Abdulla Rashid Ultimate Reality Essay

[Short answer: No…]

Yesterday, the group that has swept to mass media attention in the last month, ISIS, claimed that the Caliphate has been restored in its ‘domains’, and called for Muslims to render their pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, changing its name to simply ‘Islamic State’ (I.S).

While most Muslims would be jubilant at the claim of the return of the Khilafah (Caliphate), which is a vital obligation upon Muslims that has been conspicuously missing for so long, a self-proclamation does not a Caliphate make.

We’ve been here before – many times. The short-lived war-born ‘Islamic States’ of Chechnya, Somalia, Mali, Makkah under the short take over of the ‘Mahdi’ Qahtani and  Taliban Afghanistan, had each a ruling fighting group that declared their leader ‘Amir’ or ‘Amir ul Momineen’ (including Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s predecessor,  and former ISIS leader, Abu Abdullah Rashid al Baghdadi) and all of them have met with the same fate: invasion, uprising and destruction of their fledgling state or area of operations, not to mention their resorting to unIslamic laws, policies and practices while they were in power. Knowing this cycle, we should be especially cautious when the phenomena of an armed militia group declaring an Islamic State arises again. This is not to say that sincere people do not follow those groups, or that all of those groups didn’t have noble intentions, but the matter is one of assessing their validity, viability and truth. So considering such history, and that many of these groups tried to claim their leader was the Amir ul Momineen in order to consolidate their power and attract new supporters, are ISIS not doing the same? Has the Caliphate actually been restored under ISIS?

It is said that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is of Quraysh descent, and this must validate his claim to Caliphate. While many classical scholars have spoken about the desirability of a candidate of Qurayshi descent to be the leader, it is neither agreed to be an obligation, nor does it matter even if the candidate was. Many Muslims are of Qurayshi descent – including the (now deceased) ‘Mahdi’ of Makkah Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani. Being the Caliph also requires the candidate to be just and competent, something we must not forget. Regardless of the qualifications of the individual, however, it is whether or not any prospective Caliph actually has a Caliphate or not to rule over, that will determine whether he is the Caliph in the first place.

A brief note on invalid reasons to reject a claim of Islamic State

Some Muslims may consider a group’s fiqh (jurisprudence) and interpretations of Islam as being not in line with the interpretations of their own school of thought. This is not a correct basis from which to reject a group’s work for a common obligation i.e. Khilafah (Caliphate). Those who reject a group or movement merely because they follow a different school of thought, should remember that Islam permits difference of opinion. To reject something as outside the fold of Islam, due to it being a different school of thought to one’s own, makes one a purveyor of disunity amongst Muslims (when those opinions are validly derived from Islamic texts). This does not mean that Muslims must not intellectually discuss, debate and challenge each other’s opinions – but to call a valid Islamic opinion, unIslamic, is intolerant and in breach of the Prophet’s (saaw) commands to unity. He (saaw) even informed us that the judge who derives a mistaken Islamic opinion still gets reward (despite it being mistaken – and therefore not the true Islamic opinion). In the end, Allah (swt) alone knows what is the correct opinions with the area of legitimate difference of opinion, and it is best left to Him (swt) to resolve disputes on the day of judgement. An Islamic state is valid and correct, even if it is based upon Hanbali fiqh, Hanafi figh or even Dhahiri fiqh from the (now mostly forgotten) school of Ibn Hazm al Andalusi! The question is, however, are I.S. even following a school of thought in many of their excessive actions? This shall be answered below.

Some may object that they find a group or state’s understanding of Islam uncompromising, austere and even arduous. However, it should be remembered that, sometimes throughout history, the toughest and hardest Muslims have come from harsh conditions that, after giving rise to a basic and austere understanding of Islam, also produced very capable warriors that slowed down, reversed and even saved the Muslims from defeat many times. One such case is Al Murabitun of North Africa, who rose from the Berber tribes and conquered an area of land from West Africa to central Spain, led by Yusuf bin Tashfin.

