Efraim Karsh is director of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King's College, University of London, and editor of the quarterly journal Israel Affairs.
One of the reasons I gave up political history was that it is very difficult not to direct it towards the future, towards your idea of what ought to happen. And that somehow distorts your view of what has happened.
As Israel edges toward peace with the Palestinians, old, highly controversial, and seemingly defunct issues are back on the table, such as the legal status of Jerusalem and the question of the Palestinian refugees. The refugees and their present rights inspire two very different approaches. The Israeli view, based on an assessment of the 1947-49 period that ascribes primary responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy to an extremist and short-sighted leadership, sees Palestinian wounds as primarily self-inflicted and so not in need of compensation. In contrast, Palestinian spokesmen justify their "right of return" to the territory that is now part of the State of Israel (or an alternative compensation) by presenting themselves as victims of Jewish aggression in the late 1940s.
Ironically, it is a group of Israelis who have given the Palestinian argument its intellectual firepower. Starting in 1987, an array of self-styled "new historians" has sought to debunk what it claims is a distorted "Zionist narrative." How valid is this sustained assault on the received version of Israel's early history? This question has real political importance, for the answer is bound to affect the course of Israeli-Palestinian efforts at making peace.
THE NEW HISTORIANS AND THEIR CRITICS
Simha Flapan, the left-wing political activist and editor of New Outlook who inaugurated the assault on alleged "Zionist myths," made no bones about his political motivations in rewriting Israeli history, presenting his book as an attempt to "undermine the propaganda structures that have so long obstructed the growth of the peace forces in my country."1 But soon after, a group of Israeli academics and journalists gave this approach a scholarly imprimatur, calling it the "new history."2 Its foremost spokesmen include Avi Shlaim of Oxford University, Benny Morris of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ilan Pappé of Haifa University. Other prominent adherents include Tom Segev of the Ha'aretz newspaper, Benjamin Beit Hallahmi of Haifa University, and researchers Uri Milstein and Yosi Amitai.
Above all, the new history signifies a set of beliefs: that Zionism was at best an aggressive and expansionist national movement and at worst an offshoot of European imperialism;3 and that it was responsible for the Palestinian tragedy, the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict, and even the Middle East's violent history.
In an attempt to prove that the Jewish State was born in sin, the new historians concentrate on the war of 1947-49 (in Israeli parlance, the War of Independence). Deriding alternative interpretations as "old" or "mobilized," they dismiss the notion of a hostile Arab world's seeking to destroy the Jewish state at birth as but a Zionist myth. They insist that when the Jewish Agency accepted the U.N. Resolution of November 1947 (partitioning Mandatory Palestine into Arab and Jewish states), it was less than sincere.
It is obviously a major service to all concerned to take a hard look at the past and, without political intent, to debunk old myths. Is that what the new historians have done? I shall argue that, quite the contrary, they fashion their research to suit contemporary political agendas; worse, they systematically distort the archival evidence to invent an Israeli history in an image of their own making. These are strong words; the following pages shall establish their accuracy.
A number of scholars have already done outstanding work showing the faults of the new history. Itamar Rabinovich (of Tel Aviv University, currently Israel's ambassador to the United States) has debunked the claim by Shlaim and Pappé that Israel's recalcitrance explains the failure to make peace at the end of the 1947-49 war.4 Avraham Sela (of the Hebrew University) has discredited Shlaim's allegation that Israel and Transjordan agreed in advance of that war to limit their war operations so as to avoid an all-out confrontation between their forces.5 Shabtai Teveth (David Ben-Gurion's foremost biographer) has challenged Morris's account of the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem.6 Robert Satloff (of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) has shown, on the basis of his own research in the Jordanian national archives in Amman, the existence of hundreds of relevant government files readily available to foreign scholars,7 thereby demolishing the new historians' claim that "the archives of the Arab Governments are closed to researchers, and that historians interested in writing about the Israeli-Arab conflict perforce must rely mainly on Israeli and Western archives"8 -- and with it, the justification for their almost exclusive reliance on Israeli and Western sources.
This article addresses a different question. The previous critics have looked mostly at issues of politics or sources; we shall concentrate on the accuracy of documentation by these self-styled champions of truth and morality. By looking at three central theses of the new historians, our research reveals a completely different picture from the one that new historians themselves have painted. But first, let us examine whether the alleged newness of this self-styled group is justified.
