My Response to Efraim Karsh (The Palestinian Refugees Debate) / Prof.Benny Morris

July 17, 2011
(karsh's Article was published here on July 10, 2011 )
In "Israel's Human Chameleon Strikes Again" (American Thinker, 10 July 2011), Efraim Karsh compares me to Woody Allen's Zelig, a character who ignobly adapts to each and every political and ideological environment. And while I would certainly like to star in a Woody Allen movie, I'm afraid that Karsh -- as usual -- is selling his readers a bill of goods conjured up in a febrile and obsessive mind.

He charges me with "ideological acrobatics," that I am pro-Zionist one day and anti-Zionist another. This is balderdash. I have always been a Zionist, believing in the legitimacy and necessity of the establishment and perpetuation of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the historic patrimony of the Jewish people. At the same time, I have not been uncritical of Zionist thinking and praxis at certain points in the movement's history.

I wrote, in Righteous Victims (1999), that Zionism was a "colonizing and expansionist ideology and movement ... intent on politically, and even physically, dispossessing and supplaning the Arabs," and I still believe this is true for the period covered. Zionism was never, as the Arabs charged, a "colonialist" or "imperialist" movement, serving foreign empires and interests -- but it did proceed by establishing colonies (moshavot) in Palestine and expanding from them outward, to encompass as much of Palestine as possible. Indeed at least until the mid-1930s, the movement's leaders, headed by David Ben-Gurion, hoped to establish a Jewish state over the whole of Palestine and more than toyed with the idea of a large-scale transfer of Arabs out of the country (though transfer never became the official policy of the movement, Mapai [Ben-Gurion's party], or the State of Israel). They endorsed the idea, proposed by the British government's Peel Commission in 1937 and by Britain's Labour Party until 1945, in order to provide a safe haven for Europe's persecuted Jews and against the backdrop of an Arab Revolt in Palestine whose aim was to oust British rule and end the Zionist enterprise or at least to force the British to close Palestine's gates to Europe's persecuted Jews. The Jews of Europe, as we know, and as many Zionists sensed, were facing mass annihilation and had nowhere else to flee to.

There are still Israelis who believe in expelling "the Arabs," from Israel or the territories, or both. I believe that in current circumstances this is both immoral and impractical. I also believe that the emergent Jewish state, in 1947-1948, having been assaulted by the Palestinian Arab militias and, subsequently, by the armies of the Arab states, had no choice, as a matter of self-defense and survival, but to attack the villages and towns that served as the bases of their militias. And before and during these attacks, most of the inhabitants fled; some were expelled; others were ordered or advised by their own leaders to flee. Subsequently, Israel decided not to allow the refugees to return, rightly viewing those who had just attacked the Jewish community as a potential fifth column and enemies. They launched the war (which the Jews believed aimed at their annihilation); they suffered the consequences.

And I also believe that had all of Palestine's Arabs crossed the Jordan River eastward in 1948 and established their own state in Transjordan, alongside a Jewish state west of the Jordan, the history of Israeli-Arab relations would have been more tranquil and both Jews and Arabs would have suffered far less during the following six decades. I have never said that the Middle East would then have been a "non-violent place" (a typical Karsh distortion).

I never wrote, anywhere, that "large sections of Israeli society were looking forward to [going to] war [in 1948]," as Karsh asserts. I never "dismissed the Zionist acceptance of the November 1947 partition resolution as a ruse" -- this is a flat Karsh lie -- but it is true that "large sections of Israeli society" favored in 1947 expansion beyond the partition borders (the Revisionist Movement, led by Menahem Begin, Ahdut Haavodah, spiritually led by Yitzhak Tabenkin, and at least some of the major figures in the Haganah\IDF [Yisrael Galili, Yigal Allon]) and expelling the Arabs (Ahdut Haavodah, some Revisionists, some of the Haganah\IDF brass). And many Zionists favored the expansion of the enterprise to the borders reached in the 1967 Six-Day War (at least in the east). Today, I believe, few Zionists, or Israelis, favor expansion, and most would favor a contraction of the area Israel rules.