The highly cultured, but divided, bickering and weak Muslim city states of Al Andalus (Portugal/Spain) were being conquered piecemeal by Crusaders. Their armies were too weak and softened to fight pitched battles against the Spanish Christian Crusader states to the north. Muslims lost battle after battle, until Yusuf bin Tashfin marched his armies into Al Andalus and scored victory after victory upon the terrified Crusader armies. Even a heavy cavalry charge by the Knight orders couldn’t dent the Al Murabitun battle lines! Yusuf bin Tashfin was originally invited by the Amirs of the Muslim city-states, but he was so appalled at their pathetically weak and lax attitude to some unIslamic practices (like wine drinking and corruption) he deposed them all and took control. Interestingly, Yusuf didn’t declare himself Caliph, but only Amir. He sent a letter to the Caliph in Baghdad giving him his pledge of allegiance, and declaring his newly conquered territories to return to being wilayahs (districts) of the greater Caliphate.

Of course the Al Murabitun had strange Islamic opinions, like wearing the Litham (face veil for men) because they believed that the mouth was unclean (presumably based upon a very different understanding of the hadith that the Muslim should guard their tongues and their private parts). The Al Murabitun also had opinions that would be recognised today, like the prohibition of images and statues – which led them to destroy a number of artworks and carvings in Al Andalus. However, these issues aside, and putting aside the unIslamic actions that are recorded some of them committed in their duties, that their wilayah was Islamic (ruled by Islamic law) is beyond question, and was accepted by the Caliph of Baghdad and the scholars of Al Andalus, at the time.

Even if a group or movement holds opinions that are against one’s own opinions, unity allows us to collectively benefit from their works, and while united, nothing says Muslims cannot then engage in intellectual debate to persuade them to change their ideas through intellectual discussion. This way we remain united, but help each other to improve and refine our ideas. As the famous classical scholar Ibn Khaldun points out in his book ‘An Introduction to History’, many great states were started by nomads, and became powerful intellectual and cultural centres of power.

Another reason that can’t be used to reject a claim of Islamic State, is the method used to create it, whether it was done by coup, revolution or elections. Despite some of those methods being illegitimate, once the Islamic State is created and fulfills all the criteria, it is accepted on the basis of its factual description. However, that being the case, we would expect Allah (swt) to only grant victory to the group that best emulates the Prophet’s (saaw) method of achieving the Islamic State. This is why the Prophet’s (saaw) method is important to study, as following his method is the basis for the actions of a Muslim in discharging their obligations.

The Pre-requisite for Islamic State

The question we must ask ourselves is, what is the prerequisite for an Islamic state? Without needing to go into formal fiqh, we can agree that there should be at least two basic and self-evident requirements: 1) Islam being the only basis, purpose and objective for law and policy in governance over the state, and 2) the existence of a state.

Ruling a State by Islam

A state (or ‘Dawlah’ in classic Arabic) is basically a community under government. This requires the existence of a community, in this, the Ummah, and a government over them. In Secular theory, modern communities are defined by ‘nations’ of common race, culture and language. Modern state theory has now been overrun by the secular concept of the ‘nation state’ with states being purposed to be the political expression of the ‘collective will’ of their constituent ‘nation’. Unfortunately, this is also the cause of ethnic and racial conflict, and states with more than one ‘nation’ tend to face internal conflict, persecution and oppression as to which nation’s expression leads and directs the state. For this reason even seemly peaceful nations like Belgium, Canada and Spain have very serious problems with population separatism, merely for differences in language!

An Islamic state can only be Islamic if the community it ‘expresses’ is defined purely by their Islamic belief, not language, race and culture. To fulfil this particular Islamic criterion of the character of an Islamic State, I.S. are claiming they’re not expressing only one race or ethnic group, but portray themselves as ignoring such arbitrary concerns, and attempt to present themselves exclusively as representing an Islamic affiliation. In attempting to fulfil Islam’s (universal humanitarian) disregard for Nationalism, I.S. have used slogans, declarations and redrawn maps to portray themselves as destroying the region’s nationalist mentality that was created by the colonial sykes-picot border, and thereby claim a moral victory over the artificial borders that were designed to separate and divide the Muslim world, and enhance their claim of ‘Islamic State’ to the Muslim world.

However, while it is true that I.S. currently ‘rule’ over active war zones, this does not exempt them from adhering to the Islamic rules of war, and protection of civilians. In this I.S. have adopted patently unIslamic practices and strategies, like blowing up civilians in market places (e.g. Baghdad), kidnapping of innocents for ransom, and execution of those from other Islamic groups who voice criticism and political dissent (this is not only practiced by ISIS. There was the case of two British Muslims who went to Somalia to fight, and were killed because they complained at the tactics of one branch of al Shabab). If I.S. committed these crimes, but had disavowed their use, then whilst that would still be inexcusable, at least they would have admitted their wrongdoing against Islamic commandments/distanced their actions from Islamic commandments. However, the justification of targeting civilians IS KUFR (disbelief), and a borrowed concept from Western warfare.

