Commentary Magazine


Topic: Benny Morris

If Hamas Survives, Forget About Peace … Or Quiet

As the fighting in Gaza continues with no lasting cease-fire in sight, some of the discussion about this war has shifted to whether Israel can or should seek to depose its Hamas enemies altogether. This is a debate that is long overdue.

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As the fighting in Gaza continues with no lasting cease-fire in sight, some of the discussion about this war has shifted to whether Israel can or should seek to depose its Hamas enemies altogether. This is a debate that is long overdue.

In Haaretz, Benny Morris suggests that while he doesn’t expect it to happen, sooner or later Israel must take on the unpleasant task of defeating Hamas once and for all. Our Max Boot disagrees since he believes the casualties that would inevitably result from such a long and bloody struggle would be prohibitive for Israel. More than that, he argues that in the absence of a viable alternative to Hamas to run Gaza, Israel really has no choice but to let the Islamists remain in place when the current round of fighting ends at some point.

While I think Max’s two objections to Morris’s suggestion provide a formidable rationale for a decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to call a halt to his country’s counter-offensive, I have to come down on the other side of this argument. A long battle to take down Hamas would be costly. Nor can Israel be certain of what would follow. But a failure to end the rocket and terror tunnel threat from Gaza now would be an even costlier mistake that Netanyahu and his successors would regret.

Prior to the current outbreak and even after the rocket fire from Gaza resumed this month I was among those who thought Israel would never consider retaking control of the strip. But like most wars, this one has changed the way both sides looked at the conflict. Israelis now see that the tunnel city underneath Gaza is no minor nuisance but a strategic threat that will require a major commitment of forces to contain if Hamas is allowed to reconstruct even a portion of its terror infrastructure. Though the Iron Dome missile defense system has prevented the thousands of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza from causing many casualties, it is a misnomer to assume that it provides a complete answer to that danger. Whether or not a single rocket ever kills an Israeli, Hamas has forced two-thirds of the population of Israel to spend part of their lives in bomb shelters. With thousands of rockets still left in their possession, Israel cannot contemplate a cease-fire that would allow Hamas to resume this ordeal at any future time of their choosing. And anything short of their elimination will ensure that this is exactly what they will do.

Moreover, even much of the Israeli left now understands that there can be no compromise with Hamas. Any thoughts that the unity pact signed this spring with Fatah would moderate their positions are now seen as absurd. As Morris rightly points out, this round of fighting is not just the latest tit-for-tat in a cycle of violence but rather the natural result from an ideological commitment to shedding the blood of Israelis in a never-ending war to destroy the Jewish state. When Hamas says it is the “resistance” to the “occupation,” its spokesmen are not referring to the West Bank but pre-1967 Israel. Though both Netanyahu and the people of Israel would have preferred to offer Hamas “quiet for quiet” and to end the fighting weeks ago, the tunnels and the weeks of rocket fire leave them no alternative but to seek a conclusion to this problem. While pundits are fond of saying that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires a political rather than a military solution, so long as Hamas is in power that is simply not true.

If Israel is to have quiet and have any hope of peace in the long run, Hamas has to go. While they rule Gaza, not only is a two-state solution off the table; any assurance that normal life in the territories or much of Israel can be counted on is also not possible.

Max is right that the cost of taking out Hamas will be terrible. But the assumption that Israelis are not willing to pay that price may no longer be valid. Every poll of opinion in Israel now shows that up to 90 percent of the people support the war and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict. More importantly, the vast majority also believe it would be a mistake to stop the fighting before the country’s security is assured.

Few would have believed that such results were possible even in a time of peace. But for Israelis to take this position after weeks of fighting during the course of which they have lost dozens of soldiers—each death being a traumatizing event for the small country where the majority of young people serve in the army—shows that there has been a major shift in opinion on the subject. Israelis from across the political spectrum are no longer willing to be held hostage to the caprices of a band of Islamist murderers bent on destroying them. While no one can be sure how long this consensus will hold, Netanyahu clearly has the support he needs to carry on with this vital mission for the foreseeable future.

Max’s suggestion that the example of America’s lack of a post-Saddam scenario in Iraq should give Israel pause is also very much to the point. There is no question that Netanyahu will have to answer objections that center on the question of what will follow Hamas in Gaza. But the possible answers to this question are not such a mystery even if none of them are attractive.