The new historians claim to provide factual revelations about the origins of the Israeli-Arab conflict. According to Shlaim, "the new historiography is written with access to the official Israeli and Western documents, whereas the earlier writers had no access, or only partial access, to the official documents."9
The earlier writers may not have had access to an abundance of newly declassified documents, which became available in the 1980s, but recent "old historians," such as Rabinovich and Sela, have made no less use of them than their "new" counterparts, and they came up with very different conclusions. Which leads to the self-evident realization that it is not the availability of new documents that distinguishes the new historians from their opponents but the interpretation they give to this source material.
Further, much of the fresh information claimed by the new historians turns out to be old indeed. Consider Shlaim's major thesis about secret contacts between the Zionist movement and King `Abdallah of Transjordan. He claims that "it is striking to observe how great is the contrast between accounts of this period written without access to the official documents and an account such as this one, based on documentary evidence."10 Quite the contrary, it is striking to see how little our understanding has changed following the release of state documents. Shlaim himself concedes that the information "that there was traffic between these two parties has been widely known for some time and the two meetings between Golda Meir [acting head of the Jewish Agency's political department] and King `Abdullah in November 1947, and May 1948 have even been featured in popular films."11 Indeed, not only was the general gist of the `Abdallah-Meir conversations common knowledge by 1960,12 but most of the early writers had access to then-classified official documents. Dan Kurzman's 1970 account of that meeting is a near verbatim narration of the report prepared by the Jewish Agency's political department adviser on Arab affairs, Ezra Danin.13 Shlaim also relies on Danin's report, adding nothing new to Kurzman's revelations.
Much of the fresh information claimed by the new historians turns out to be old indeed. . . .
. . . As for new interpretations, some are indeed new, but only because they are flat wrong.
Similarly, Shlaim places great stress on a February 1948 meeting between the prime minister of Transjordan, Tawfiq Abu'l-Huda, and the foreign secretary of Great Britain, Ernest Bevin, claiming the latter at that time blessed an alleged Hashemite-Jewish agreement to divide Palestine. But this meeting was already known in 1957, when Sir John Bagot Glubb, the former commander of the Arab Legion, wrote his memoirs,14 and most early works on the Arab-Israeli conflict used this information.15
Morris's foremost self-laudatory "revelation" concerns the expulsion of Arabs from certain places by Israeli forces, at times through the use of violence. This was made known decades earlier in such works as Jon and David Kimche's Both Sides of the Hill; Rony Gabbay's A Political Study of the Arab-Israeli Conflict; and Nadav Safran's From War to War.16
Eager to debunk the perception of the 1947-49 war as a heroic struggle of the few against the many, the new historians have pointed to an approximate numerical parity on the battlefield.17 Yet this too was well known: school-children could find it in historical atlases, university students in academic books.18 Ben-Gurion's autobiographical account of Israel's history, published nearly two decades before the new historians made their debut on the public stage, contains illuminating data on the Arab-Israeli military balance; his edited war diaries, published by the Ministry of Defense Press in 1983, give a detailed breakdown of the Israeli order of battle: no attempt at a cover-up here.19
As for new interpretations, some are indeed new, but only because they are flat wrong. Ilan Pappé has gone so far as to argue that the outcome of the 1947-49 war had been predetermined in the political and diplomatic corridors of power "long before even one shot had been fired."20 To which, one can only say that the State of Israel paid a high price indeed to effect this predetermined outcome: the war's six thousand fatalities represented 1 percent of Israel's total Jewish population, a higher human toll than that suffered by Great Britain in World War II.21 Further, Israel's battlefield losses during the war were about the same as those of the Palestinians; and given that its population was roughly half the latter's size, Israel lost proportionately twice the percentage of the Palestinians.22
Other interpretations ring truer, but only because they are old and familiar. Shlaim concedes that his charge of Jordanian-Israeli collusion is not a new one but was made decades before him.23 In fact, this conspiracy theory has been quite pervasive. In Arab historiography of an anti-Hashemite caste, "the collusion myth became the crux of an historical indictment against the king for betraying the Arab national cause in Palestine."24 On the Israeli side, both left- and right-wingers have levelled this same criticism at the government's conduct of the 1947-49 war. Shlaim has hardly broken new ground.
Shlaim's main claim to novelty lies in his challenging "the conventional view of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a simple bipolar affair in which a monolithic and implacably hostile Arab world is pitted against the Jews."25 But this "conventional view" does not exist. Even such passionately pro-Israel feature films on the 1947-49 war as Exodus and Cast a Giant Shadow do not portray "a monolithic and implacably hostile Arab world pitted against the Jews," but show divided Arab communities in which some leaders would rather not fight the Jews and others would cooperate with the Jews against their Arab "brothers." And what applies to popular movies applies all the more to scholarly writings. Not one of the studies by the "old historians" subscribes to the stereotypical approach attached to them by Shlaim.
