Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On Benny Morris

But, just as the Arab world’s rejection of the 1947 partition plan pushed Israeli leaders toward an even harsher view of their adversaries, Yasir Arafat’s rejection of the peace proposals proffered by Ehud Barak in 2000 at Camp David and at Taba, Egypt, coupled with the second intifada, which followed, disillusioned Benny Morris to the point of embitterment. Morris, who has always voted for parties on the left, said that Arafat had “defrauded” the Israelis, and he decided that the Palestinians had no intention of forging a compromise. Morris was not at all persuaded by explanations and press reports claiming that Clinton and Barak had offered Arafat an unfair, hastily prepared deal. Even if Israel returned to its pre-1967 borders, Morris concluded, the Palestinians would consider that only a step in a “phased plan” to eliminate a “crusader state” from sacred Arab lands. After 2000, he said in a 2004 interview with Ha’aretz, “I understood that they were unwilling to accept the two-state solution. They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa.” Morris did criticize the Israeli government for continuing to build on occupied territory, but, especially in his role as pundit and polemicist, he was no longer giving equal weight to two “righteous victims.”

In the Ha’aretz interview, Morris took a tone that was in scant evidence in his earlier journalism or scholarly work. He spoke of a “deep problem in Islam,” of a world in which “life doesn’t have the same value it does in the West.” The Arabs belonged to a “tribal culture” in which “revenge” played a “central part,” a society so lacking in “moral inhibitions” that “if it obtains chemical or biological or atomic weapons, it will use them.”

Morris was hardly the only Israeli liberal dispirited by Arafat’s behavior in 2000 and the suicide bombs and re-occupations that followed; nor was he alone in his gloom after September 11th. But his new language came as a shock. He described the Arab world as “barbarian,” and said that the Israeli massacres committed in 1947-48 were “peanuts” compared with those in Bosnia. Then, there was his call to build “something like a cage” for the Palestinians: “I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no other choice. There is a wild animal that has to be locked up in one way or another.” Upon reflection, even Morris was appalled by those words and later apologized.

To some extent, Morris has been writing the same book throughout his scholarly life, and one theme that has been pronounced is that of “transfer.” In all his work, he has explored the thorny question of whether or not Ben-Gurion and his colleagues explicitly endorsed a policy of “transferring”—exiling—the Arab population from Israel.

By the time of the 2004 Ha’aretz interview, Morris had adopted a harsher, more prescriptive tone that was sometimes chilling to the liberal audience that had first welcomed him. Fearing the loss of a Jewish majority and the rise of an Arab fifth column, some right-wing politicians have advocated transferring either the Palestinian Arabs or the Israeli Arabs, or both, to Jordan—a country they refer to as the true Palestinian state. (That was once a theme of Ariel Sharon’s.) Although Morris does not endorse such a policy—“It is neither moral nor realistic”—he does say that, historically speaking, BenGurion “faltered” in 1948. “If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job,” he told Ha’aretz. “I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all.” Morris acknowledged that ethnic cleansing was “problematic” but later pointed out catastrophic situations in which it could be “beneficial for humanity.” He cited the Turkish expulsion of the Greek minority, Greece’s expulsion of its Turkish minority after the First World War, and the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War.


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