Benny Morris and Israel’s Border Wars

Robert B. Satloff,
Middle Eastern Studies,
October 1995

Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-1956. By Benny Morris. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

In this, his third installment of a revisionist history of Israel, Benny Morris examines a tumultuous era in the Middle East, the years between Israel’s founding and the Suez campaign. Throughout the Arab world, this is a period of reckoning for the failure of 1948, with one king assassinated in Jordan, another overthrown in Egypt and governments throughout the region shaken by the frustration and anger of their peoples. In Israel, which suffered huge human losses in the 1948-49 war, the time had been earmarked for healing, demobilization, development and the absorption of vast numbers of Middle Eastern Jews; conflict, however, interfered. The cause: Arab infiltration along the hundreds of miles of armistice lines. What makes this a revisionist work is that Morris concludes that Israel was the villain throughout, responsible for nearly everything from creating much of the infiltration to foreclosing peace opportunities to transforming a self-contained regional conflict into the focal point of potential superpower confrontation.

To be sure, the first half of the 1950s was a turbulent and murky time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As in the War of Attrition two decades later, this was a period of undeclared warfare that left more dead than in many conventional battles. Hundreds died on both sides of the border, with the numbers mounting incrementally but with numbing frequency all along the armistice lines. Affixing blame for the killing should not be done lightly, for there was surely much to go around, but because of his laser-focus on just one part of the equation – Israeli policy – Morris fails to provide a sober, detached and even-handed examination of this complicated issue.

That basic flaw stems from a number of structural defects. The first concerns documentation and sourcing. In a book that proposes to examine “Arab infiltration and Israeli retaliation,” Arabs are virtually non-existent. While we are told the name of almost every Israeli politician who uttered a word on retaliation in the Knesset, Cabinet, Mapai plenum, and Jewish Agency executive session, Arab politicians are noticeable only by their absence. (For example, there are but three references of any Jordanian prime minister that served in the five-year period between Abdullah’s assassination and the 1956 war.) And when Arabs are cited, the reference is often wrong. No Jordanian minister was ever named Shafik Atsheidat (p388); Hussein, who assumed his constitutional powers in May 1953, was certainly not “newly-installed” in April 1953 (p221); and his father was Talal, not Abdullah (see index reference, p444).

This leads to a shallow, stereotypical and often incorrect description of Arab politics and society. Abdullah – a “proud Arab” (p422) – did not annex the West Bank in 1948-49 (p6); and Jordanian parliament passed a resolution of unification in 1950. Pre-1948 Jordan did not have a “more-or-less homogenous population of loyal bedouin” (p6), which is why the Arab Legion’s main task in the 1930s was to quell bedouin rebelliousness and why Abdullah relied exclusively on Circassians, Syrians and Palestinians as his prime ministers throughout his reign. The Anglo-Jordanian treaty came to an end via a negotiated termination, not via “unilateral abrogation” (p27). The list goes on.

Perhaps these errors derive from the fact that Morris seems not to have made attempts to investigate Arab sources; indeed, his acknowledgments do not include a single Arab or Arab institution. If no relevant sources existed, that would be understandable, but they do. In his preface, Morris states that “No Arab state has opened its state papers to researchers, Arab or non-Arab” – this is not true. In a small, antiquated building across the street from what is now the Philadelphia Hotel off the third circle in Amman, the Jordanian national archives contains hundreds of government files from the period in question, piled floor to ceiling. At least two years prior to Morris’ completion of this book, I read through papers on such relevant topics as “Military File, 1952-57” (all originally labelled secret); “Directives of the Ministry of Interior, 1954-55”; and “Qibya, 1953,” complete with the handwritten testimony of participants and witnesses. Though there were no xerox facilities, the staff was courteous throughout.

Even if Morris’s Israeli passport precluded him (though surely not a research assistant) to check this source, it did not stop him from examining the dozens of published Arab sources that could shed some light on this period. These range from government publications (e.g., minutes of parliamentary sessions; collections of royal or presidential speeches) to local newspapers and radio broadcasts (virtually all of which are located in the extensive Newspaper Documentation Center in the Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University) to memoirs and secondary sources. Again, Morris’s preface states that he “tapped some relevant Arab memoirs,” but the bibliography makes mention of only Heikal, Salah Khalaf, Nasser and Sadat, all either in their English or Hebrew translations. Published but untranslated memoirs, such as those by Jordanian Prime Minister Hazza’ al-Majali or Jordanian military attache in Cairo Abdullah al-Tall (who is mentioned in the book), apparently were not checked.