The same applies to Morris. His claim that "what happened in Palestine/Israel over 1947-9 was so complex and varied . . . that a single-cause explanation of the exodus from most sites is untenable"26 echoes not only Aharon Cohen's and Rony Gabbay's conclusions of thirty years earlier27 but also the standard explanation of the Palestinian exodus by such "official Zionist" writers as Joseph Schechtman: "This mass flight of the Palestinian Arabs is a phenomenon for which no single explanation suffices. Behind it lies a complex of apparently contradictory factors."28
Even the claim to novelty is not new! Aharon Klieman, the quintessential "old historian," wrote in his study of Hashemite-Zionist relations, published just two years before Shlaim's book, that "it has been a commonplace to present the Palestine or the Arab-Israeli conflict in all its historical stages as a simple bilateral conflict. . . . It is a mistake to present the Arab side to the equation as a monolithic bloc. The `Arab camp' has always been divided and at war with itself."29
At times, the new historians themselves realize they are recycling old ideas. For example, Shlaim acknowledged that their arguments were foreshadowed by such writers as Gabbay, Israel Baer, Gabriel Cohen, and Meir Pail.30 In all, the new historians have neither ventured to territory unknown to earlier generations of scholars, nor made major factual discoveries, nor provided truly original interpretations, let alone developed novel historical methodologies or approaches. They have used precisely the same research methods and source-material as those whose work they disdain -- the only difference between these two groups being the interpretation given to their findings. Let us now turn to the accuracy of those interpretations.
I. PUSHING OUT THE ARABS
The new historians make three main claims about the Zionist movement in the late 1940s: it secretly intended to expel the Palestinians, it conspired with King `Abdallah to dispossess the Palestinians of their patrimony, and it won British support for this joint effort. Are these accusations accurate?
Morris writes that "from the mid-1930s most of the Yishuv's leaders, including Ben-Gurion, wanted to establish a Jewish state without an Arab minority, or with as small an Arab minority as possible, and supported a `transfer solution' to this minority problem."31 He argues that the transfer idea "had a basis in mainstream Jewish thinking, if not actual planning, from the late 1930s and 1940s."32 But Morris, the new historian who has made the greatest effort to prove this thesis, devotes a mere five pages to this subject. He fails to prove his claim.
First, the lion's share of his "evidence" comes from a mere three meetings of the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE) during June 7-12, 1938. Five days in the life of a national movement can scarcely provide proof of longstanding trends or ideologies, especially since these meetings were called to respond to specific ad hoc issues. Moreover, Morris has painted a totally false picture of the actual proceedings of these meetings. Contrary to his claim that the meetings "debated at length various aspects of the transfer idea,"33 the issue was discussed only in the last meeting, and even then as but one element in the overall balance of risks and opportunities attending Britain's suggested partition rather than as a concrete policy option. The other two meetings did not discuss the subject at all.34
Secondly, Morris virtually ignores that the idea of transfer was forced on the Zionist agenda by the British (in the recommendations of the 1937 Peel Royal Commission on Palestine) rather than being self-generated.35 He downplays the commission's recommendation of transfer, creates the false impression that the Zionists thrust this idea on a reluctant British Mandatory power (rather than vice versa), and misleadingly suggests that Zionist interest in transfer long outlived the Peel Commission.36
Thirdly, and most important, Morris systematically falsifies evidence, to the point that there is scarcely a single document he relies on without twisting and misleading, either by a creative rewriting of the original text, by taking words out of context, or by truncating texts and thereby distorting their meaning. For example, Morris finds an alleged Zionist interest in the idea of transfer lasting up to the outbreak of the 1948 war. Yes, Morris concedes, Ben-Gurion in a July 1947 testimony to the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) "went out of his way to reject the 1945 British Labour Party platform `International Post-war Settlement' which supported the encouragement of the movement of the Palestine Arabs to the neighboring countries to make room for Jews."37 But he insinuates that Ben-Gurion was insincere; in his heart of hearts, he subscribed to the transfer idea at the beginning of the 1947-49 war. Becoming a mind-reader, Morris discerns the transfer in a Ben-Gurion speech in December 1947:
There was no explicit mention of the collective transfer idea.
However, there was perhaps a hint of the idea in Ben-Gurion's speech to Mapai's supporters four days after the UN Partition resolution, just as Arab-Jewish hostilities were getting under way. Ben-Gurion starkly outlined the emergent Jewish State's main problem -- its prospective population of 520,000 Jews and 350,000 Arabs. Including Jerusalem, the state would have a population of about one million, 40% of which would be non-Jews. "This fact must be viewed in all its clarity and sharpness. With such a [population] composition, there cannot even be complete certainty that the government will be held by a Jewish majority. . . . There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60%." The Yishuv's situation and fate, he went on, compelled the adoption of "a new approach . . . new habits of mind" to "suit our new future. We must think like a state."38
Morris creates the impression here that Ben-Gurion believed only transfer would resolve the problem of a substantial Arab minority in the Jewish State.
