History Goes to War in the Holy Land

From The Wall Street Journal:

The dogs of the neighborhood perk up to greet me at Benny Morris’s front gate in this middle-of-nowhere town in central Israel. The great historian, shaggy-haired, in T-shirt, open flannel and socks, has recently returned home from the U.K., where the barking did not cease.

He was there to debate a hard-line anti-Israel scholar and speak at the London School of Economics, where some students tried and failed to shut down his lecture with droning, preplanned slogans. “You’re actually quite boring,” Mr. Morris, 75, told them, at which point he was called a racist, doubtless in the expectation that he, a liberal, would be cowed by the slur. He wasn’t. “I’d rather be a racist than a bore,” he replied.

Mr. Morris was once the toast of the campuses. “I was sort of a symbol on the left,” he says on his back porch. “I don’t want to say ‘icon.’ ” If he won’t, I will. Mr. Morris was foremost among the “New Historians” who shook Israel in the 1980s and seemed to triumph in the 1990s with their revisionist accounts of the Arab-Israeli conflict. His 1988 book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49,” was a landmark in Israel’s self-criticism and understanding. That same year, Mr. Morris spent 19 days in Israeli military prison for refusing to serve on reserve duty in the West Bank.

How did he go from there to the shouting match at LSE? To many on the left, Mr. Morris says, “I seem to have turned anti-Palestinian in the year 2000,” when Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton offered a two-state solution and Yasser Arafat rejected it. “I thought this was a terrible decision by the Palestinians, and I wrote that.” When the Palestinians, in response to the offer of peace and statehood, then launched a wave of terrorism and suicide bombings unlike any before it, Mr. Morris disapproved of that, too. “I began to write journalism against the Palestinians, their decisions and policies,” he says, “and this was considered treachery.”

Mr. Morris was suddenly out of step “because people always forgive the Palestinians, who don’t take responsibility,” he says. “It’s accepted that they are the victim and therefore can do whatever they like.” Mr. Morris doesn’t contest the claim of victimhood but sees it on both sides. “Righteous Victims” is the title of his 1999 history of the conflict.

Israel is viewed as “all-powerful vis-à-vis the Palestinians,” he says. “But as we see it, we are surrounded by the Muslim world, organized in some way by Iran, and the West is turning its back on us. So we see ourselves as the underdog.” Try that on a college campus. “Now, the Palestinians are the underdog, and the underdog is always right, even if it does the wrong things,” he says, “like Oct. 7.”

The West hasn’t reckoned with Oct. 7. Not the massacre itself, which is at once too hard to fathom and too easy to condemn, but the broad support for it among Palestinians. “They were joyous in the West Bank and Gaza Strip when 1,200 Jews were killed and 250 were taken hostage,” Mr. Morris says. Palestinian support for the atrocities has remained constant, at over 70%, in opinion polls.

Mr. Morris tries to see it from their point of view: “700,000 Palestinians had become refugees as a result of Israel and its victory in ’48. They’d been living under occupation since ’67. I understand their desire for revenge and to see Israel disappear or very badly hurt.”

But that’s too easy. “In addition to those history-based grievances, there is Muslim antisemitism, terrorism and a level of barbarism, which for Israelis felt like more than revenge for bad things we’ve done,” he says. “It was a sick ideology and sick people carrying out murder and rape in the name of that ideology.”

Mr. Morris stresses the costs of that Palestinian decision. “There was never destruction like what has happened in Gaza over the past five months in any of Israel’s wars.” In 1967, “Israel conquered the West Bank with almost no houses being destroyed,” he says, “and the same applies in ’56 in the Gaza Strip, and the same applies in ’48. Israel didn’t have the firepower to cause such devastation. This is totally new.”

He doubts the scale of the suffering will move Palestinian nationalists. “Probably they’ll look back to Oct. 7 as a sort of minor victory over Zionism and disregard the casualties which they paid as a result,” he says. That’s the historical pattern.

“Not only has each of their big decisions made life worse for their people, but they ensure that each time the idea of a two-state solution is proposed, less of Palestine is offered to them,” Mr. Morris says. “In 1937, Palestinians were supposed to get 70% of Palestine or more.” The Zionists were willing to work with the plan, but the Arabs rejected it and chose violence. “Then, in 1947, the Palestinians were supposed to get 45% of Palestine,” with much of Israel’s more than 50% comprising desert. The Zionists accepted the partition, and, again, the Palestinians chose violence.

“And then in the Barak-Clinton things,” in 2000, “the Palestinians were supposed to get 21%, 22% of Palestine.” Instead they launched the second intifada. “Next time,” Mr. Morris predicts, “they’ll probably get 15%. Each time they’re given less of Palestine as a result of being defeated in their efforts to get all of Palestine.”

Mr. Morris says 1947 was the best chance for peace, but the Arabs instead tried to block and then crush the new Jewish state. Though they came to see the war as the nakba, or catastrophe, and as the final stage of a Zionist invasion, at the time “they thought they were going to win,” Mr. Morris says. “They have a problem explaining to themselves why they lost the war with twice as many Arabs as Jews—100 times as many if you include the Arab states.”

One day, Mr. Morris admits, the Palestinian strategy could work. “Somebody coming from Mars would say, ‘The Arabs have the numbers. They have the potential for much greater economic and military power, so they’re going to win here if they persist in their resistance.’ ”

Mr. Morris lets that hang in the air. “And yet, one never knows,” he says. “Unusual things happen here. Peace might also break out, which would be even more unusual.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG reminds one and all to be courteous in their comments. Israel/Arab questions are hotly debated on many different places online for those unable to be courteous on TPV.

1 thought on “History Goes to War in the Holy Land”

  1. In this shark’s nonclassified evaluation, the brakes on the train failed not later than 130 years ago, when the British and French began simultaneously undermining the Ottoman Empire (which had control over the Levant at the time and was itself an outside occupying force) and promising, very much under the table, to support a Jewish homeland/return that not incidentally would move most Jews out of Europe. Then we got Wile E. Coyote to drive the train…

    There’s so much blame to go around that I don’t know where to start. There are no heroes, only various flavors of villains — and I do not exclude outside occupiers and influencers. That’s why I advocate the zero-state solution: Every state in the region is either presently or trying its best to become a failed theocratic mess.

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