In place of a rigorous assessment of Arab political dynamics on the issue of infiltration, Morris relies on a few Anglo-Saxons to do the job, including British and American diplomats in Amman, Cairo and elsewhere. Here, a curious pattern emerged. With Israelis, Morris looks under every stone for a hidden motive or unspoken agenda; in bouts of remarkable retrospective psychology, he knows that certain Israeli soldiers “probably hated Arabs” (p241n57) and that certain factors “consciously or subconsciously” (p384) affected Israeli decision-making. The Anglo-Saxons, however, he takes on face value. For example, Morris cites (without reproach) a 1953 dispatch by the US ambassador in Jordan reporting his British colleague’s fantastic belief that a series of attacks on Israeli settlements were themselves the work of the “Stern Gang” (p222).

Who was this American diplomat who would relay to Washington this remarkable conspiracy theory and whom Morris would have us take a sober, sensible, impartial observer? From the text or the index one cannot tell, but the man was Joseph C. Green, whose 400-plus page memoir of his one year spent as US ambassador to Jordan – available for public reading since the late 1980s in the Seeley G. Mudd Library at Princeton but not cited in this book – shows him not to have been enamoured of Jews.

In this category, Morris’ greatest offense was to rely so heavily on the tidal wave of reports and telegrams that General John Bagot Glubb sent to London without presenting any real assessment of the validity of Glubb’s comments or the seriousness with which Glubb’s British interlocutors took them. On both accounts, Glubb would have been found wanting. Instead, Morris the revisionist chooses to repeat cliches about Glubb being “a loyal servant of the Hashemite crown if there ever was one” (p269), when in fact Glubb’s chief loyalty was to Britain; Glubb, for example, blithely supplied Britain all Jordan’s war plans without the knowledge of his civilian superiors. Morris even goes so far as to praise Glubb as “an innately fair man” (p382), even when elsewhere he is forced to admit that Glubb’s “eccentricities and emotionalism” led him to assert the “almost complete blamelessness of the infiltrating refugees” (p215n75), which Morris himself cites as the “main agency and cause of Israeli-Arab violence during 1949-56” (p411). Which is it? Morris, who obviously spent hundreds of hours reading Public Records Office files, should have known to take what Glubb wrote with a hefty pillar of salt.

So far, this review has focused on Morris’ errors and omissions. Let us now turn to unsubstantiated allegations. Examining this issue in detail is important because Morris lobs accusations that are so heinous that, if true, Israel’s reputation would deserve to suffer irreparable harm. But a close reading of the text and notes suggest that Morris’ reputation suffers no less than Israel’s.

Take, for example, Morris’ accusation regarding the Israeli government’s permissive attitude toward atrocities: “The overall attitude, at least down to 1953,” writes Morris (p166), “seemed to signal to the defence forces’ rank and file that killing, torturing, beating and raping Arab infiltrators was, if not permitted, at least not particularly reprehensible and might well go unpunished.” The conditional aspect of the accusation – “seemed to signal,” “might well go unpublished” – leaves Morris with a teflon-shield of protection, but does the direct charge stand up under scrutiny? No. For example, of the three episodes of rape mentioned by Morris (one in 1949, two in 1950), he cites no evidence that the rapes went unpunished. (On the contrary, from the evidence he does cite, all we know is that trials appear to have been held in two cases and prison sentences meted out in the third [p167-8].)

Throughout the book, Morris laces his narrative with similar claims that are either unsubstantiated or contradicted elsewhere in the text or footnotes. Israeli pilots “may” have treated Arab shepherds as “air game” just for “fun,” how Morris knows this he does not tell us (p191). Morris cites in the main body of text Amos Elon’s description of Israeli solider Meir Har-Zion as “laconically killing Arab soldiers, peasants and townspeople in a kind of fury without hatred, he remained cold-blooded and thoroughly efficient, simply doing a job...” (pp239-40), but Morris relegates to the footnotes Har-Zion’s autobiographical references to his own sense of personal conflict and trauma. (“Again I have that agonizing doubt: Is this the enemy? Is this justified...?” [p244].) At one point, Morris claims that “the IDF” resolved to free a certain captured soldier “by capturing Jordanians for an exchange”; on the next page, however, Morris admits that the plan was a freelance effort of the field commander, with Moshe Dayan and “the IDF” knowing nothing about it (pp308-9). In the main text, Morris asserts that the “main ‘peace’ victim of the Gaza raid was Project Alpha” – the secret Anglo-American peace initiative; in a footnote, however, he accepts Shimon Shamir’s thesis that Alpha was “probably” a “non-starter” (p331). And when even Morris cannot abide a fabrication – such as Heikal’s claim about the Gaza raid that “many of the Egyptian dead were bayoneted while they slept” – he terms it “misleading” rather than “false” (p327n11).

