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An Interview of Ilan Pappe

By Baudouin Loos

Brussels, 29 November 1999

Ilan Pappe in not an ordinary Israeli citizen. "I am the most hated Israeli in Israel", he says of himself without any pride. Pappe, with several others, leads the "new historians' school" which took off in the eighties as a result of the new availability of state archives concerning the "Independence War". The new historians have done a lot to dismantle the Israeli myths of the foundation of the country. Now they are working on other issues: no Israeli sacred cows will have the opportunity to escape!

Unlike other new historians, Pappe makes no secret of his political, or ideological agenda. "We are all political", he argues. "There is no historian in the world who is objective. I am not as interested in what happened as in how people see what's happened".

Pappe's most known book is "The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1947-1951" I.B. Tauris, London & New York, published in 1992.

Q. With people like Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, Simha Flappan and others, you are a prominent (and the most controversial) member of the school of "new historians" in Israel. Could you summarize the major trends of the contribution of the new Israeli historians to the Israeli narrative?

A. It is an intellectual movement that started ten years ago, not only of historians, but also of people who deal with culture, academicians, journalists, artists, novelists, etc, who looked critically at Israel's past. I would say they adopted major chapters in the Palestinian interpretation, narrative, of the past. The particular aspect of the historians' work is that they did it with the help of archives and with their professional expertise, and that added a certain validity in the eyes of the public to these interpretations. Because, in the past, you could have heard the same arguments made by Palestinians or by very extreme Israeli leftists, but this time the very same things were substantiated by historic research works.

There are several topics that those new academics, intellectuals, researchers dealt with. The major chapter in 1948. It's what they are known for. They undermined some of the major foundation's myths of Israel. First, they didn't accept that there was a war between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath. "The few against the many". They claimed there was a parity on the battlefields and even, as the war progressed, there was an advantage to the Jewish and then Israeli forces. Additionally, they found out that the most efficient Arab army -- the Jordanian Army -- had a secret agreement with the Jews/Israelis prior to the war. "Collusion across the Jordan", as Avi Shlaim put it (the title of his famous book). That understanding -- a division of Palestine between the Jordanians and the Jews, instead of between the Jews and the Palestinians -- to a large extent determined the fate of the war. Then they undermined the myth of the Arabs voluntary flight. They claimed with various degrees of conviction that the Arabs were expelled, that mass expulsions took place in 1948, and then Israel did everything to prevent the return of the refugees.

And, lastly, they undermined the myth of "Israel the peace-seeker". They said that there was a chance to peace after 1948 but that was missed because of Israel's intransigence and inflexibility, rather than because of the Arab inflexibility. (That was my major contribution.)

The new history, now in Israel, doesn't only deal with 48. It analyzes Zionism as a colonialist phenomenon from the late 19th century. It goes on to revisit the fifties: they are very critical on both domestic and foreign security policy of Israel in those years. The myth till 1967 was that Israel was a small isolated country surrounded by hostile enemies. It was also undermined: they claimed that Israel was quiet aggressive, capable of leading powerful policies. And, domestically, Israel discriminated against its Arab citizens as it did, on similar ground, discriminate against the Jews it absorbed from Arab countries.

So far, the last topic is the attitude of the Jewish community in Palestine during the mandatory years toward the Holocaust. It's a very touchy subject. The Zionist leadership came out as very pragmatic and it put the interest of the Jewish community in Palestine above that of the Jewish community in Europe even in the time of absolute danger as happened during WWII.

How do you see the answer given to the new historians by the "old" historians like Shabtai Tevet, Anita Shapira, Efraim Karsh or Itamar Rabinovich?

The first reaction was rather derogatory, claiming that this work is not professional, shouldn't be taken notice of. Then the second wave of reactions said that the work is indeed important but it rejected its findings. I can understand these historians, not so much Ephraim Karsh who was the most vicious of all in his attacks. In my case, for example, they dispute everything! They seem to accept Benny Morris more easily than me. I am not surprised: Benny Morris' conclusion is more relieving. For example, when he says about the fate of Palestinians in 48 "à la guerre comme à la guerre", I claim that it was more like an ethnic cleansing.

It is precisely because of that very conclusion that you appear to be so controversial in your country, isn't it? Because you say "There was a unwritten Zionist plan to expel the Arabs of Palestine in 48"...

