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Looking Back:

A Personal Assessment of the Zionist Experience

By Benny Morris

Tikkun, March/April 1998


It is both apt and unfair to reflect upon the history of Zionism during the dying days of the Netanyahu government. Unfair because Netanyahu in many ways is the least representative of the movement's and Israel's succession of leaders: none was as incompetent and mendacious, none so foolhardy and distrusted by colleague and rival alike. Against none before had the police recommended criminal prosecution and none had surrounded himself to an overwhelming degree with cronies who were themselves targets of police investigation and judicial prosecution. (The most recent case has been the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Avigdor Lieberman, who is under a number of police criminal investigations and was forced to resign).

By and large, Zionism's leaders and those who led the State of Israel during its first forty-eight years were a public service-oriented lot: Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol radiated no sense of hubris or indifference to the common good, and David Ben-Gurion, while certainly spending most of his life amassing power, used that power above all for the movement, party, and state. None of these leaders cared about or amassed wealth. And they were, all-in-all, a highly intelligent, competent lot, not merely clever spokesmen. All of them--Chaim Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, yes and also Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir--gave off a basic scent of trustworthiness. Whatever the slants of political opinion, they were trusted by the bulk of the country's citizens; people knew where they stood.

With Netanyahu, it is clearly otherwise. Those who voted against him have only been reinforced in their opposition; most of his former colleagues in the leadership of the Likud--Shamir, Moshe Arens, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin--have over the past months gone on record proclaiming the man's basic untrustworthiness. Here, beyond his succession of mistakes and failures--The Economist quite accurately dubbed Netanyahu a "serial bungler"--lies the single most important explanation for his demise as a public figure.

Hence, there is something unfair about regarding Zionism and its record through the prism of Netanyahu and his record. But there is also an over-riding aptness about it. It is apt in the sense that Netanyahu represents that stream of Zionism, Revisionist-Herut-Likud, that until twenty years ago was an often-shunned, alienated minority, but which in 1977 triumphed over Labor Zionism and has held sway in the Israeli polity ever since. (Even in the elections of 1992, which brought the Rabin-Peres government to power, the Right won far more votes than the center-left among the country's Jewish citizenry--but this was outweighed by the overwhelming majority won by Labor-Meretz among the Arab citizens.)

It is Netanyahu's expansionist, greater Israel philosophy (inherited from his father, the historian Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who was briefly secretary to Zeev Jabotinsky, the Polish journalist who founded and headed Revisionist Zionism) that has been in tune with the trends of Israeli history and opinion since 1967. And it is his de-socializing, privatizing, capitalist socio-economic ethos that has governed the Israeli economy during the past decade or so. So Netanyahu rightly reflects the way Zionism has moved, if not the movement's nature and direction during its first eighty-odd years.

For all of Netanyahu's proven skills in personal political survival--he has flabbergasted most critics with his grotesque escapades and successful escapes from the jaws of various self-made snafus--his government appears certain to fall in the coming months.

Unexpectedly for most, it is economic issues that have set the government's fall in motion. The signs of economic downturn are basic and legion. Nationally, Israel has more than 150,000 unemployed, with most economists predicting that the number will pass 200,000 in 1998 (even as the country continues to host several hundred thousand low-wage guest Thai, Eastern European and Palestinian laborers). Israel's deteriorating economy has also seen a drastic decline in growth rates during the past two years. In 1997, for the first time in its history, Israel had a negative growth rate (Gross Domestic Product per capita) of 0.4 percent. By comparison, most Western economies, including Israel's during the previous Labor-led government, have registered a steady, positive 1-3 percent annual growth rate.

The autarchy and self-dependence dreamt of by Theodor Herzl, Zionism's prophet and founder, and by Ben-Gurion one hundred and fifty years ago, still remain well out of reach. Israel continues to devote more than a quarter of its annual budget to repaying foreign debts and still receives some $4 billion in foreign aid a year. Inflation currently runs at about 8 percent annually, 700,000 Israelis, or close to 15 percent of the population, are classified by the government as living below the poverty line, and the gap between rich and poor, never greater, continues to grow steadily. (The poor and the unemployed by and large come from the country's Sephardi and Arab communities, inevitably raising also the specter of renewed ethnic antagonisms.) Over the past two years, a string of factories and companies have gone into bankruptcy and/or have instituted massive lay-offs; indeed, some Israeli firms have found it more profitable to farm out production to plants in neighboring Jordan, where salaries are much lower. Many kibbutzim, unable to make ends meet, are selling off former agricultural lands to private entrepreneurs and builders. Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government pushes ahead with its plans to "de-socialize" the economy and to privatize government-owned companies and utilities (El-Al Israel Airlines appears next on the list). On the socio-economic plane, a whole series of basic Zionist tenets and dreams are daily being eroded and supplanted.

