Opinion

Gideon Levy Is Wrong About the Past, the Present, and I Believe the Future as Well

Eventually there will be one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, but it will be wholly different from the one he envisions

Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, left, and Prof. Benny Morris, a historian.
Yanai Yechiel; Chandler West for IRL Productions.

Gideon Levy is wrong about the past, the present, and I believe the future as well.

Past

In an article by Gideon Levy, he described me, based on my remarks in an interview with Ari Shavit, as “the researcher who presented two choices, ethnic cleansing or genocide." This relates, of course, to what happened in 1948. The unknowing reader is supposed to understand from Levy’s words that, rather than destroying the Arabs, the Jews choose to expel them. But that is not what I said.

I said then and I say now that the Jewish community in 1948 had two possibilities: Either that the Arabs would commit genocide against them – and I have no doubt that an Arab victory in 1948 would have ended with mass slaughter of Jews – or the Jews, to defend themselves, would expel Arabs, or at least prevent those who fled and were expelled from returning.

The Jews chose not to be massacred, and rightly so. But even ethnic cleansing according to the meaning of the term as it has been defined in recent decades, based on the actions of the Serbs in the 1990s in Bosnia, which included many intentional acts of murder and rape, was not carried out here. What happened here was a struggle between two peoples who both claimed the right to the same land.

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Between November 1947 and March 1948, the militias of Arabs in the Land of Israel, which were later called the Palestinians, attacked the Jewish community, and in April-May of 1948, they were defeated by the Haganah Jewish defense organization. Subsequently, in May-June 1948, the armies of the neighboring countries invaded and attacked the State of Israel. They too, were defeated in the end.

During that same war, the Jewish forces conquered some 400 Arab communities that served as bases for the Palestinian militias, and thereafter hosted the invading armies (as the Jewish communities served as bases for the Jewish forces), and most of the inhabitants fled and were expelled – that same “original sin” of which Levy speaks.

Some of the Arabs who were expelled left on the advice of, under pressure from or on the instructions of Arab leaders, as happened in Haifa in April 1948. During the war, the Israeli government formulated a policy intended to prevent the return of the refugees (who had just tried to destroy the Jewish community); and this policy was indeed carried out on the ground. But there was no policy of “expulsion of the Arabs,” and so some 160,000 Arabs remained, about one-fifth of the country’s total population.

There were officers who expelled Arabs (Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin) and there were some who did not (Benjamin Dunkelman, Moshe Carmel). But the majority fled or were made to flee. Not exactly “ethnic cleansing.”

During the war both sides massacred civilians and prisoners of war. The first massacre of the war took place in December 1947, when Arabs murdered 39 Jews at the Haifa oil refineries. But during the war, the Jewish side murdered more Arabs than the number of Jews murdered by the Arab side. (That is if only because the Jews took over hundreds of Arab villages, while the Arabs took over fewer than a dozen Jewish communities – and the Palestinians did not occupy even one Jewish community. It was where armed Palestinians fought alongside Jordanian forces in the conquest of a Jewish settlement – Kfar Etzion, on May 13, 1948 – that the largest massacre of Jews took place during the war.)

The story of Arab aggression against the Jewish community – in rounds of violence in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1936-39 and in 1947-48, is entirely missing from Levy’s article. There, the aggressor is always the Jew, the victim is always the Arab. The Arab is always the object, not the subject. He is not responsible for anything. Levy “buys” the Arab narrative, which considers the return to Zion as a general act of invasion, lacing logic and justice, and therefore violence against it is in the realm of legitimate self-defense against an aggressor.

Like the Arabs, Levy completely ignores: a) the historical bond between the Jew and the Land of Israel that is at the basis of Zionism and its justification; and b) the need of the Jews for a safe haven from the historical murderousness of non-Jews toward them – especially Christians, but more than once, Muslims as well. The Jews, according to the narrative of the Arabs, are simply a bunch of robbers, who for some reason have decided to steal the Land of Israel from its Arab inhabitants.

As he looks at the past, Levy also ignores the fact that the Zionist leadership – in 1937, 1947 1978, 2000, 2007 and 2008 – agreed to a solution based on territorial compromise, while the Palestinian leadership – under Haj Amin al-Husseini and Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas – consistently rejected any compromise proposed by the British, the United Nations and the governments of Israel (as long as Abbas refuses to accept the formula of “two states for two peoples,” and deceptively says that he does indeed support “two states” without mentioning “two peoples” – the difference between the current Palestinian president and his predecessors is marginal).

Present

It is true that the current Israeli leadership has rejected the idea of two states for two peoples, and therefore it is increasing settlement in the territories – and that is one of the reasons that I would be happy to see the government of Benjamin Netanyahu fall. (There are other reasons – increased religiosity, attempts to restrict and destroy democracy, personal corruption, etc.) I never supported Netanyahu, whose habits only disgust me.

Levy, if I understand correctly, supports the continued rule of Netanyahu, perhaps based on the clichéd revolutionary logic that the worse things get, the better it will be in the future. Perhaps like his Haaretz colleague Benny Ziffer, he is charmed by the man and his wife. Perhaps he understands that Netanyahu’s policy necessarily leads to a single state in which there will be an Arab majority – that is, the end of Israel as a Jewish state.   

Levy describes the Israeli occupation regime in the territories as “a military dictatorship, one of the cruelest in the world.” That’s a wild exaggeration. I have always opposed occupation, a messianic occupation from a moral standpoint. Perhaps Levy has noticed that, contrary to many of his friends, I sat in jail (for a brief spell) for my opposition to the occupation. And I have never been among those who have deemed the Israeli occupation regime in the territories as “enlightened.” (See my detailed description in my book “Righteous Victims.”)

