Triumph and Calamity: Israeli Historians Expose Myth of Israel’s Birth


Every country has its myths-stories that may have no basis in fact but nevertheless serve as vital sources of national unity and strength. What sets the state of Israel apart is that its myths have become accepted as history, not only in Israel, but in much of the rest of the world as well. Thanks to the astuteness of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his successors, the conventional view today is that the modern state of Israel was the creation of a heroic and beleaguered people who fled persecution in Europe and, rejected everywhere else, sought refuge in the land that had been historically theirs.

There they were attacked, the mythology relates, first by local terrorists jealous of their success in making the desert bloom, and then by the powerful armies of surrounding Arab states. Against overwhelming odds, outnumbered Jewish soldiers fought off an enemy bent on their annihilation, and the Jewish people survived to build a thriving democracy on what had been an unpopulated wasteland. Ever since, the legend concludes, the tiny nation has been under siege by 100 million Arabs dedicated to its destruction.

Because the myth of Israel’s birth was so closely linked to the horrors of the Holocaust, to question its truth was for years as unthinkable as doubting the truth of the Holocaust itself. But today a new breed of historians is challenging much of that myth. Palestinian and other Arab scholars, Western Middle East specialists, and non-Zionist Jews such as as Elmer Berger, Alfred Lilienthal, and Norman Finkelstein have already published well-documented refutations of the official version of Israel’s history. The current debunking process, however, is being carried out for the first time by Israeli Jews-a younger generation of historians with impeccable credentials as Zionists, patriotic Israelis and scholars.

Much of their research was made possible by the opening in 1978 of files from the British Public Record and the Israeli State Archives that had been kept closed for 30 years. The information contained in these files, combined with the research of Palestinian historians, has enabled Israeli scholars to present a new perspective on the origins of a conflict that after 60 years shows no signs of abating. A significant aspect of their work is that it reveals the remarkable consistency of Israeli policy throughout those years and the use by successive Israeli leaders of the same strategies and deceptions to achieve their goals.

Benny Morris was among the first of the younger Israeli scholars to receive widespread notice when he refuted Ben-Gurion’s long-accepted assertion that the Palestinian refugees of 1947-48 left Palestine at the instruction of Arab leaders. According to Ben-Gurion, “they did so under the assumption that the invasion of Arab armies at the expiration of the mandate will destroy the Jewish state and push all the Jews into the sea, dead or alive.” In The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, published in 1988, Morris concluded that Arab leaders had not urged the local population to leave but that the exodus was mainly the result of attacks by the official Jewish army, the Haganah, and the Irgun, a militia headed by Menachem Begin that had carried out assassinations and bombings against both the British and the Palestinians during the British mandate.

Israel’s military raids were the main cause of continued violence and hostility

Morris also discounted the claim that the 1950s were years of Arab terrorism against Israel. In many cases, he found, the “terrorists” were simply dispossessed Palestinian farmers who had sneaked back across the border in an attempt to harvest some of their crops. Morris and other Israeli historians believe that Israel’s military raids during those years were the main cause of continued violence and hostility.

Although Morris does not believe it was official Jewish policy to carry out massacres and other atrocities against Palestinians in the process of achieving statehood, other scholars cite the leadership’s Plan Dalet, or Plan D, as evidence that the Jews were determined to expel the Palestinians from as much territory as possible and by whatever means necessary. A recent book by Ilan Pappé, associate professor of Middle East history at the University of Haifa, emphasizes the importance of Plan D in the creation of Israel. In The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-51 (available through the AET Book Club), Pappé writes that the Jewish army formally adopted the plan in early 1948 after Arabs protested a U.N. partition proposal that allocated to the Palestinians only 38 percent of mandatory Palestine although they made up more than 65 percent of the population.

Under Plan D, once the British authorities were out of the way, Jewish fighters would treat all of Palestine as a no-man’s land and seize any Arab village or town from which an attack on Jews was launched. But officials of the Jewish Agency’s Land Department, which was headed by a close ally of Ben-Gurion, chose to ignore the difference between friendly and hostile villages and encouraged local commanders to evacuate Arabs wherever there was fertile land. Jewish forces also attacked villages that lay along strategic routes, such as Deir Yassin, where on April 9, 1948, the Irgun slaughtered more than 250 men, women, and children. After Deir Yassin, frightened Palestinians fled in even greater numbers. From April 1, 1948 to the end of the war, Pappé writes, “Jewish operations were guided by the desire to occupy the greatest possible portion of Palestine.”

Early “Facts on the Ground”

Plan D was the first concerted attempt by the Israelis to pre-empt future negotiations by using force to create “facts on the ground.” It is a strategy that Israel has pursued to this day, when almost every week brings the announcement of additional confiscation of Palestinian land. Between 1947 and 1951, Israel’s drive to expand resulted in the replacement of the Palestinian majority by Jewish immigrants from all over the world, the obliteration of more than 400 Palestinian villages, and the permanent homelessness and impoverishment of nearly a million people. What Israelis call “an exchange of populations” was for the Palestinians a calamity.

Israel’s apologists blame the Palestinians’ misfortune on their opposition to partition, and especially to a Jewish state. If the Arabs chose to fight rather than share, then Israel would also fight-and take enough territory to insure its future security. But Pappé describes a more complex situation, in which blame is shared several ways.

First, U.S. determination to control deliberations on Palestine resulted in the appointment to the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) of “inexperienced members from all parts of the world who had very little prior knowledge, if any, of the regional situation.” Consequently, Pappé goes on, “they proposed a Jewish state where half the population would be Arab.” Like the rest of the world, members of UNSCOP were strongly influenced by their sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust, whose plight they had witnessed during a tour of Europe’s displaced persons camps. In 1947 when the U.S. refused to admit a substantial number of Jewish DPs, a Jewish state seemed the only solution.

