What caused Benny Morris’s recent conversion to the racist ideology of transfer?
The “new historian” who began unravelling Israel’s narrative of the war of 1948 — that the Palestinians fled rather than that most were expelled or terrorised from their homes — says he now believes David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, made a grievous mistake in not finishing the job of clearing the land of Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
In an article in The Guardian (October 3, 2002) Morris concludes that peace in the Middle East might have been possible had the entire Arab population been removed from historic Palestine to make way for a Greater Israel.
Not only does Morris believe that the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are a permanent obstacle to peace but so too are Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens — the descendants of those who remained on their land in 1948. All the Palestinians, he argues, should have been transferred east to what is now Jordan.
Morris is one of a growing number of Israelis espousing this hard-line policy of expulsion, or “transfer” as it is more usually, and coyly, referred to. Some opinion polls show that more than 40 per cent of Israeli Jews support schemes to encourage or force Arabs to leave the occupied territories and Israel.
It is worth pausing to reflect on what might have brought a man of Morris’s stature to the point where he becomes a high-profile recruit to the cause of transfer. Why are so many Israelis convinced that there is only one way to ease the “existential fear” they are experiencing, and that is by committing a war crime?
To explain this phenomenon, one needs to understand the overarching but unspoken role of Zionism in shaping Israelis’ worldview. It is a frame of ideological reference that prefaces every argument, every thought, every action. It completely dictates public opinion and state policy. Zionism is fed to Israelism in their mother’s milk.
Not that there are not many strands to Zionism: from the national-religious settlers in the occupied territories, some of whom would happily transfer every Arab they meet, to secular, left-wing Zionists who demand withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and agonise over Israel’s treatment of its own Palestinian citizens.
But these variations are a reflection of fundamental disagreements about survival strategies for the Jewish state, not about the basic tenets of Zionism or the morality of its worldview.
So what do we mean by Zionism? For an ideology that has caused such misery, both to Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East, it is surprising that its goals are so rarely articulated beyond simplistic slogans. Few who examine the history and development of the ideology look beyond the intentions of its 19th century prophet, Theodor Herzl, and its pre-state ideologues, men like Ben Gurion, Vladimir Jabotinsky and Martin Buber.
The practical expression of Zionism in statehood, a project of some 44 years- duration, is barely mentioned. All Zionists take as their starting point the idea that the Jews deserve, as a moral imperative, a homeland. From this thesis flows another, less spoken, assumption: that no other people’s claim to this land is equivalent to the Jewish claim. Others must therefore be required to make sacrifices to ensure the continuing survival of the Jewish state. Zionism is, in essence, a reinvention for the secular modern era of the idea that the Jews are a chosen people.
But the practice as well as the preaching must be analysed. How did Zionism as a nation-building ideology evolve from its earliest days to the establishment of Israel and beyond?
Zionism’s original goal was noble enough: the creation of a sanctuary for the much-persecuted Jewish people. Herzl and other early thinkers were not overly concerned about where this sanctuary should be: in fact, there was a time when it might have been established in Argentina or Uganda. But over time the Zionists’ focus shifted to the Holy Land.
Early immigrants, mainly East Europeans fleeing the pogroms, were helped by Zionist organisations to buy land from the indigenous population, the Palestinians. This slow migration only took off with the rise of Hitler and the exodus of Jews from most of Europe. With the horror of the Holocaust, Zionist arguments about the need for a sanctuary for the Jews grew more urgent.
The truth about the war of 1948, in which some 800,000 Palestinians were forced to flee to neighbouring Arab countries, has emerged only over the past 15 years, after academics like Benny Morris trawled the Israeli archives. They showed that the traditional Israeli account of the War of Independence, which presented the fighting as the Jews’ battle for survival, were far from convincing. In fact, Morris and others showed, the Jewish militias often met little or no resistance from the local population, mainly rural, peasant farmers. Nevertheless, the indigenous communities were driven from their homes and land.
The sanctuary that was left the Israelis after 1948, however, was far from satisfactory from a Zionist point of view. The project of creating a safe Jewish homeland in the Holy Land was incomplete because some 150,000 Palestinians remained in pockets across the country. During the military government imposed until 1966, there was much dark plotting about how to expel the “Israeli Arabs”, as recounted by Nur Masalha in his book A Land Without a People. None of the schemes, however, could be fully implemented without risking the wrath of the international community.
The Zionists hoped another strategy, bringing waves of Jewish immigrants to Israel, might eventually swamp the rump indigenous population. However, the Arab minority had a far higher birth rate and over decades it held steady at 20 per cent of the population. The state’s failure to dilute the Palestinian presence in Israel provoked ever greater concern that one day the Jewish state would be destroyed from within by this “demographic timebomb”.