Despite these recent developments, however, the Zionist enterprise has been, all-in-all, a resounding economic success. A land described by most Western travellers of the mid-nineteenth century as "desolate" and "barren" has been turned, by a century of Zionist enterprise and capital, into a thriving, Western-style economy. Israel is probably the only Second or Third World country that, despite an almost complete absence of natural resources, has evolved into a going economic concern--though admittedly while receiving major injections of aid from America, West Germany, and Diaspora Jews.

And Israel is not just an economic success story: with all its shortcomings, it is the region's only democracy and one of the few to have taken root in any post-World War II state. It may still lord it over hundreds of thousands of occupied, stateless, and right-less Palestinians in the West Bank. But its close to 5 million Jewish and a million or so Arab citizens by and large enjoy the full panoply of civil and human rights enjoyed by citizens of Western democracies.

Yet the emergence of the Jewish State and its nature are vastly different from what Herzl conceived. Indeed, looking back over the hundred or so years of political Zionism and the fifty years of Israeli statehood, what has emerged appears in many ways not to be to the liking of a large part of its citizenry. Israel appears enveloped in a cloak of gloom, with few exhibiting a genuine sense of celebration and festivity. Indeed, the man who just resigned from managing the fiftieth anniversary celebrations, former Likud finance minister Yitzhak Moda'i, recently, somewhat idiosyncratically, asked a television interviewer: "What is there to celebrate?" His predecessor Yossi Peled's call to drastically reduce spending on the celebrations has been echoed by a range of other public figures.

This wave of disaffection has not been motivated solely by the economic situation. It feeds on a deeper, more general psychological malaise. Large sections of the Israeli public--and not just those who voted for Shimon Peres in the 1996 prime ministerial elections--are not only displeased with the Netanyahu government's performance but seem increasingly disillusioned with Israeli society and politics as a whole, alienated and even disgusted by the way Israel has developed and looks. This disaffection is also retrospective, relating as much to Zionist and Israeli history as to the present; the ills of the present--the seemingly endless, perhaps insoluble, struggle with the Palestinians, with the rest of the Arab world looming threateningly in the background; the steady "religification" of Israeli society, politics, and law; the seeming corruption and qualitative diminution of Israel's political world; the steady "de-collectivisation" of Israel's core Jewish population, transforming a formerly ideologically unified and motivated mass into a disparate collection of private, often selfish, individuals and interest groups--these present ills are seen as stemming directly from avoidable mistakes and long-term unavoidable processes, most of them preceding Netanyahu and his inept sidekicks.

In September 1897, at the end of the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Theodor Herzl, its organizer, jotted down in his diary that he expected a Jewish state to be established within "perhaps five and certainly within fifty years." As it turned out, he was off by a year. But the manner in which that state emerged and developed and its nature are in many ways thoroughly at odds with what he had envisioned. True, great power support and patronage had been necessary to get the Zionist ball rolling; and true, "the seven-hour day" or thereabouts that Herzl had predicted is now in place. (This and other quotations from The Jewish State, an Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, 1896, are from the English edition published in London in 1934 by the Central Office of the Zionist Organisation.) And true, he had accurately predicted the (belated) re-introduction of the "shekel"--the Second Temple currency--as the new state's coinage. (This and other quotations from Altneuland, 1902, are from the English edition published by Bloch Publishing Co., New York, 1941).

But on most major counts (as well as on a multiplicity of minor ones) Herzl had gotten everything wrong.

He had hoped and believed that the new Jewish State would be liberal, democratic, secular, and tolerant. Given the peculiar nature of Judaism and Jewish society in Eastern Europe, Herzl was aware of the danger of religious interference and influence in the functioning of his envisioned body politic. But he failed to anticipate what actually happened in Israel--the establishment of religious, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox political parties that would hold successive coalition governments by the throat and Israeli society in general in thrall. Nor did he anticipate the intolerance, much of it religious in origin, that would characterize Israel's dealings with minorities and other religions (including Reform and Conservative Judaism) and many Israelis' attitudes towards contrary viewpoints. (Without doubt the mass influx into Israel during the 1950s and 1960s of Sephardi Jews from Muslim countries, without a tradition of democracy or tolerance, reinforced the dogmatism and orthodoxy that characterized the Jewish religious establishment that arrived from Eastern Europe. Herzl, of course, had failed completely to foresee the "Levantinization" of Israel and the immigration to Israel of Sephardi Jewry--in his writings he had almost completely ignored the Diaspora communities in the Muslim world--and to anticipate that they would form over 40 percent of Israel's Jewish population. In The Jewish State and Altneuland he had implied that the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe would provide the new State's artisan and working classes, with Western and Central European Jewish immigrants providing the managerial class.)

