1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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The Israeli war for independence has never really ended. The issues in the conflict remain not only unresolved, but violently contested. Of the five Arab states that invaded Israel in 1948, three (Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq) remain legally at war with Israel. The Arab refugees who fled the war zone remain stateless persons.

The ongoing nature of the war has impeded efforts to tell the war’s story. The archives of the authoritarian states surrounding Israel of course remain closed. And even democratic Israel has not felt free to open all wartime records, lest they be used as weapons of propaganda by unreconciled enemies. To an amazing extent for a war fought in the modern era, the Israeli war of independence remains wrapped in myths, both the Jewish myth of “purity of arms” and the anti-Jewish myths that accuse the Jewish state of every crime.

Through a long and controversial career, Benny Morris has proved himself Israel’s leading myth buster. His classic book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), revised and expanded with new research in 2004, minutely examined the flight of 700,000 native Arab inhabitants of what became Israel. Morris’ account confirmed some elements of Jewish mythology. Yes, Arab leaders and state broadcasters did indeed encourage local inhabitants to flee. And no, there was no central order from the Israeli high command to expel Palestinians.

However – and here was the new and uncomfortable finding – many important regional Israeli commanders did pursue a policy of expulsion, sometimes deliberately committing atrocities to hasten flight. By the standards of 20th century cruelty, these atrocities hardly begin to compare. But they fell below the standard Israelis expected of themselves – and professed before the world. And all Israelis, up to Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, understood that those Palestinians who fled would never be allowed to return.

Now Morris has directed his energy to writing the fullest and best narrative history of the independence war: 1948. Until such time as Arab archives are opened, assuming they exist, this is likely to be the definitive history we shall ever have.

Unlike The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris’ 1948 is a lively and accessible work intended for a large audience. In Morris’ telling, the first Arab-Israeli war broke into two phases.

The first phase was confined to the borders of Mandatory Palestine. From the time the British decided to quit Palestine – and especially from the UN partition vote of November 1947 – a guerilla war erupted inside the Mandatory territories. Incited by their catastrophically extremist and incompetent leadership, Palestinian militias conducted attacks on Jewish settlements, using tactics that often crossed the line from irregular to frankly terroristic.

At first, these attacks had some success. The small Jewish settler community (the Yishuv as it was called) lacked almost all the instrumentalities of war. But it had huge advantages too: above all (and this is the point that Morris stresses) a powerful sense of community and sacrifice. These were people for whom extermination was not an abstract or hypothetical threat. Seldom has there been a more spectacular demonstration of Tocqueville’s observation about the military power of a democracy on the defensive.

Palestinian society by contrast proved as friable as old mortar plaster. It crumbled under pressure. As Morris notes, there seems not a single example of an elite family taking part in the fighting. King Abdullah of Jordan, in a message urging Palestinians not to flee, insisted that everybody remain to fight the Jews except for the old, the sick, women, children … and the rich.

In 1947, the Palestinians paid the price for the Arab Uprising of 1936-37. That year’s strife had begun as a pogrom against the Jews and ended as a civil war within the Palestinian community. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammad al-Husseini, had instigated the uprising – then devoted as much energy to murdering his internal Arab opponents and clan rivals as to fighting the Jews or the British. The uprising ended in a defeat that left Palestinian society not only weaker and poorer, but also riven by family feuds and internecine hatreds.

After the UN vote, the Palestinians cracked under the strain of a war they had themselves launched. Dissident groups within the Yishuv – notably the more radical Irgun – submitted to political authority; the Palestinians turned on each other. The Jewish militias came to look and act more and more like a regular army; the Palestinian militias disintegrated into localized gangs. By the time the British evacuated Palestine in May 1948, the internal phase of the war had ended in bloody but decisive triumph for the Jews.

This unexpected and unwelcome presented the neighboring Arab states with an unhappy dilemma. Their populations utterly rejected a Jewish presence in Palestine. (While it’s often suggested that the Arab-Israeli dispute was “national” at the beginning and only became “religious” in the 1980s and 1990s, Morris notes that the Arabs themselves used the language of Islam and jihad from the very beginning.)