Pappé blames the Arab leadership for diplomatic and political incompetence. While the Jews appeared willing to compromise, members of the Arab Higher Committee, representing the Palestinians, refused even to meet with UNSCOP. They insisted on an Arab state in all of Palestine, with no Jewish political participation or further immigration. Unlike the Jews, who by 1948 had an infrastructure already in place, the Arab leaders made no plans for transition to statehood. In fact, according to Pappé, by late 1947 only one member of the Arab Higher Committee was in Palestine. The others had fled at the prospect of fighting.

The scattered, though sometimes punishing, attacks on Jewish settlements by Palestinian irregulars provided the excuse for the Jewish army to proceed with what Pappé calls the “uprooting, expulsion, and pauperization of the Palestinians, with the clear purpose of taking firm control over Western Palestine.” Israel’s expansion into territory designated for the Palestinians precipitated the Arab invasion of May 1948. Contrary to myth, that invasion never threatened Israel’s survival. Each side had roughly the same number of troops to begin with, but Israel’s army was far better trained and equipped. Pappé writes that the weak and disunited Arab leaders had launched the invasion reluctantly, forced to act by popular pressure instigated largely by their political opponents. By July 1948 the Arab armies totaled 46,800; Israel’s army was twice as large.

A chief obstacle to the Arab cause was the fact that King Abdullah of Jordan was playing a double game. While posing to the Arab world as an anti-Zionist, he was at the same time secretly conspiring with Jewish leaders to divide up Palestine. In November 1947 Abdullah met with Jewish Agency representative Golda Meir and agreed not to attack Israel in return for Israel’s acquiescence to Transjordan’s annexation of the West Bank. Abdullah’s crack Arab Legion did fight the Jewish army in Jerusalem, but elsewhere he kept to the agreement. The remaining Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq were ultimately no match for Israeli forces, so that by 1949 Israel occupied all of mandatory Palestine except for East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which were taken over by Transjordan.

The last chance for a negotiated peace between the two sides was the Lausanne Conference, which opened in April 1949 and fizzled to a close the following September-leaving Israel in full possession of the territory it had captured and the Palestinians in permanent exile. Hopes rose briefly at the beginning, when both sides agreed to a two-part protocol, calling for recognition of the U.N. partition plan as a basis for negotiations, and for acceptance of the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Pappé points out that in accepting partition, the Arabs in effect recognized the state of Israel. But Ben-Gurion had no intention of yielding any territory or allowing the Palestinians to return. Israel’s application for membership in the U.N. was scheduled to be voted on in May and the State Department had hinted there might be difficulties if Israel did not sign. Israel did sign, but shortly after the U.N. vote, the Israeli delegation in Lausanne reneged on the agreement by refusing to discuss the refugee question until a number of other issues had been resolved and by demanding that the Arab leaders formally recognize Israel. The U.S. representative at Lausanne, Mark Etheridge, was convinced that Israel had signed the protocol solely to gain admission to the U.N. More than 40 years later Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir adopted the same tactic when he agreed in Madrid to enter Middle East peace talks while secretly intending, as he later admitted, to drag them out indefinitely.

Pappé describes the Arab delegates at Lausanne as disunited and inconsistent, but despite the persistent myth that they wanted only to push Israel into the sea, he concludes that “there were indeed Arab leaders who sought peace with Israel.” The Arabs had come to Lausanne with two objectives, reviving the partition resolution and securing repatriation of the refugees, but by the summer of 1949 Israel had greater priorities than peace. When Syria’s military ruler Husni Zaim proposed that he and Ben-Gurion meet personally to discuss a possible peace treaty, Ben-Gurion rejected the offer despite the advice of his foreign minister, Moshe Sharrett. Zaim was shortly afterward overthrown. When Sharrett suggested that Israel accept the return of as few as 75,000 Palestinians, Ben-Gurion refused even that concession.

The failure of the Lausanne Conference left Israel in possession of the Negev as well as the Galilee, with the rest of the world’s tacit acceptance. Although members of the Truman administration viewed Israel’s actions during 1947-48 as obstructive of long-term peace in the region, the U.S. exerted only minimal pressure on the new Jewish state. The reason has since become familiar: in 1948 Truman was in a close election race with Thomas E. Dewey of New York and he desperately needed support from the traditionally Democratic Jewish community. When Dewey accused Truman of undermining Israel’s security by supporting a peace plan by U.N. mediator Count Folke Bernadotte that would have given the Galilee to Israel and the Negev to the Palestinians, Truman withdrew his endorsement of the plan and never again waivered in his support for Israel.

Since then the only U.S. president who has dared to challenge Israel was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who used the threat of economic sanctions to force Israel back from its invasion of the Sinai in 1956. In 1990 George Bush opposed a U.S. guarantee of $10 billion in loans to Israel without a promise that Israel would build no more settlements in the occupied territories, but he gave in when Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister.

In addition to highlighting the continuity of Israeli policy and tactics over 50 years, Pappé’s book also provides insight into why the Palestinian cause failed for so long. At every stage of the conflict, between 1947 and 1951, the Palestinians relied on outsiders for help. But then as now, at each crucial point those presumed allies-whether the Arab leadership, the U.S., or the U.N.-had more urgent priorities. The success of the intifada in forcing the Israelis into at least a semblance of negotiations is evidence of how effective Palestinian action can be.

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford, CA. A member of the International Jewish Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

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