"Our community of race," wrote Herzl in The Jewish State, "is peculiar and unique, for we are bound together only by the faith of our fathers. Shall we end by having a theocracy? No, indeed. Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood. We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.... They must not interfere in the administration of the state ... else they will conjure up difficulties without and within.... Every man will be ... free in his faith or his disbelief. And if it should occur that men of other creeds and different nationalities come to live among us, we shall accord them honorable protection and equality before the law. We have learnt toleration in Europe."

A hundred years on, with the spectacular growth of Sephardi ultra-Orthodoxy looming in the foreground, religion and religious power are indeed threatening Israel with a drastic change of constitution in the direction of quasi-theocratic government. In Israel's first elections, in January 1949, the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox political parties won sixteen seats; in the 1996 general elections, they won twenty-three seats--ten Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox), four Degel Hatora-Agudat Yisrael (Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox), and nine National Religious Party (Orthodox)--despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the immigrants to Israel since 1949 were secular Jews. Moreover, there are more than a dozen additional Orthodox MKs in the various non-religious Knesset factions. It is estimated today that something more than 25 percent of Israeli Jews are observant or Orthodox and some 10 percent are ultra-Orthodox.

The growth of the relative weight of religious power in the Israeli political arena is only part of the picture; that growth has been accompanied by an expansion of economic and cultural power. In the past few years, religious lobbying has forced a number of shopping malls in the Tel Aviv area--a largely secular area--to close their doors on the Sabbath (in Jerusalem of course they closed on Saturdays from the word go). One of Jerusalem's main streets, Bar-Ilan, connecting the city's entrance to Jerusalem's (secular) northeastern districts (Ramat Eshkol, French Hill, Pisgat Ze'ev) has been partially shut down on the Sabbath following months of often violent ultra-Orthodox street demonstrations. Many of the country's soccer matches have been moved from Saturday to Friday afternoon.

Political power has translated over the past two years into a dramatic increase in state subsidies for religious people and institutions. The ultra-Orthodox parties have easily brushed aside calls that their youth do military service or any alternative state service while gaining substantial increases in subsidies for youths who spend those same years studying in yeshivot. The 1998 state budget allocates to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox yeshivot close to IL 1 billion. These state subsidies over the years, today more than ever, have made it possible for the ultra-Orthodox communities (a) to remain unproductive economically and (b) to maintain an extremely high birth rate. In other words, the secular Jews' taxes and parties have in effect funded the physical growth of the haredi communities and of their political power. Culturally, Herzl, a successful German language playwright, essayist, and journalist, had hoped that the Jewish State would in essence replicate the Central Europe he had known, and form an enclave of European culture in the midst of the "barbarous" East, with Jewish minds now fertlizing its arts and sciences rather than those of the lands of their dispersion. Himself ignorant of the Hebrew language, Herzl rejected the idea of Hebrew becoming the national language of the Jewish state: "We cannot converse with one another in Hebrew. Who amongst us has a sufficient acquaintance with Hebrew to ask for a railway-ticket in that language? Such a thing cannot be done. Yet the difficulty can be easily circumvented. Every man can preserve the language in which his thoughts are at home. Switzerland affords a conclusive proof of the possibility of a federation of tongues" (The Jewish State).

But as history has shown, the resurrection of Hebrew was to be one of the main cultural feats of the reborn Jewish community in Palestine and, contrary to Herzl's understanding, Hebrew proved adaptable and fashionable for modern needs and usage. Indeed, if anything, the dominance of Hebrew and the drive towards the cultural integration of successive waves of immigrants have "killed off" the languages of the Diaspora among second and third generation Israelis, so that the "new Jew" born in Zion is vastly remote from the multi-lingual, cultured "old Jew" of Central Europe.

If Hebrew was rejected by Herzl as being a dead and unresuscitatable language, Yiddish he regarded as a linguistic malformation, an unattractive and impure hybrid. Perhaps he was moved above all by his respect for German. "We shall give up using those miserable stunted jargons," he wrote of Yiddish or, more accurately, of the different types of Yiddish spoken in the various regions of Central and Eastern Europe. He predicted that Zionist society in Palestine would sift through and try out the main languages of Europe and, in the end, choose the most useful for its own purposes as its "national" language. "The language which will prove itself to be of greatest utility for general intercourse will be adopted without compulsion as our national tongue," he wrote in The Jewish State. Later, somewhat more charitably and following his encounter with Eastern European Jewry, he wrote in Altneuland of Hebrew as just one of many languages which would be spoken in the Jewish State, alongside Yiddish, Russian, French, German, and so forth.

But Herzl's main and most significant area of shortsightedness related to what was to emerge as the main obstacle confronting Zionism and Israel--"the Arab problem."