Is this mind-reading of Ben-Gurion correct? Was there really a hint of the transfer idea in his speech? Here is the text from which Morris draws his citation:
In the territory allotted to the Jewish State there are now above 520,000 Jews (apart from the Jerusalem Jews who will also be citizens of the state) and about 350,000 non-Jews, almost all of whom are Arabs. Including the Jerusalem Jews, the state would have at birth a population of about one million, nearly 40 per cent of which would be non-Jews. This [population] composition does not constitute a solid basis for a Jewish State; and this fact must be viewed in all its clarity and sharpness. With such a composition, there cannot even be complete certainty that the government will be held by a Jewish majority. . . . There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 per cent, and so long as this majority consists of only 600,000 Jews. . . .
We have been confronted with a new destiny -- we are about to become masters of our own fate. This requires a new approach to all our questions of life. We must reexamine all our habits of mind, all our systems of operation to see to what extent they suit our new future. We must think in terms of a state, in terms of independence, in terms of full responsibility for ourselves -- and for others.39
This original text suggests that Morris has distorted the evidence in three ways.
First, Morris omits Ben-Gurion's statement that there can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as the Jewish majority "consists of only 600,000 Jews." He distorts Ben-Gurion's intention by narrowing the picture to a preoccupation with the 60-40 percent ratio, when its real scope was a concern about the absolute size of the Jewish population.
Secondly, Morris creates the impression that Ben-Gurion's call for a "new approach . . . new habits of mind" applied to the Arab minority problem, implicitly referring to transfer. In fact, it applied to the challenges attending the transition from a community under colonial domination to national self-determination.
Thirdly, he omits Ben-Gurion's statement on the need to take "full responsibility for ourselves -- and for others." Who are these others but the non-Jewish minority of the Jewish State?
Worse, Morris chooses to rely on a secondary source rather than consult the primary document; and for good reason, for an examination of the original would easily dispel the cloud of innuendo with which Morris surrounded Ben-Gurion's speech:
. . . There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 percent, and so long as this majority consists of only 600,000 Jews.
From here stems the first and principal conclusion. The creation of the state is not the formal implementation process discussed by the UN General Assembly. . . . To ensure not only the establishment of the Jewish State but its existence and destiny as well -- we must bring a million-and-a-half Jews to the country and root them there. It is only when there will be at least two millions Jews in the country -- that the state will be truly established.40
This speech contains not a hint of the transfer idea. Ben-Gurion's long-term solution to the 60-40 percent ratio between the Jewish majority and non-Jewish minority is clear and unequivocal: mass Jewish immigration.
As for the position of the Arabs in the Jewish State, Ben-Gurion could not be clearer:
We must think in terms of a state, in terms of independence, in terms of full responsibility for ourselves -- and for others. In our state there will be non-Jews as well -- and all of them will be equal citizens; equal in everything without any exception; that is: the state will be their state as well.41
Ben-Gurion envisaged Jewish-Arab relations in the prospective Jewish State not based on the transfer of the Arab population but as a true partnership among equal citizens; not "fortress Israel," a besieged European island in an ocean of Arab hostility, but a Jewish-Arab alliance.