So the sanctuary idea remained an unrealised dream. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians remained within the borders of the Jewish state with ties to millions more in the region.
Zionism, however, had a chance to reinvent itself after the Six-Day War of 1967, when the movement split into two camps with very different conceptions of the role of the Jewish state. Some, including Ben Gurion, clung to the idea of sanctuary and urged an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. But others, elated by the seemingly miraculous nature of Israel’s speedy victory, posited another objective, one never imagined by the secular founders of Zionism. They argued that Israel had been presented with an opportunity to reclaim a Biblical birthright: the return of the Jewish people to all of its homeland.
It was a strange argument for a supposedly secular state but it had three advantages over the discredited sanctuary idea. First, whereas the goal of sanctuary highlighted the internal flaws in the idea of a Jewish state, the goal of a Biblical return was a unifying project: it reinforced the Jews’ sense of themselves as an ethnic and religious nation. For this reason, one of the driving forces — at least publicly — for territorial expansion in Palestinian areas was the reclaiming of Jewish holy sites, from Joseph’s Tomb near Nablus to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. This project continues to this day: the Israeli government has recently annexed a densely populated Palestinian area around Bethlehem so that Jews can access yet another religious site, Rachel’s Tomb.
Second, unlike the goal of sanctuary which could only be realised by overtly immoral means (ethnic cleansing), the goal of return could be implemented through silent but aggressive settlement beyond Israel’s borders. At first small groups of zealots set up encampments on hilltops overlooking Palestinian towns and villages. They looked to the world like mavericks, people who were happy to live in caravans without water or services. But soon, as the 1948 Zionists lost the argument in government, the mavericks were joined by construction companies that bulldozed vast tracts of land and laid foundation stones for high-rise blocks of flats.
Within two decades Palestinian east Jerusalem was surrounded by great housing estates, all illegally built on occupied land. The Jordan Valley too became dotted with small Israeli settlements along a main highway that made Jerusalem and Israel a quick drive away. All this happened in a way designed not to disturb the West until the “facts on the ground” made reversing the settlement programme all but impossible.
And third, and most importantly, the new territorial acquisitiveness became a successful ploy for demanding ever greater subsidies from Israel’s ally America. As Norman Finkelstein documents in his book The Holocaust Industry, links between American Jewry and Israel were tenuous before the 1967 War. But after Israel proved its credentials on the battlefield, the United States began rethinking Israel’s role, seeing it as a powerful client state in the region and a useful destabilising influence on its Arab neighbours that might prevent the emergence of Arab unity.
Equally American Jewry began to see Israel — and Palestinian and Arab attacks on the Jewish state — as the perfect way to advance its own causes and influence. Thus the awesome Zionist lobby, compulsively seeking out anti- Semitism, was born in the States, with offshoots in Europe. The benefit to Jewry in America, as Finkelstein notes, was the Holocaust industry itself: huge sums to be claimed from European states ostensibly to compensate Holocaust victims but in practice to pay the inflated salaries of Jewish lawyers and promote the projects of Jewish businessmen in America and Israel.
For Israel, however, there were additional benefits. The regional instability caused by its army’s continuing occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land, its invasion of south Lebanon and the unresolved status of millions of refugees provided the perfect setting for Israel to cry “security” and “existential threat” every time an Arab leader sneezed. The US Congress approved ever larger disbursements of military aid to Israel. By the end of the first Gulf War, Israel was receiving $5bn of aid annually from the American taxpayer — nearly $1,000 for every man, woman and child. The Israeli economy, and its military might, was effectively propped up by America.
Shortly after the 1967 War, arguments about the goals of Zionism raged. Those preaching the 1948 idea of sanctuary wanted a small but defensible homeland in the Middle East for the Jewish people. A vociferous new group, however, demanded Israel become a muscular, regional superpower wired into the financial and military heart of the West. Thus was born the unholy alliance between the religious extremist settlers and nationalist business leaders.
The image of Israel that predominates in the international community is refracted solely through this first prism: Israel as a weak state fighting for its life. But in Israel the hold of the second vision quickly became stronger. Most Israelis, including left-wingers, wanted the huge benefits of Western support. The alternative was Middle Eastern anonymity, Israel struggling against its Arab neighbours for international attention without the bonus of Iraqi and Saudi Arabian oil fields. It was not an appealing prospect.
