This history of the foundational war in the Arab-Israeli conflict is groundbreaking, objective, and deeply revisionist. A riveting account of the military engagements, it also focuses on the war's political dimensions. Benny Morris probes the motives and aims of the protagonists on the basis of newly opened Israeli and Western documentation. The Arab side—where the archives are still closed—is illuminated with the help of intelligence and diplomatic materials.
Morris stresses the jihadi character of the two-stage Arab assault on the Jewish community in Palestine. Throughout, he examines the dialectic between the war's military and political developments and highlights the military impetus in the creation of the refugee problem, which was a by-product of the disintegration of Palestinian Arab society. The book thoroughly investigates the role of the Great Powers—Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—in shaping the conflict and its tentative termination in 1949. Morris looks both at high politics and general staff decision-making processes and at the nitty-gritty of combat in the successive battles that resulted in the emergence of the State of Israel and the humiliation of the Arab world, a humiliation that underlies the continued Arab antagonism toward Israel.
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A conversation with Benny Morris
Q: How does 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War relate to your previous work?
A: In the past, I have written about one particular aspect of the war—about the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem over 1947-1949, for example—or, more generally, about the course of the Zionist-Arab conflict from 1881 to 2000. In this book I address the whole of the 1948 War in its political and military aspects, taking in as well the international context and interventions, the Arab world, and the internal Israeli scene. I try to present a good overall picture of what happened and why, from the UN handling of the Palestine issue to the Israeli-Arab armistice agreements that ended the war.
Q: What do you think at bottom is the cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
A: I would say that there is a territorial dispute between two peoples who claim the same patch of land. It is a very small, patch of land, and so the idea of dividing it between the two is extremely problematic a the technical sense. But it is also a cultural-religious conflict between the Islamic East and the West. The Islamic Arab world sees Israel—as it sees itself—as an offshoot and outpost of the West in—in their view—a Muslim area and as an infidel, invasive presence. Israel and Zionism are seen by the Islamic Arab world, and the wider Islamic world, as illegitimate. This, at root, is the cause of the ongoing conflict. Were they to accord it legitimacy, the problem in Palestine/Israel would be soluble. At present, given this mindset, it isn't.
Q: Are there any lessons to be learned from the study of the 1948 War?
A: To be sure, many Israelis will learn that they must remain strong and technologically advanced; otherwise they will be overwhelmed by Arab numbers and fervor. The Arabs might learn that they must improve themselves, at least on a technological-scientific level, and better their societies and armies, if they hope to overcome Israel, though it is possible that if they do, they may lose the desire to destroy Israel. Outsiders may simply learn about the conflict and the nature of the two contending societies, at least as they were in 1948, and perhaps with certain implications for the present and future.About the Author:
Benny Morris is professor of history in the Middle East Studies Department of Ben-Gurion University, Israel. He is the leading figure among Israel's "New Historians," who over the past two decades have reshaped our understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict. His books include Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001; Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956; and The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.
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