The Founding of Israel
To the Editor:
I wish to enter a plea of “not guilty” to all the charges leveled against me by Shabtai Teveth in his article, “Charging Israel With’ Original Sin” [September 1989]. In this article, Mr. Teveth roundly condemns the “new historiography” on the founding of the state of Israel and then singles out for special attention my own book, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine, and the book by Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Benny Morris has already rebutted a longer and more vitriolic version of Mr. Teveth’s critique of the “new” historians in the pages of the independent Israeli daily Haaretz, so it only remains for me try to put the record straight as far as my own book is concerned.
Mr. Teveth attributes to me all sorts of views which I do not hold, political motives of which I am not conscious, and a desire to delegitimize Zionism which I emphatically do not possess. He deplores in particular the “attempt to disconnect the birth of the state of Israel from the experience and tribulations of the Jewish people at large.” My book, however, is not about the experience and tribulations of the Jewish people, nor is it specifically about the birth of the state of Israel. It is an account of the relationship between King Abdullah and the Zionist leaders in the period from 1921 to 1951 and its specific focus, as the subtitle indicates, is on the partition of Palestine.
My method, according to Mr. Teveth, is like that of a hunter adjusting his sights, oblivious of his surroundings and blind beyond the end of his nose. This description is as apt in relation to Mr. Teveth’s modus operandi as it is inapplicable to mine. As anyone who read my book would know, I go to great lengths to fill in the background, to trace the bilateral relationship that is at the center of the book against the wider backdrop of events in Palestine, and to examine the role played by the other actors in the Palestine conflict. The real difference between Mr. Teveth and myself is that he can only view the conflict from a narrow Zionist point of view whereas I at least try to look at it not from the Zionist point of view but also from the point of view of the Palestinians, Transjordan, the other Arab states, the great powers, and the various would-be mediators.
The charge that the “new historiography” rests in part on defective evidence is curious when one recalls what passes for evidence in the “old historiography,” which in this respect is hardly distinguishable from old propaganda. If there is one fundamental difference between the “old” and the “new” historiography, it is that the latter was written with the benefit of access to the official documentary record whereas the former was not. Collusion was based very heavily on archival research in Israel, Britain, and the United States. The Arab states, as Mr. Teveth observes, do not permit access to archival material in the Western manner. Nevertheless, some valuable primary sources in Arabic do exist, and these I have used extensively. Mr. Teveth does not mention a single relevant Arab source that I failed to consult, so on what does he base his charge of defective evidence?
Mr. Teveth dwells at great length on the Peel partition plan of 1937, which is a fairly minor theme in my book. There is some justice in his claim that I overstressed the role played by Zionist tactics and underestimated the role of British opposition in the defeat of the Peel plan, and I tried to give a more balanced account in the revised and abridged paperback edition of my book which will appear in the fall of 1990. But I still regard Zionist tactics in 1937 as self-defeating and I quoted from Nahum Goldmann’s autobiography because he is by no means the only Zionist leader who later regretted those tactics and because I happen to consider Goldmann a more honest, humane, and far-sighted statesman as far as the Arab question is concerned than Mr. Teveth’s hero—David Ben-Gurion.
In 1937 both Goldmann and Ben-Gurion were in favor of partition and both preferred Abdullah to the Mufti as a neighbor. This was indeed the basic Zionist strategy following the defeat of the Peel plan: to strive for the partition of Palestine in cooperation with Abdullah. The leading proponent of this pro-Hashemite orientation was none other than David Ben-Gurion who in early August 1946 submitted a plan for turning the British Mandate into two independent states, “Judea” and “Abdallia.” The omission of “Palestinia” was not accidental.
The purpose of Golda Meir’s first meeting with Abdullah in November 1947 was to reach agreement on the partition of Palestine at the expense of the Palestinians and not merely to try to persuade Abdullah not to attack the nascent Jewish state, as Mr. Teveth would have us believe. He coyly admits that “Israel and Jordan did maintain a dialogue,” but goes on to argue that “at most theirs was an understanding of convenience. . . . There was nothing in such an understanding to suggest a collusion designed to deceive a third party, in this case the Palestinian Arabs.” How does Mr. Teveth reconcile the payments made by the Jewish Agency to Abdullah and his under-lings with his picture of an innocuous dialogue? How does he get around the firsthand reports of the meeting (by Ezra Danin and Elias Sasson) that solidly underpin my account of the collusion? And since opposition to a Palestinian state is still the policy of Ben-Gurion’s followers, what exactly is wrong with shedding light on the origins of this policy?