Not that success went only in one direction. The sanctuary Zionists scored victories in their peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, curbing the excesses of the expansionists. But although the colonial settlement project was made more manageable, it continued apace in the West Bank and Gaza.
The invasion of south Lebanon, the expansionists’ most ambitious and aggressive project, spawned the peace movement in the early 1980s. But it was the first Intifada, between 1987 and 1993, that really polarised Israeli society. For the first time in a generation the peaceniks clearly articulated the sanctuary idea of the Jewish state and argued for withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.
Oslo happened for many reasons, one of them being that Israel realised Yasser Arafat’s PLO was both financially and intellectually bankrupt after choosing the side of Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Arafat was in no position for hard bargaining. But more than that the Israeli leadership needed to damp down the combustible tensions within Israeli society between the two oppositional Zionisms. The Oslo peace process was a way to do it.
The Oslo agreements encapsulated everything that was misjudged in the international debates about Israel. It was assumed that Israel was at the signing ceremony on the White House lawn because it wanted to carve out a peaceful space for itself in a hostile Arab environment. But in practice Oslo was a sophisticated attempt to legitimise the main thrust of the expansion programme. Israel continued to control ever more Palestinian territory through its settlement projects while at the same time handing over the poisoned chalice of the West Bank cities and large refugee camps to the new Palestinian Authority. Now Arafat could do the messy job of guaranteeing Israelis’ security and he could take the blame when an Islamic extremist slipped into Israel to turn human bomb. Meanwhile Israel quietly continued confiscating land and subsidising more and more settlers to move to the West Bank and Gaza.
Israelis, from the peace movement to Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin Yigal Amir, entirely failed to grasp the extent of the sham of Oslo, or its connection to the growing popularity among Palestinians of the Islamic militants, Hamas and Jihad, and the wave of suicide attacks on Israeli towns that followed.
Palestinian disillusionment culminated in the Intifada, as both the leadership and masses finally gave up hope that the Oslo agreements would ever bring them statehood. The uprising drove the Jewish public to a conclusion: that peace would never come from negotiations or dialogue, the “There is no one to talk to” mantra of current Israeli politics. The fudging, many Israelis decided, had to end; a permanent, and imposed, solution was required.
What form this imposed solution should take, of course, depended on your view of Zionism, whether you wanted a Jewish nation “like other nations” or a voracious, settler state. The current debates raging among Israelis about how to respond to the Intifada posit only two options: to withdraw or to invade, to build a fence or to build a Greater Israel. These alternatives reflect the differences between the 1948 idea of a Jewish sanctuary with fixed and defensible borders, and the 1967 idea of an expansionist state that refuses to define its territorial limits or the preconditions for a peace agreement.
A common error in the West is to interpret these two political positions in simple moral terms. We create a facile dichotomy: the Oslo peace process vs Operation Defensive Shield; Israeli refuseniks vs West Bank settlers; Shimon Peres vs Ariel Sharon. But these are not polar opposites, they are two sides of the same coin. They represent differing visions — the first deriving from 1948, the second from 1967 — but Zionism is the constant.
For all Israelis, bar a minuscule number of non-Zionists, the arguments assume as their starting point that Israel’s primary political objective is the maintenance of exclusive ethnic privileges for Jews. It is certainly not about correcting historic injustices, helping the Palestinians create a viable state, or contributing to a Middle Eastern peace. The divide between Peres and Sharon is not a moral one but over differing conceptions of how to protect the long-term interests of Israel as an ethnic state.
The important point to understand here is that both strands of Zionism have accepted an aggressive, colonialist image of the nation. The only difference is in their views on the limits of Israel’s sphere of action.
For the sanctuary Zionists Jewish privilege over non-Jews essentially extends only to the 1948 borders of the state. For the expansionist Zionists the Arabs must submit to Jewish authority within Israel proper, in the occupied territories and potentially anywhere else needed for Israel’s “security”. The implied threat in both, however, is that if the Palestinian or Arab populations refuse to accept their fate to live as subjugated peoples, they will face retribution or worse.
These are large criticisms of Israel and Zionism. What is the evidence?
The case against 1967 Zionism is not difficult to make. It has been Israeli orthodoxy since the late 1970s. All governments, Labour and Likud, have promoted settlement on Palestinian land to the point where 42 per cent of the West Bank is now illegally controlled by settlers, according to human rights group Btselem’s latest figures. Even now new settlements like Har Homa are being opened and families offered huge incentives to move in.
