Saturday, July 19, 2008

Implications of history

I will not enjoy writing this post. The Israeli Benny Morris is one of the best and most honest historians of my generation. A leader of what has been called "new history" in Israel, he has written a series of extraordinarily even-handed book about the Arab-Israeli conflict, beginning with The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, continuing through Righteous Victims, a thorough history of the conflict beginning in the late 19th century which I own, and now including 1948, an account of the Israeli War of Independence, which I happen to have out of the library at the moment. At least three important historical points recur through those books.

1. When Zionists began arriving in Palestine, as it was then, in large numbers, they encountered a hostile Arab population. Most of them recognized this, and after the First World War, when Zionism began working actively for statehood, some, including David Ben-Gurion, began to talk about the removal of Arab population from the new Israel as the ultimate solution to this problem. When war broke out in 1948 the Israelis intermittently (although not, obviously, uniformly) carried out that policy and forced a great many Arabs out of the territory claimed by the Jews. The Israelis also committed atrocities. The Arabs, Morris makes clear in the conclusion of 1948, enjoyed no moral superiority, and indeed were officially eager to kill Jewish civilians while Jewish military authorities tried to impose some rules; but in practice, largely because they were the stronger side, the Israelis, he concludes, probably killed more civilians than the Arabs--about 800, as opposed to about 200.

2. Although the Israelis from 1917 onward were willing to accept various compromise proposals offered by the British and then by the UN to divide Palestine while the Palestinians were not, the Israeli leadership never regarded any of these proposals--including the 1948 partition boundaries and the armistice lines of 1949 that lasted for 18 years--as a final settlement and consistently planned to expand those borders. They tried to do so in 1956 during the Suez crisis, conquering the Sinai peninsula, but had to yield those gains in the following year under heavy American pressure. (President Eisenhower reportedly threatened to make American contributions to Israel non-deductible, which, in the days of 91% marginal tax rates, was a serious threat.) Since 1967 they have expanded into the West Bank and have never reached any consensus on where this process should stop. (This point was made in the 1980s by Conor Cruise O'Brien in his essentially pro-Israel study, The Siege.)

3. The Palestinian Arabs understood the implications of Zionism from the beginning and totally rejected it. Moreover, Morris's evenhanded treatments consistently imply that their attitude was both logical and understandable, and he never seems to suggest that they had some kind of duty to make peace with the Zionists.

Now anyone who has read much of my own work will understand why I appreciated and admired Morris. As I said in the last pages of American Tragedy, some of my favorite historians--like the Italian Luigi Albertini, the West German Fritz Fischer, and Thucydides--are those whose feelings for their own nation led them to explore, rather than to try to excuse, its faults. That is, I think, the only useful basis for nationalism in today's world. Morris was in that tradition--he was acknowledging, in a sense, that Israelis were no different from any other organized people founding a state against opposition, in the same way that US citizens have to hear today that imperialism is still imperialism, even when we do it.

Meanwhile, Morris in the 1980s opposed the occupation of the West Bank (he was in his late thirties at the time--we are nearly the same age) and actually served some jail time because he refused to help rule the Arab town of Nablus. He also hoped that Israel could reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders. The events of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, changed his mind, as he explained in a widely re-published interview with Ari Shavit in early 2004.

Morris had by then concluded that the Palestinians had rejected the deal offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 because they would never accept Israel's existence. Peace, he said, was impossible. In addition, he now went beyond simply reporting that leaders like Ben Gurion had favored "transferring" the Arab population out of Israel and endorsed that practice himself, arguing, indeed, that Ben-Gurion should have gone further down that road in 1948. And he added that under certain circumstances--if, for instance, an Islamic regime came to power in Egypt or in Jordan--Israel should expel the entire Arab population of the West Bank as well. I quote:

"And today? Do you advocate a transfer today?"

"If you are asking me whether I support the transfer and expulsion of the Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza and perhaps even from Galilee and the Triangle, I say not at this moment. I am not willing to be a partner to that act. In the present circumstances it is neither moral nor realistic. The world would not allow it, the Arab world would not allow it, it would destroy the Jewish society from within. But I am ready to tell you that in other circumstances, apocalyptic ones, which are liable to be realized in five or ten years, I can see expulsions. If we find ourselves with atomic weapons around us, or if there is a general Arab attack on us and a situation of warfare on the front with Arabs in the rear shooting at convoys on their way to the front, acts of expulsion will be entirely reasonable. They may even be essential."

"Including the expulsion of Israeli Arabs?"

