RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS

A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999

By Benny Morris

Knopf. 751 pp. $40

We have lived so long with the Arab-Israeli conflict that it seems unlikely there could be anything new to say. The literature is immense; my own modest collection comprises dozens of volumes, including standard works by David Fromkin, Mohamed Heikal and Shlomo Aronson, all that have explored the history, military strategy, personalities and religions behind the struggle to dominate a tiny, arid patch of land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

But Benny Morris has found a new way to tell the long, unhappy tale of the struggle for the Holy Land--by going back not just to the creation of Israel in 1948 or the Holocaust or even the Balfour Declaration but to 1881, when the assassination of Czar Alexander II inspired pogroms that lit the lanterns of Zionism. For the shocked and frightened Jews of Central Europe who saw their hopes of a liberalized Russia dashed, Morris notes, the solution had to be found elsewhere--in the United States for most, but in the Holy Land for a new breed of Jewish pioneers.

Indeed, the value of the early chapters of "Righteous Victims" lies in their easily understandable reconstruction of the origins of political Zionism, which were in Europe, not the Middle East, and in relating those early stirrings to the miraculous emergence of contemporary Israel. Theodore Herzl himself, as Morris notes, was a secular cosmopolitan converted to Zionism by the Dreyfus Affair.

The Zionist movement impelled one oppressed, disenfranchised group--European Jews--into a land inconveniently occupied by another--the Arabs of the Ottoman Empire. In the ensuing century, the power of the former has grown relentlessly at the expense of the latter; how that came about is the subject of Morris's massive work.

In his account, the early Zionists generally acted as if Palestine were unoccupied and its nominal ruler, the Ottoman sultan, irrelevant. This was not an entirely unrealistic strategy because the Arabs of Palestine were politically powerless, but it sowed seeds of hostility that are still with us.

The victims of savagery in Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania arrived in the Holy Land suspicious of all neighbors and determined to defend themselves, and indifferent to the sentiments and aspirations of their reluctant new neighbors: They discerned behind every bush, under every tree, the shadow of the Russian persecutor they had left behind. Eventually the Arabs--and they themselves--paid the price. With the rise of Arab nationalism after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, armed confrontation may have been inevitable--and in Morris's view may still be inevitable, even now, after all the wars, all the terror bombings and all the peace negotiations.

Morris's account of this intractable conflict revisits all the famous mileposts of modern Middle Eastern history but does not take advantage of their drama; his deadpan reconstruction makes little effort to recapture the passions of the participants or excite the imagination of today's reader.

Although Morris's account is massively documented--one chapter alone has 372 footnotes--there is little in the way of new information. His account of the negotiations of the 1990s, for example, from Madrid to Oslo to Wye, relies heavily on the well-known works of David Makovsky and Hanan Ashrawi.

But that does not mean the book is uninteresting--quite the contrary. What is provocative here is not the narrative, which is flat and unemotional, but the interpretation of events, which is less than flattering to Israel. In this long and sometimes tedious book, Morris more than lives up to his reputation as a revisionist scholar always ready to criticize his own country, sort of an Israeli Noam Chomsky. Those whose views of Israel were formed by Paul Newman's noble visions in "Exodus" are likely to be shocked because "Righteous Victims" is a story with no heroes.

Morris depicts the Arabs as inept, venal and stupid, the Jews as arrogant, unscrupulous and brutal. With the exception of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, hardly anyone in this account is portrayed as wise or visionary. On the other hand, Morris does not demonize anyone, not even the infamous crypto-fascist Hajj Amin Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. Morris depicts Moshe Moshe Sharett as weak, Moshe Dayan as panicky, Ariel Sharon as thuggish and Binyamin Netanyahu as Israel's most incompetent--and mendacious--prime minister. Their Arab rivals do not come off much better. But neither Jews nor Arabs are depicted as villains; they are just people with flawed characters maneuvering for advantage in bad situations.

It is not news that the Arabs were hostile from the beginning to Zionism and to the state of Israel. What is interesting here is the assessment of how the Jews stoked that hostility by acting like colonial occupiers, displaying indifference or contempt for the local culture and abusing the natives for commercial purposes.

Colonists built houses and planted vineyards without permission, Morris writes. Often they flouted customs in ways injurious to Arabs, as when they forcibly denied local shepherds the use of traditionally common pasturelands. As early as the 1880s, though still a small minority, the settlers quickly began to behave like lords and masters, some apparently resorting to the whip at the slightest provocation. Those attitudes became permanent fixtures of the Israeli national psyche, accounting for such shameful incidents as the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982, Morris writes.

In the book's most inflammatory passages, Morris recounts the Jews' internal debate about how to become a majority in a land where the Arabs outnumbered them, and the support of Ben-Gurion and other leaders for doing so by transfer--that is, driving out the Arabs. Morris comes perilously close to validating the Zionism-is-racism position once adopted by the U.N. General Assembly.

Because of its length and dry tone, "Righteous Victims" does not lend itself to reading straight through. It is more valuable for reference, with its lucid summaries of almost every event in a century-plus of conflict. Readers who turn to it for information, however, should be aware that while the facts may be accurate, Morris's interpretation of them is likely to be radioactive.