Absolutely. They were cautious enough not to write it although there was this "plan D" (Dalet), that reveals enough of the systematic expulsion. The idea was prepared by the Jewish military forces in March 1948. In that plan, they defined very a important principle: any Arab village or neighborhood that would not surrender to the Jewish forces, that would not raise the white flag, would be uprooted, destroyed and the people expelled. I think they knew well that there was very little chances for more than five or six villages to surrender. Why should they surrender, especially after (the massacre of) Deir Yassin in April and the big fright in the Arab community? In fact, only four villages rose the white flag. All the rest were potentially an object of expulsion. I must add that a few other neighborhoods rose the white flag but it didn't help them... All this is very clear. We have to remember that the UN partition plan of November 1947 would have left an equal number of Jews and Arabs in the Jewish state. This contradicted the idea of a Jewish state. So they had to make sure that as few Arabs as possible were still there. And that's what happened.

Back to the old historians, I would say they are more suspicious of my ideological trappings than that of Benny Morris, also because I am more relativist. I admit that my ideology influences my historical writings, but so what? I mean it is the case for everybody.

Both Morris and you worked on the same issues, established the same facts and yet you failed to draw the same conclusions (Morris keeps on claiming that even though there was expulsion of thousands Arabs, one cannot say that there was ever a master-plan of mass expulsion)...

Morris is more positivist: if it is only implicit, not written, he doesn't want to raise it in his books. I think historians should go further than that. The nature of the discussion is that: Morris says that even if someone says he wants to expulse you from your house and you run away because you know that it is what he wants to do, this is not called expulsion. I regard it as expulsion. I regard the transfer of people from one neighborhood in Haifa to another as transfer, not as dislocation: it is an experience of refugeehood which is more difficult sometimes than leaving your town altogether for you to see daily the people who took your house.

So these are the kinds of disagreement. I claim that they also stem from ideological positions, not just from facts. I am more anti-Zionist if you want, and Morris still regards himself as Zionist, may be this is where the difference lies.

You said somewhere that you were "non-Zionist"...

No, I meant "post-Zionist". Because, to be really anti-Zionist would mean leaving Israel altogether: if you want to serve the Palestinians, you have to leave. If you help them from inside Israel, then you do allow Jews to fulfill their dream on a homeland. This is an important message to the Palestinians as well: there are five millions Jews there, you cannot return the clock backwards, you must take them into account. Whether they came there as a result of an act of injustice or not, they are part of the reality.

Most of the Palestinians seem now ready to accept the two-state solution...

Yes. But it is more difficult for Israel because 20% of the Israelis are Palestinian, so it's a bi-national state. On the other hand one will have another bi-national state, Palestine, because I don't see any Israeli government ever evicting the settlers, a large and very hostile Jewish population. In the long run, it will affect the two-state solution, and we will have to have only one state.

But this is still very unpopular in Israel...

Of course! They have a vision of a peace plan that doesn't include a genuine sovereign Palestinian state, but bantustans while no single settlement would be dismantled, the whole of Jerusalem for themselves, no dealing with the refugees problem: in that case, why should they oppose the idea of partition? But tell them that the partition means full sovereign Palestinian state with an army and so on, eviction of the settlements, partitioning Jerusalem, some right of return for the refugees, and you will see what they think of the partition!

Let's go back to 1948. Mr David Bar-Ilan recently wrote, as many conservatives think, that the responsibility of what happened must be put on the Palestinian shoulders because they refused the UN partition plan...

This is an amazing accusation. Because, in 1947, the UN proposed a solution which was accepted only by one side, the Jewish one. And, in the history of the United Nations, usually, if you don't have an agreement of both sides, you don't implement that solution. There, the story began to turn bad. The fact is that you force the solution on a majority of the people living in Palestine who oppose that solution, then you shouldn't be surprised that they opposed even by force. This has nothing to do with the expulsion of the Palestinians, which was not the result of the rejection of the partition plan but the result of the Jewish leadership exploiting that situation to implement an ideology of transfer. It was clear to the Zionist leadership that without the uprooting of the local population it would be impossible to implement the dream of a Jewish nation-state. The policy toward the partition plan has very little to do with policy of the expulsion: one did not lead to the other. What happened is that the Jewish community waited for the right moment and exploited the right moment to the full.

The Israeli argument goes on by saying that the Palestinian leadership missed a historic opportunity when it rejected the partition plan...

May be they did. But even if it is a viable argument -- and I don't think so -- you don't expel an entire population because it has a stupid leadership. But we don't even have the right to say they were wrong to refuse the partition. They viewed Zionism as a colonialist movement. And there are very little reasons not to understand that point of view. Just imagine the Algerian national movement agreeing in the fifties to divide Algeria into two states, between them and the white settlers ("les pieds-noirs")! Who would have said to the Algerian leadership "Don't miss the historic chance!"? Of course, the Palestinians had other problems, they had patriarchal, feudal structures, familial loyalties above national ones. But it has very little to do with Israel which deliberately expelled the local population. And, if you want a solution today, Israel has to take into account that act, in terms of compensation and in terms of return. Without that, there will be no just solution for the Palestine problem. This is a very simple truism which Israelis refuse to accept.

