Monday, January 05, 2009

Historian of the week: Benny Morris

Benny Morris defends the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Benny Morris is an Israeli historian of leftist political views. He became famous and controversial in 1988 with the publication of The Palestinian Refugee Problem, the first major work by an Israeli professional historian using Israeli sources to document the extent to which the flight of 700,000 Palestinians from what became Israel in 1948 was provoked not by the Arab leadership, as Israel had always declared, but by Israeli military action against Palestinian towns and communities.

Morris, who refused to do mandatory service in the Israeli army in the early 1980s and was jailed, was widely accused of disloyalty, anti-Zionism and undermining Israel.

Last week Benny Morris published an op-ed in the New York Times, “Why Israel Feels Threatened.” He followed up with an interview with CBC Radio’s "The Current" (podcast available here ). Benny Morris, the scourge of Israel’s official history, in a country with a strong left-wing peace movement, supports the military action Israel is currently conducting against Gaza.

Morris had abandoned none of his historical views or political positions. He’s ready to accept a Palestinian state. What he argues, however, is that as long as the Palestinians support entities like Hamas and Hezbollah that are dedicated not to peace but to victory (essentially defined as the removal of every living Jew from the Middle East and the establishment of a theocratic autocracy throughout the region), it is futile for Israel to talk of peace and negotiation. Israel simply has to defend its existence and try to encourage the emergence of a genuine negotiating partner on the other side. Morris believes bombing Gaza may or may not be effective (the Times piece is coolly pessimistic), but he sees no fundamental moral objection to it.

Morris has the support, actually, of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. Abbas was quoted the other day as saying Hamas has only itself to blame for the attack on Gaza. As the head of Fatah, the rival faction whose leaders in Gaza were killed off by Hamas last year, Abbas is no friend to Hamas, but that doesn't mean it isn't true. And Gazans voted to bring Hamas to power.

Morris made his case just days after the death of the Irish historian Conor Cruise O’Brien. In the 1970s, O’Brien made the case – indisputable to me -- that progress in the Irish “Troubles” required the defeat and repudiation of the Irish Republican Army and, until that happened, talking peace with the killers and their apologists was useless and self-defeating. It took about thirty years, unfortunately, before the IRA was beaten and its ideology collapsed – but who can doubt Ireland, both north and south, is in a much better situation for it. The civil rights of northern Catholics could have been addressed thirty years sooner had the IRA violence campaign never begun.

I’m willing to see the force in Morris’s argument that much the same applies in the Middle East. The Palestinians can have peace, and a state, and self-determination, and social and economic progresss – but they can’t have all those things and at the same time support genocidal theocrats and their armed militias.

We in the west are appalled by the suffering in Gaza, where some 500 people (perhaps a fifth of them non-combatants) have died. But Hamas feels no such compunction. “It does not matter how many are killed,” Hamas leaders say over and over.

The people of Gaza have had choices and elections, and for the moment they have chosen to support Hamas. They have chosen war. Now it has come to them, the effects are appalling. But it’s hard to see them as merely its victims. The historian Benny Morris makes a strong case.
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