These passages make it clear that Benny Morris has truncated, twisted, and distorted Ben-Gurion's vision of Jewish-Arab relations and the Zionist position on the question of transfer. All this is especially strange given that Morris contends that the historian "must remain honour-bound to gather and present his facts accurately."42
II. COLLUSION ACROSS THE JORDAN
Shlaim traces Israel's and Transjordan's alleged collusion to a secret meeting on November 17, 1947, in which King `Abdallah and Golda Meir agreed supposedly to frustrate the impending U.N. Resolution on Palestine and instead divide Palestine between themselves. He writes that
In 1947 an explicit agreement was reached between the Hashemites and the Zionists on the carving up of Palestine following the termination of the British mandate . . . it was consciously and deliberately intended to frustrate the will of the international community, as expressed through the United Nations General Assembly, in favour of creating an independent Arab state in part of Palestine.43
Is there any evidence for this alleged conspiracy? No, none at all. First, a careful examination of the two documents used to substantiate the claim of collusion -- reports by Ezra Danin and Eliyahu Sasson, two Zionist officials -- proves that Meir implacably opposed any agreement that would violate the U.N. partition resolution passed twelve days later. In no way did she consent to the Transjordan annexation of Arab areas of Palestine. Rather, Meir made it eminently clear that:
* Any Zionist-Hashemite arrangement would have to be compatible with the U.N. resolution. In Danin's words: "We explained that our matter was being discussed at the UN, that we hoped that it would be decided there to establish two states, one Jewish and one Arab, and that we wished to speak now about an agreement with him [i.e., `Abdallah] based on these resolutions."44 In Sasson's words: "Replied we prepared [to] give every assistance within [the] frame [of the] UN Charter."45
* The sole purpose of Transjordan's intervention in post-Mandatory Palestine would be, in Meir's words, "to maintain law and order and to preserve peace until the UN could establish a government in that area,"46 namely, a short-lived law-enforcement operation aimed at facilitating the establishment of a legitimate Palestinian government. Indeed, even `Abdallah did not expect the meeting to produce any concrete agreement. In Danin's words: "At the end he reiterated that concrete matters could be discussed only after the UN had passed its resolution, and said that we must meet again immediately afterwards."47
Secondly, Meir's account of her conversation with `Abdallah -- strangely omitted in this context by Shlaim (though he cites it elsewhere in his study) -- further confirms that Mandatory Palestine was not divided on November 17, 1947.
For our part we told him then that we could not promise to help his incursion into the country [i.e., Mandatory Palestine], since we would be obliged to observe the UN Resolution which, as we already reckoned at the time, would provide for the establishment of two states in Palestine. Hence, we could not -- so we said -- give active support to the violation of this resolution.48
Thirdly, Shlaim's thesis is predicated on the idea of a single diplomatic encounter's profoundly affecting the course of history. He naïvely subscribes to the notion that a critical decision about the making of war and peace or the division of foreign lands is made in the course of a single conversation, without consultations or extended bargaining. This account reflects a complete lack of understanding about the nature of foreign policymaking in general and of the Zionist decision-making process in particular.
Fourthly, as mere acting head of the Jewish Agency's political department, Meir was in no position to commit her movement to a binding deal with King `Abdallah, especially since that deal would run counter to the Jewish Agency's simultaneous efforts to win a U.N. resolution on partition. All she could do was try to convince `Abdallah not to oppose the impending U.N. partition resolution violently and give him the gist of Zionist thinking.
Fifthly, Meir's conversation with `Abdallah was never discussed by the Jewish Agency Executive, the Yishuv's effective government. The Yishuv's military operations during the 1947-49 war show not a trace of the alleged deal in either their planning or their execution. Quite the contrary, the Zionist leadership remained deeply suspicious of `Abdallah's expansionist ambitions up to May 1948.
Lastly, while the Jewish Agency unquestionably preferred `Abdallah to his Palestinian rival, the Jerusalem mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni, this preference did not lead the agency to preclude the possibility of a Palestinian state. As late as December 1948 (or more than a year after `Abdallah and Meir had allegedly divided Palestine), Ben-Gurion stated his preference for an independent Palestinian state to Transjordan's annexing the Arab parts of Mandatory Palestine. "An Arab State in Western Palestine is less dangerous than a state that is tied to Transjordan, and tomorrow -- probably to Iraq," he told his advisers. "Why should we vainly antagonize the Russians? Why should we do this [i.e., agree to Transjordan's annexation of Western Palestine] against the [wishes of the] rest of the Arab states?"49
In short, not only did the Zionist movement not collude with King `Abdallah to divide Mandatory Palestine between themselves but it was reconciled to the advent of a Palestinian state. `Abdallah was the one who was violently opposed to such an eventuality and who caused it to fail by seizing the bulk of the territory the United Nations had allocated to the Palestinians.
III. COLLUSION WITH GREAT BRITAIN
Shlaim writes that "Britain knew and approved of this secret Hashemite-Zionist agreement to divide up Palestine between themselves, not along the lines of the U.N. partition plan."50 This alleged British blessing was given in the above-noted conversation between Bevin and Abu'l-Huda, in which the foreign secretary gave the Transjordanian prime minister
The green light to send the Arab Legion into Palestine immediately following the departure of the British forces. But Bevin also warned [Trans]jordan not to invade the area allocated by the U.N. to the Jews. An attack on Jewish state territory, he said, would compel Britain to withdraw her subsidy and officers from the Arab Legion.51
This thesis is fundamentally flawed. True, the British were resigned to Transjordan's military foray into post-Mandatory Palestine, but this was not out of a wish to protect Jewish interests. Rather, it was directed against those interests: Israel was intended to be the victim of the Transjordanian intervention -- not its beneficiary.