The occupation has always been based on violence (via the army, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Police), on imprisonment and exiling opponents, as well as – here and there – the killing of opponents of the occupation (whom our leaders call “terrorists,” although in recent years most of the opponents have aimed their knives at settlers and soldiers or police). But "a military dictatorship, one of the cruelest in the world?”

Has Levy never heard about the deeds of the neighboring regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad? Or our slightly further-flung neighbors, the ayatollahs in Tehran (or regimes in a large number of countries in Africa and Asia)?

It is true that in the West, there are no peoples ruling over other peoples, and such control is perceived, rightly, as immoral. But a civilized journalist also needs, on the other hand, to consider how Israel got into the current situation – how Israel was surrounded and threatened in May-June 1967, followed by the Palestine Liberation Organization’s refusal to make peace, its desire to wipe Israel out and its evasion of proposals for territorial compromise. And then, on the other hand, one must remember the problematic aspect from a security standpoint of giving territory to an Arab regime (as reflected in what happened in the Gaza Strip when we withdrew in 2005).

Future

With regard to the future, I still believe that the idea of two states for two peoples and territorial partition are the only basis for a solution that would provide a measure of justice to the two peoples. (Total “justice” to one side would of necessity negate any possibility for “justice” for the other side). But like Levy, I also believe that it is not possible to bring it about at the moment, and it may not even be possible at all in the future.

But I would add that I have always had my doubts over the degree of realism of a partition of the British Mandate-ruled Land of Israel in such a way that the Jews get 78 to 80 percent of the territory while the Arabs make do with 20 to 22 percent. Even if there would be Palestinians who would sign such an agreement, the Palestinian people, led by Hamas and Fatah, would roundly reject such an agreement, and it would not be long for this world.

An agreement based on a two-state solution necessarily requires granting the Palestinians space that would permit them to absorb hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Syria. Such territory would need to include 95 percent of the West Bank (as proposed by U.S. President Bill Clinton in December 2000), as well as the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Transjordan, and perhaps also a portion of Sinai. Without such a territorial expanse, a two-state agreement is not sustainable.

A peace agreement based on partition doesn’t appear realistic under existing circumstances, and what is Levy proposing instead? A state of all of its citizens, a single democratic state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It sounds good – particularly if you are sitting in café in Paris or London, but we live in the jungle of the Middle East, surrounded by such successful countries as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia; in short, by Muslim Arab countries that are far from embracing the values of democracy and tolerance and liberalism.

Are the Palestinians not Muslim (other than perhaps 5 percent who are Christian)? Are the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank liberal and tolerant and democratic? Are there grounds for believing that the Palestinians would conduct themselves differently than their Arab brethren elsewhere? In short, are the Palestinians comparable to Norwegians?

A one-state solution with Jews and Arabs is a recipe for endless violence and anarchy that would ultimately lead to a country with an Arab majority – and a persecuted Jewish minority that would do anything to escape, as the members of Jewish communities in Arab countries did when their neighbors chased them out between 1948 and 1965.

In his article, Levy notes the hostility and hate that developed among the Arabs toward the Jews over the past 100 years (and to a lesser extent, hatred of Jews toward Arabs also developed).

And rightfully so. From the Arabs’ standpoint, we have stolen the country from them, trampled upon their dignity, jailed many and killed the parents of thousands of them. Would such things be forgotten when the Arabs, along with us, establish one state? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Arabs to use the new state to exact their revenge and retake the land and the homes that were “stolen” from them in 1948 and subsequently? There is also no doubt that the relative wealth of the Jews in the country would be tempting to the less well-off Arabs. Property crime would skyrocket.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, there was a handful of Jews who, through the groups Brit Shalom and Ihud, advocated for a binational state. The idea never took off. The vast majority of Jews rejected the idea, but it attracted even less support (almost no one, actually) among the Arabs.

And the few Jews – less than half a transit camp – who supported the idea never managed to solve the “demographic problem” – in the face of the reality of an Arab majority and Jewish minority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. If the single state would be democratic and have an Arab majority, then the majority would decide the state’s character and course of action. The Jews would be marginalized and then – out.

The idea proposed by Levy of a single state faces the same problem. There are currently about 6 to 7 million Arabs and about the same number of Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. In another decade or two, by virtue of their more rapid rate of population growth, there would be a solid Arab majority – which would only grow once the single state is established, and after its Arabs also seek the return to the country of millions of Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, Syria and Jordan (and how would the Jews prevent that?).

And then the one state, with an Arab majority, would conduct itself in accordance with the way of life of the majority of the people. Would the custom of killing to maintain the family’s honor disappear? Would violence and crime, reckless driving and government and clan corruption, which are apparent on a daily basis in Arab communities, vanish? What Jews would want to live in such a country?

The Jews of the country would flee, as Jews in Algeria and Libya and Egypt and Syria and Iraq and Yemen did. Levy may be among the last remaining Jews in the land of their dreams. May he enjoy it.

If we are permitted to return to reality for a moment, it seems to me that what existed will continue. The occupation regime will continue to function. The Arabs will suffer and the Jews will also suffer (although a bit less). And maybe Levy is right and this could go on for another 100 years, although I have my doubts.

At the end of the process, the one state will take shape. The Jews will control it until international sanctions and Arab rebellion and pressure from the neighbors overcome them. Then there will be a state with an Arab government and a shrinking Jewish minority.

This 24th Arab state will join the Arab League. The State of Palestine will slowly sink into the Middle Eastern sand alongside its neighbors after the oil reserves in the Arabian peninsula have been consumed.

Finally, Mor Altshuler’s article, which attacks both me and Levy, is not worthy of a response. Ignorance apparently knows no bounds.

Prof. Benny Morris is a historian.