I have never written that in 1948 the Jews colluded "with the invading Arab states." But there was some measure of collusion or agreement between the Jews/Israel and one of the Arab states, Jordan (the "best of enemies," one Israeli historian called these two states in 1948). Both, after the Palestinian assault on the Jews, opposed the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state. But it is well to recall that in November 1947, the mainstream and leadership of the Zionist movement supported the UN General Assembly partition resolution, which endorsed Palestinian Arab (as well as Jewish) statehood.

It is true that Israel-bashers, over the years since the publication of my Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (published in early 1988 though it says "1987" on the copyright page), have quoted -- selectively -- from my works and used them as ammunition. Unlike Karsh, whose writing is completely politically motivated, often unscholarly, and, in large part, propagandistic, my aim in writing that book, as all that followed, was simply to illuminate what happened, and let the chips fall where they may. So both Arabs and Jews were able, by cherrypicking, to buttress their positions by selectively quoting this or that passage. And they continue to do so, sometimes to my chagrin. But the task of the historian is to get the story right, not to pander to this or that political inclination or to hide this or that fact or quote because it may serve political purposes with which he is in disagreement. This is something basic that Karsh (and Ilan Pappe, from the other side of the barricades) and his ilk simply do not understand.

Karsh is also wrong about my perception, historically, of Palestinian aims. The Palestinian national movement, throughout its existence, refused to recognize the legitimacy of Jewish claims to Palestine and the legitimacy of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel, and I have understood this (and described it thoroughly in Righteous Victims and in 1948, A History of the First Arab-Israeli War [2008]). But in the 1990s, during the Oslo process, it appeared, briefly, that the PLO and Yasser Arafat were moving toward a volte face and acquiescence in Israel's existence. I was cautiously optimistic. But my hopes on this score, like many on the Israeli left, were dashed by Arafat's rejection successively of Barak's proposals at Camp David and President Clinton's proposals (or "parameters"), respectively in July and December 2000. (Clinton had offered the Palestinians 94-96 percent of the West Bank [with territorial compensation for the ceded 4-6 percent], 100 percent of the Gaza Strip, and half of Jerusalem, including half or three-quarters of the Old City, and shared sovereignty over the Temple Mount [though no right of return for the refugees] -- and Arafat had said "no.") This was followed by the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which, with the Palestinians' large-scale use of terrorism and suicide bombings (both by Hamas and so-called secular Fatah activists), seemed to indicate that the Palestinians were still set in their course of all or nothing, that they saw the conflict as a zero-sum game, unamenable to compromise. I believe that today both Hamas and the PLO, under Mahmoud Abbas, are still pursuing this ultimate goal (destroying Israel), though they may vary on the tactics to be adopted.

I lauded Barak's brave efforts (they cost him his premiership) to reach a two-state solution and still believe in a two-state solution as the only reasonable, and optimal, solution to the conflict. Which is why I also criticize Binyamin Netanyahu for being unforthcoming. He mouths the words "two states." But without freezing the West Bank settlements or agreeing to uproot most of them, or allowing for a partition of Jerusalem so that both the Israelis and Palestinians can call the city their capital, there can, realistically, be no Israeli-Palestinian peace. This is clear to anyone with eyes in his head.

Karsh calls all this "acrobatics" and a "flip-flop" -- without understanding that you can be critical both of Palestinian aims and behavior and of Israeli behavior, while understanding full well the asymmetry that exists between the two sides (the Palestinians, most of them [including their leaderships] want to eliminate Israel; the Israelis, most of them [probably including Netanyahu] simply want peaceful coexistence based on some sort of two-state compromise).

I have never "changed my colors," whimsically or otherwise, as Karsh would have it. My historiography has never changed (which is why Karsh has lambasted over the decades both my pre-2000 works and my post-2000 works [such as 1948, which he trashed as vigorously as he trashed Birth. He criticized both as anti-Zionist. But neither is.].) There are no contradictory facts or arguments in the books I produced between 1988 and 2011. My shift, in 2000, pertained only to the Palestinians' contemporary politics and aims: Whereas in the 1990s I cautiously believed they might at last be inching towards agreement to compromise, in 2000 I concluded that I had been mistaken. That's all. But politically I remained firm in my belief, both before and after, that both sides had a legitimate claim to the land and to sovereignty and that, therefore, it should be partitioned between them in a two-state solution. (I don't believe they can live together, under one political roof, in a one-state solution, as do, or pretend to do, some unrealistic Western intellectuals. Over a century of bitter conflict and memories, religion, language, and culture, and, more generally, different value systems, makes a denouement of a one-state solution unimaginable).

