Israel Revisited

(By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 11, 2007

LI-ON, Israel The path behind historian Benny Morris's house climbs through a cedar and pine forest, passing stone walls and wine presses dating to the time of the second Jewish Temple two millenniums ago. In the distance, the misty ridges of the Judean hills appear, the spine of the historic Jewish heartland.

Morris, a short, stout man of 58 with a fluff of graying curls, points to a patch of red-roofed houses where the Arab town of Ajjur once stood. Jewish forces destroyed it in 1948, the year both he and the modern state of Israel were born. It is a history that has haunted the historian, launching a career and a personal political odyssey that much of Israel has followed in recent years.

"Had the war ended more definitively and logically demographically, everyone would have been better for it," Morris says amid the battlefields of Israel's first war. "Not only Israel and the Palestinians, but all of the Middle East."

Since Israel's inception, the young nation has tried to control the telling of its story, a chronicle of genocide survivors bravely defending their right to return to and settle their ancestral lands. In the official version of Israel's founding war, taught for decades in school textbooks, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes on the orders of Arab leaders and military commanders.

Morris, emerging two decades ago at the head of a group of guerrilla scholars known as the "new historians," told another, more complex story excavated from the state's official archives. He concluded that although many Palestinians did choose to leave their homes, Jewish forces also conducted an orchestrated campaign to expel them, sometimes brutally, to make way for a Jewish state.

With the 1987 publication of "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949," Morris found himself on a path that led to academic acclaim, an Israeli jail cell for refusing army call-up orders to perform reserve duty and, in recent years, despair over the violence and futile peace efforts. Along the way, his critical perspective seems to have reversed course, the same slow spin that has hardened many Israelis against the Palestinians and now complicates the Bush administration's current bid to revive a peace process between them.

As he embarks on a new book project to explore whether two states for two peoples is still a viable option for resolving the long conflict, Morris has come to believe peace with the Palestinians and the larger Arab world may not be possible, especially as radical Islamic movements that deny Israel's right to exist gain ground in the region.

He holds out hope that a stable Palestinian state might one day emerge and ease hostilities. But he says he can just as easily imagine a day when Israel will have to drive more Arabs from the occupied territories or face expulsion itself.

"We are an outpost of the West, as they see it and as we also see ourselves, in a largely Islamic, backward and in some ways even barbaric area," Morris says in his trademark strafing-fire delivery. "The Muslims are busy killing people, and killing people for reasons that in the West are regarded as idiotic. There is a problem here with Islam."

Or, some say, there is a problem with Benny Morris.

His opinions have stunned many new-historian colleagues, who, until Morris began speaking up during the second Palestinian uprising, had assumed his political views conformed with their own. Avi Shlaim, an Oxford University professor, says it was "a psychological process -- the suicide bombings, the violence -- that sent him off the rails."

"There are two Benny Morrises," he says. "There is the first-rate archival historian whose work is of utmost importance in understanding the Israeli-Arab conflict. And there is the third-rate political analyst who has little understanding of what is driving the modern conflict."

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