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.
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