Herzl had experienced at first hand and understood the maelstrom of central European nationalism (and the anti-Semitism that it bred) and had fashioned his Zionist movement both in response to and in emulation of the nationalisms he had grown up with. He had also taken account of the power and purpose of the imperialisms that at the end of the nineteenth century dominated the globe and had understood that Zionism's success required some form of great power sponsorship and alliance. Thus he wrote-predicted in The Jewish State: "We should there [i.e., in Palestine] form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism."

For Herzl, nationalism was an European phenomenon. He completely failed to foresee that the winds of nationalism, coming off the plains of Europe, were also about to sweep through the imperial domains, and that the Arab world, in whose midst Zionism was being planted, would also fall under their spell. Herzl's attitude towards Palestine's Arabs was that of the garden-variety European imperialist towards native populations. Thus he failed completely to predict the Arab nationalist antagonism to Zionism and to the emergence of a Jewish state, and the decades-long struggle that would follow.

The Jewish State, Herzl's revolutionary, programmatic essay proposing a Zionist solution to the Jewish problem, is truly remarkable in that, in recommending that the Zionist state be established in Palestine, it fails completely to note that Palestine already contains a sizeable (Arab) population (in 1896 there were in the country around 550,000 Arabs as well as perhaps 30-40,000 Jews), fails completely to take the Arabs into account in its scheme of future things. The Arabs are simply not there.

Perhaps even more remarkably, Arabs are scarcely mentioned in Herzl's second book, the utopian novel Altneuland, about life in the prospective Jewish state, written three to four years after his brief sojourn in Palestine. In 1898, he had visited Jaffa and Jerusalem and passed through the countryside of what was then called by the Zionists "Judea," around the new Jewish settlements of Rehovot, Rishon LeZion, and Nes Ziona. He had most certainly been told about the occasional Arab attacks on the settlements and settlers, which had resulted in a handful of fatalities. Yet Arabs almost don't figure in Altneuland's pages.

In the first part of the novel, which takes place in 1902, the presence of Arabs is mentioned incidentally. But they figure as the source and cause of Palestine's desolation and as a natural part of the surrounding filth and aridity. The large, mostly Arab town of Jaffa is 'in extreme decay.... The alleys were dirty, neglected, full of vile odors. Everywhere misery in bright Oriental rags. Poor Turks, dirty Arabs, timid Jews lounged about--indolent, beggarly, hopeless.... [Outside Jaffa] the inhabitants of the blackish Arab villages looked like brigands. Naked children played in the dirty alleys."

Propelling us into the future, to 1923, Altneuland again devotes some passing references to the Arabs. But again, they only appear obliquely, tangential to the main, Jewish story. We are introduced to one "Reschid," a prosperous cultivator of oranges who lauds the Jewish influx as having brought prosperity to him and his kind: "Our orange transport [i.e., export] has multiplied tenfold since we have good transportation facilities to connect us with the whole world. Everything here has increased in value since your immigration," he tells his Jewish interlocutors.

When one of them asks: "Were not the older inhabitants of Palestine ruined by the Jewish immigration? And didn't they have to leave the country?" Reschid partially sidesteps the question. He responds that "naturally, the landowners gained most because they were able to sell to the Jewish society at high prices...." Reschid fails to respond directly to the question about Arab emigration. But later in Altneuland he says that the poorer Arabs--"those who had nothing"--only gained from Zionism, which provided them with "opportunities to work, means of livelihood, prosperity. Nothing could have been more wretched than an Arab village at the end of the nineteenth century." In short, "the Jews have enriched us," says Reschid--and this was to be the Zionist refrain down to the end of the 1930s: Zionism brought only prosperity to the Arabs of Palestine; why were they being so churlish?

In Herzl's utopian vision, by 1923 the Jews constitute the "majority" of the population of Palestine. Herzl seems to imply that this came about through massive immigration. But elsewhere, in his diary entry for 12 June 1895, Herzl had suggested another route by which this majority could have come about (one he diplomatically refrained from alluding to publicly, in Altneuland): "When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country. The property-owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly." (From Rafael Patai, ed., The Complete Diaries of Theodore Herzl, Vol. I. Needless to say, the "poor" of Palestine at the time constituted more than 90 percent per cent of the total population.)

Herzl was not unique among the Zionist leadership in oscillating between Jewish immigration and the transfer of the Arabs as the solution to the "demographic" problem presented by Zionism's intention to establish a Jewish state in a land with an Arab majority. Zionism had always regarded the achievement of a Jewish majority as a precondition for, and as part of the drive towards, Jewish sovereignty. Most Zionists had also thought in terms of some form of displacement and dispossession--albeit through steady purchase--of the Arabs of Palestine as part of the process of making the land "Jewish"; all understood that it was best to forge a Jewish state with as few (alien and potentially troublesome) Arabs as possible.

From the first, the main problem facing the movement--above and beyond raising funds and mobilizing potential immigrants and placating or persuading great powers--was the presence in Palestine of a non-Jewish and antagonistic Arab population, to some degree supported by millions of fellow Arabs in the lands around.