On the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which takes up a third of my book and stands in such sharp contrast to the heroic version cultivated by the “old” historians, Mr. Teveth has remarkably little to say and no evidence, defective or otherwise, to support his arguments. He simply opines that were the Arab archives ever to be opened, we might discover that in the event of an Arab victory Abdullah intended to deal with the Jews more harshly than I seem to assume. Well, in the first place I make no assumptions on what might have happened in the (unlikely) event of an Arab victory but content myself with analyzing the diplomatic and military moves of Jordan and Israel. From this analysis I conclude that the two sides pursued limited objectives and acted with deliberate restraint and with the common aim of cborting the birth of the Palestinian Arab state envisaged in the UN partition resolution of November 29, 1947. Why speculate about Abdullah’s intentions when we have the evidence of Abdullah’s actions? His actions did not include any serious attempt to capture Jewish state territory but were rather directed at making himself master of the Arab part of Palestine in accordance with the understanding that he had reached earlier with the Jewish Agency. Significantly, the only serious military clash between the two sides occurred in Jerusalem, which was not covered by this understanding, and there the Arab Legion only intervened in response to an Israeli military offensive.
The principal bone of contention between the “old” historians and myself, concerning the responsibility for the political stalemate that followed the 1948 war, is not even mentioned by Mr. Teveth. According to the “old” historians, Israel’s leaders did everything in their power to come to terms with the Arabs but found no willing partner. I list the peace offers made by Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, each of which carried a different price tag, and conclude that in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli war Israel’s intransigence was greater than that of the Arabs. Ben-Gurion in particular preferred the status quo enshrined in the armistice agreements to a formal peace that entailed Israeli concessions either in territory or on the refugee question. Whether he made the right choice is a matter of opinion. What can no longer be credibly sustained is the claim that Israel’s founding fathers passionately and wholeheartedly strove for peace but found no one to talk to on the Arab side.
Yet Mr. Teveth concludes his article with the assertion that the “new” revisionist historians have patently failed to undermine the “old” history. Most reviewers outside Israel think otherwise but, in any case, as a partisan in the ongoing debate, Mr. Teveth is hardly the best judge. Much more objectionable and obnoxious, however, is Mr. Teveth’s parting shot which attributes to the “new” historians the “larger aim” of providing fresh sources of sympathy for the Arabs and fresh sources of antipathy to the Jews. My own aim was to draw on the extensive primary sources that have recently become accessible in order to provide an honest and scholarly account of the Jordanian-Israeli connection and of the role it played, alongside other factors, in determining the fate of Palestine. To me the historical truth is more important than the contemporary image or interests of one of the parties to the conflict, even if that party happens to be Israel. Mr. Teveth, on the other hand, evidently views the debate about Israel’s past as an extension of the political struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. He is more concerned with defending Israel’s policy toward the Arabs than he is with genuine historical research. It is not the “new” history but his attack on it that is politically motivated. Neither Benny Morris in his book nor I in mine have charged Israel with “original sin.” It is Mr. Teveth who, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, continues to cling to the doctrine of Israel’s immaculate conception. And it is Mr. Teveth who, with the hypocrisy that is so characteristic of the Labor establishment, insists on claiming for Israel not just the twenty pieces of silver but also the crown of thorns.
St. Antony’s College
To the Editor:
Concerning Shabtai Teveth’s “Charging Israel With Original Sin,” Mr. Teveth has gravely misrepresented the findings and conclusions of my book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, and has twisted and distorted the arguments and views presented in my article, “The New Historiography: Israel Confronts Its Past” (Tikkun, November-December 1988). A pack of lies would be a not inaccurate description. A full rebuttal of Mr. Teveth’s arguments appears in the January-February 1990 issue of Tikkun.