* Contrary to Shlaim's claim, the British government did not know of a Hashemite-Zionist agreement to divide up Palestine, both because this agreement did not exist and because `Abdallah kept London in the dark about his contacts with the Jewish Agency. The influential British ambassador to Amman, Sir Alec Kirkbride, was not aware of the secret Meir-`Abdallah meeting until well after the event.52 How then could the British bless a Hashemite-Zionist deal?
* Glubb's memoirs alone indicate that Bevin gave Abu'l-Huda a green light to invade while warning him, "do not go and invade the areas allotted to the Jews."53 In contrast, declassified British documents unequivocally show that Bevin neither encouraged Abu'l-Huda to invade the Arab parts of Palestine as "the obvious thing to do," as claimed by Glubb, nor warned him off invading the Jewish areas. Bevin said only that he "would study the statements which his Excellency had made."54 Shlaim's choosing an old and partisan account over a newly released official document suggests a desperate attempt to prove the existence of such a warning.
* The British archives are bursting with evidence that the foreign secretary and his advisers cared not at all whether `Abdallah transgressed Jewish territory; they only wanted to be sure he did not implicate Britain in an embarrassing international situation. Shortly after the Bevin-Abu'l-Huda meeting, Bernard Burrows, head of the Eastern department, wrote (with Bevin's approval) that
It is tempting to think that Transjordan might transgress the boundaries of the United Nations Jewish State to the extent of establishing a corridor across the Southern Negeb [i.e., Negev] joining the existing Transjordan territory to the Mediterranean and Gaza . . . [thereby] cutting the Jewish State, and therefore Communist influence, off from the Red Sea.55
More important, on May 7, 1948, a week before the all-Arab attack on Israel, Burrows suggested to the Foreign Office intimate to King `Abdallah that "we could in practice presumably not object to Arab Legion occupation of the Nejeb [i.e., Negev]."56 In other words, not only was the Foreign Office not opposed to Transjordan's occupation of the Jewish State's territory but it encouraged `Abdallah to go in and occupy about half of it.
* Having grudgingly recognized their inability to prevent the partition of Palestine, British officialdom wished to see a far smaller and weaker Jewish state than that envisaged by the U.N. partition resolution and did its utmost to bring about such an eventuality. Limitations of space do not allow a presentation of the overwhelming documentary evidence of British efforts to cut Israel "down to size" and stunt its population growth through the prevention of future Jewish immigration.57 Suffice to say that British policymakers sought to forestall an Israeli-Transjordanian peace agreement unless it detached the Negev from the Israeli state.
Recently declassified documents in Israeli and Western archives fail to confirm the picture of the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict painted by the new historians. The self-styled new historiography is really a "distortiography." It is anything but new: much of what it presents is old and much of the new is distortion. The "new historians" are neither new nor true historians but rather partisans seeking to give academic respectability to longstanding misconceptions and prejudice on the Arab-Israeli conflict. To borrow the words of the eminent British historian E.H. Carr, what the new historians are doing is to "write propaganda or historical fiction, and merely use facts of the past to embroider a kind of writing which has nothing to do with history."58
Returning to political issues of today: the Palestinian claim to national self-determination stands on its own and does not need buttressing from historical falsification. Quite the contrary, fabricating an Israeli history to cater to interests of the moment does great disservice not only to historical truth but also to the Palestinians that the new historians seek to champion. Instead, they should heed Albert Hourani's advice. Securing the future means coming to terms with one's past, however painful that might be, not denying it.
1 The Birth of Israel: Myths and Reality (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p. 4; see also pp. 10 and 233.
2 The new historians make much of their relatively young age: "Most of them, born around 1948, have matured in a more open, doubting, and self-critical Israel than the pre-1967, pre-1973, and pre-Lebanon War Israel of the old historians." Of course, biological age indicates little about outlook. The opponents of the new historians also matured "in a more open, doubting, and self-critical Israel," many of them belonging to the same age group and having lived in the same milieu as the new historians. Moreover, some new historians are older than the "old" historians, especially Flapan, who was born in 1911 and thus precisely a member of that generation that "had lived through 1948 as highly committed adult participants in the epic, glorious rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth" and that was consequently derided by the new historians as being "unable to separate their lives from the events they later recounted, unable to distance themselves from and regard impartially the facts and processes through which they had lived." Benny Morris, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 7.
3 Avi Shlaim writes: "At the time of the Basle Congress, Palestine was under the control of the Ottoman Turks. It was inhabited by nearly half a million Arabs and some 50,000 Jews. . . . But, in keeping with the spirit of the age of European imperialism, the Jews did not allow these local realities to stand in the way of their own national aspirations." Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 2.
