- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Arab states which sent their armies against Israel the day of its founding in May, 1948 failed to kill the Jewish state but succeeded in a secondary objective - blocking a Palestinian state. In his new book on Israel’s War of Independence, Israeli historian Benny Morris spells out the Arab dysfunction and Jewish cohesiveness that permitted 650,000 Palestinian Jews to forge a state 60 years ago in defiance of an Arab world which outnumbered them 40 to 1. In doing so, they belied the predictions of the CIA and the British military command that the Jewish state would be stillborn.

Mr. Morris gained prominence two decades ago with his first book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” which revealed that many of the 700,000 refugees created by the 1948 war did not flee but were deliberately driven out by Israel. That revelation made him anathema to many in Israel. Others, including Arabs, hailed the Israeli historian for avoiding partisanship in favor of hard truth.

Now, in “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War,” a major work which is likely to become the standard account of the first Israeli-Arab war, Mr. Morris acknowledges that the Palestinians suffered a major tragedy, with half their 800 villages destroyed and the framework of their society shattered. However, he maintains, Israel has nothing to apologize for.

It was the Arabs, not the Jews, who rejected the two-state solution called for by the UN and chose war instead. Had Israel lost, he suggests, its fate would have been far worse than that suffered by the Palestinians. The Arab armies razed every Jewish settlement they captured, about a dozen, and their rhetoric threatened rivers of blood.

The war was fought between a small, well-organized, semi-industrial society that the Zionists had created over the course of half a century and an agricultural Palestinian society with little sense of unity beyond the clan.

After the UN decision in November, 1947 to partition the country into Jewish and Arab states, the Palestinians launched attacks against the Jews but fought as local militias, having failed to establish a national framework. The Jews initially adopted a defensive posture as they built up their military organization and acquired arms. In April, 1948, a month before the declaration of Israel’s independence, the Haganah, the Jewish military arm, went on the offensive and quickly smashed the scattered Palestinian formations.

These battles were intended by the Haganah command to clear the ground for the main event - the invasion by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria following the British withdrawal on May 15, 1948. Brigade commanders were authorized to evict Arabs in their operational areas so as not to have to cope both with the invading armies and local hostiles behind their lines. But, says Mr. Morris, there was initially no overall plan for the permanent expulsion of Arabs.

Early in the fighting, Israeli settlements were established alongside abandoned Arab villages, but not on the village sites themselves which were to be left for returning Arab residents. However, as the fighting progressed, there was a turnabout as the demographic factor came to be seen as critical. In addition, the Jews saw an opportunity for territorial expansion that could provide defensible borders without an Arab minority too big to swallow. Orders were given to expel those Arabs who had not already fled and to destroy empty villages to ensure that the refugees did not come back.

“Had anyone said that one day we should expel all of (the Palestinians), that would have been madness,” said Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok at a cabinet meeting in June. “But if this happens in the turbulence of war, a war that the Arab people declared against us, that is one of those revolutionary changes after which history cannot be turned back.” Not all the Arabs were expelled and today they constitute 20 percent of Israel’s population.

The Arab states, which ostensibly came to the Palestinians’ aid, says Mr. Morris, were in fact opposed to a Palestinian state, at least one led by Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. Having seized the Palestinian leadership after bloodily suppressing his opponents, Husseini feared that the Arab states wanted to carve up Palestine among themselves. He was right.

Jordan’s King Abdullah preferred living with a Jewish state than with a Husseini-led Palestinian state as long as the Jews accepted his annexation of that part of Palestinian territory that came to be called the West Bank. Egypt, for its part, had its eyes on the southern Negev and ended up with what came to be called the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Morris takes the Arabs to task for refusing to recognize the UN’s support of a Jewish state as an ethical statement by the world community. “The vote represented humanity’s amends for 2,000 years of humiliation and persecution - both by the Christian and Islamic worlds - of the Jews, the world’s eternally stateless people.” A more pragmatic view was taken by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. “Why should the Arabs make peace?” he asked a colleague rhetorically. “We’ve taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but our God is not theirs. There have been the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing. We have come here and stolen their country.”

The Arab side of the story is sparsely told, acknowledges Mr. Morris, because the archives of the Arab states remain closed to researchers.

In retrospect, the worst thing that could have happened to the Jewish state would have been Arab acceptance. Partition as envisioned by the UN would have left Israel with only a narrow Jewish majority within its boundaries, a disparity that would have been reversed within a very few years by the high Arab birth rate. The only way Israel could have survived in the long run was for the Arabs to have gone to war against it and lose.

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