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Israel Revisited
Benny Morris, Veteran 'New Historian' of the Modern Jewish State's Founding, Finds Himself Ideologically Back Where It All Began

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."

Roots of Rejectionism

Morris was born on a kibbutz to British immigrants whose Marxist beliefs placed them on the fringe of the socialist Labor Zionist movement that then dominated politics.

The family spent much of his childhood in Jerusalem and New York, where his father was assigned as an Israeli diplomat. He finished studies at Jerusalem's Hebrew University and headed to Cambridge, where he received a doctorate in European history.

He returned to Israel in time to witness the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, first as a journalist with the Jerusalem Post and then as a soldier when his reserve division was called up to participate in the assault on Beirut. Along the way, Morris visited the Rashidia refugee camp outside the southern city of Tyre, his first encounter with the Palestinian refugees who would become the focus of his research in the coming decade.

He was working for the newspaper when he received the kind of offer that can make a career.

Veterans of the Palmach, the elite Jewish forces that fought in Israel's founding war, invited the ambitious young journalist into their archive to write their official history. He plunged into the secret planning documents, battlefield orders and other material detailing the group's actions during the 1948-49 conflict that Israel calls the War of Independence.

Several months later, Morris was kicked out of the Palmach archives when veterans began doubting the wisdom of entrusting their history to a reporter with a doctorate from Cambridge University.

By fortunate coincidence, Israel's government also had begun declassifying its wartime archives. Sifting through the files, Morris came across a Foreign Ministry document rejecting reports that Jewish militiamen killed more than 100 Arab men, women and children in Deir Yassin, a village on the northern edge of Jerusalem. The memo was essentially a series of talking points distributed to pre-state Jewish diplomatic missions on how to deny what became one of the war's most notorious events.

It was written by his father.

Morris believes he wrote the memo after turning hawkish following the Arab refusal of the United Nations' partition of Palestine in November 1947, which outlined the borders of a Jewish state.

"I think it was the weight of Arab rejectionism that pushed him there," Morris says.

The killings and destruction of many former Arab villages in April 1948 were later condemned by the pre-state Jewish government. But the events -- including what Morris described as a "victory parade" by Jewish militiamen, who drove some of the bodies through the streets before dumping them in Arab East Jerusalem -- prompted many Arabs to flee their homes in fear.

Morris's research also confirmed some aspects of Israel's official version of the war, including the scope of orders issued by Arab military commanders for Palestinians to leave their homes and return with their invading forces. His book noted that Arab troops also carried out brutal attacks on Jews, including an ambush of a convoy of doctors, medical staff and patients in the days after Deir Yassin that killed some 70 civilians.

The refugee crisis was "largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Israeli-Arab war; in smaller part, it was the deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians," Morris wrote.

His conclusion that the Palestinian exodus was not entirely voluntary pricked the Israeli national conscience and gave moral weight to the claims of about 700,000 original refugees demanding to return to their homes. For decades, Israel has fiercely resisted this claim for a right of return, fearing an influx of Arab Palestinians that would threaten Israel's Jewish majority.

"There comes a stage in any revolutionary process when the movement relaxes its hold on the official narrative," Morris says. "The difference is that when that moment came in Israel, our long struggle with the Arabs remained an existential threat, as it still does today."

The 'New Historians'

Morris's book appeared as the first Palestinian uprising burst from the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, focusing Israeli attention on a subject rarely mentioned in preceding years when the Israeli and Palestinian economies and cultures were growing together.

Several other critical accounts of Israel's founding, among them Ilan Pappe's "Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict" and Shlaim's "Collusion Across the Jordan," were published at the same time. In a 1988 magazine article, Morris labeled the scholars "new historians," as the public outcry inside Israel grew against them.

"I suppose I viewed it as a self-defense mechanism," Morris says of his coining of the term. "I realized I had written the most radical of the books . . . in terms of revisionist thinking. I felt very exposed -- here was this guy thrusting against the weight of Israeli academia and historical correctness. I felt more comfort being part of a group."

