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A War to Start All Wars - Will Israel Ever Seal the Victory of 1948?

By Shlomo Ben-Ami, Foreign Affairs, 01.09.08

The following are excerpts from Shlomo Ben-Ami's extensive review of historian Benny Morris' latest book, 1948. Please refer to the Foreign Affairs website for the review in its entirety.
For 60 years, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have used the past to illuminate the present and confer legitimacy on their nations' respective founding myths. Of course, Zionists and Palestinian nationalists were not the first to embellish the stories of their nations' births or make excuses for their tragedies. Throughout history, nations have been born in blood and frequently in sin. This is why, as the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote, they tend to lie about their pasts.
The birth of the state of Israel in 1948 has long been the subject of self-congratulatory historiography by the victorious side and grievance-filled accounts by disinherited Palestinians. To the Israelis, the 1948 war was a desperate fight for survival that was settled by an almost miraculous victory. In the Arab world, accounts of the war tend to advance conspiracy theories and attempt to shift the blame for the Arabs' defeat. In both cases, the writing of history has been part of an uncritical nationalist quest for legitimacy.
Refusing to admit that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained by the sins of Israel's birth and eager to deny the centrality of the Palestinian problem to the wider conflict in the Middle East, the Israelis have preferred to dwell on their struggle for independence against the supposedly superior invading Arab armies. But the war between the indigenous Palestinian population and the Yishuv, the organized Jewish community of Palestine, was arguably the fiercest phase of the conflict. It was during this period -- between November 30, 1947, and May 15, 1948 -- that the fate of the nascent Jewish state really seemed to hang by a thread. Nevertheless, the popular notion cultivated since then has repressed the memory of this fighting and focused instead on the heroic stand of the tiny Yishuv against the invading Arab armies during the second phase of the war, from May 15, 1948, to the spring of 1949. When the war was over, the Palestinian problem practically disappeared from Israeli public debate, or it was conveniently defined as one of "refugees" or "infiltrators." It was as if there were no Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Palestinian people. As Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously put it in 1969, "They did not exist."

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(Benny) Morris' somber concluding chapter (in his latest book, 1948) is fatalistic about the chances for peace, because the catastrophe of 1948 still haunts the Arab world. Yet the 1990s did offer some glimmers of hope. The irrational all-or-nothing politics that dominated both sides after the 1948 war faded as the Arab-Israeli conflict went through an unmistakable process of secularization. The same Arafat who had joined the Muslim Brotherhood's battalion in 1948 in its holy war against the Jews in Palestine accepted the idea of two separate states in 1988 and led his people into the Oslo process in 1993. The pragmatic peace agreements that Israel concluded with Egypt and Jordan, Israel's peace negotiations with Syria's secular Baathist regime, and its signing of the Oslo accords with Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) all reflected a sober drive to transform the conflict from an apocalyptic clash into a soluble political dispute.
However, the collapse of the Oslo process damaged the popularity of the two-state solution. The failure of the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000 left the al Aqsa intifada in its wake, and Israel's persistent policy of expanding the settlements has severely undermined the Palestinians' trust in the two-state idea. Arafat's exiled PLO leadership (the "outsiders") had imposed its rule on young local leaders committed to resistance (the "insiders"). So long as Arafat was alive, he managed to control these detractors. But after his death, in 2004, insiders in both Fatah and Hamas returned in full force to challenge the decrepit Oslo-era clique led by Arafat's nominal replacement, Mahmoud Abbas. Secular nationalism in the Palestinian territories, and throughout the Arab world, is now in decline. It is being swept away by Islamic fundamentalism. Everywhere, loyalty to the state and the nation is being superseded by loyalty to Islam. Palestinians are moving away from Arafat's pragmatic nationalism toward revolutionary and maximalist positions on issues such as the return of refugees and the liberation of prepartition Palestine.
It is worth remembering that Arab armies did not invade Palestine in 1948 for the sake of the Palestinians; it was their war against the Jews that drew Arab governments into the Palestinian question. Still, any future resolution of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict will depend on a final settlement of the Palestinian question. Israel has already managed to force the entire Arab world to accept the legitimacy of its 1967 borders prior to the Six-Day War -- as evidenced by the peace plan offered by the Arab League in 2002. It must now belatedly seize this unique opportunity and negotiate peace agreements with Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians for a return to the June 4, 1967, lines -- essentially the same borders established in the aftermath of Israel's crushing 1948 victory.
A failure to do so, coupled with rapidly shifting demographic trends -- namely, a higher birthrate among Arabs than among Jews -- will permanently destroy the credibility of the two-state solution, allowing the binational model to gain sway among the Palestinians as they become a majority. A binational state would lead to a situation resembling the old South Africa, with two classes of citizens possessing vastly different political and civil rights. Worse, such a development would not lend itself to a peaceful South African-style solution, because Israel, with its superior might, would never concede power to a Palestinian majority as white South Africans eventually did to the black majority in 1994. The only alternative scenario would be Israel's unilateral disengagement to lines determined by the separation barrier, which annexes about eight percent of the West Bank. And this would, in all probability, leave a Hamas state on Israel's borders.
To avoid these disastrous scenarios, Israel must admit once and for all that the territorial phase of Zionism has ended, dismantle most of the West Bank settlements, and help create a viable Palestinian state as soon as possible. This is Israel's only chance to seal its 1948 victory -- which has been constantly challenged ever since -- before the swelling tide of Islamic fundamentalism drowns the existing Arab regimes and dooms the prospects of an enduring Arab-Israeli peace.
Shlomo Ben-Ami was Israel's Foreign Minister in 2000-2001. He is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace, in Spain, and the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.