Ilan Pappé has been far more outspoken in articulating Zionism as a brand of Western colonialism that "gained control over a land that is not theirs at the end of the nineteenth century." See, for example, "Damning the Historical Forgery," Kol Ha-ir, Oct. 6, 1995, p. 61.
4 Itamar Rabinovich, The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
5 Avraham Sela, "Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 War: Myth, Historiography, and Reality," Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 28, No. 4Oct. 1992, pp. 623-89.
6 Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 286; Shabtai Teveth, "The Palestine Arab Refugee Problem and its Origins," Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 26, No. 2Apr. 1990, pp. 214-49.
7 Robert Satloff's review of Morris's Israel's Border Wars, in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 31, Number 4 Oct. 1995, p. 954.
8 Benny Morris, "A Second Look at the `Missed Peace,' or Smoothing Out History: A Review Essay," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1994, p. 86.
9 Avi Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Aug. 1995, p. 289. See also Morris, 1948 and After, p. 7.
10 Shlaim, Collusion, p. viii.
11 Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," p. 296.
12 Jon Kimche and David Kimche, Both Sides of the Hill (London: Secker and Warburg, 1960), p. 60; Marie Syrkin, Golda Meir: Woman with a Cause (London: Victor Gollancz, 1964), pp. 195-202.
13 Dan Kurzman, Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (New York: New American Library, 1972), pp. 42-44.
14 Sir John Bagot Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957), pp. 63-66.
15 For example, Kurzman, Genesis 1948, pp. 116-17; Zeev Sharef, Three Days (London: W.H. Allen, 1962), p. 77; and Kimche and Kimche, Both Sides of the Hill, p. 39. As we shall see (on p. XX), the newly released official British documents do shed fresh light on the Bevin-Abu'l-Huda meeting but completely in the opposite direction from that claimed by Shlaim.
16 Kimche and Kimche, Both Sides of the Hill, pp. 227-28; Rony Gabbay, A Political Study of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Arab Refugee Problem (A Case Study) (Geneva: Libraire E. Droz, 1959), pp. 108-11; and Nadav Safran, From War to War: The Arab-Israeli Confrontation 1948-1967 (Indianapolis, Ind.: Pegasus, 1969), pp. 34-35.
17 Morris, 1948 and After, pp. 13-16; Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," pp. 294-95.
18 See, for example, Moshe Lissak, Yehuda Wallach, and Eviatar Nur, eds., Atlas Karta Le-toldot Medinat Israel: Shanim Rishonot, Tashah-Tashak (Karta Atlas of Israel: the First Years, 1948-61),(Jerusalem: Karta, 1978); Safran, From War to War, p. 30.
19 David Ben-Gurion, Medinat Israel Ha'mehudeshet, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1969), pp. 70-71, 98, 102, 106, and 115; idem, Israel: A Personal History (London: New English Library, 1972), pp. 61, 90; G. Rivlin and E. Orren, eds., Yoman Ha-milhama, 3 vols. (Tel Aviv: Misrael Ha-bitahchom, Ha-hotsa'a La-or, 1983), particularly vol. 3, pp. 1013-19.
20 Ilan Pappé, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951 (London: I.B. Tauris, 1992), p. 271.
21 See, for example, Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (London: Fontana, 1990), p. 746; National Register of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man, Statistics of Population on 29 September 1939 (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office (hereafter HMSO), 1939.
22 "Casualties in Palestine since the United Nations Decision, Period 30th November, 1947 to 3rd April, 1945," CO 733/483/5, p. 19.
23 Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," p. 296. On the Jordanian side, Col. `Abdallah at-Tall, who served as a messenger between King `Abdallah and the Zionists during the armistice talks at the end of the 1947-49 war, then defected to Egypt and wrote about his experiences in Karithat Filastin: Mudhakkirat `Abdallah at-Tall, Qa'id Ma`rakat al-Quds (Cairo: Al-Qalam, 1959). On the Israeli side, Lt. Col. Israel Baer, an adviser to Ben-Gurion later convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, told about the negotiations in Bithon Israel: Etmol, ha-Yom, Mahar (Tel Aviv: Amikam, 1966).
24 Sela, "Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 War," pp. 623-24. See also his article "Arab Historiography of the 1948 War: The Quest for Legitimacy," in Laurence J. Silberstein, ed., New Perspectives on Israeli History (New York: New York University Press, 1991), pp. 124-54.
25 Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," p. 297.
26 Morris, Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 294.
27 Aharon Cohen, Israel and the Arab World (London: W.H. Allen, 1970), pp. 458-66; Gabbay, A Political Study, pp. 54, 85-98.