Until then, much of Israel's wartime history had been written by participants, whose narratives centered on the Jewish people fighting to secure a haven from persecution following the Holocaust. One of them was Shabtai Teveth, a prize-winning Israeli journalist and biographer of the state's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Teveth, a Palmach veteran, mounted a campaign to discredit the new historians. In Israeli newspapers, he called their work "a farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings and outright falsifications" whose intent was to undermine the Zionist project to secure a Jewish state.

Amid the controversy, Morris's artillery unit was called up in 1988 for reserve duty in the restive West Bank city of Nablus. He viewed the Palestinian demonstrations, mostly stone-throwing crowds and strikes, as legitimate protest against the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel had controlled since the 1967 Middle East war.

He refused to serve, spending three weeks in jail instead.

Despite his book's critical success, which came mostly outside the country, Morris could not secure a university post in Israel after its publication. He announced in a 1996 newspaper interview his intention to leave for the United States.

Ezer Weizman, a hero of the 1948 war and Israel's president at the time, summoned Morris to his office that afternoon. He asked him if he supported Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. After receiving Morris's word that he did, the president arranged a post for him at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, where he lectures today.

Through the hopeful years following the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, Morris wrote his highly acclaimed history of the Zionist movement, "Righteous Victims." The title suggested the conflicting Israeli and Palestinian views of their roles in history. "The claim to be the true victim," new historian Shlaim said in a lecture at Georgetown University a few years later, "is a major component of both national narratives."

The second Palestinian uprising broke out a year after that book's publication in 1999.

"It sent people politically, like a centrifuge, spinning in all directions," Morris says. "It polarized the Israeli left, driving those inclined to the far left farther that way and those of us in the Zionist left in the other direction."

In Morris's view, shared by many Israelis, the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was responsible for the collapse of U.S.-brokered peace talks at the time and the violence that followed.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Arafat most of the West Bank, Gaza and parts of East Jerusalem. But that left unresolved the demand of refugees to return to their homes, a problem that is "the most unsolvable because it is wrapped up in identity," Morris believes.

"My feeling during the first intifada was that they wanted us off their backs," he says of the Palestinians. "My sense of the second intifada was that they both wanted us off their backs and they wanted to destroy us. Something had changed within the Palestinians."

Morris's research had long suggested to him that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state in Palestine. The second uprising, spearheaded by the radical Islamic movement Hamas, confirmed his view that "Arab rejectionism has always been very deep and very religious."

He began speaking out in interviews. Among his more surprising contentions was that Ben-Gurion should have expelled more Palestinians during the 1948 war to leave a stronger Jewish majority between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.

"If the man was already driving out people, maybe he should have gone the whole hog," Morris says now. "Perhaps in the end population exchanges and transfers, although they may have caused great suffering at the time, may in the long run have been better for everyone concerned."

Pappe, a senior lecturer at the University of Haifa, shared countless lecture hall stages with Morris after their first books appeared, and the men became friends. Now they no longer speak, their relationship poisoned by a series of angry public exchanges rooted in their vastly different interpretations of Israel's history.

"Morris bothers me for what he represents, not as a person," Pappe says during a visit to his cluttered university office. "The extremes he is willing to go to justify Zionism and the prejudice he shows against the Palestinians is shared by so many Jews."

Trying to Find Justice

In worn khakis and a flannel shirt, Benny Morris walks the forest path each day with his two frisky dogs, Luca and Kawa, and tends to a yard of lemon and mango trees.

His general history of 1948 will be published later this year. His previous book was a revised version of his first, titled "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited." Drawing on declassified military archives and the minutes of cabinet meetings, it is nearly twice the length of the original. It gives "a much better picture of what happened, although the conclusions are remarkably similar," Morris says.

He soon will begin an examination of whether the Mideast conflict should be resolved by forging a single nation of Arabs and Jews or two states for two peoples.

"Two states is the only solution with an element of justice," Morris says. "But there are two other realistic solutions -- one is that the Jews will kick out all the Arabs across the river, and the other is that the Arabs will throw the Jews into the sea. I'm not sure one of them won't happen."

The book, he says, will be his last on the Middle East.

"The problem that existed here in 1947 remains today -- the Arabs don't accept Israel's presence," Morris says. "A major switch in mind-set must occur for peace to come. That is the sine qua non of any peace agreement. All the rest -- the road map, the peace process -- is just footwork."

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