The Zionist leaders and settlers constructed several psychological lines of defense to fend off this uncomfortable reality. Like Herzl, most initially tended simply to ignore the Arabs' presence. Subsequently, when Arab opposition made complete denial illogical, the Zionists tended to argue that most of the Arabs (a) bore no ill-will towards Zionism and (b) understood that the growth of the Zionist enterprise would benefit them as well. What friction and opposition there was was explained away by attributing it to this or that special-interest group in the Arab population. "The Arabs" did not oppose Zionism; rather it was the "effendi class" or the Muslim clerics or the Christian merchants and so on, each for his own particularist, selfish reasons. Admittedly, occasionally, these groups succeeded in "inciting" wider groups of unemployed or devout Arabs to bouts of violence against the new settlers. What the authorities, Ottoman or British, and the Zionists had to do, went the explanation, was somehow to persuade the majority of their honorable intentions while neutralizing the "inciters." Arab opposition to the Zionist enterprise would then disappear.

The problem, of course, was that Zionism's intentions, as perceived by the majority of the locals, were far from honorable; the Zionists, simply put, wanted to take over "their" land, and no amount of Zionist "explaining" could persuade them otherwise. Hence, as a succession of British commissions of inquiry determined and as various Zionist leaders, such as Ben-Gurion and Zeev Jabotinsky, privately acknowledged, it was not really small special-interest groups that opposed the Zionist influx but the overwhelming bulk of the population. Though the largely backward, generally illiterate Arab population was not, before the 1920s, a separate "people" (they were "Arabs," "Muslims," "Nabulsis," "Jaffa-ites," "Jerusalem-ites," perhaps "southern Syrians," but certainly not "Palestinians"), from the start it resented the arrival of the trickle, soon to be a flood, of foreigners, and feared their intentions and appetites. It was not merely a handful of rabble-rousers or Christian priests or Muslim fanatics who resented the influx.

Zionist leaders tried to sell "Zionism" to the locals and to persuade the Ottoman Turkish authorities and Western dignitaries that there was enough room in the country for both Jews and Arabs, and that the backward locals would only benefit from a healthy dose of Jewish-European capital and values. But the locals weren't having any of that. Several thousand locals may have worked for the new Jewish farmers, and many others may have marginally benefited from Jewish capital. But they did not become pro-Zionist. Indeed, self-appointed spokesmen for the local population continuously petitioned Istanbul and, after 1917, London, to halt the Zionist influx and enterprise before it brought disaster. Specifically, from 1891 on, they expressed their fear and predictions of dispossession and expulsion: the Jews wanted the Land, the whole Land, and ultimately would push them out into the desert. (Ironically, the mirror image of this prediction were Jewish fears and talk of the Arabs' intention to push them, the Jews, "into the sea.")

Under British rule, which began in 1917-1918, the Arabs of Palestine gradually began to evolve into a "people": by 1920-21, the Palestinian Arab elite began thinking of their situation and future as distinct from those of Syria; by 1936-1939, during the Arab Revolt, masses of Palestinians joined in the national struggle against the British occupier and the Zionist usurper; and by 1948, probably most Palestinians regarded themselves as a separate "people," even though they failed to match the Jews' level of national consciousness, commitment, and dedication (an asymmetry which underlay the Palestinians' poor military performance and collapse during that year's Israeli-Arab war). As Palestinian national consciousness began to emerge, so the fear of personal dispossession and injury increasingly gave way to prognoses of national dispossession and catastrophe.

From the Palestinian Arab viewpoint, "1948" marked that catastrophe, a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. Paradoxically, however, the shattering of Palestinian society and the exile of the 700,000 who became refugees in the course of the war, reinforced the Palestinians' sense of "peoplehood" even as it temporarily crushed Palestinian national power. A succession of disasters thereafter--the 1967 War, the crushing of the PLO in Amman in 1970, and the crushing of the PLO in Lebanon in 1982--only served to underline the Palestinians' sense of identity and national purpose (much as disasters had a major national consciousness-building function in Jewish and Yishuv history).

