Editor’s Note: The following is the concluding article in a series of debating essays between Lawrence Wright and Benny Morris. Please see here the recent book review in TNI’s latest print issue that sparked this debate and the response and counter-response that have prompted the final essay below.
Professor Morris says he didn’t defend ethnic cleansing in his 2004 interview with Haaretz. In a way, that’s true; he actually advocated it. Citing what he believes was David Ben-Gurion’s policy of transfer, Morris says Israel’s first premier failed to go far enough. “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population.” Morris goes on to say, “Maybe [Ben-Gurion] should have done a complete job.” The Arabs who remain in Israel are a “time bomb,” he believes, and he can envision the day when they would also have to be expelled.
As for the Kahane Commission, which Morris prefers to reference instead of his own unsparing account of the massacre of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, Morris says that the report concludes that Israeli generals were simply slow to appreciate the scale of the massacre, and that they brought it to a halt as soon as they understood what was happening. He faults me for saying that there were no terrorists in the camp. “How on earth can he ‘know’ this?” Morris states. Perhaps a less selective reading of the Kahane Commission report would shed some light on this matter. The report describes a briefing—while the massacre was going on—in the Israeli forward command post, 200 meters from one of the camps. The briefing was tape-recorded. Brigadier General Amos Yaron spoke about the Phalangists’ entry into the camps. The Phalangists, the general says, “are pondering what to do with the population they are finding inside. On the one hand, it seems, there are no terrorists there.” The Palestinians who were in the camp General Yaron describes were “women, children and apparently also old people.” This accords with later reports by journalists, diplomats and the Red Cross, who entered the camps after the slaughter to view the corpses.
Once again, Morris approvingly enlists the Kahane Commission when he says that, unlike the American army following the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, the report recommended that senior officers be dismissed—“and they were, starting with Ariel Sharon, the defense minister.” It’s true that Sharon stepped down from his ministry, but he remained in Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s cabinet.
Morris continues to hold me responsible for a theory I don’t actually endorse—that the Palestinians are the descendants of the Philistines, a people that Morris asserts simply vanished. In his theory, unsupported by facts, the Palestinians are the descendants of Muslim conquerors from Arabia in the seventh century CE. And yet genetic studies have repeatedly demonstrated that the Jews and the Palestinians come from the same gene pool. Palestinians may speak Arabic, but that doesn’t mean that they came from Arabia any more than did the Egyptians or the Algerians. Beyond the genetic evidence, there are powerful cultural similarities between the Palestinians and the Jews, as Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak ben-Zvi, Israel’s second president, noted in their book, Eretz Israel in the Past and Present. They believed that the Palestinians were actually Jews who had converted to Islam after the Ottoman conquest. Ben-Zvi used to wander in Palestinian villages, among his “long-forgotten brethren,” recording the resemblance of Arab place-names to Hebrew ones and the affinity of religious practices. In the windows of Arab homes, Ben-Zvi would sometimes find candles lit on Friday nights—a residue of ancient Jewish tradition, he believed. Some modern scholars have come to very similar conclusions.
Morris says he believes in a two-state solution, although he admitted to Haaretz that he didn’t think it would bring peace; indeed, he says there is no possibility of peace in this or the next generation. I disagree with him. The book I wrote, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, shows that peace—even between Arabs and Jews—is possible. Camp David proves it. In the thirty-five years since the accords were signed, the treaty between Egypt and Israel has withstood all the tumult in the Middle East.
In no way do I think Morris is being dishonest in his conclusions, even if I don’t agree with them. Anyone interested in Israel’s past owes a debt to Morris, a courageous scholar who has been vilified by the left and the right for his views. He has done more than any other historian to expose the dark moments of Israel’s beginnings. I’m certainly not alone in drawing different lessons from Morris’ histories than he does himself. He has chosen to embrace those black marks and call them necessary for Israel’s existence. I don’t believe that the expulsions of the Palestinians were required for Israel to exist; on the contrary, those actions have led to decades of conflict and continue to stir the enmity that Israel encounters not only in the Middle East, but also in much of the rest of the world.
I’d like to end this colloquy on a note of accord. Morris and I share doubts about the viability of two states, although we both endorse the plan in theory. Secretary of State John Kerry has given notice that this latest effort of American diplomacy may be the last push for a two-state solution. Political leaders in Israel, notably Naftali Bennett, the economic minister, are calling for the annexation of an additional 60 percent of the West Bank. That leaves no possibility for a Palestinian state. Young Palestinians, according to pollster Khalil Shikaki, are increasingly turning to a one-state solution. Morris dissects both outcomes in his book One State, Two States. At the end, he surfaces an idea that arose at Camp David, although it was never pursued—that of a confederation encompassing Israel (within pre-1967 lines), Palestine and Jordan. There are possibilities for a peaceful outcome to this wrenching conflict, but it requires political courage on all sides to bring new ideas into public debate.
Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker and the author of nine books, including The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.