Benny Morris, from new historian to anti-Palestinian
The writer once riled right-wingers with his research on the 1948 war and the Palestinian refugee problem, but his political views have changed.
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
November 09, 2012
JERUSALEM — Historian Benny Morris has a knack for enraging Israelis of every political stripe.
Morris’ research on the 1948 war for independence challenged long-standing Zionist narratives that said Israel was not responsible for the creation of 750,000 Palestinian refugees*. He infuriated right-wing Israelis by documenting secret plans to expel Arabs and accounts of massacres and rapes by Jewish forces.
Then a few years ago, he turned his critical eye toward Palestinians, holding them largely responsible for stalled peace talks.
Morris shocked many leftist fans with his harsh — some said racist — comments about what he called Palestinians’ cultural deficiencies and lack of respect for the rule of law. The biggest problem with Israel’s expulsions of Arabs in 1948, he said, was that it didn’t go all the way.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Morris, 63, insists he has no regrets.
You’ve scoffed at the fuss made about your supposed “right-wing conversion,” but haven’t you changed your views?
My historical views haven’t changed at all, and my historical writing remains the same, for good or ill. In fact, my second book on the Palestinian refugee problem, which came out in 2004, has got material that is unpleasant for Israelis to read. But my political views have changed. In the 1990s I was cautiously optimistic that the Palestinians were changing their tune and becoming agreeable to a two-state solution. [The late Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat seemed to signal this with the Oslo process. Before the 1980s, they just talked about destroying Israel.
So what changed your mind?
By 2000, two things changed to make me deeply pessimistic. Arafat rejected the two-state proposal put on the table by [former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud] Barak and [former U.S. President] Clinton, and then the launching of the second intifada. The other thing was, I was looking at the whole conflict for a book I was writing at the time and I saw the monotony and consistency of the Palestinian stance, and their unflinching desire for all of [historic] Palestine [including Israel].
The intransigence of Palestinians made you right-wing?
I don’t see myself as right-wing. I believe in a two-state solution.
Is that still enough in Israel to make someone left-wing?
A two-state solution is basically the litmus test of the left and right.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed a two-state solution. Is he left-wing?
He offered lip service. But he wasn’t an espouser of two-state for many years. I’ve always supported two states and been against the settlement venture in the West Bank. I don’t think I’m a right-winger. But I wouldn’t say I’m a wild left-winger, either.
A lot of liberals would agree, based on some of the controversial things you’ve said about Arabs being incapable of democracy, not respecting the rule of law or sanctity of life.
Also the treatment of women, treatment of homosexuals. I’ve got a whole list.
Have you seen anything in the “Arab Spring” that leads you to rethink that?
It’s only made things worse. The Arab Spring gave more of a voice to the Arab street than it’s ever had. You could call that moving in the direction of democracy. But what ended up happening was that the Arab street was basically Islamic fundamentalist. That’s what came out of the elections in Egypt, in Tunis. And that’s what’s probably happening in Syria. These people hate democracy. They will only use it get to power.
You don’t see Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a partner, particularly with his recent comments disavowing violence, recognizing Israel’s 1948 borders and saying he has no personal expectation for a right of return?
Abbas is not simplistic. He’s disavowed violence since the second intifada. On the other hand, he didn’t exactly protest when Arafat said no to the peace process. Abbas believes in the diplomatic way. But what I think he really wants is all of Palestine.
After your work about the plight of Palestinians, you were ostracized by the right. Has that changed? And how does the left view you now?
I’m still ostracized by the right. The other side regards me as a traitor because I was in some way supposed to be an icon of the left and was writing history that served leftist purposes. Then here I was attacking Palestinians and saying they never wanted peace and want to destroy Israel.
Some see a contradiction between your historical documentation about brutal Israeli attacks against Palestinians in 1948 and your equally harsh criticism about Palestinians.
I write history. A historian is supposed to write the truth about what the documents tell him. Some people say the things I wrote were subversive against Zionism because they showed Jews behaving badly. I don’t think that’s subversive. I think the truth is good.
As a Zionist, weren’t you tempted to suppress information for the good of Israel?
No. If I wanted to not write the truth, I’d go work for the Foreign Ministry propaganda department. But in a sense, I made amends by later writing an entire history of the 1948 war. When you look at the whole war, the Palestinian refugee problem is much more intelligible and less brutal. You can see clearly it was a product of self-defense. Arabs attacked Jews and the Jews had to clear the roads and border areas because the Arab armies were about to invade. Certain actions were necessary if Israel wanted to survive.
Survive or form a state?
It’s the same thing, at least as the Israelis saw it in 1948. Three years after the Holocaust, you have to give the Israelis the right to feel that when the Arabs were shouting bloody murder on the radio, they meant it. They felt that if the Arabs had won, they would have killed everybody.
One of your most depressing recent conclusions is that there’s no hope at this time for a resolution. Will Obama’s reelection change that?
That’s a question. Some say he got burned in his first term. Others say now that he doesn’t need to get reelected, he can put more pressure on Israel, which is something Israeli leaders fear, and on Palestinians. I’m hopeful there will be a renewal of negotiations, but my fear is that it won’t go anywhere because Palestinians, deep in their heart, don’t want a negotiated peace.
Then what’s the point of talks?
Negotiations can take the edge off antagonism. Sometimes the process can lead people to places they didn’t expect to go.
* The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949. Cambridge University Press, 1989
A conversation with Benny Morris
Yale University Press (undated)
How does 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War relate to your previous work?
In the past, I have written about one particular aspect of the war—about the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem over 1947–1949, for example—or, more generally, about the course of the Zionist-Arab conflict from 1881 to 2000. In this book I address the whole of the 1948 War in its political and military aspects, taking in as well the international context and interventions, the Arab world, and the internal Israeli scene. I try to present a good overall picture of what happened and why, from the UN handling of the Palestine issue to the Israeli-Arab armistice agreements that ended the war.
What do you think at bottom is the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
I would say that there is a territorial dispute between two peoples who claim the same patch of land. It is a very small patch of land, and so the idea of dividing it between the two is extremely problematic in the technical sense. But it is also a cultural-religious conflict between the Islamic East and the West. The Islamic Arab world sees Israel—as it sees itself—as an offshoot and outpost of the West in—in their view—a Muslim area and as an infidel, invasive presence. Israel and Zionism are seen by the Islamic Arab world, and the wider Islamic world, as illegitimate. This, at root, is the cause of the ongoing conflict. Were they to accord it legitimacy, the problem in Palestine/Israel would be soluble. At present, given this mindset, it isn’t.
Are there any lessons to be learned from the study of the 1948 War?
To be sure, many Israelis will learn that they must remain strong and technologically advanced; otherwise they will be overwhelmed by Arab numbers and fervor. The Arabs might learn that they must improve themselves, at least on a technological-scientific level, and better their societies and armies, if they hope to overcome Israel, though it is possible that if they do, they may lose the desire to destroy Israel. Outsiders may simply learn about the conflict and the nature of the two contending societies, at least as they were in 1948, and perhaps with certain implications for the present and future.