While Zionist leaders may, during Ottoman and early British days, only have toyed with the idea of solving the "Arab Problem" through transfer, during the last decade of the Mandate the idea became increasingly attractive and realistic. Arab resistance to the Zionist influx through continuous political action and periodic bouts of violence in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936-9 had the dual effect of both heightening Jewish fears regarding the Fifth Column potential of the Arab population that would remain in the prospective Jewish state and of propelling the British authorities to curb Jewish immigration. With the Arabs increasingly viewed as mortal enemies and with the British obviating the possibility of the Yishuv achieving majority status in Palestine through immigration, the transfer option gradually emerged as the simplest, clearest, and only realistic solution to "the Arab problem." What's more, in July 1937 that option received an imperial imprimatur and new legitimacy when it was propounded by the Royal Peel Commission as part of its proposal to divide Palestine between the Jews and the Arabs. As the commission acknowledged, perhaps it was possible to "create" an area with a Jewish majority by dividing Palestine in a certain way. But any carve-up which left the Jews in control of a sizeable area would necessarily also leave a very large (and potentially subversive and destabilizing) Arab minority within its domain. Hence, in addition to proposing partition, the Peel Commission recommended that the 225,000-300,000 Arabs living in the area allocated for Jewish statehood (the Coastal Plain, Galilee and the Jezreel and Jordan valleys) be transferred--voluntarily, if possible, but by compulsion if necessary.

The Yishuv's leadership, which over the previous decades had occasionally raised the transfer idea in closed forums, now enthusiastically embraced the idea in semi-public venues. As Ben-Gurion put it in his speech to the 20th Zionist Congress plenum in Zurich on 7 August 1937: "We must carefully examine the question whether the transfer is possible, whether it is necessary, whether it is moral, and will it bring benefit. We do not want to dispossess. [But] transfer of [Arab] inhabitants happened in the past, in the [Jezreel] Valley, in the Sharon [i.e., the Coastal Plain] and in other places. We know of the Jewish National Fund's actions in this regard. Now the transfer will have to be carried out on a different scale altogether. In many parts of the country new Jewish settlement will not be possible unless there is a transfer of the Arab peasantry. The [Peel] Commission dealt with this matter seriously, and it is important that [the transfer] plan came from them and not from us.... The transfer of the population is what makes possible a comprehensive [Jewish] settlement plan. Thankfully, the Arab people have large, empty areas [outside Palestine]. Jewish power in the country, which is continuously growing, will also increase our possibilities to carry out the transfer on a large scale. You must remember, that this method contains an important humane and Zionist idea, to shift parts of a people [i.e., the Palestine Arabs] to their own country and to settle empty lands [in Syria, Transjordan, and Iraq]."

But the subject of transfer remained sensitive, especially as Palestinian leaders and most of the Arab world rejected the Peel recommendations in toto and as the British government in short order also shelved them. Thenceforward, the idea was still bandied about by the Zionist leadership, in internal discussions and in meetings with foreign leaders and officials, but circumspectly, cautiously, secretly. Ben-Gurion, like others, understood that, for the good of the cause, the idea could not be pushed publicly and must not be aired too often. And on no account could the Zionist movement endorse transfer as its official policy.

Hence, the Yishuv entered 1948 without a master plan for expulsion. Nor did it adopt and implement a transfer policy in the course of the war. Rather, the transfer of Palestinian Arabs that occurred took place naturally as the two interspersed communities joined battle and as the weaker side gradually fell apart and fled under the hammer blows of war. But, at the same time, what happened--and especially the Israeli government's decision in June 1948 to bar the return of the refugees--cannot be understood without taking account of the pro-transfer mindset and predisposition of the bulk of the Zionist leadership, officials, and officer corps. All, given the previous half century of conflict and mutual hatred, understood that a Jewish state without Arabs or without a large Arab minority would be infinitely more secure and "better off" in almost every way than a state burdened and threatened by the presence of a large Arab population.

But the creation and perpetuation of the refugee problem was to hound Israel and to poison Israeli-Arab relations during the following fifty years. Moreover, it was one of the factors that helped transform what had largely been an inter-ethnic, civil conflict between the two populations of Palestine into the interstate conflict that has dominated Israeli and Middle Eastern history since 1948. For it was precisely the unignorable plight and suffering of the Palestinian Arabs during April-May of that year that forced the hand of the reluctant Arab political and military leaders to take the plunge and invade Palestine on 15-16 May. And, once embroiled in Palestine, militarily and politically, the Arab states found themselves unable thereafter to extricate themselves with a modicum of honor. Of course, other factors also contributed to the transformation of an internal Palestinian imbroglio into the inter-state conflict. The Jewish State of Israel had come into being against the deepest wishes of the whole Arab and Islamic worlds, not just those of Palestine's Arabs; moreover, its establishment physically split in two the Islamic world and severed the eastern half of the Arab world (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula) from its western half (Egypt and the Maghreb), a development that the Arabs regarded as unconscionable.

Between May 1948 and June 1967, the Palestinians were marginalized, though their presence inside the neighboring Arab states and along Israel's borders, coupled with their periodic low-key harassment of Israel, acted as a yeast which kept the Middle East in continuous ferment. The Palestinians, and especially the refugees, never allowed the Arab world to forget or disengage.

Following the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the areas of Palestinian demographic concentration, the Palestinians returned to center stage of the conflict: once again they became "the problem" that the Zionist entity would have to "solve" if it ever hoped to have peace and, in the absence of a settlement, to contend with on a daily basis, under the watchful gaze of a troubled Arab world and the world in general.