Yet the Arab states were in no way prepared for war. Their armies were designed for repression at home, not battle beyond their borders. None of the Arab leaders could admit this, however. They bragged and boasted to each other, creating a grimly humorous situation in which each belligerent knew its own weakness – but credited its neighbors with great strength. The Egyptians invaded because King Farouk feared that King Abdullah of Jordan would otherwise gobble up the whole of Palestine for himself. They Syrians and Iraqis of course could not afford to lag behind. And the shaky Christian-led government of Lebanon dared not expose itself as less Arab than the rest …

Adding to the bizarre ironies of the situation were the actions of the international community. It is of course hard if not impossible to generalize about the intentions of so many different national governments. But as expressed in the actions of the United Nations, the outlook of the international community could be summed up as follows:

The leading states of the English-speaking world dreaded both an Israeli victory and an Israeli defeat, with the US tilting slightly more in favor of Israel and Britain tilting slightly against. Both governments wanted to avoid a massacre of the Jewish population of course. But they also wanted to pressure the Israelis to accept something less than the already narrow borders they had been awarded in 1947 – and Israeli success threatened to win something more. (Which is of course what happened.)

The result: a series of diplomatic initiatives intended to restrain Israel, all of which backfired badly.

The first initiative was an arms embargo imposed equally on all sides. This embargo might have been expected to help the Arabs, since they started the war with a vastly larger inventory of weapons. In fact, it did just the opposite: The embargo cut the Arabs off from desperately needed resupply. The Israelis, who had established arms smuggling operations in pre-independence days, bought World War II surplus on international black markets, did deals with Eastern European governments, and (as the war advanced) began to build their own thanks to their emerging industrial capacity.

The “international” phase of the war was punctuated by two truces, each imposed at a moment when the Arabs had suffered a bad defeat. The idea was to open a space for negotiation before the Arab position deteriorated further. But the Arabs – terrified of their own populations, unwilling to expose weakness to rival Arab regimes – refused to negotiate. So the pauses instead assisted the Israelis, whose strength grew over time while the Arab strength waned. One dramatic example: In May 1948, the Israelis had no air force to speak of. By January 1949, they had won clear air superiority – thanks in great part to the many international volunteers, Jewish and Christian, who arrived to pilot the antique aircraft the Israelis had foraged from around the world.

The war did however eventually end, not in peace but in armistice. The new Israeli state was established – and one by one the Arab belligerents collapsed into instability. The Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1953, Iraq’s in 1958. King Abdullah of Jordan was assassinated. Syria plunged into 20 years of coups and counter-coups. The refugees were refused refuge by their host governments and left to welter and fester in refugee camps. And the 1949 armistice lines – lines that might have become accepted international borders had the Arabs been willing to sign a peace treaty – were soon expanded by further rounds of fighting.

Each of those rounds would have its own story, and yet the pattern of the conflict revealed in Round One would repeat again and again. Before each round, the numerical superiority of Israel’s enemies would look an awesome advantage. The rhetoric of enemy leaders from the Grand Mufti to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would threaten annihilating violence. The international community would always cluck and disapprove and seek to achieve peace through Israeli concession.

And yet in the test, those enemies would prove divided and uncertain; the rhetoric, a substitute for planning and purpose; and the international community would disappoint those who looked to it to impose a peace in their favor. The rise of Israel since 1948 has been the most astonishing act of state-building of the 20th century. For 60 years, we have heard that time was not on Israel’s side. But those who wait for “time” to win their battles for them will discover how very, very, very long “time” can take.

Someday, probably, some kind of negotiated peace will come to Israel. When it does, it will confirm the result won in 1948. Till then, Morris’ authoritative history will stand as a indispensable guide not only to what happened then, but why – and, by inference, why all subsequent attempts to overturn the verdict have so ignominiously failed.

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