The Brookings Institution
To the Editor:
. . . Shabtai Teveth uses the historical record, and I think correctly, to prove that the Arab refugee problem of 1948 did not come about as the result of a calculated, long-term master plan on the Jews’ part ultimately to evict the Arabs, but rather as the unexpected outcome of decisions taken by the Arabs themselves. But I find intriguing his eagerness to prove that population transfer was not a recurring theme of mainstream Zionism. I suggest that a good case could be made for the position that transfer was like what sex used to be: nearly everybody thought about it privately, most people would have preferred not to do without it, and everybody maintained a discreet and embarrassed silence with respect to the subject. If it were otherwise, Claim Simons could not have unearthed the 64 population-transfer proposals he documents in his book, International Proposals to Transfer Arabs from Palestine, 1895-1957 (Ktav Publishing House, 1988).
Unfortunately, Zionist apologetics have for the most part been based upon recitals of how vast a land area the Arab nations occupy in contrast to tiny democratic Israel, how well the Arabs have fared in Israel economically, and how industriously the Jews who needed a homeland worked to make a garden out of a neglected desert. Zionism has not had the courage to say that the Palestinian Arabs in the final analysis are squatters on the homeland of the Jewish people, and the squatter’s rights they claim cannot and will not be conceded in the Jewish state. . . . That alone is the proper answer to the revisionists because it renders their earthshaking revelations simply irrelevant. It is also why those who will not forthrightly defend Israel’s right to Judea and Samaria today will find themselves unable to defend its claim to the Galilee and the coastal plain tomorrow.
While the revisionists charge Israel with “original sin,” Mr. Teveth can be said to exhibit embarrassment at what should be seen as a natural function for a state committed to survival. Faced with a steadily growing population of internal enemies, its most humane response must ultimately be some form of population transfer. It is futile to refute the revisionists without at the same time laying the intellectual groundwork for this.
Shabtal Teveth writes:
Much of Avi Shlaim’s defense rests on confusion. To begin with, it is not I who have heralded the “’new historiography’ on the founding of the state of Israel” or crowned the “new” historians or named their works. All this is the creation of Benny Morris in Tikkun. I myself recognize only good and bad historians, and the sole intent of my articles, both in Haaretz and in COMMENTARY, was to posit the question of whether these self-proclaimed “new” historians fit the latter designation.
Mr. Shlaim complains of my attributing to him “political motives,” of which he is not conscious, and of my “parting shot”—namely, the charge that he and Mr. Morris are “providing fresh sources of political sympathy for the Arabs, and fresh sources of antipathy to the Jews.” Unfortunately I must send him back to the paragraph in Mr. Morris’s article where he expresses the hope that the “new” history “may also in some obscure way serve the purposes of peace and reconciliation between the warring tribes [sic] of that land,” and to the paragraphs whose innuendo is all too clear: Israel was born in sin, and its image as a seeker of peace and progress was always a fraud.
Mr. Morris leaves no room for doubt that it is a commitment to the “purposes of peace” (as he defines them) and not some idea of historical accuracy which determines who is eligible to become a member of the “new-history” club. Sympathy for the Palestinians is essential for such membership, as expressed in the effort to reveal the malevolence of Zionism toward the Arabs, and the injustice wreaked upon them since its inception. In a word, the delegitimation of Zionism. Would Mr. Shlaim deny that such motives are “political”?
In the year since Mr. Morris’s article appeared, Mr. Shlaim has not dissociated himself from the “new” history, in which he co-stars with Mr. Morris, nor has he taken issue with Mr. Morris’s canonization of the “new” historians. In fact, his Collusion Across the Jordan adheres religiously to Mr. Morris’s assertion that the “new” historians have demolished “the essence of the old history,” which stipulated “that Zionism was a beneficent and well-meaning progressive national movement . . . [and] that Zionist efforts at compromise and conciliation were rejected by the Arabs.” Moreover, they both defended their revisionist history shoulder-to-shoulder at a two-day symposium at Tel Aviv University last April, with Mr. Shlaim assuming extra vanguard duty for the good of their common cause in a self-congratulatory article in the Economist.
