli “disengagement” from Gaza, and 68 per cent said they would be behind a plan to dismantle most of the settlements there and in the West Bank in the context of a peace deal. If there is no partner, then Israel has no alternative but to act unilaterally. Hence the broad support not only for the Gaza pullout, but also for the construction of the security barrier.
Morris is all for a withdrawal from Gaza: “I don’t think we should have 20 or 25 per cent of the Gaza strip’s land for 7,000 settlers when you have 1.5m really impoverished people there.” He would like to see a similar withdrawal in the West Bank (though holding on to enclaves adjacent to the Green line), and even, in the event of a peace deal, Jerusalem.
All of the political figures in Israel I have spoken to over the past few months have their own take on Sharon’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza strip, but they all agreed that the move was preferable to the status quo. Yossi Alpher, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, is suspicious of Sharon’s motives, but contends that “after the last four years, unilateral action is much more doable than bilateral.” Alpher said he was convinced that Sharon “is leaving Gaza to stay in the West Bank,” but went on to suggest that “the weight of the precedent of dismantling settlements will be far greater than any coup he may be planning to hold the West Bank.”
Gidi Grinstein, head of the Re’ut institute, was more generous, crediting Sharon with “a sophisticated understanding of the present reality with the Palestinians. He understands that entering into negotiations may suck him in the way it did the four previous prime ministers, since Rabin. Each time we start to negotiate, the agenda expands, the timeframe is prolonged and Palestinian demands escalate, while we still have terrorism.” At this stage in the conflict, said Grinstein, it would be a mistake for an Israeli leader, even if conditions were ripe for the resumption of negotiations, not also to have a “viable, credible strategy based on unilateral moves and agreements with third parties [essentially the US] to free Israel from its dependence on Palestinian consent and its vulnerability to the pathologies of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.”
On the security issue Israel has drifted towards a one-party state. In the last election, 18 months ago, Labour’s leader Amram Mitzna called for the resumption of talks with the Palestinians, and was trounced, with Labour winning only 19 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, its lowest share ever. (Its share of the vote fell to 14.5 per cent, compared with 46 per cent for Labour and allied parties in 1969.) Mitzna resigned as leader, and for lack of an alternative, the party turned to Shimon Peres to take over as acting chair. He has been dogged with almost weekly reports that he is angling to take Labour back into a Sharon-led coalition, in which he would again be foreign minister.
Before the election, Labour’s most prominent peacenik, Yossi Beilin, left his long-time political home, and is now the leader of Yahad, the heir to what until recently was called Meretz, a left-wing Zionist party. He is only one of many Labour luminaries to have left the party in recent years, the latest being Avrum Burg, another left-winger and recent candidate for the leadership. The party’s foundering can be understood as a combination of its inability to unite around a leader or to agree on a path that…