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Friday, May 21, 2010

Book Review: Palestine Betrayed

Efraim Karsh's "Palestine Betrayed" is an answer to the "New Historians'" view of Israel during the War of Independence. In it, Karsh makes a strong argument that the vast majority of the tragedy of the "naqba" was because of Arab, not Jewish, actions.

Karsh makes a startlingly effective case for the fact that the mainstream Zionist leadership wanted to live with their Arab cousins in peace. He brings quote after quote, from Herzl  to Jabotinsky to Ben Gurion, that shows that the plan of ethnic cleansing that we are told so incessantly about by Arabs today is simply a fiction. He goes into some detail about Arab-Jewish cooperation immediately after the Balfour Declaration - and before the Mufti.

Much of the blame for the severe deterioration on the relationship between the communities goes directly to Hajj Amin Husseini, who almost single-handedly led the Palestinian Arabs to disaster - as Mufti of Jerusalem, as president of the Supreme Muslim Council, and as president of the Arab Higher Committee. His unwavering anti-semitism combined with his positions of power and his ability to outmaneuver his rivals created an atmosphere where compromise was unthinkable. Karsh also shows that Husseini, far from being a nationalist, was always more interested in a pan-Arab nation - first as part of Greater Syria, but even later he viewed the Arab Palestine as being a stepping-stone to pan-Arab unification. Karsh follows his career from Jerusalem to becoming a Nazi sympathizer.

The centerpiece of the book is the description of the fighting and Arab flight during the first part of the War of Independence. Karsh puts forth a strong argument that the vast majority of Arabs fled their homes as a result of fear, and often in spite of Jewish entreaties to stay put. He goes into detail of the flight of Arabs from Haifa and Jaffa, into the complete breakdown of Arab leadership and the almost non-existence of a unified Arab front, neither within Palestine nor without.(A fascinating detail from Haifa: the Arab flight occurred during Passover, and the rabbinate of Haifa gave a special dispensation for Jewish bakers to bake bread for Arabs during that time to help them out as their infrastructure evaporated.)

According to Karsh, the only expulsion that Israeli forces did to a major urban Arab area was for Lydda, where the Haganah feared that a potential rear-guard fighting force could jeopardize their forces' advances. He does mention a few smaller villages that were depopulated by the Jewish forces, and he gives the military justification for some.

In fact, Karsh provides an appendix listing how many Arabs fled every town and village, roughly 600,000 refugees in total, somewhat less than the UN and Arab claims at the time, which Karsh shows were often inflated.

Karsh also shows pretty clearly that even if the Arabs had won the war, there would be no Palestine today, as Egypt, Transjordan and Syria planned to carve up whatever they could capture. King Abdullah of Transjordan was willing to allow an autonomous but tiny Jewish presence to remain around Haifa.

While Karsh delves into the details of the first phases of the Arab exodus, until roughly June 1948, he all but ignores the next stages that went on until November. This seems to be a shortcoming, as Benny Morris does go into those in detail. Yet even while Morris acknowledges that while there were what he terms atrocities, they were the exception and that most Arab flight occurred from panic even in the latter stages of the fighting.  It is just that the detail he gives is so numbing that it appears that the unsavory acts were far more common than they were in reality.

Another seeming shortcoming of Karsh's book is that he seems to downplay the role of the Irgun and the Stern Gang. While his argument of the conciliatory nature of the Haganah leadership seems well grounded, it appears that Karsh is embarrassed about the undeniably terrorist acts of the Irgun, at times justifying them as reprisals and other times minimizing their importance. However, it seems to me that this needs to be dealt with more forthrightly - both in terms of denouncing their terror as well as in the fact that their acts precipitated much of the Arab flight (and, arguably, the British decision to quit Palestine.) War is never 100% clean.

Karsh's epilogue draws a direct line from Husseini to Arafat and beyond, showing that Arab intransigence has not changed much although it has been packaged differently.

A truly dispassionate history of the conflict is probably impossible to write. Karsh's biases are no less obvious than Segev's or (early) Morris', but they are a necessary counterpoint to the prevailing conventional wisdom. Karsh's arguments are well done and well notated, and he unearths a large number of previously unknown primary sources, especially from British archives. The same events can be used to draw different conclusions, and it is ultimately up to the reader to determine whether the author succeeded in buttressing his point of view with solid facts. For the most part, Karsh succeeds.

The Zionist narrative is at least as valid as that of the revisionists (and far more than that of the Arabs) and it needs to be regarded as such. As such, Karsh's book is invaluable.