‘1948’ As Tunnel Vision
06/25/08
Staff Writer
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1948: The First Arab-Israeli War,   by Benny Morris. (Yale University Press, 524 pages, $32.50.) Of Israel’s first 60 years, its most important ones were arguably 1948 and 1967. Those were the seminal years that established the country’s existential viability, its collective attitude, its national borders, its dangerous demography and the problems that would shape it in the 21st Century.   The last two years have seen those crucial years celebrated and analyzed on the occasions of their historic anniversaries, respectively, 40th and 60th. The two most notable treatments of those years were the work of the most prominent members of Israel’s “New Historians” fraternity, Tom Segev of Haaretz and Benny Morris of the Ben-Gurion University history department. Segev’s “1967” (Metropolitan Books, 688 pages) and Morris’ “1948” provide comprehensive, well-documented views of the years they chose to focus on. But Morris’ effort falls short of any historian’s goal, to make history, historical figures and historical events come alive — particularly when held against Segev’s standard. In a word, “1948” is boring. And predictable. An indefatigable researcher and presenter of facts, Morris is encyclopedic in scope and style. Which makes for good reference book but leaden reading. Balanced, citing sources that show Israel’s warts as well as its triumphs, challenging the once widely accepted versions — myths, according to the debunkers — of Israel as David courageously fending off the surrounding Goliaths, “1948” piles one battle and meeting of generals-politicians upon another. What the book offers in extensive background about the period that preceded the fateful battles and decisions of 1948, it lacks in clarifying the relevance of 1948 to the Middle East in the decades that came afterwards. “1948” covers familiar ground, familiar for the New Historians. What new information or insights is Morris offering here, you ask yourself. Not by any standards an anti-Israel polemicist, Morris is balanced, both praising Jewish accomplishments and condemning Arab strategic and tactical errors. “The Arab military had done no proper planning or military work,” he writes. “Officers and soldiers were unprepared for what faced them — a tenacious, highly motivated enemy, well dug-in and fighting on home turf, with short, internal lines of communication and already superior to them in organization and numbers.” Morris’ product lacks the human touch and telling anecdote that fleshes out the familiar names. It largely lacks the extensive contemporary context to fully explain why the events within the challenged borders of Palestine-Israel mattered to, and were shaped by, forces on an international scale. It lacks sufficient perspective to show how the decisions of six decades ago continue to reverberate today. It lacks attribution for many of the motives Morris ascribes to historical figures. It lacks graceful translations into non-clichéd colloquial English. It lacks a timeline to tie the events of 1948 together, and understandable military maps to make sense of arrows and dotted lines. The best single paragraphs in the book may be four on pages 197-198 in the middle of a chapter on “The Pan-Arab Invasion,” in which Morris succinctly summarizes the situation that both combatant sides faced in 1948: “On the eve of the pan-Arab invasion, each side enjoyed strategic advantages and disadvantages. The Arabs held the initiative and could count on a measure of strategic and tactical surprise; they would be striking first, and when and where they chose, and could expect to enjoy at least temporary local superiority, in manpower and weaponry. The planned simultaneity of the assaults, across a number of borders, boosted the advantage of the initiative and surprise. Moreover, from the beginning, the invaders held much of Palestine’s high ground: the Arab-populated and controlled hill country of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Jewish concentrations and control, on 14 May, were largely limited to the lowlands: the Coastal Plain and the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys. The Arabs also had an overwhelming preponderance in heavy weapons: artillery, armor and combat aircraft.” In the succeeding paragraphs, Morris goes on with similar clarity to present the advantages of the Jewish side, as well as the respective disadvantages. But overall, “1948” is a throwback to the type of history that was written in 1948, thorough but turgid. Like Morris’ earlier books, “Israel’s Border Wars: 1949-1956” (Oxford University Press, 1997) and “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited” (Cambridge University Press, 2004), “1948” holds Israel’s Founding Fathers — besides Golda Meir, the early political and military leaders were all male — to high standards, praising them when they acted with foresight, criticizing them when shortsighted. Arab archives, he points out, are not open, so there is no equivalent public record by which to judge the actions, inactions and mis-actions of Israel’s enemies. Dividing Israel’s War of Independence into the pre-May 14, 1948 period of Haganah v. indigenous Palestinian Arabs (“civil war,” in the book’s words), and the subsequent period of Israel Defense Forces v. the attacking neighboring nations (“conventional war”), Morris covers familiar ground — familiar ground for Israel’s revisionist historians who challenge the accepted narrative of Israel’s formation. Morris writes about, again, expulsion of Arabs and Jewish atrocities. A self-described leftist whose ardor for the Palestinian cause cooled in recent years because of what he saw as Arab inflexibility in the peace process and a propensity for extremism, Morris in these pages continues to hold Israel responsible for Palestinian Arabs who became Palestinian refugees, forced out of their homes, but he does not picture the wide-scale population shift as part of a grand design on the part of Zionist leaders. Rather, he reports in “1948,” a series of short-sighted or ill-advised decisions added up to a colossal refugee problem. On the other hand, Morris is unstinting in his documentation of acts — murders and rapes — that violate Israel’s trumpeted “Purity of Arms” policy. “In the yearlong war, Yishuv [the local Jewish community] troops murdered some eight hundred civilians and prisoners of war all told — most of them in several clusters of massacres in captured villages during April-May, July, and October-November 1948,” Morris writes. “In truth ... the Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality in the course of 1948. This was probably due to the circumstance that the victorious Israelis captured some four hundred Arab villages and towns during April-November 1948, whereas the Palestinian Arabs and ALA (Arab Liberation Army) failed to take any settlements and the Arab armies that invaded in mid-May overran fewer than a dozen Jewish settlements. “Arab rhetoric may have been more blood curdling and inciteful to atrocity than Jewish public rhetoric — but the war itself afforded the Arabs infinitely fewer opportunities to massacre their foes,” he writes. “In general, from May 1948 onward, both Israel and the Arab states abided by the Geneva convention, took prisoners, and treated t hem reasonably well.” Israel was not perfect in 1948, neither in thought nor in deed. Morris’ earlier work has established that. But its record — as “1948” shows — was much better, much more humane, much more defendable than the Arab nations that sought its destruction. If Morris seeks to hold Israel’s early leaders to angelic standards, he errs. As he would not dispute, flesh-and-blood leaders were making seat-of-the-pants choices with little room for error. As is the case in many wars. In a brief Q&A provided by the publisher, Morris is asked what lessons are to be learned from a study of the 1948 war, he answers that some people “may simply learn about the conflict and the nature of the two contending societies, at least as they were in 1948, and with certain implications for the present and the future.” For students of the Middle East, 1948 certainly offer many lessons. But, because of its shortcomings of context and perspective, they are not present — at least not as a demanding reader would prefer — in “1948.”

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10/27/2009 - 11:36

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