Land of broken promise

Fabricating Israeli History - A Land without a People
October 3, 1997

These two books focus on controversial issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but they are very different in purpose and in quality. The study by Efraim Karsh is a continuation of a fierce debate among Israeli historians, concentrated mainly on the diplomacy of the 1948 war of independence and its aftermath. Nur Masalha's book is a political tract, in semi-academic guise. It recapitulates his earlier Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of 'Transfer' in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (1992), and then tries unconvincingly to use the notion of transfer as the key to explain Israeli policy over the subsequent 50 years.

The debate among Israeli historians started with a series of "revisionist" studies by Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1987), Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan (1988), and Ilan Pappe, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51 (1988) and The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-51 (1992).

The revisionists claimed to be presenting new interpretations, challenging what they saw as the official Zionist version. However, in an authoritative article, "Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 war: myth, historiography and reality," (Middle Eastern Studies, October 4 1992), Avraham Sela analysed the main issues of the debate and rejected the "collusion myth" as misleading. Although Shlaim had partially retreated by giving the abridged paperback version of his book the less controversial and much more accurate title of Politics of Partition (1990), he has continued to defend his initial concept. It is this which has drawn the fire of Karsh.

In his polemic, Karsh questions the interpretations and methods of the revisionist historians. One of the key issues in dispute is the alleged agreement to divide Palestine at the end of the British mandate between King Abdullah and the Zionists. Karsh denies that the two secret meetings between Abdullah and Golda Meir resulted in an understanding. He cites Ben Gurion, who said on December 18 1948 regarding negotiations with Abdullah:

"We will not be able to agree lightly to the annexation of (the Arab) parts of Palestine to Transjordan because of 1) Israel's security: an Arab state in Western Palestine is less dangerous than a state that is tied to Transjordan, and tomorrow - probably to Iraq. 2) Why should we vainly antagonise the Russians? 3) Why should we do this against (the wishes of) the rest of the Arab states?" A few weeks later, Moshe Sharett, who was then closely aligned with Ben Gurion, warned that Abdullah was untrustworthy. Karsh states: "Two months after Meir's meeting with Abdullah, her direct superior and head of the department (the Jewish Agency political department) that had maintained covert contacts with the king for well over a decade was unaware of any deal to divide Mandatory Palestine."

Moreover, Karsh argues that the Jewish Agency's distrust of Abdullah "was vividly demonstrated by its vehement opposition to the presence of Transjordan's British-led Arab Legion in Mandatory Palestine and its tireless efforts to bring about its departure." His related point is that the ferocity of the war, which was the most costly in casualties to Israel of any later wars, is sufficient in itself to belie the notion of "collusion".

Where such an epithet might apply is in the relationship between the British government and Abdullah, each of them having a strong interest in the territory allotted in the partition scheme to the Arab state and to parts of the Jewish state. The British interest, as formulated by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, was to control as much territory as possible. The best means of doing so was through Abdullah, since a Mufti-led Palestinian state was unacceptable to Whitehall, given the notorious activities of the Haj Amin al-Husseini from 1936 through the war, when he joined the Nazi camp.

Karsh questions the idea, expressed by both Shlaim and Pappe, that Bevin warned Abdullah not to invade those areas allocated to the Jews by the UN. He refers to several sources which indicate that Bevin and key advisers wanted the Negev to be controlled by Jordan and/or in part by Egypt. They wanted Haifa to be an international zone with special rights for Jordan. The effect would have been to create a very small, rump Jewish state as in the 1937 Peel commission plan. Its viability would have been in doubt.

Another issue which Karsh takes up is the question of transfer - Masalha's theme, which arises also in the above-mentioned study by Benny Morris. Karsh challenges the interpretation of the documents referred to by Morris, and points out that the notion of transferring part of the Arab population from the proposed Jewish state originated in the partition recommendations of the Royal Commission on Palestine in July 1937. But it was not pursued by the British or by the Jewish Agency Executive in 1938 or indeed later in 1947. An indication of Ben Gurion's attitude may be seen in information sent to the minister of state in Cairo in November 1942 by the chief secretary of the Palestine Administration: "I remarked that I assumed from this statement that Mr Ben Gurion would not be in favour of any planned transfer of Arabs from Palestine. He assented vigorously. He had heard of these proposals in London... but had done all he could to dissuade his friends from advocating this solution which he regarded as unnecessary, and as morally and politically inadmissible". What Ben Gurion consistently advocated was unlimited Jewish immigration, with settlement alongside the Arab population.

That was the position of the Israeli labour movement, as may be seen in Yosef Gorny's seminal study, Zionism and the Arabs 1882-1948 (1987). Gorny's penetrating discussion of the whole question of Zionist attitudes towards the Arab population of Palestine up to the war of independence sharply differentiates attitudes according to political affiliation and according to changing circumstances. Significantly, Masalha makes no reference to this book.

He seems wedded instead to the massive over-simplification that all Israeli political parties and most representative writers and spokespersons continue to plan or to advocate the wholesale removal of Palestinian Arabs. His grand conspiracy theory is presented as based on primary research (the cover blurb quotes the BBC World Service as "exhaustive reference to various Israeli archives"), but in fact he draws mainly on secondary sources, newspaper reports and anecdotes.

Unfortunately this reductionism leaves little room for an attempt to understand the nature of the conflict. It is simply the accusatory diatribe of the unbridled nationalist. As such it contrasts sharply with a recent book by Menachem Hofnung, Democracy, Law and National Security in Israel (1996). Hofnung critically analyses the Israeli struggle to balance its security needs with the requirements of a liberal democracy to protect the rights of those subject to its emergency laws. Hofnung, as a leading Israeli human rights activist, is as quick to point out abuses as Masalha, but has a much broader understanding of the context and issues.

By adopting a strident tone, both authors have made it easy for critics to dismiss them as beyond the pale. Nevertheless, Karsh has done a good service in questioning and probing certain assumptions of the revisionists, thus paving the way for a closer and more nuanced examination of the available evidence concerning the 1948 war. The process, it may be hoped, will lead towards more balanced judgements. If so, it will become harder for propagandists to prey on the subject.

Martin Kolinsky is senior lecturer in political science and international studies, University of Birmingham.

Fabricating Israeli History: The "New Historians"

Author - Efraim Karsh
ISBN - 0 7146 4725 X and 44 6
Publisher - Frank Cass
Price - £25.00 and £13.50
Pages - 210

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