The most logical answer is the Palestinian Authority. After all, the PA ran Gaza along with most of the West Bank prior to Hamas’s bloody 2007 coup. The return of the PA would end the blockade that Israel, Egypt, and most of the international community placed on the strip after the terror group took power there. Such an outcome would also make it possible for talks about a two-state solution to resume. It is precisely the justified fear on the part of most Israelis that the West Bank would become another Hamasistan that makes territorial withdrawal there unlikely even in the unlikely event that Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

Would the PA be able to fend off an Islamist insurgency in Gaza? It might be difficult, but I think the answer is yes and the West Bank provides a precedent. Hamas could never have ousted Abbas in Gaza had not Ariel Sharon removed Israel’s army and all the settlements in 2005. Joint Israel-PA security cooperation has kept a lid, albeit a shaky one, on the West Bank as it did in Gaza prior to 2005. There is no reason to believe they would fail in Gaza now.

Benny Morris is merely echoing a developing Israeli consensus about Gaza when he says there is no alternative to finishing off Hamas. Just as there is no reason for the U.S. to compromise with al-Qaeda, neither is there any logical or ethical rationale for a continuation of Hamas’s rule in Gaza. Putting off a conclusion to this war will only lead to more suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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From Lydda to Gaza

“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

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“Disproportion speaks massacre, not ‘battle.’” Who wrote that just last week about Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians?

I won’t keep you in suspense. It was Israeli historian Benny Morris, replying to my critique (at Mosaic Magazine) of Ari Shavit’s treatment of the Lydda “massacre” of July 12, 1948, in Shavit’s book My Promised Land. Shavit declined to respond to me, but Morris took up the gauntlet last week. He wishes a pox on Shavit’s house and mine, for different reasons. He accuses Shavit of turning Lydda into more than it was, and he accuses me of “effectively denying” that there was “a massacre, albeit a provoked one.” Perhaps I do, although (unlike Shavit and Morris) I don’t claim to know exactly what happened.

I hadn’t set out to contest both Shavit and Morris, but since Shavit relies on Morris, their narratives are intertwined, and it’s just as well. Mosaic Magazine today runs my reply to Morris’s response. Not only do I question the credibility of his historical account, I also make this more general observation:

On Morris’s principle, every occasion on which Israel exacts a numerically “disproportionate” cost in the lives of others—as it often must do, if it is to deter and defeat its enemies—constitutes evidence of massacre; to sustain its very existence, Israel must massacre again and again, decade after decade…. Israel thus can never be legitimate; it is a perpetual war crime, on an ever-larger scale. So saith the “disproportion.”

Unfortunately, it’s a question that’s timely, on the morrow of a day when Israel lost thirteen soldiers in battle, and Palestinians are again claiming that Israel has committed a “massacre.” Read my response to Morris here.

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Blaming Zionism: The Lydda Misdirection

Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.

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Imagine the following headlines: “Zionism Enables Paraplegics to Walk Again”; “Zionism Leads Lifesaving Medical Efforts in Disaster-Struck Haiti”; “Zionism Helps Prevent AIDS in Africa”; “Zionism Saves Syrian Lives As Arab States Abandon Them”; etc. There is something awkward, clumsy about them. But most of all you have to imagine those headlines because you wouldn’t otherwise see them.

Yet we hear the opposite refrain: when Israel earns the world’s opprobrium, Zionism gets a black mark as well. This is what jumped out right away at me from Ari Shavit’s much-discussed chapter on Lydda in his new and widely praised book.

There has been a fascinating debate taking place at Mosaic Magazine on the chapter. It began with Martin Kramer’s essay challenging Shavit’s selective interpretation of events in the famous 1948 battle, which Shavit used to accuse Israeli forces of committing a massacre. Efraim Karsh followed that with his take on Lydda and revisionism, and now Benny Morris has responded with a pox on both the houses of Shavit and Kramer who, he says, offer partial truths in the service of agenda-driven history.

But aside from the historical question of what exactly took place in Lydda in 1948, there is the classification by Shavit of Lydda as Zionism’s “black box.” Here is Shavit:

Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism. The truth is that Zionism could not bear Lydda. From the very beginning there was a substantial contradiction between Zionism and Lydda. If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be, Zionism could not be. In retrospect it’s all too clear.

This idea of Lydda explaining Zionism–and remember, in Shavit’s telling this means exposing the vengeful violence at the center of it–helps the reader understand, if not approve of, Shavit’s statements about Zionism and Lydda throughout the chapter. With the battle looming, Shavit says that “as Zionism closes in on the valley of Lydda from the south, east, and north, it now prepares to conquer the city of Lydda itself.” Later: “By evening, Zionism has taken the city of Lydda.” And then: “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.”

It is this portrayal of Zionism that is so risible. The documented history of Lydda is murky, and though it’s clear Shavit cherry-picked his facts, his conclusion is not impossible. But he slanders Zionism by declaring it is, at its heart, inseparable from this violence.

