Revisionism on the West Bank

June 28, 2010 Topics: DefenseHistorySecuritySociety Regions: LevantIsraelMiddle East Tags: Zionism

Revisionism on the West Bank

Mini Teaser: For many, Israel’s founding is shrouded in mysticism. But there is a battle raging among the historians of the Holy Land. The current stalemate is a story of bad actions on both sides. Beware those who rewrite narratives.

by Author(s): Benny Morris

Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 336 pp., $32.50.


[amazon 0300127278 full] EFRAIM KARSH’S title is, of course, ironic. For close on a century, Palestinians and other Arabs have accused Britain of “betraying the Arabs” and, particularly, the Arabs of Palestine. In the wake of World War I, the British (“Perfidious Albion”), so the charge went, failed to uphold their wartime promises to Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca and leader of the anti-Ottoman revolt in Hijaz, regarding Arab self-determination and independence. More specifically, according to this interpretation, in a letter from October 1915, Britain promised Palestine to the Arabs—and then went ahead and gave it, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to the Jews. The British went on to conquer Palestine and in 1920, to establish a mandatory government that promoted and protected the Zionist enterprise and suppressed Palestinian Arab nationalism, thus paving the way for the coup de grâce of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when the Jews trounced the Palestinians and established Israel over 78 percent of Palestine’s landmass, and the Jordanians, with British encouragement, took over almost all the rest (the West Bank).

Karsh, a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, has a radically different take. Palestine Betrayed, a review of the history of the years 1920–1948, is strongly focused on the 1948 war between the Jewish community in Palestine, which declared statehood in May 1948, and the country’s Arab population and the surrounding Arab states. Karsh charges that both (a) the British betrayed the Jews and ultimately reneged on their commitment to support Jewish statehood, and (b) the Arab leaders, both inside and outside Palestine, betrayed Palestine and the Palestinians—by rejecting the various compromises proposed by the international community and leading them carelessly into both a revolt against the British (1936–1939) and then eight years later into a war against the Jews which resulted in disaster for both the Palestinians and the Arab states. Instead of looking after the welfare of the Palestinians, their leaders and the heads of the surrounding countries consigned them to a refugeedom that has persisted for the past six decades.


FOR THE uninitiated, there is something commendable about Palestine Betrayed. For decades a political scientist who, from armchairs in north Tel Aviv and north London, churned out volume after volume about the geopolitics and strategic concerns of the Middle East (Soviet-Syrian arms deals, Saddam Hussein’s ambitions, etc.) based mainly on newspaper clippings and conjecture, Karsh has now graduated to historiography based, as it should be, on archives. This change of habit or discipline was apparently precipitated by his now-famous assault in the 1990s on Israel’s revisionist “New Historians,” which somewhat preceded his actual descent into the bowels of the contemporary documentation.

Now, instead of merely taking to task this or that New Historian, Karsh has put together a “history” of his own which, by the way, serves also as a full-throated rebuttal of the Israeli New Historiography of the late 1980s, which tried to show that the Middle East conflict wasn’t a simple struggle between good (Zionists) and evil (Arabs), and that the Zionists and Israel also had a share in bringing about the tragedy of 1948 and the events on either side of that revolutionary year. Prominent among the objects of Karsh’s attacks—let me put the cards on the table, face up—are Avi Shlaim, an Iraqi-born British historian from Oxford University; the explicitly anti-Zionist Ilan Pappé, formerly of Haifa University and now a teacher at Exeter University; and, of course, yours truly.

In Palestine Betrayed, Karsh takes his readers back to a pure Manichaean view of the past, but this time with extensive endnotes. Karsh marshals a vast panoply, which refers the reader to documentation in Israeli, British and American archives. (Occasionally, he culls also from Arab memoirs and newspapers.) Many readers, I fear, will feel stifled by the sheer weight of dusty memoranda and correspondence, if only because each of Karsh’s endnotes, with few exceptions, refers to anywhere between five and twenty particular documents. This uncustomary method of piling up the references usually obviates any possibility of identifying the source of any specific quotation carried in the text. Which is very annoying.

But most historians probably won’t bother to work out these interminable referential puzzles if only because they will have been put off, long before, by the palpable one-sidedness of Karsh’s narrative. All too often it gives off the smell of shop-soiled propaganda. And, let me quickly note, I say this despite the fact that I am in almost complete agreement with Karsh’s political conclusions (which in some way emerge naturally and, I feel, irrefutably from the history) and in some measure with his history as well.