Furthermore, I.S. should not target, declare war on, or kill Shia civilians, even if they consider them to be non-Muslims. This is because non-Muslims are also protected under Islamic law, and even if Shia are considered non-Muslims, then Shia shrines should be protected like Islam obliges Muslims to protect Churches and Synagogues. So we should ask I.S. to DECIDE, either Shias are Muslims that can’t be killed, OR Shias are non-Muslims that STILL can’t be killed or molested. The choice is theirs – there is no middle ground, except for those looking for excuses to kill those they hate.

‘and let not hatred of others make you depart from justice’ [Quran]

It is I.S’s JUSTIFICATION of their practices that are against the Islamic rules in warfare and treatment of civilians, that alone, immediately renders false any claim to being Islamic. If I.S. is sincere, they should renounce terrorism and renounce their declaring war on all Shias indiscriminately, in order to at least render themselves compliant with basic Islamic requirements. 

Of course there are further problems with I.S’s lack of mercy, vigilante application of Islamic law, lack of Islamic due process and ‘innocent till proven guilty’ considerations for adjudicating cases. However, these allegations against them, while numerous, are difficult to ascertain given the unclear reports and political agenda of external media propaganda. In the presence of unclear and conflicting reports, all that can be said for certain is that if these reports are wrong, I.S. should take care to portray themselves as fair, objective and merciful (which are Islamic requirements). Their gleeful broadcasting of harsh rhetoric and gruesome images of mass executions would lead most people to believe the more negative reports against them are true. If this is not the case, then I.S. should immediate dismiss their spokesman Adnani as their PR manager.

It should be remembered that the Prophet (saaw) found any way he could to not punish people according to corporal and capital punishment. He (saaw) advised Muslims to find excuses and ‘loopholes’ to let people off punishment. He (saaw) was even reported to have said that the reason he hasn’t executed the sedition and treasonous agitators (i.e. ‘the hypocrites’) amongst the Muslim community despite Allah (swt) having revealed to him who they were, is because he feared people outside would say he ‘kills his companions’ (i.e. kills people for no reason) – since people wouldn’t know the reasons or have proof for their executions. The Prophet (saaw) set an example to us for this – even people who commit war, treason and sedition can’t be punished unless their is clear proof to the entire community, lest people think Muslims merely punish people wantonly or for personal reasons.

I.S. should let the wisdom and mercy of the Prophet (saaw) guide their actions. The Prophet (saaw) after conquering Makkah, delayed demolishing and moving the Kaabaa on to its original abrahamic foundations, because the people weren’t ready developed enough in their newly embraced religion, to accept it, despite it being an obligation. If only I.S. learned from this, and refrained from destroying (Sunni and Shia) Saint shrines, they would win more people to their side. If I.S. possesses the stronger intellectual position ,they should attempt instead to persuade Muslims of their position using reasoned argument, not the bulldozer or dynamite. Sometimes the carrot is better than the stick.

Security – the basis for Statehood

Apart from a community, a state requires a government. The ability to govern depends on the provision of security and the enforceability of law and order over a community.What makes a government viable is its ability to provide security – without that, it becomes a failed government, and hence a ‘failed state’.

I.S. is currently unable to provide a viable, stable law and order and security in the territories it operates under. In Iraq, I.S. must share power with other Muslim groups just to hold down the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. In Syria, I.S. share the north of Syria with other Muslim groups of whom they fight and bicker with, and have exchanged pieces of land incessantly, with their Syrian capital of Raqqa itself being taken and retaken between them. I.S. clearly does not have a monopoly on power to control the territories let alone the ability to describe themselves as a viable government over them.

The leader of I.S. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, like ‘Ameer ul Mumineen’ Mullah Omar does not even have the security to make public appearances. If the leader cannot even have the security to make public appearances in their own ‘state’, then how can they be said to be able to be in control of it?