28 Joseph B. Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), p. 4.
29 Aharon Klieman, Du Kium Le-lo Shalom (Unpeaceful Coexistence: Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians) (Tel Aviv: Ma`ariv, 1986), pp. 15-16.
30 Shlaim, "The Debate about 1948," p. 289. And, years earlier, Arnold Toynbee, Alfred Lillienthal, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said all used these same arguments.
31 Morris, 1948 and After, p. 17. "Yishuv" refers to the Zionist community in Palestine before the establishment of Israel.
32 Morris, Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 24.
33 Ibid., pp. 25-26.
34 Protocols of the Jewish Agency Executive meetings of June 7, 9, and 12, 1938, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.
35 The Peel report suggested the partition of Mandatory Palestine into two states, Arab and Jewish; to reduce frictions between the two communities, the commission also suggested a land and population exchange, similar to that effected between Turkey and Greece after the First World War. See Palestine Royal Commission, Report, Presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, July 1937, Cmd. 5479 (London: HMSO, 1937), pp. 291-95.
There being far more Arabs in the Jewish state-to-be than the other way around (225,000 vs. 1,250), Ben-Gurion and some other Zionist proponents of partition viewed this exchange (or transfer, as it came to be known) as a partial compensation for the confinement of the prospective Jewish state to a tiny fraction of the Land of Israel.
Yet they quickly dismissed this idea, as shown by the fact that not one of the 30-odd submissions the JAE made to the Palestine Partition Commission (the Woodhead Commission, 1938) suggested population exchange and transfer.
36 Morris, The Birth, pp. 27-28.
37 Ibid., p. 28.
38 Ibid. Morris traces the speech to Dec. 3, 1947, as is done in the secondary source from which he borrowed it. In the original source, however, the date given is Dec. 13, 1947.
39 Rivlin and Orren, eds., Yoman Ha-milhama, vol. I, p. 22.
40 Ben-Gurion, Ba-ma'araha, vol. IV, part 2 (Tel Aviv: Hotsa'at Mifleget Poalei Eretz Yisra'el, 1959), pp. 258-59 (emphasis added).
41 Ibid., p. 260.
42 Morris, 1948 and After, p. 47.
43 Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan, p. 1; idem, The Politics of Partition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. viii (this is an abridged and slightly revised edition of Collusion). Other new historians have taken up this thesis. Thus, Pappé: "The common ground for the agreement was a mutual objection to the creation of a Palestinian state. . . . The Jewish Agency in particular abhorred such a possibility, asserting that the creation of a Palestinian state would perpetuate the ideological conflict in Palestine" (The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, p. 118).
44 Ezra Danin, "Siha in Abdallah, 17.11.47," Central Zionist Archives, S25/4004.
45 Sasson to Shertok, Nov. 20, 1947, Central Zionist Archives, S25/1699.
46 Danin, "Siha in Abdallah."
48 Golda Meir's verbal report to the Provisional State Council on May 12, 1948, Israel State Archives, Provisional State Council: Protocols, 18 April - 13 May 1948, Jerusalem, 1978, p. 40.[Eds: the collection had an English title. Yeshivat Minhelet Ha-am, 12/5/48.]
49 Ben-Gurion, Yoman Ha-milhama, vol. III, Dec. 18, 1948, p. 885.
50 Shlaim, "The Debate," p. 297.
51 Ibid., p. 293.
52 See, for example, Kirkbride's telegram to Bevin dated Nov. 17, 1947, displaying total ignorance of the Abdullah-Meir meeting, which was held that very day (FO 816/89). For further evidence of British ignorance of the alleged Hashemite-Jewish deal, see a personal and secret letter from H. Beeley, Eastern Department, Foreign Office, to T.E. Bromley, Jan. 20, 1948, FO 371/68403/E1877; and Michael Wright, "Brief for Conversation with Transjordan Prime on Palestine," Feb. 6, 1948, FO 371/6837/E1980G.
53 Glubb, A Soldier with the Arabs, p. 66.
54 Mr. Bevin to Sir Alec Kirkbride (Amman), "Conversation with the Transjordan Prime Minister," Feb. 9, 1948, FO 371/68366/E1916/G.
55 Memorandum by Bernard Burrows, Feb. 9, 1948, FO 371/68368/E296.
56 Bernard Burrows, "Palestine After May 14," May 7, 1948, FO 371/68854/E6778.
57 For a discussion of this issue, see Efraim Karsh, Fabricating Israeli History: "The New Historians" (London: Frank Cass, forthcoming).
58 E.H. Carr, What is History? (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1984), p. 29.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Israel & Zionism, Middle East studies | Efraim Karsh | June 1996 MEQ
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