Israelis in general or mostly the leadership?

Israelis in general because of the leadership. But I think it will change. The other day, a prominent member of the Labor party, Moshe Katz, leading the Palestinian committee of the Labor party, raised the idea of the return of 100,000 Palestinians. Was it a trial balloon of (Prime minister) Barak? I hope it was, but I doubt it [Katz initiative was rapidly and strongly rebuked by his party, B.L.]. Barak says it is only a humanitarian problem to which Israel has nothing to contribute. Katz' proposal has something to do with the new kind of post-Zionist taking which takes place also in the Labor party. It's a good sign.

Three new textbooks were recently introduced in the Israeli schools. Some people are very angry, saying that those books would "undermine the feeling of justice of the Zionist project, going to the point that they question the Jewish right to the Land of Israel" (novelist Aharon Megged said this is "a moral suicide leaving our children without all what made us proud of Israel")...

I read the books. They indicate a willingness among educators in the ministry of Education in Israel to rewrite the past. It is also a good sign, that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. It still remains to be seen how the teachers will use the books in classrooms, we don't know yet. The move is part of the dissemination of the views of the new historians and other sections of the society. Another example is the "T'kuma" TV documentary program (1998). Of course I would have written it differently but still you can see the impact of our work. And the new textbooks are very different from the textbooks that I grew on! It also arose quiet a row in the Israeli public opinion.

You recently wrote in "Haaretz" that without an Israeli recognition of acts of past injustice, there will be no permanent solution with the Palestinians. Do you think Israel is going in that direction?

Not yet because the political system has not absorbed this solution. And unfortunately I think what we are going into now is a period in which everybody would talk about peace but on the ground this peace would be a substitution of one form of occupation by another. And it will take several years -- I don't know how many -- for people in the Palestinian side to realize that they were taken for a ride, and God knows how they will react.

The peace process is supposed to end within less than a year...

It is not a peace process. It is one of the reasons I am in Brussels: the Barak 's government got an international recognition as a peace-government. On the ground, it does not perform a peace policy. If people like me succeed in convincing that there is a problem with the peace process, that all the issues should be reopened for negotiation, may be we could prevent the next catastrophe. If we don't, it will take time but people will find out that declaring a permanent solution for the Palestine question in which only 60 % of the West Bank and of the Gaza strip are in Palestinian hands, in which all Jerusalem remains in Jewish hands, with no eviction of one Jewish settlement, with Israeli control of borders, water and economy in Palestine, and no solution for the refugee problem, all this cannot be called peace. I think there is a public illusion in the West that you have two opening positions here: the Israeli opening position, that I just described, and the Palestinian one, full independent and sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, but this is not true. There is no Palestinian peace plan. The Americans, unfortunately the key here, understand the final stage of the peace process is how to convince the Palestinians to accept the Israeli dictate. This is what we call now "peace". And at the same time, Jewish settlements go on, silent transfer of Palestinians of Jerusalem goes on, the Palestinians are offered natural reserves instead of populated areas in the interim stages, Israel has just completed the plan today to build a ring road in East Jerusalem to complete Greater Jerusalem which is 10 % of the West Bank. And they would give Arafat another medal, so had the kings of bantustans in South Africa.

Arafat's kind of leadership is disputed but his reaction is to put the critics in jail as he did on the 27th of November to nine people who had signed a harsh petition against him...

Yes there is a problem. The Palestinian Authority, under pressure, does two bad things. One is to totally neglect the democratization and the building of a civic society, using the negociation with Israel as an excuse. Secondly, and probably more important, because it is frustrated by the balance of power, it plays a double game which is not working too well. On the one hand they try, courageously in a way, to put forwards some counterproposals to Israeli proposals, but on the other hand they play according to the Americans' tune because they've no one else's to play to. It gives a very ambivalent picture of their ability to rule. They use more often power than persuasion to deal with opposition and they may inflict a lasting damage on the Palestinian political life in the future that will not be easy to reverse.

In September, Mr Barak expressed regret in the name of the Israeli government for the suffering of the Palestinian people but at the same time he denied any sense of guilt or responsibility. That prompted Gideon Levy to answer in "Haaretz": "Are we not responsible for expulsing people, torturing people, erasing hundreds of villages, arresting ten of thousands without trial?..."

Gideon Levy was very right. But Barak didn't "regret", he only said "sorry" for them. He dissociated the suffering from the Israeli policy. But we are not only talking about policy in the past, we are talking about policy in the present. Israelis continue to inflict suffering on the Palestinians! They do it in Lebanon, in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip. The only place where they almost stop doing it is in Israel itself, where the minority of Palestinian Israelis are now experiencing much better conditions than they did before.