To me, the most offensive part of Karsh's article pertains to what happened on the main thoroughfare of Kingsway, London, on my way to a lecture last month at the LSE. He favorably described the intimidating behavior of a gang of Muslim thugs -- who also don't like my writings (which they consider Zionist and "racist" -- they apply the word liberally, if I may use the word in this context, to anyone who disagrees with them, much as Karsh uses the term "anti-Zionist" to describe anyone who disagrees with his views). Karsh wrote that instead of "debating" with the thugs in the street, I made my way "like a criminal," unresponsively, to the LSE lecture. Actually, the thugs were not asking questions but haranguing and maligning me; they sought to intimidate, not to partake in a civilized Q and A (as, of course, Karsh well knows). "Open debate" was possible, and in fact occurred, a few minutes later in the lecture hall (the LSE lecture and the lengthy Q and A that followed can be viewed in their entirety on YouTube).

And, yes, Karsh may scoff but I have paid a heavy price for sticking to my historiographic and political positions over the decades. I was among those fired by The Jerusalem Post in 1990-91, after the right-wing Conrad Black-Hollinger takeover of the newspaper, and I was unemployed between 1991 and 1997. No Israeli university would hire me (as would no Jewish studies department I applied to in the US), despite having published a fistful of books by 1993 (three of them with Cambridge University Press or Oxford University Press; all were well-received). Absurdly, Karsh asserts that this is a "patent fabrication." In fact, I was given a job (at Ben-Gurion University) only in 1997, and only after the intercession of Israel's president, Ezer Weizman, years before my allegedly specious "conversion" to pro-Zionism that Karsh says occurred in or after 2000.

Karsh argues that the "relevant faculties" in Israel's universities in the 1990s were "dominated by Morris's ideological fellow travelers." Again, this is simply untrue -- and a mere look at the lists of heads of departments and institutes, deans and rectors at the various universities shows that they were "dominated" by old-school Zionist historians and Middle East experts. The universities' humanities and social science faculties have progressively grown more open and unideological since 1991-1997, but they are still a far cry from being dominated, as Karsh alleges, by anti-Zionists.

Karsh suggests that I am about to make what he calls "another dramatic flip flop." This is a nonsense based on distortion. He alleges that last May I pulled out of a conference in Washington DC because I didn't want to be identified as "pro-Israel." In fact, I withdrew, after initially agreeing in principle to participate but before the date was set, because of a scheduling clash (a prior commitment on the same date), and it had nothing to do with ideology or politics. Indeed, I look forward to participating in any future conference dedicated to combating Israel's de-legitimization. In the past weeks I have given a series of talks at pro-Israeli venues in England (Conservative Friends of Israel, Labour Friends of Israel, etc.). In all, I have criticized the Palestinians for what I regard as their basic, unflinching (though often heavily camouflaged) rejectionism vis-à-vis Israel and its existence -- as well as criticizing the Netanyahu government for failing to "play the diplomatic game" and being insufficiently conciliatory in the positions it takes in international forums. I don't believe that conciliation will work -- the Palestinians oppose a real two-state solution, as signaled by their immovability in demanding a mass refugee return to pre-1967 Israel (which would demographically turn the Jewish state into a Muslim Arab-majority state). But Israel should play the game -- and since Barak, Sharon, and Olmert, it hasn't done so. And this has vastly facilitated the ongoing, dangerous process of international de-legitimization, which both Karsh and I lament and oppose. I don't believe it is enough for Netanyahu, as Karsh quotes him, to say, laudably but vaguely, that he is ready for a "painful compromise to achieve ... [a] peace" that will allow the Palestinians "a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people." Such verbiage is rightly dismissed as meaningless.

Lastly, I would like to assure Karsh that I don't foresee any flip-lops in the near future.

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