Morris touches on this glancingly but effectively in his response piece. Morris leans toward Shavit’s opinion of what actually happened at Lydda, but he writes:

Lydda wasn’t, however, representative of Zionist behavior. Before 1948, the Zionist enterprise expanded by buying, not conquering, Arab land, and it was the Arabs who periodically massacred Jews—as, for example, in Hebron and Safed in 1929. In the 1948 war, the first major atrocity was committed by Arabs: the slaughter of 39 Jewish co-workers in the Haifa Oil Refinery on December 30, 1947.

That is a basic fact. In an earlier parenthetical pair of sentences, Morris offers his own “black box” of Zionism:

As an aside, I would suggest here a much more telling “black box” or key to understanding both Zionism and the conflict. It is Kibbutz Yad Mordekhai, where for four to five days in May 1948 a handful of Holocaust survivors held off the invading mass of the Egyptian army, giving the Haganah/IDF time to organize against the pan-Arab assault on the newborn state of Israel.

Shavit’s treatment of Zionism is one of inevitability: the agency of those involved is removed in favor of ideological predetermination. But it’s also, in a perverse way, a form of blame shifting. And if anti-Arab massacres are the inevitable result and defining characteristic of Zionism, then anti-Zionism would be the proper atonement. This is curious, because Shavit is most certainly not an anti-Zionist. Though he is a man of the left, he doesn’t throw his lot in with those who want to see Israel erased.

It’s cognitive dissonance, then, for Shavit. But not for those who will use his book and his declarations of Zionism’s “black box” to continue faulting the very movement for Jewish self-determination for everything that goes wrong in the Holy Land. And though Israel remains a force for good in the world, we won’t see a flurry of the reverse: declarations crediting Zionism for the fact that the world would be a darker place without it.

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Benny Morris’s Czechoslovakia Analogy

When an acclaimed historian says he sees a terrifying historical pattern repeating itself, he deserves to be taken seriously. And Benny Morris is assuredly one of Israel’s most famous historians. Unfortunately, his warning is unlikely to be seen by many, since it’s buried at the end of a somewhat tedious book review. And it’s liable to be ignored by those who need to hear it most.

Morris reviewed Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace for the summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books. Most of the almost 5,000-word review was devoted to detailing Tyler’s numerous egregious errors and showing how they undermine his conclusions. But by itself, Morris wrote, Tyler’s spurious history would be insignificant. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s part of a much larger trend:

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When an acclaimed historian says he sees a terrifying historical pattern repeating itself, he deserves to be taken seriously. And Benny Morris is assuredly one of Israel’s most famous historians. Unfortunately, his warning is unlikely to be seen by many, since it’s buried at the end of a somewhat tedious book review. And it’s liable to be ignored by those who need to hear it most.

Morris reviewed Patrick Tyler’s Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country—and Why They Can’t Make Peace for the summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books. Most of the almost 5,000-word review was devoted to detailing Tyler’s numerous egregious errors and showing how they undermine his conclusions. But by itself, Morris wrote, Tyler’s spurious history would be insignificant. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s part of a much larger trend:

Fortress Israel is just the latest in a spate of venomous perversions of the record that have appeared in the past few years in the United States and Britain, all clearly designed to subvert Israel’s standing in the world. Deliberately or not, such books and articles are paving the way for a future abandonment of the Jewish state.

I am reminded of the spate of books and articles that appeared in Western Europe in 1936 through 1938 repudiating the legitimacy of the newly formed Czechoslovakia before its sacrifice to the Nazi wolves. In 1934, the Conservative weekly Truth hailed Czechoslovakia as “the sole successful experiment in liberal democracy that has emerged from the post-War settlement.” By the end of 1936, The Observer was writing it off as “a diplomatic creation with no sufficient national basis either in geography or race.” By March 1938 The New Statesman, in the past a great friend to central Europe’s only democracy, was writing: “We should urge the Czechs to cede the German-speaking part of their territory to Hitler without more ado.” Of course, as all understood, this meant leaving Czechoslovakia defenseless. Hitler conquered the rump of the country a few months later without a shot. The appeasement of the Arab-Islamist world at Israel’s expense is in the air and Tyler is one of its (very, very) minor harbingers.

Reasonable people can disagree about how we should deal with this dangerous trend. But the first step is to recognize that it exists: that we’ve seen this historical pattern before, and it has deadly real-world consequences.

Unfortunately, Morris today is persona non grata with many of the people who most need to hear this warning. For years, he was a hero of the self-described “peace camp,” due both to his role as a leading “new historian” who challenged accepted Israeli historiography (he catapulted to fame in 1988 when he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949) and to his outspoken left-wing politics: He favored a Palestinian state before it was fashionable and was jailed for refusing to do military service in the territories.

But after the second intifada broke out, he became convinced that what the Palestinians wanted wasn’t peace, but “to extinguish the Jewish national project and to inherit all of Palestine.” That made him anathema to many well-meaning and genuinely pro-Israel people who can’t abide that conclusion–and they are also the people who find it hardest to accepting the delegitimizers as enemies who must be fought at all costs. Instead, they often favor “dialogue” and “an inclusive big tent.”