The post-1967 years were marked by a succession of wars between Israel and various Arab states (the War of Attrition of 1968-70, the October War of 1973, the Lebanon War of 1982-85). The Palestinian problem in one way or another supplied either the immediate trigger to the eruption or, more vaguely, served as a contributory factor in the background. In 1968-70 and 1973 Egypt and Syria wanted to retrieve the lands lost in 1967 and to reclaim their honor lost in 1948 and 1967; in 1982 Israel engaged the Syrian forces in Lebanon as it sought once and for all to squash the PLO in order to facilitate the immediate or gradual annexation of the West Bank. Through the 1967-97 period, all the Arab states, spurred by the PLO, exhibited a resolve to solve the Palestinian problem, which continued to constitute a palpable testimony to their own incompetence, weakness, and dishonor. Moreover, in the cases of Jordan and Lebanon (1970-71 and 1975-82 respectively) the domestic Palestinian problem had clearly demonstrated an ability to de-stabilize host countries from within.

Given the fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict unfolded in a world characterized by global East-West conflict, it was perhaps inevitable that the two would interlock and interstice. Herzl had foreseen Western great power promotion of Zionism both in order to be rid of troublesome Jewish minorities and of erecting an outpost and bulwark against the barbaric Orient. But he had completely failed to anticipate the recruitment of states and peoples in the Middle East (as elsewhere in the Third World) within the context of a bi-polar global conflict. None of this, not the precipitation and decades of Arab antagonism and violence towards the Yishuv during Ottoman and British times, nor Zionist transfer thinking, nor the war of 1948 and the wars that followed, nor the great powers' involvement in, and in some ways, exacerbation of, the regional conflict, is to be found in Herzl's published pronouncements on the future course of Zionism. Immersed in the world of European Semite and anti-Semite and in his effort to elicit funds from magnates and political support from potentates, he had failed to project the European realities he knew, of nationalist conflict, great power rivalries, and minority-majority antagonisms, onto his "new Middle East." To those nurtured on The Jewish State and Altneuland, these realities must have come as a very unpleasant surprise indeed. Herzl had predicted the establishment of a (Jewish) liberal Western democracy in Palestine. Curiously, what has evolved over the past fifty years is a unique admixture of democracy and authoritarianism, liberalism and theocratic obscuratism. To many, it appeared that as the State matured, and the Fifties gave way to the Sixties and the Sixties to the Seventies, Israeli society was indeed evolving, albeit slowly, into Herzl's utopia. By the late 1980s, under the impact of regional events (the October War of 1973, the Lebanon War of 1982-5, and the Intifada) and Western influences which penetrated via the media and the arts, a large segment of Israeli society--its Ashkenazi bedrock and the westernized or "Israelified" Sephardi middle class--cast off the chains of ideology and constrictive provincialism and adopted a more open, liberal, capitalist, and democratic world view.

It was this process which underlay the cultural openness that in the late 1980s and 1990s produced Israel's "New Historiography" as well as the conciliatory politics of of the Rabin-Peres years that resulted in the recognition of the PLO, the Oslo agreements, the negotiations with Syria, and the peace treaty with Jordan.

The New Historiography posited a fresh and more critical look at the history of Zionism and Israel and of the Zionist-Arab conflict.

Initially, the focus of the New Historians--who included Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim and myself--was the 1948 War, which was seen as the revolutionary, defining event in Zionist history as well as in the history of the conflict. While not disputing that the Arabs--the Palestinians in November-December 1947 and the Arab states in May 1948--initiated the bouts of hostilities, the New Historians discovered that different Arab groups and states entered the conflict with different aims in mind. While Israel then and subsequently was to maintain that "five" Arab states invaded in order to "throw the Jews into the sea," the mass of new documentation, as interpreted by the New Historians, convincingly demonstrated that Jordan, which had the best and most effective of the armies engaged in the war, entered Palestine in order to prevent the extablishment of a Palestinian state and to annex the territories the UN had earmarked for such a state (prinicpally the West Bank); the Lebanese Army failed altogether to invade Palestine; and Egypt's army had in great measure joined the conflict in order to prevent Jordan from grabbing all the Palestinian Arab areas and to get hold of chunks of territory for itself.

Conversely, while the Yishuv's leadership formally accepted the 1947 Partition Resolution, large sections of Israeli society--including the Ahdut Ha'avodah party, Herut, and Mapainiks like Ben-Gurion--were opposed to or extremely unhappy with partition and from early on viewed the war as an ideal opportunity to expand the new state's borders beyond the UN-earmarked partition boundaries and at the expense of the Palestinians. Like Jordan's King Abdullah, they too were opposed to the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state and moved to prevent it.

