War without End

War without End

Well before war broke out, first between Palestinians and Jews in late 1947, and the next year with the fledgling Israeli nation fighting against five neighboring Arab states, David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders had argued that Jewish immigration would benefit everyone in the region economically. It was not an unreasonable argument.

Today, despite continuing political gridlock and tribal bloodshed, jobs and other spinoffs from Israeli’s vibrant economy do trickle down to Palestinians, while more directly benefiting the Arabs who make up 20 percent of the Jewish state’s citizenry.

But, as is clear after reading "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War," Benny Morris’ workmanlike account of the roots of the Mideast conflict, reason has never flourished in the land of milk and honey, the region that has nurtured three great world religions. Answering Ben-Gurion was Musa al-Álami, a moderate Palestinian and assistant Attorney General for the British Mandate of Palestine: “I would prefer that the country remained impoverished and barren for another hundred years, until we ourselves are able to develop it on our own.”

Indeed, on the 60th anniversary of the 1948 war, Palestine, or a remnant of it, remains largely impoverished after partition and five counterproductive wars with Israel (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982) that reflect an unrelenting determination to turn back the geopolitical clock. That clock began ticking in the 1880s, when Jewish refugees from Europe, many fleeing Russian pogroms, began arriving in Palestine to join the approximately 25,000 indigenous Jews there. When the Ottomans, who ruled Palestine until World War I, would not sell the Zionists a starter state, the individual immigrants proceeded to buy land from the locals piecemeal.

By 1931 there were some 175,000 Jews in Palestine, by 1939 about 460,000, owning roughly 7 percent of the land. When the United Nations voted to partition Palestine in 1947, Jews made up just over one-third of the population there. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the failure of western nations to adequately help Jews to escape Nazi Germany, however, the United Nations allotted 55 percent of Palestine to what would become the state of Israel.

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians, who, by the way, overwhelmingly supported Nazi Germany during World War II, were angry, as was the entire Arab world. And yet the wars spawned by that rage would leave Palestinians with successively less and less of Palestine. This would lead some to conclude that anger is not a strategy.

The author, who is an Israeli, a former journalist and professor of history at Ben-Gurion University, has written several books on the Mideast conflict. His latest is a richly detailed and thoroughly researched primer on the first great Mideast war, as well as on the essential reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian standoff remains so intractable. A compelling read, this is one of those “aha” books that bring order to complex, little understood subjects, as in: “Aha, that’s why these people can’t get along, and may never get along, ever.” At times, descriptions of individual battles, even skirmishes, get tedious, but Morris more than makes up for that with his vivid narrative prose and masterful analysis.

Neither side of the great divide is spared, as Morris lets accounts of the atrocities, perfidy and blunders fall where the facts lead him. In response to the claims of their soldiers’ “purity of arms” that Israelis have contrasted with “Arab barbarism,” he writes: “In truth, however, 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.”

For their part, the Arabs might have committed more atrocities if they weren’t so busy losing the war, a war in which they had every initial advantage, including manpower (some 40 million Arabs versus little more than half a million Jews), armaments and geography. Yet they would lose, and badly, to a highly motivated, organized and well-prepared foe who could reasonably assume that defeat would mean genocide. In one of the books many delicious details, Morris points out that in 1947 the CIA picked the Arabs to win the impending conflict. Some things never change.

For those who think there is a reasonable solution – President Bush ignored the conflict for most of his tenure, but now insists he can solve it in his final months in office – this quote from David Ben-Gurion gives pause: “If I were an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel…We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis…but was that their fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”

Small wonder that Morris ends his book with this cautionary: “Whether 1948 was a passing fancy or has permanently etched the region remains to be seen.”