But Morris is a historian, not a politician, and his politics shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the validity of his historical analysis. The Czechoslovakian analogy he sees is frightening–and we ignore it at Israel’s peril.

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RE: J Street Comes Clean

J Street’s position on Jerusalem, detailed below by Jen Rubin, is a perfect example of why the proper way to understand the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization is as an export-import business. Bear with me for a moment.

There was a set of ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict to which many people subscribed in the 80s and 90s. These ideas became the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords became an immense, catastrophic failure. Many people who were Oslo advocates, thus confronted with reality, changed their minds about the conflict (an obvious example is Benny Morris). Some Oslo advocates, however, did not, and adopted various theories to justify their continued membership in the peace-process-can-do-no-harm camp: the Israeli offers were never good enough, Sharon started the intifada, territorial withdrawal must come first, a conspiracy of neocons and AIPAC has always worked against peace, and so on. In 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza, territorial withdrawal was tried, and the results detonated a belief even deeper than Oslo, this one going all the way back to 1967 and perhaps even to 1948: the hope that land could be traded for peace and that the conflict is about borders, not Israel’s very existence.

These accumulated facts changed the attitude of Israelis in a dramatic way. The Oslo consensus disintegrated not only as an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a political platform. In the early 90s, Labor and Meretz held a combined 56 Knesset seats. Today they have 16. Yet despite this political collapse in Israel, a few true believers still cling to the Oslo fantasy. How can these ideas survive their failure in the very place they’re supposed to be applied?

J Street, working with various Meretz has-beens in Israel, imports the ideas to America and tries to revive them here, where Jews are far less aware of their abysmal record of failure. J Street pushes them to the Obama administration, which is favorably disposed to them anyway. Here is where the exporting happens: Obama now seeks to impose them on an unreceptive Israel.

This is not just an insular story about Israeli-American-Jewish politics. It’s probably the major reason why there is so much conflict between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. The former is living on J Street, where it is not considered insane to demand that Israel relinquish the Western Wall, the most meaningful place in Judaism, to an “international force” (Israel should agree to this when the Pope and the Saudis surrender the Vatican and Mecca to an international force). The latter came to power as the culminating point of an Israeli consensus that understands the failures of the previous 17 years and rejects the ideas that J Street and the Obama administration are trying to force back to Israel. This is why J Street is, in its essence, a political export-import business.

J Street’s position on Jerusalem, detailed below by Jen Rubin, is a perfect example of why the proper way to understand the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization is as an export-import business. Bear with me for a moment.

There was a set of ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict to which many people subscribed in the 80s and 90s. These ideas became the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords became an immense, catastrophic failure. Many people who were Oslo advocates, thus confronted with reality, changed their minds about the conflict (an obvious example is Benny Morris). Some Oslo advocates, however, did not, and adopted various theories to justify their continued membership in the peace-process-can-do-no-harm camp: the Israeli offers were never good enough, Sharon started the intifada, territorial withdrawal must come first, a conspiracy of neocons and AIPAC has always worked against peace, and so on. In 2000 in Lebanon and in 2005 in Gaza, territorial withdrawal was tried, and the results detonated a belief even deeper than Oslo, this one going all the way back to 1967 and perhaps even to 1948: the hope that land could be traded for peace and that the conflict is about borders, not Israel’s very existence.

These accumulated facts changed the attitude of Israelis in a dramatic way. The Oslo consensus disintegrated not only as an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but as a political platform. In the early 90s, Labor and Meretz held a combined 56 Knesset seats. Today they have 16. Yet despite this political collapse in Israel, a few true believers still cling to the Oslo fantasy. How can these ideas survive their failure in the very place they’re supposed to be applied?

J Street, working with various Meretz has-beens in Israel, imports the ideas to America and tries to revive them here, where Jews are far less aware of their abysmal record of failure. J Street pushes them to the Obama administration, which is favorably disposed to them anyway. Here is where the exporting happens: Obama now seeks to impose them on an unreceptive Israel.

This is not just an insular story about Israeli-American-Jewish politics. It’s probably the major reason why there is so much conflict between the Obama and Netanyahu governments. The former is living on J Street, where it is not considered insane to demand that Israel relinquish the Western Wall, the most meaningful place in Judaism, to an “international force” (Israel should agree to this when the Pope and the Saudis surrender the Vatican and Mecca to an international force). The latter came to power as the culminating point of an Israeli consensus that understands the failures of the previous 17 years and rejects the ideas that J Street and the Obama administration are trying to force back to Israel. This is why J Street is, in its essence, a political export-import business.

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