FIRST, TO the political implications. Put simply, Karsh argues that throughout its existence, from (the anti-Semitic) Haj Amin al-Husseini through (the devious) Yasser Arafat to (the forthright and murderous) Hamas and (the seemingly benign) Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian national movement has rejected every offered compromise with Zionism and has demanded all of Palestine as its patrimony—and consistently rejected partition and a two-state solution, at base denying the legitimacy of Zionism. This, unfortunately, remains the outlook of the Palestinian leadership today, as its minor branch, the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization (which, let’s recall, lost the general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Hamas back in 2006), enters yet another duplicitous round of negotiations with Israel and the United States.

Moreover, the Palestinians were almost consistently supported in their rejectionism by the rulers of the surrounding Arab states. Even today, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, which signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively, have maintained a “cold” nonbelligerency with the Jewish state and continue to support the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees. If implemented, such a refugee return would result in short order in Israel’s demise, as President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan surely must realize.


NOW, TO Karsh’s history. In all such works, much depends on the historian’s selection of documents and on his judgments about where the burden of proof lies. It is in these that Karsh fails, and fails dismally.

This is what Karsh tells his readers: The Arabs of Palestine were enamored with the Zionist settlers and appreciated their economic beneficence—but fanatical or jealous or competitive educated Arabs, clerics, Ottoman officials, urban notables incited them to resist the Zionist influx, which they wrongly depicted as minatory. Later, during the Palestine Mandate, British officials struggled against the Zionist aim of Jewish statehood and pumped up Palestinian nationalism. In 1948, most Palestinians, just as their leaders launched a war of extermination against the Jewish community in Palestine/Israel, continued to ignore the call of the extremists. (Indeed, Karsh writes, quoting the Palestine Post, “Arabs joined in [Jewish] celebrations [of the UN partition vote of November 29, 1947]”—but is this really representative of how the Arabs greeted the partition vote?) But in the end, the masses were sucked into the cycle of belligerency. And the Arabs’ war was supported by the British. What’s more—and this is really the focus of the book—the Palestinian refugee problem was created mainly by the Palestinian leaders themselves and by Arab officials who called on the Palestinians to evacuate their homes; Israeli expulsions, and Karsh concedes grudgingly that there were a few, had only a marginal effect. Indeed, according to Karsh, up until May 1948—and even beyond—the Zionist leaders continuously pleaded with the Palestinians to stay put and enjoy life in the emergent, democratic, egalitarian State of Israel. Lastly, Karsh argues, at war’s end the Israelis did all they could to achieve peace, offering concession after concession; they even favored the establishment of a separate Palestinian Arab state. But the Arab leaders would have none of it. And of the most peace minded of them, King Abdullah I of Jordan, Karsh says, “For all his affability, Abdullah was no more accepting of Jewish national aspirations than any other Arab leader.”

Of course, there’s some truth in all of this; but, to employ an out-of-use British Mandate word, taken as a whole, it is “tosh.”


KARSH’S PORTRAYAL of Britain’s role is one-sided and without nuance. The British government, between 1917 and 1937, supported and protected the Zionist enterprise. In 1938–1939 the Chamberlain government indeed reneged on this commitment and adopted an appeasing tack toward the Arabs, severely curbing Jewish immigration (just as the Nazis were closing in on Europe’s Jews, who were desperate for a safe haven) and supporting Arab-majority rule over Palestine. But, in the crunch, the British did not vigorously oppose partition (and Jewish statehood) at the United Nations in November 1947 (Karsh says, for instance, that then–British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin “fought tooth and nail” against it; but Whitehall instructed its ambassadors worldwide not to advise their host countries either way, and Britain itself abstained in the crucial ballot). In February 1948, the British supported the planned Jordanian takeover of the area today called the West Bank and cautioned Jordan not to invade the areas designated for Jewish statehood (except for the Negev, which Britain appears to have goaded the Jordanians into seizing), and in May of that year, London cut off arms supplies and ammunition to its Arab client states, in line with the UN-imposed arms embargo (which Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, arming Israel, defied).

Pullquote: Karsh has put together a "history" of his own which is a full-throated rebuttal of Israeli New Historiography. Prominent among his attacks is yours truly.Essay Types: Book Review