"The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb. Their slide into complete Palestinization has made them an emissary of the enemy that is among us. They are a potential fifth column. In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then. If we are attacked by Egypt (after an Islamist revolution in Cairo) and by Syria, and chemical and biological missiles slam into our cities, and at the same time Israeli Palestinians attack us from behind, I can see an expulsion situation. It could happen. If the threat to Israel is existential, expulsion will be justified."

Morris, born in 1948, is an Israeli Prophet, and thus prone to thinking in absolute terms. His position here has a certain logic, but I would prefer to think that the Israeli people would never actually want to carry it out and that their government (and he admits in the interview that he is an historian, not a statesman) would reject it. One cannot, however, be sure. Similar things have happened in the heart of Europe in the last century--with the concurrence of the United States and Britain.

Now, however, Morris has gone further still. In an op-ed yesterday in the New York Times, he predicted advocated an Israeli preventive strike on Iran during the next seven months designed to cripple Iran's nuclear program. If a conventional strike did not do the job, he added, Israel would have to follow up with a nuclear strike, either before or after Iran had acquired nuclear weapons. The piece can be read in several ways; it seems at times to be an attempt to blackmail the Bush Administration into joining with the Israelis, or at least allowing them to use bases in Iraq (a move certain to have disastrous political consequences there), in order to try to make sure that a conventional strike does the job. Showing utter contempt for the American people, Morris also suggests that the strike has to take place between the election and inauguration of a new President, so that American voters will have no chance to influence the decision. And with his respect to the nature of the Iranian threat, he puts himself squarely in the camp of Vice President Cheney, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and President Bush.

"Every intelligence agency in the world," Morris writes, "believes the Iranian program is geared toward making weapons, not to the peaceful applications of nuclear power." That sentence will come as a surprise to CIA analysts who recently reached and published the opposite conclusion. But even if Iran still has that goal--and it may--Morris has to explain why this is so completely unacceptable as to justify preventive nuclear war. Israel, he says, is "threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran’s leaders. . .Israel, believing that its very existence is at stake — and this is a feeling shared by most Israelis across the political spectrum — will certainly make the effort. Israel’s leaders, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert down, have all explicitly stated that an Iranian bomb means Israel’s destruction; Iran will not be allowed to get the bomb." The statement about Israeli leaders may be true, but that simply means that they, like Bush, Cheney and company in 2002, have convinced themselves of something which may not be true at all. Contrary to what Morris says, Iranian leaders have never threatened militarily to destroy Israel. Ahmadinejad's famous statement that Israel should be "wiped off the map" simply means that in his opinion, a Zionist state should not exist in the Middle East. (That opinion is shared by the vast majority of the Arab population of the region, of course.) Officially, Iran wants all Palestinian refugees to return to Israel and take part in a vote on the future shape of the state. In practice I suspect most Iranians know Israel is here to stay. (We should not forget, by the way, that Israel, along with the United States, was a major covert ally of the Shah of Iran, any more than we should forget that the United States helped overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953.)

Fulfilling a fantasy of mine, Senator Obama this week called for a world without nuclear weapons. Morris in my opinion would be on firmer political and moral ground if he coupled his Carthaginian threat with an offer by the Israelis to give up their nuclear weapons if thorough and effective controls are put in place throughout the region. But he doesn't. Like President Bush, he claims the authority for Israel to decide who should have what weapons, and the right to enforce its views by any means, including nuclear weapons.

I now ask readers to look very carefully at what I am about to say because I do not want to be misinterpreted. I believe that Israel over the last 60 years has established its right to exist as well as any other nation, since every nation, in truth, has been built on the backs of others. And I do not in the least agree with Morris that Israel has to act with any means necessary to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in order to survive. If deterrence was good enough for the United States when the Soviet Union could deliver 10,000 nuclear warheads upon us, it is good enough for Israel. But if Morris were right--if Israel could only continue to exist by claiming and exercising the right to make preventive nuclear strikes on Muslim nations--then I would suggest one would indeed have to question the wisdom of creating it in the first place. Some Israelis may believe that history entitles them to use methods forbidden to others, but the rest of the world will never accept that view. The original idea of Zionism, as I understand it, was to eliminate, not reinforce, the exceptional status of the Jews--to give them, like other peoples, their own state. That means, to me, a state that lives on equal terms with others. Yes, it is true that many among Israel's neighbors (though not all) deny Israel that right--but if Israel gives up the idea of living in peace with its neighbors, its enemies, in my opinion, will have won. The rest of the world, in any case, simply cannot accept preventive nuclear war as a legitimate tactic. If we do many of us will live to see the nightmare we thought we had escaped in the 1990s--a regional or world war fought with nuclear weapons.

p.s. Thanks to a couple of links, a great many people are visiting here for the first time. I hope you will check some of the other posts and use the feedblitz link to subscribe if you are interested.