The New Historians argue that, in the course of the war, the Yishuv's armed forces, the Haganah, IZL, LHI, and IDF, had a major hand in precipitating the flight of the Palestinian Arab population, thus creating the Palestinian refugee problem. There were a great number of expulsions and atrocities against the civilian population (and Arab prisoners of war), and these were a major factor in the initiation of the exodus.

The New Historians also came to dispute the long-held portrayal of the Yishuv-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab battles as a fight between "David" and "Goliath." The new documentation (mobilized most effectively by Dr. Amitzur Ilan of the Hebrew University in The Origin of the Arab-Israeli Arms Race (1996)) clearly showed that the Yishuv was far stronger than the (far larger) Palestinian Arab community and stronger, as well, through most of the war than the Arab armies that attacked or engaged it.

In the wake of the 1948 War, the New Historians demonstrated that there were Arab leaders--Abdullah of Jordan and President Hosni Zaim of Syria--who were interested in peace and that Israel's leaders were as much responsible as the Arabs for the absence of serious peace-making or the failure to achieve peace in the years 1949-51. (For example, Ben-Gurion turned down Abdullah's and Zaim's offers to meet and to talk peace.)

Israeli historians are now beginning to look at the 1967 War and a fresh look at 1973 and 1982 as well is sure to follow. Already, 1967 and its aftermath (there is still a severe problem of access to documents) are beginning to look somewhat different from the traditional Israeli descriptions. In an interview given in the 1970s and published last year, Moshe Dayan--Israel's defense minister in 1967 and 1973--is quoted as saying that most of the border troubles between Israel and Syria in the 1950s and 1960s were instigated by Israel; he also implied that the main reason the IDF conquered the Golan Heights in June 1967 was because of pressure by Israel's border kibbutzim who coveted the fertile lands up above (and not because of Syrian shelling of the kibbutzim).

A fresh look at the early 1970s may also reinforce the argument--already made in the memoirs of a number of Labor politicans and officials from that time--that Israel's premier, Golda Meir, rejected reasonable Egyptian peace or non-belligerency offers in 1970-1, thus "forcing" the Arabs to launch the 1973 October War.

Because of the work of the New Historians, down the road we will have a generally revamped understanding of the Zionist-Arab conflict, with both the Arabs and Israelis emerging somewhat more human and life-size than has hitherto been the case in Israeli historiography. This may be no bad thing for Israeli society.

But, unfortunately, this historiography will be read by and influence only those Israelis who are "Western" or are undergoing this process of Westernization, and these constitute only about one-half of Israeli society.

Israeli society has been moving for the past three decades in two directions simultaneously. If one half has been moving toward the West and modernity, the other half, composed of the ultra-Orthodox communities, much of the mainstream Orthodox community, and the Sephardi working and lower middle classes, have been moving, spiritually and intellectually, in the opposite direction, backward in time.

Impelled by the Messianic currents unleashed by the 1967 war and (among the Sephardis) by a resentment of the Ashkenazi establishment and Western values, these sections of society have been driven towards and captivated by a heightened nationalism or ultra-nationalism, provincialism, fundamentalism, and obscurantism. Unfortunately for Israel, these groups--represented in the Knesset by Degel Hatorah/Agudat Yisrael, Shas, and large sections of the Likud and the NRP--have a demographic edge.

The pertinacity of Israel's "Arab problem"--with external Arab enemies still howling at the gates outside while a semi-occupied Palestinian population continues to strive for more and more sovereignty over more and more of Palestine while a large Arab minority inside Israel proper growingly affirms its loyalty to and identification with its Palestinian brothers rather than the Jewish State--leaves a series of paradoxes and ironies at the core of Zionist history.

Zionism set out to provide a haven for the world's most persecuted people. But the vast majority of the oppressed Jews of the Russian Empire preferred, in the end, to shift westward and found safe and prosperous havens in the United States and the British dominions. Moreover, Zionism, because of its relative belatedness and painfully slow advance towards statehood, failed to meet the major challenge that world history set it: Nazism. Zionism failed to provide in time the haven that Europe's Jews needed as the German death machine churned them up in the camps and forests of Europe. Lastly, having at last succeeded--in no small measure as a result of the Holocaust--in setting up a Jewish state, the Zionist leaders discovered that the "safe haven" they had established was probably the unsafest place on earth for Jews, individually and as a collectivity. Arab and Muslim states sought its destruction as various armies and terrorist organisations sought to kill and maim its inhabitants. And, indeed, Israel remains the ultimate target of a host of Muslim/Arab states, including Iraq, Iran, and Libya, whose drive towards the acquisition of non-conventional arms, including atomic weapons, will render the country's continued existence perilous for the foreseeable future.


Dr. Benny Morris teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beersheba, and is the author of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49 (Cambridge University Press, 1988), a classic work of Israel's "New Historians."

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