The War of the Israeli Historians

Article/book #: 6322
Title: The War of the Israeli Historians
By: Avi Shlaim  
Date of issue: Monday, 1 December 2003
Topic(s) addressed: People/entities mentioned in this item: Timeline event(s) mentioned in this item:
   22 May 1948
to 23 May 1948
Massacre at al-Tantura

  1. This book refers to this lecture
Commentary (by a person who is not a member of the UCC Palestine Solidarity Campaign ):

Text of a talk given at Georgetown University

»The last decade has witnessed slow and halting progress towards peace between Israel and its traditional enemies but it has also witnessed the emergence of a new kind of war, the war of conflicting narratives. This war is between the traditional Zionist historiography and the ‘new history’ which started to challenge the Zionist rendition of the birth of Israel and of the subsequent fifty years of conflict and confrontation. The work of the ‘new historians’ has had some impact on Israeli perceptions of the historical roots of the conflict. In the last three years, however, since the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, the new history has come under renewed attack. But it may still have a part to play in facilitating progress on the road towards comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
The point of departure in the debate is the events that unfolded in 1948 and there are two very different narratives of what happened in that fateful year. Each side has its own distinctive version of events. The Palestinians regard the Israelis as foreign conquerors and themselves as the victims of the first Arab-Israeli war that they call al-Nakba or the catastrophe. Palestinian historiography reflects these perceptions. The Israelis, on the other hand, were the victors in the 1948 war which they call the War of Independence. Because they were the victors, among other reasons, they were able to propagate more effectively than their opponents their version of this fateful war. History, in a sense, is the propaganda of the victors.«

»Whereas the initial debate revolved around the methods, sources, and alleged political motives of the new historians, the subsequent debate related to some of their specific findings. Five major bones of contention can be identified in the debate between the traditional and the new historians: British policy towards the end of the Palestine Mandate; the Arab-Israeli military balance in 1948; the causes of the Palestinian exodus; Arab war aims; and the reasons for the persistent political deadlock after the guns fell silent.«

»The revisionist version maintains, in a nutshell, that Britain’s aim was to prevent the establishment not of a Jewish state but of a Palestinian state; that the Jews outnumbered all the Arab forces, regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre and, after the first truce, also outgunned them; that the Palestinians, for the most part, did not choose to leave but were pushed out; that there was no monolithic Arab war aim because the Arab rulers were deeply divided among themselves; and that the quest for a political settlement was frustrated more by Israeli than by Arab intransigence.«

»The last issue in the debate is particularly sensitive because it entails the allocating of responsibility for the persistence of the conflict. At the core of the old version is the image of the Arab world as a monolithic and implacably hostile enemy. According to this version, Israel’s leaders strove indefatigably towards a peaceful settlement of the dispute but all their efforts foundered on the rocks of Arab intransigence. The revisionist version holds that Israel was more inflexible than the Arab states and that she consequently bears a larger share of the responsibility for the diplomatic stalemate that remained in place long after the ending of military hostilities.
Evidence for the revisionist version comes mainly from the files of the Israeli foreign ministry. These files burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with Israel from September 1948 onwards. The two main issues on the agenda were borders and the rights of the Palestinian refugees. Each of the neighbouring Arab rulers was prepared to negotiate directly with Israel in the hope of gaining something on these issues in return for making peace.«

»King Farouk of Egypt demanded the Gaza Strip and a substantial strip of desert as his price for a de facto recognition of Israel. King Abdullah of Transjordan proposed an overall settlement with Israel in return for a land corridor to link his kingdom with the Mediterranean. Even more subversive of the conventional wisdom is the case of Colonel Husni Zaim, the chief of staff who captured power in Syria in a bloodless coup in March 1949 and was overthrown five months later. On seizing power, Zaim offered Israel full peace with an immediate exchange of ambassadors, normal economic relations, and the resettlement of 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria in return for moving the border to the middle of the Sea of Galilee. All three Arab rulers displayed remarkable pragmatism in their approach to negotiations with the Jewish state. They were even anxious to pre-empt one another because they assumed that whoever settled with Israel first would get the best terms. Zaim openly declared his ambition to be the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel.
In each case, though for slightly different reasons, David Ben-Gurion considered the price being asked for peace as too high. He was ready to conclude peace on the basis of the status quo; he was unwilling to proceed to a peace that involved more than minuscule Israeli concessions on refugees or on borders. Ben-Gurion, as his diary reveals, considered that the armistice agreements with the neighbouring Arab states met Israel’s essential needs for recognition, security and stability. He knew that for formal peace agreements Israel would have to pay by yielding tracts of territory and by permitting the return of a substantial number of Palestinian refugees and he did not consider this a price worth paying. Whether Ben-Gurion made the right choice is a matter of opinion. That he had a choice is now undeniable.«

»The Arabs – first the Egyptians, then the Palestinians, then the Jordanians – recognised Israel’s invincibility and were compelled to negotiate with her from a position of palpable weakness. They learnt the hard way that Israel could not be defeated on the battlefield. The real danger for Israel is to fall in love with the iron wall and refuse to move to stage II: negotiations and compromise which means the partition of Palestine with the Palestinians. Paradoxically, the politicians of the Right, the heirs to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, are more prone to adopt stage I of the iron wall strategy as a permanent way of life than the politicians of the Left.«

»Six months before the election, Ariel Sharon was asked what changes he thought the education system needed. Sharon replied: ‘I would like them to study the history of the people of Israel and the land of Israel the children must be taught Jewish-Zionist values, and the ‘new historians’ must not be taught.’ Underlying this reply was a sense, widely shared among the country’s conservatives, that the new historians have undermined patriotic values and young people’s confidence in the justice of their cause. Sharon’s aim was to nullify the effect of the new historians and to reassert traditional values in the educational system.«

»One of the first things that Ms Livnat did on becoming minister of education was to order new history text books for secondary schools to be written, removing all traces of the influence of the new historians. In addition to these officially-instigated attacks, two recent developments have helped to weaken the cohesion and the credibility of the new history. One was the Teddy Katz affair; the other is the defection of Benny Morris. Teddy Katz submitted in 1998 a master’s thesis that made extensive use of oral history. The thesis dealt with a massacre perpetrated by the Alexandroni Brigade in late May 1948 in the Arab village of Tantura, 35 kilometres south of Haifa. Katz’s finding that more than 200 Tantura villagers were shot after the village surrendered was reported in the Israeli press in January 2000. This unleashed a storm, culminating in a libel suit brought by veterans of the Alexandroni Brigade against Katz. The court case prompted Haifa University to institute an internal inquiry that led to Katz being stripped of his master’s degree.«

»The more Israelis feel under threat, the more they retreat into simplistic and self-serving narratives of the past and the less tolerant they become of dissenting voices. But it is precisely in such times of crisis that dissenting voices are most vitally needed. Xenophobic and self-righteous national narratives only fuel and prolong this tragic conflict. A more complex and fair-minded understanding of the past is therefore essential for preserving at least the prospect of reconciliation in the future.«

Quotations from this item:
Avi Shlaim:  "Halkin and Meged, however, do not want the facts to get in the way of the myths ... "
Avi Shlaim:  "One of the first things that Ms Livnat did on becoming minister of education was... "
Avi Shlaim (2004):  "The Mapai [Israeli Labour Party] old guard ... put so much store by Israel’s cla... "

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