8 comments:

azazel said...

This is extremely sane. I hope people are listening.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Morris also suggests that the strike has to take place between the election and inauguration of a new President, so that American voters will have no chance to influence the decision.

Coincidentally, in a "chat" at Le Monde, Bertrand Badie says that he is fearful of the transition period, saying that the United States would be powerless to stop Israel from doing such a thing.

"For my part, I am fearful that [the risk is] sufficiently significant and should be recognized; [it] clearly demonstrates the limits of power because, on the one hand, the United States may be outflanked by a lesser allied power, and on the other, the task of setting a new course in foreign policy may be forsaken owing to intervening events." [i.e., the Obama administration risks being be a victim of circumstances beyond its control].

IMHO Blair had better get busy and start talking reason to the Israelis, who are preparing to sacrifice all of us.

matt w said...

This is an excellent post, but I want to quibble about your use of preemptive. In my understanding, a preemptive war is one that's fought in anticipation of the other side starting the war immediately -- this is what the Six Days War was supposed to have been. What you describe would not be preemptive nuclear war, it would be unprovoked nuclear war.

Andrea said...

First of all this is an entirely hypothetical scenario as Morris might have given up on the chances of peace but most Israelis still have faith in a peaceful solution even if it of the fear balance that characterizes the relationship with Syria that since 1977 was her most bitter enemy.
Second Iran is no Russia as the Jihad believes means that the rational of self preservation doesn't really work. If Iran would gain nuclear weapons the risk of destroying itself might be accepted to carry the will of Allah.
Third there are many ways to cope with future nuclear threat that Iran might pose and Israel has no problem to destroy the nuclear facilities by a simple air force attack. In fact if there would be prove that Iran is dangerously close to gaining active nuclear ability the US would stop her before Israel does.
No even in the Israeli army the nuclear option is considered because no one is fearful or hateful enough to commit this kind of actions and to live with the consequences

Davebo said...

"Third there are many ways to cope with future nuclear threat that Iran might pose and Israel has no problem to destroy the nuclear facilities by a simple air force attack."

I think you need to look at a map of the region.

Which country is going to allow Israel to overfly them on the way to bomb Iran?

Steve said...

Liberal imperialism is still imperialism, especially to those who bear the brunt of it. It doesn't matter if, after all the oppression they'd experienced, the Jews who created and built Israel sought to treat the Palestinians well (though, certainly, many hardly cared). And persevering for six or eight decades doesn't make it all better. A two-state solution is indefensible, just as it was (would have been) in South Africa. Once the world (especially the US) makes clear that it will not support Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state on land essentially stolen from those who had lived there before, then real progress can begin toward the real solution.

Steve

Anonymous said...

Not so random notes:

**The Arabs, Morris makes clear in the conclusion of 1948, enjoyed no moral superiority, and indeed were officially eager to kill Jewish civilians**

Indeed - just like the American natives who were eager to kill the white man.

**Although the Israelis from 1917 onward were willing to accept various compromise proposals offered by the British and then by the UN to divide Palestine while the Palestinians were not.**

Again - just like the British colonialists/"Americans" and American natives.


**The Palestinian Arabs understood the implications of Zionism from the beginning and totally rejected it. Moreover, Morris's even-handed treatments consistently imply that their attitude was both logical and understandable, and he never seems to suggest that they had some kind of duty to make peace with the Zionists.**

Yes - it is the history of North America, Australia and every other settler colonial state.

** he was acknowledging, in a sense, that Israelis were no different from any other organised people founding a state against opposition, in the same way that US citizens have to hear today that imperialism is still imperialism, even when we do it.**

No. As he makes quite clear it is not imperialism he is talking about. It is colonialism.

**He also hoped that Israel could reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians based on the 1967 borders. The events of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, changed his mind, as he explained in a widely re-published interview with Ari Shavit in early 2004.**

Something like the reservation system used with the natives of North America. Drive them off the best land and formalise their defeat on as small an area as possible. End the war and get on with it. Repeat as often as necesary. It is "nice" to see that his greed was not insatiable, unlike some other Jewish colonialists. If this is the limit of Morris's sense of equality then he always was a racist. Refugees have the right to return to their homes.

Pontiac, the chief of the Ottawa, united indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region and in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys in an effort to drive white settlers out of the area, and in so doing, to restore their autonomy. http://www.angelfire.com/realm/shades/nativeamericans/pontiac.htm -(quote originally from the Ohio Historical Society. I make no representation as to the quality of either group.)