It seems that, although they are generally well educated, Jewish Israelis don't really realize (or don't want to realize) what they did and still do to the Palestinian people. How do you explain that?

It is the fruits of a very long process of indoctrination starting in the kindergarten, accompanying all Jewish boys and girls throughout their life. You don't uproot easily such an attitude which was planted there by very powerful indoctrination machine, giving a racist perception of the other, who is described as primitive, almost non-existing, hostile -- he is hostile, but the explanation given is that he was born primitive, Islamic, anti-Semite, not that someone has taken his land. Add to this the experience of the young soldiers in the West Bank and Gaza, where they have learnt to treat, like the first Zionist settlers, the Palestinians as part of the scenery, not as human beings. Palestinians are like desert, mosquitos: things you have to conquer by vision, energy, improvisation. The attitude to the Palestinians is the other coin of the Zionist success. We were so successful like those in the wild West. Otherwise, you would have had moral problems throughout the story! You can't have it. You solve that moral problem by saying these are not equal human beings who were uprooted, just savages part of the native population which we conquered as we conquered poverty, as we conquered hostile mosquitos. This is the main reason. The second reason is that much of the political capital of the Jewish state is based on moral superiority which is demanded by the name of the Holocaust. I am hated in Israel more than everyone else because I claim that I have a universal and not a Zionist lesson from the Holocaust. In the name of the Holocaust, I claim that Israel should be ashamed. If you lived in Israel, you would understand that it is really doing too much and may be I should be more cautious when I do it because this may be a U-turn for too many people. But this is exactly the problem. Although many things had been done to the Palestinians before the Holocaust, the Holocaust justifies everything, what has been done before or after it. Even someone great intellectual like Martin Buber could have said the most stupid sentence of all: "We had to do a small injustice in order to rectify a big injustice". How could you say this! Why should the one be connected to the other?

Did you first become communist or "new historian"?

I have to correct something: I like life too much to be communist! I am socialist. True I am member of Hadash which is a front where you find the communist party to which I don't belong. You also find the non-Zionist Arab-Jewish group to which I belong. I think both my political commitment and historian known position developed simultaneously. And one supported the other. Because of my ideology I understood documents I saw in the archives the way I understood them, and because of the documents in the archives I became more convinced in the ideological way I took. A complicated process! Some colleague told me I ruined our cause by admitting my ideological platform. Why? Everybody in Israel and Palestine has an ideological platform. Indeed the struggle is about ideology, not about facts. Who knows what facts are? We try to convince as many people as we can that our interpretation of the facts is the correct one, and we do it because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth-seekers.

I suppose you would agree with many Arabs who say a Jewish state cannot be a democratic state?

It can't. If the identity of people is connected to religion or ethnic group and not to citizenship, it means that any citizen who does not belong to that nationalism, religion or ethnicity is a second rate citizen. If you declare that the state belongs to one nation in a binational state, you immediately create a discriminative state which cannot be democratic. It is like in Belgium: if you declare the Belgian state exclusively Flemish or exclusively Walloon, it would not be declared a democratic state.

Israel would answer that many Arab states declare themselves "Islamic states"...

I criticize them as well...

You admit that most of Jewish Israelis don't share your views. Do you see things evolve soon?

In absolute term, you are right: we are a small group of people, but in relative numbers it has grown immensely. Two examples: when we started our work as new historians, there were only three of us. Morris, myself and Shlaim who was not even living in Israel. One day we were all three in my car driving to Jerusalem and I said: if we have now a lethal accident, this is the end of new history in Israel! Now, there is a proliferation of academicians and so one sharing those views. It is not a quantitative impressive fact, but it is a qualitative one because people at the heart of cultural production in Israel have been convinced by our views. Show me someone who works on TV or in a theater or in the film industry and even among the leading journalists (true, not everyone) who does not accept our point of view. Second example: the vote for Hadash. Again, it is ridiculous, but you have to understand that in 1992, only 2,000 Jews voted for Hadash, in 1996, 6,000 and in 1999, 15,000! Yes it's a long way. I used to say to my colleagues that if they are looking for quick results they are wrong. It may take twenty years, but Israel will change like South Africa. If apartheid could have been toppled down, then the negative aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict could eventually be removed. My fear is that, in case of crisis, the Israeli people in the middle would rather choose to join the nationalist camp. Surveys prove that it is the trend. People are asked: If you have only two choices, a theocratic non-democratic Jewish state or a democratic non-Jewish state, which one would you prefer? And a majority of the Jews -- about 60 % -- answer the non-democratic Jewish state. We have to work hard on this middle ground, people of the silent majority, people who don't have beliefs and are more worried about the daily concerns.

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