Mr. Shlaim asks in his letter on what I base my charge of “defective evidence.” He acknowledges that he significantly distorted the role played by Zionist leaders in the matter of the Peel plan on the basis of a single paragraph in Nahum Goldmann’s diary (and that paragraph misunderstood), but there are also many further instances in this 650-page book of his predilection for supporting a monumental and far-reaching construction on the basis of a single secondary, if not tertiary, source. The most notable example is the case of Walid Khalidi, to whom Mr. Shlaim refers time and again as “the eminent Palestinian historian.” He uses Khalidi first to confirm the injustice inflicted on the Arabs by the founding of Zionism at Basel in 1897 (“This is the essence of the Palestinian tragedy”), and later to pass judgment on the UN partition plan of 1947, citing a page-long quotation to the effect that the partition of Palestine “was Zionist in inspiration, Zionist in principle, Zionist in substance, and Zionist in most details.” Finally, he cites Khalidi as the basis of his contention that Zionism, itself imperialist from birth, was abetted in 1948 by British imperialism: “Since the UN had not provided for an international force to implement its resolution, the British decision to withdraw, . . . given the balance of power inside Palestine, which was crushingly in favor of the Zionists, . . . was an open invitation for a Zionist military takeover of the country.”
Thus are some of the thorniest issues in the Arab-Zionist debate—the true nature of the Basel Program, the true motives of the UN’s “Special Committee on Palestine” (UNSCOP), Britain’s true role in 1948, and the true balance of power in Palestine in that year—resolved, once and for all, by one stroke of a Palestinian historian’s pen.
When no other authority is at hand to depict Zionism as violent and nefarious, Mr. Shlaim has his own inspiration to fall back on, as when he writes that the methods employed by the Zionist leadership to achieve its ends “included not just flexible diplomacy but also bribery, deception, coercion, and physical force.” He dwells on the “massive increase in military power that accompanied the achievement of independence” and asserts ominously that “If diplomacy did not yield the desired results, the state of Israel could always fall back on its superior armed forces to protect its basic interests.” As Mr. Shlaim sees it, there does not seem to have been any need for an armed Jewish force altogether. If such a force came into being it was not in response to Arab attacks on Jewish life and property in Palestine, or to fight Hitler, but rather as an inherent necessity, a kind of preprogrammed DNA code in the bad seed of Zionism. After all, since the Arabs of Palestine and their brethren in the neighborhood reacted so peacefully to the UN partition resolution, why should Palestine’s Jews have had to bother with self defense?
So far as Mr. Shlaim’s “collusion” thesis goes, it should be pointed out that collusion would have required at least two parties working together to deceive a third. But where is the evidence for such cooperation? Since Israeli archives dealing with 1948 are now open for the most part, there can be no question but that Ben-Gurion had little faith in the King and felt no obligation whatever toward him, both before and after the failure of Golda Meir’s second meeting with Abdullah in May 1948. One proof of this, which has been known for some time now, was Ben-Gurion’s demand on September 26 for cabinet authorization to dislodge the Arab Legion from its positions on the West Bank. Now there is further evidence bearing on the same point in the form of a quotation from Golda Meir’s report—hitherto unpublished—on her return from the King on May 11:
If Abdullah tries to invade Palestine, the invader is neither he nor the Arab League, but the English force, which is now being evacuated through the front door of Haifa, only to return through the back door in the guise of Abdullah and the Arab Legion and the Iraqi forces. The Arab Legion has become a near legend, and I have it on the strength of a very senior British officer in the region, that Abdullah may find it quite unprofitable to put it to a test in the field. And as much as one can tell about his mood and preparations, it seems to me Abdullah is about to set out on a very, very risky venture.
Would Golda Meir have talked in this vein if she had entered into collusion with Abdullah? Would she have summed up her report with the following words? “It can be assumed that an attempt at invasion [by the Arab Legion] will be made very shortly . . . but I have the feeling that we are able to deal this force a serious blow as well . . . and we shall be done with this fiction.”
And as for Ben-Gurion, if he were in the midst of striking a deal with King Abdullah, would he have come out with an announcement that the Haganah, at long last, now had locally-made PIATS (anti-tank weapons) in its possession, adding, “today we have the wherewithal to meet the Arab Legion’s armor”? Would he have remarked further on May 29 that among the first missions of Israel’s air force was the bombing of Ramallah when King Abdullah was in town?
It is clear, then, that one party to the alleged “collusion” must be counted out. What about the other party? Did Abdullah want to go it all alone? Since Mr. Shlaim sticks to his guns, his answer must be in the affirmative. But how does he know what Abdullah had in mind, or what he told his closest aides, if Jordan’s archives for that period are unavailable or nonexistent?
