Problems with the neighbours

Righteous Victims
October 20, 2000

It is a brave historian who seeks to provide a truly comprehensive and synoptic account of the full evolution of the Zionist-Arab conflict from the late 19th century to the present day. This is not just due to the sheer complexity of the struggle, with its multiple internal and external actors and array of competing ideologies, fiercely contested wars and innumerable peace initiatives, but also because the national struggle continues to be fought. Any attempt to provide an "objective" account of this conflict, which is the principal objective of Righteous Victims , is bound to challenge some or all of the core assumptions and beliefs of the conventional Zionist and Arab nationalist interpretations of their mutual and conflictual past.

Benny Morris, one of the most distinguished of the "new" or revisionist Israeli historians, rises to this challenge with a richly informative, well-researched and elegantly written book. Righteous Victims is not only a pleasure to read, offering a gripping and exciting story of the Zionist enterprise and its confrontation with the Arab world, but also provides a breadth and depth of historical detail and analysis, which will be of as much interest to the specialist as to the general reader.

Morris sets out clearly his approach and the major challenges and obstacles. He unashamedly describes his historical approach as following the more traditional concentration on the political and military, rather than the economic and cultural components of the conflict. Wars and the political dynamics of the search for peace are given greater prominence. Morris also recognises that the availability of sources, archival and non-archival, are more substantial from the Israeli and western rather than the Arab worlds. The inevitable result is that the Zionist and western perspectives of the conflict are more accessible, detailed and informed than the sources from the Palestinian and Arab sides.

Given these constraints, Morris's claim to provide an objective account passes one critical test - his account undermines and challenges, almost in equal measure, the national myths and historiographies of both traditional Zionism and Arab and Palestinian nationalism. While never challenging the legitimacy of both nationalist struggles, Morris is also unflinching in placing a spotlight on their murkier and more ambivalent legacies. For both Israelis and Arabs, Righteous Victims provides difficult and at times distressing reading as it describes and analyses in an unambiguous and even forensic manner the extremisms, the lack of mutual empathy and toleration, and the primacy given to force rather than to dialogue, which have characterised many of the attitudes and actions of both parties in the conflict. Morris recognises, though, that the principal victor of the conflict has been the Jewish community, the Yishuv, and subsequently the state of Israel. The story of the success of the Zionist enterprise is, as Morris states, "nothing short of miraculous". Starting from a poor and ill-equipped community of transplanted Russian Jews, surrounded by a desolate environment and a broadly hostile Muslim world, a Jewish homeland and state was constructed that was militarily victorious in the five wars that have punctured its short history. In this broader historical perspective, the reason for the Zionist success against seemingly enormous odds is the main question that demands explanation.

As a good historian, Morris sets out a number of causes for this success. He recognises an element of good fortune and luck. This was perhaps most critical in 1917, when a rare constellation of pro-Zionist British leaders and decision-makers promulgated the Balfour declaration, which provided the basis for a broadly supportive British imperial framework for the construction of a Jewish homeland. Morris also notes the relative Arab quiescence, particularly in the early period, in the face of Zionist expansionary ambitions, with many Arab notables selling land to the Jews and thereby directly contributing to the consolidation of the Jewish homeland. He plausibly argues that this initial irresolution to Jewish immigration was rooted in a cultural assumption, common to the Muslim world, of the Jews as a submissive and inconsequential people who could hardly be expected to possess, let alone realise, such ambitious objectives.

But, for Morris, the most important factor in the Zionist success was quite simply that Zionism as a political ideology developed at least a quarter of a century before the emergence of Arab nationalism. This critical time differential meant that the Jewish immigrants into Palestine possessed a developed and modern political consciousness and were capable and determined to build the necessary institutions of a modern nation state. Seared by the experience of the European pogroms, and subsequently the Holocaust, the Jewish community in Palestine also tended to view any challenge to their national ambitions as a threat to their very existence. In contrast, the Palestinian Arab community remained caught in a traditional pre-modern society where loyalty to family, clan and region had primacy over any sense of national consciousness. Instead of uniting in opposition to the Zionist challenge, the Arab community in Palestine engaged in a senseless exercise of self-destruction and internecine civil war, most notably in the Arab revolt of 1937-39.

Although showing sympathy for the fate of the Palestinians, Righteous Victims provides an indictment of the venality, the corruption and the cowardice of the Palestinian Arab elite. Through inflexibility, unthinking rejectionism and naked pursuit of personal power, the Palestinian leadership ensured that, in Abba Eban's phrase, "the Palestinians miss every opportunity to miss an opportunity". But, while admiring the Zionist leadership's efficiency in state building and their flexible strategies, Morris does not ignore the darker side of their endeavours. Through careful analysis of the writings and speeches of the major Zionist leaders, he convincingly establishes that the idea of transfer of the indigenous population - voluntarily if possible, compulsorily if necessary - was a constant theme in Zionist thought. A key landmark was the British-sponsored Peel commission of 1937 which, for the first time in an official settlement proposal, recommended an "exchange of populations" as a component of the partition of Palestine. From this point on, the idea of transfer, always part of Zionist thinking, gained a formal legitimacy as well as practicability and, in Morris's words, "gripped the Zionist imagination".

War was the almost inevitable consequence of this confrontation between an expansionary Zionism and a hostile Palestinian and Arab world. Righteous Victims provides a full and highly detailed account of the five wars that the state of Israel has fought against its Arab neighbours. It might legitimately be argued that the focus and the detail of these wars is excessive. However, as an exercise in story-telling Righteous Victims is a considerable achievement, providing a truly comprehensive military history of the Zionist-Arab conflict.

Morris does not ignore or unduly relegate the parallel pursuit for a peaceful settlement. One figure - the former president of Egypt, Anwar Sadat - is recognised, indeed celebrated, by Morris as decisively breaking the almost deterministic cycle of conflict and confrontation. Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977 is the exemplary instance of how one leader, following his inner conviction and intuition, can change the course of history. His desire for peace, along with an empathy for the suffering of both parties, provided the critical breakthrough towards peace, for which Sadat gained the hostility of the rest of the Arab world and ultimately his assassination by Islamist extremists.

Morris argues persuasively that Sadat provided the model for peace that, after the bleak decade of confrontation in the 1980s, found a more receptive audience on both sides of the divide in the 1990s. The key question for the new century is whether that model can be further extended to ensure a final and comprehensive settlement. The century did not start well, and the recent confrontations and violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip provide stark evidence of the continuing strength of the animosities and distrust between Arabs and Jews. Morris strikes a similarly gloomy note in his conclusions where he suggests that peace is far from assured when religious fundamentalism continues to flourish and where the dynamics of great power rivalry and the drive for acquiring weapons of mass destruction remain significant features of the regional environment. There is also the lack of a figure, like Sadat, with sufficient stature and charisma who can decisively break the spirit of intolerance and confrontation.

Roland Dannreuther is lecturer in international relations, University of Edinburgh.

Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999

Author - Benny Morris
ISBN - 0 7195 6222 8
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £25.00
Pages - 751

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