The PLO had gone far beyond the violence of resistance, and into searching for real solutions. My father supported the PLO's call for a secular democratic state. It is unclear whether this or "marrying out" caused my grandparents to attempt to have the rabbi hold a funeral for him. I have a recently discovered aunt whom everyone thought was dead after her funeral.

**Morris had by then concluded that the Palestinians had rejected the deal offered by Ehud Barak in 2000 because they would never accept Israel's existence.**

This is why it is important when doing a settler colonialist state to engage in the final solution. The US killed - directly and through disease (sometimes deliberately spread) perhaps up to 80% of the original population. This is what it took to make the native population accept the US existence. There are several indigenous peoples who were completely wiped out - the true meaning of genocide.

Benny's desire for "transfer" at the appropriate time, and his current desire for what appears to be moving towards genocide with the use of atomic weapons is in line with those who make settler colonialist states work.

= Benny Morris says he was always a Zionist. People were mistaken when they labelled him a post-Zionist, when they thought that his historical study on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was intended to undercut the Zionist enterprise. Nonsense, Morris says, that's completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book.

= "Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist."

I don't hear you condemning him.

"Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here."


= "There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide - the annihilation of your people - I prefer ethnic cleansing."

= Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history."

And in our case it effectively justifies a population transfer.

"That's what emerges."

And you take that in stride? War crimes? Massacres? The burning fields and the devastated villages of the Nakba?

"You have to put things in proportion. These are small war crimes.
http://www.counterpunch.org/shavit01162004.html (originally in Ha'aretz)

Benny Morris's is a fascist, in the same way all those who support settler states are fascists. According to him he always was a fascist. You have just misunderstood him. To support Benny Morris's vision is to support the genocide of the native population of North America.

**I now ask readers to look very carefully at what I am about to say because I do not want to be misinterpreted. I believe that Israel over the last 60 years has established its right to exist as well as any other nation, since every nation, in truth, has been built on the backs of others.**

Israel is not a finished nation. A majority of it's population are refugees. It is still a settler colonialist state - actively perusing the same goals such states peruse - racial/religious purity of some form. The existence of Israel requires the continuation of racism and settler colonialist policies. If it stops such policies it ceases to exist - just like South Africa. The threat to Israel is quite real and from many directions - not the least is its neighbours who do not want to have the Palestinian people dumped on them. (and yes these states too are racist - though this is completely beside the point.) You have just waltzed into Benny's fascism.

**Yes, it is true that many among Israel's neighbors (though not all) deny Israel that right--but if Israel gives up the idea of living in peace with its neighbors**

Israel never has any interest in living in peace with its neighbours - let alone with its own population. What a fantasy. Greater Israel has always been the goal, and still is the goal. Why the hell is Israel occupying Shebaa farms for example? From the beginning Israel's expulsion of 700,000 people threatened famine and political instability in the surrounding countries. Israel started the 1967 war. For current history look at Israeli aggression in Lebanon. There is a reason that Israel shows up dead last of countries not in a civil war on the global peace index. http://www.visionofhumanity.org/gpi/results/rankings/2008/.

Ultimately, though this is not about the Palestinians at all. Israel, like all theocracies, makes the claim that the group is more important than the individual. Israel having the right to exist - and Judaism having the right to exist effectively pre-empt the right of individuals to freedom of religion. To support Israel is to reject the enlightenment and freedom of religion. Israel is all about power, control and conformity.

We do not recognise "rights" for religions - in the sense you are stating when you say you support the right of Israel to exist. We recognise rights for individuals, not for groups. I have a right to practice the religion of my choice, and to change that practice. It is no business of the state what religion I am. Any state that tracks and punishes and rewards based on religion denies freedom of religion to all its members. Israel demands conformity for Jews as well. If Judaism has a right to exist, then I do not have the right to freedom of religion, and my grandparents were perfectly correct in trying to "bury" my father and my aunt got exactly what she deserved. Israel sees itself as the embodiment of Judaism - the Jewish homeland. To support such a monstrosity is to deny freedom of religion to everyone - to reject the enlightenment. Those of us who support the enlightenment consistently find ourselves opposing theocracies. They do not "have the right to exist." It is the people within states that have rights. Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia have no right to exist, for example. Neither does Israel. The now 3+ million refugees do have a right to return home though and your support for the "right of Israel to exist" directly oppresses these refugees.

Israel is and always has been a fascist state. Support it if you must, but if so you too are supporting fascism, like Benny Morris, and are also working to deny my right, my father's right, and my aunt's right to choose our own religions and marry whomever we choose.

- edwin

Andrea said...

If it is possible for Israeli pilots to destroy Iraq's nuclear development it is possible to reach Iran too.