Nowhere does the incongruity between Mr. Shlaim’s understanding of history and his collusion thesis manifest itself so strongly as in his question: “Why speculate about Abdullah’s intentions when we have the evidence of Abdullah’s actions?” It is hard to believe such thinking comes out of Oxford, for surely little is so open to differing historical interpretations as actions themselves.
Mr. Shlaim’s other question, about how to “reconcile the payments made by the Jewish Agency to Abdullah and his underlings” with my “picture of an innocuous dialogue,” arouses equal incredulity. Does he really intend to suggest that King Abdullah was bribed into colluding with Israel by the pittance paid to him by the Jewish Agency? Let me remind Mr. Shlaim that in the fields of foreign affairs and intelligence, especially in the Middle East, such payments were the rule, not the exception. They are hardly an indication of one or another policy, military or otherwise. In any case, the political department of the Jewish Agency always endeavored to keep all options open, and Abdullah was not the only Arab leader to have appeared on its payroll.
No less shaky than the collusion thesis is Mr. Shlaim’s preposterous allegation that the Arab governments of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan “stood in line”—as he put it at Tel Aviv University—to make peace with Israel, only to be rejected out of hand. In the case of Egypt and Syria, Mr. Shlaim’s thesis has already been proved totally unfounded by others (and Mr. Shlaim himself came close to admitting his mistake in regard to Syria’s Husni Zaim). But what of Abdullah? Was he too pressuring Israel to accept peace?
In discussing the post-1948 period, Mr. Shlaim turns the tables. Abdullah and Ben-Gurion are no longer confederates in unseemly collusion against the Palestinians. Now they appear as the negotiating parties to what he calls “The Elusive Peace Treaty.” The shift in emphasis makes for a reversal of roles. The once formidable Abdullah is now a ruler on the wane, who does his utmost—short of falling on all fours—to sign a peace treaty with the insatiable, intractable Israelis. On December 13, 1949, a breakthrough of sorts in the negotiations finally presents itself. Israel, in return for peace, agrees to give Jordan an outlet to the Mediterranean, but the negotiations break off after Abdullah insists on a corridor more than two kilometers wide, while Israel will agree to a corridor of no more than 100 meters.
In the Shlaim version it is the usual “villains”—Ben-Gurion, Day-an, and “the Israeli military”—who aborted the treaty. Though Israel would seem to any fair-minded observer to have offered a major concession in agreeing to such a corridor at all—under full Jordanian sovereignty, forming an inseparable part of Jordan’s territory, and cutting across the entire area of southern Israel (and this at a time when Britain, the U.S., and the Arab states were trying to tear the Negev away from the Jewish state!)—Mr. Shlaim is unrelenting in his criticism. As he puts it, “Ben-Gurion had clearly not learned that negotiations consist of more than one-sided insistence on advantages that had not been achieved by war and stubborn refusal to take into account the arguments of the other party.” That this harsh evaluation purports to be a scholarly assessment is hard to credit.
Jordan in any case is spared such rigorous scrutiny, as is glaringly evident in Mr. Shlaim’s discussion of the February-March 1950 round of talks between the two parties. These centered on the proposal of a nonaggression pact, put forward by the King, as a substitute for a full-blown peace treaty. When the time for ratification arrived, Abdullah—seeing he was unable to secure his government’s support—became evasive, and even untruthful, but there is not a word about this from Mr. Shlaim.
In pointing out Mr. Shlaim’s faults one could go on and on. I would like, however, to sign off with a puzzle which allows me no rest: writing in Haaretz last May, Benny Morris was kind enough to count me among the “new” historians (I shall forever remain in his debt). To Mr. Shlaim, by contrast, I am disqualified as “a partisan.” But not Walid Khalidi, an eminent spokesman for the PLO. Why?
In reply to Zalman Gaibel’s letter, Chaim Simons did not unearth “64 population-transfer proposals,” as Mr. Gaibel puts it. A closer scrutiny—not of the table of contents, but of the book—would reveal that of the sixteen so-called Jewish proposals hardly three were worthy of the title, and none was an official proposal put forward by a Zionist party or approved by either the Zionist World Congress or the Israeli government. For the most part the proposals Simons deals with are nothing more than fleeting, unpublished ideas, some of which were aired before Palestine came under the British Mandate. To this day, the most important proposal remains that of the Peel Royal Commission of 1937, in response to which a good many of the Jewish “proposals” came about.