This theme brings us back to the main theses of the book: that Israel bears chief, if not sole, responsibility for the violence and lack of progress toward peace that marked Arab-Israeli relations from 1949 to 1956 and for the internationalization of the conflict from a limited regional dispute into an arena for Great Power competition. On each of these claims, Morris suffers from looking at history through a one-sided prism, the Israeli lens. Let us take these claims one a time.

As a historian, Morris is as uneven in his treatment of the relationship between the Great Powers and the Middle East as he is on the more narrow topic of infiltration and retaliation. According to him, virtually all Great Power diplomacy in the Middle East in this period revolved around tension on Israel’s borders. This inflates the role of border tension beyond all reasonable proportions. To state that the Gaza Raid (which, inexplicably, is capitalized throughout the text) almost single-handedly transformed the Arab-Israeli conflict from a regional backwater into a setting for Great Power confrontation (p vii) fails to acknowledge the importance of such developments as Nasser’s own search for superpower patronage and the Baghdad pact, which was announced weeks before the raid. (Morris does refer to the Pact, but does not make the connection [p268].) Similarly, he contends in numerous passages that the Gaza raid led to the Czech arms deal (e.g., p262 and p329), though elsewhere he admits that “the Czech arms deal had several causes” (p275n41).

Indeed, throughout the book, Morris evinces naiveté about Great Power roles and strategy in the Middle East. For example, he states that, following Israel’s 1953 raid on Qibya, London “agreed” to a Jordanian request to station an armored squadron at Ma’an (p249); in reality, London had been conniving for months to find a way to get Jordan to agree to accept the squadron as part of its imperial war planning and took advantage of Jordanian vulnerabilities in the post-Qibya environment to press the issue. And, in the 1990s, no respectable historian – Jewish or non-Jewish – would accuse Britain and America of failing to rein in Israel’s retaliatory policy partly out of fear of offending “Jewish money” (p426).

Throughout his book, Morris blames Israel and Israeli actions for the belligerence of the mid-1950s and the lack of progress toward peacemaking. “The retaliatory policy... led more or less directly to war,” he argues (p424). “I am inclined to believe that... the succession of Israeli action along the borders during 1949-51 significantly contributed to the failure of the secret Israeli-Jordanian peace talks,” he says (p423n13). “In the long term,” he writes, “these raids... resulted in... making the prospect of peace still more remote” (p197). And, claiming for the Arabs the high moral ground, he notes that “the reprisal raids violated the territorial integrity of the Arab states” (p418).

That the Arab states might bear at lest some responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflict – especially since they invaded Israel to pre-empt its birth, not to mention to “violate its territorial integrity” – is generally rejected by Morris. Virtually all Arab reticence to make peace is explained as a backlash to Israeli belligerence and intransigence. Therefore, Morris gives only passing reference to the era’s lost opportunities, such as the Jordanian government’s rejection of a promising and innovative 1952 land-swap deal negotiated between the Jordanian and Israeli representatives on the Mixed Armistice Commission (p73), and he fails to mention that when Jordan rejected “border talks” following the Qibya raid it was actually flouting Article XII of the armistice agreement (p258).

Israeli leaders – especially the two most commonly associated with what Morris calls the Activist camp, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, come in for especially heavy and ad hominem attacks. Dayan, says Morris, was “a masterly schemer” (p425) who believed that Israel could only exist as a “modern Sparta” (p182); Ben-Gurion is described as “devious” (p294) and as a “virtuoso manipulator of facts” (p424); together, they are depicted as militarists who “were denied their war” in the early 1950s by the sage intercession of Moshe Sharett (p376). Even the tragic-heroic Sharett is not immune: according to Morris, his sin was “profound moral elasticity” (p257).

That no Arab figure is subjected to similar scrutiny underscores the primary flaw in this book, a flaw that is evident from its very title. Though it claims to be a study of “the core phenomena of the Israel-Arab conflict” (p vii) in the early 1950s, Israel’s Border Wars is, like the sound of the proverbial “one hand clapping,” really only a look at one side of that conflict, and a distorted one at that. After looking at all the evidence, a balanced, disinterested historian could have reached conclusions that might require a re-thinking about the little-understood phenomenon of infiltration/retaliation. Morris, however, provided those conclusions without first fulfilling the historian’s responsibilities.