A report earlier this year by the Adva Centre, a Tel Aviv think-tank dedicated to examining issues of inequality in Israeli society, showed huge discrimination in favour of settlers throughout the 1990s. House building rates through the Oslo period were 63 per cent higher than in Israel proper, and families received double the subsidy on buying property. Spending on municipal services was also 50 per cent higher for settlers, even after security expenditure was excluded.
The Palestinian areas in the West Bank are now such a patchwork that even the PLO’s negotiating department under Abu Mazen recently admitted that disentangling them from Jewish controlled areas would be nigh impossible. A two- state solution is starting to look fanciful.
For a country obsessed with demographic and existential threats, Israel’s effective integration of Jewish and Palestinian populations in the West Bank seems more than illogical, it looks suicidal. Within a few years the Palestinians inside the West Bank, Gaza and Israel will outnumber Jews. But it is not suicidal if the real intention is to replicate the apartheid model of South Africa, to make Bantustans of the Palestinian cities in a sea of Israeli- dominated territory, leaving settlers to control the arable land and vital water resources. The besieging of West Bank cities since June looks suspiciously like a final thrust in this direction. The apartheid model is unlikely to be the end of the story, however.
Palestinians, obstinately refusing to submit, will continue the terror attacks. Further, the longer the West Bank is cut into a series of Bantustans the harder it will be to persuade the world that this is not what in practice has been done. The grey will start to look more like sharply differentiated black and white.
Another solution, transfer, will be needed. The Israeli public is already being softened up, with government ministers openly subscribing to it. Palestinians will have to be encouraged, or made, to leave their homes and land. The destruction of the West Bank’s physical and economic infrastructure in the Israeli army’s May and June invasions may be the beginning of this process.
But increasingly the Sharon view of Zionism is under attack, if only from the ragged remains of the Labour Party and Peace Now. Can Israel be steered off the depraved course being taken by 1967 Zionists? Can a Zionism that seeks only a sanctuary for the Jewish people be made more morally clear-sighted than its later upstart? Can Peres and his ilk not save us from the moral quagmire into which Sharon and his settler friends wish to drag us?
The answer, if it is not already clear, is a resounding no. Israel’s Eden was always a mirage. In fact, the Zionism of expansion emerged precisely out of the failures of the Zionism of sanctuary. The strategies facing 1948 Zionists are essentially the same as those facing 1967 Zionists: the difference is the arena.
If Sharon will have to consolidate apartheid in the West Bank, a left-wing successor who withdraws from the occupied territories will have to do the same inside Israel with the country’s Palestinian minority.
Since the ending of the military government for Arab citizens in 1966, Israel has maintained a largely benevolent apartheid system. Israeli Arabs are barred from Jewish communities, Arab municipalities are starved of funds, the separate education system is a pale mirror of the Jewish one, Arabs cannot work in many sectors of the economy. Although Arabs have the vote, their parties are never allowed to take part in government. And strict enforcement of religious marriage ceremonies, combined with even stricter rules for conversion, makes intermarriage between Arabs and Jews all but impossible.
But that said Israel’s Arab citizens can sit on buses next to Jews and eat with them in restaurants. They can study at university, even if language and other barriers make it harder for them to gain entry. Till now they have been able to speak out relatively freely. A few have even succeeded in business.
But even these partial equalities are being rapidly eroded as the one million Palestinian citizens become as assertive of their rights as their ethnic kin in the occupied territories. The first case of Israeli Arab citizenship being revoked signals a dangerous precedent, and newly passed laws strip Arab politicians of the right to criticise either the ethnic character of the state or government policies towards the Palestinians. Several if not all of the Arab parties are at risk of being banned before the next election. This new climate is producing a much harsher apartheid system, one much less benevolent.
If Israelis turn their back on expansionist 1967 Zionism and choose the sanctuary model of 1948 Zionism, if the fence being built actually becomes a border, this process of delegitimisation and segregation inside Israel will gather pace. But it too cannot be the end of the story. As Benny Morris reminds us, the sanctuary will be as meaningless as it was in 1948 unless it is cleared of its Arabs, of those who threaten to subvert the Jewish state from within.
Belatedly, the job of 1948 will have to be finished. Today a military government will not be enough to keep the indigenous population in line. Priority will have to be given to redeeming the land by cleansing it of its non-Jewish inhabitants.
What Morris and other Israelis now understand is that whether Israel expands or contracts, invades or withdraws, it will face the same choice: it will have to transfer Palestinians, either those in the West Bank and Gaza or those in Israel itself. It must choose between the big war crime and the smaller one.
Either way Israel jumps is sure to send it — as a Jewish state — plummeting into the depths of the abyss. Either way lies the crime of transfer.