Security against external threats

Some Muslims have argued superficially, that because victory and success are from God, it ‘therefore’ does not matter how apparently weak a group is, if it is ‘righteous it shall be victorious’. Putting the assessment of I.S’s ‘righteousness’ aside, let us consider this carefully. If a man established shariah in his own home, estate or ‘ranch’, performing legal punishments, and having armed himself, would it be reasonable for people to conclude that he had established a state? No of course not. Why? Because his state would last only for as long as the time it took for the police to arrive.

A State, in order to fulfill the requirement of being a state, and not a mere outlaw zone, must be able to effectively protect itself to a sufficient degree from other states. If these other states choose to attack with conventional forces, the state could put up effective resistance. Of course even a superpower can be invaded and lose wars, but if the only thing that keeps an area of land from successful invasion is merely the enemy’s discretion and mood, than the ‘State’s’ control of that land is illusory at best. What’s the difference between a client state (like Hawaii, Puerto Rico or Crimea) and a state that can’t stand up to conventional warfare? The answer is, there is no difference, since if they both irk more powerful States that can project power over that area, they would be swept away in as little time it took for the enemy States to mobilise and arrive for battle.

It could be argued that I.S. have effectively repelled conventional attack from the Iraqi Army. However, this is not an example of a resisting a State power, but rather resisting a client State. Iraq’s Army has not been effectively rebuilt and cannot fight a conventional war, its morale is low, it is poorly trained, and ultimately depends upon the U.S. Army.

The Prophet Muhammed (saaw) when he was seeking the support of military power and protection for the Deen (way of life) of Islam, approached various tribes to believe in Islam and pledge allegiance to him as leader, and to the cause of Islam. One of his encounters was with Shayban bin Thalaba and is tribe, who accepted the Prophet (saaw)’s offer, but indicate they were vulnerable and strategically exposed to the Persian empire, and couldn’t provide protection from them. The Prophet (saaw) didn’t take them up on their offer of support, for the beginning base for the Islamic State must be strategically defensible from all sides.

‘We would be reneging on a pact that Khusrau has placed upon us to the effect that we would not cause an incident and not give sanctuary to a troublemaker. This policy you suggest for us is such a one that kings would dislike. As for those areas bordering Arab lands, the blame of those so acting would be forgiven and excuses for them be accepted, but for those areas next to Persia, those so acting would not be forgiven and no such excuses would be accepted. If you want us to help and protect you from whatever relates to Arab territories alone, we should do so.’ The Messenger of God(SAAS) replied, ‘Your reply is in no way bad, for you have spoken eloquently and truthfully. (But) God’s religion can only be engaged in by those who encompass it from all sides.’“

[Abu Nu’aym, Al-Hakim and Al-Bayhaqi]

The difference between Emirate and Caliphate

If I.S. wanted to claim a state, even if we ignore all the considerations we discussed, the best that I.S. could say is that they are merely an Islamic Emirate (a leadership of a local area). This has been allowed by Islamic Scholars in the past, who had to give reluctant rulings on a divided and fractured Ummah for over 1,000 years. They ordered that Muslims who are ruled over by local leaders, may obey them (as long as the laws were Islamic – which precludes virtually all current Muslim states), until a powerful leader arose and re-united the Muslim territories by conquest. This indeed was how the turkish Osmanli tribe rose to power until it became powerful enough to control the centres of power of the Ummah, and therefore declare themselves the Caliphate (i.e. Uthmani Khilafah or ‘Ottomans’). I.S. are far from ruling over the main centres of power in the Muslim World, and so cannot call themselves a Caliphate. 

For the reasons mentioned above, I.S. is not a State, if they were they would not be recognisably Islamic when compared to the mercy and wisdom of the Prophet’s (saaw) example. Lastly, they are not a Caliphate as their ‘areas’ are too small, vulnerable and unstrategic within the Muslim world to claim leadership of it.

A note to those concerned regarding Western opinion

Some Muslims are concerned that I.S. actions send the wrong message about Islam to the  Western audience. In this, they are correct. However, it is wrong for Muslims to permit the West to have a higher moral ground, or judgment upon I.S. or Muslims. The simple reason is if I.S. do create a state using terrorism and brutal actions – it wouldn’t be any different to how many Western nations were formed and rose to power.

France arose out of a bloody reign of terror (from which the word ‘terrorism’ was first created – i.e. ruling by terror), to match I.S’s publication of gruesome execution images, ‘enlightenment’ france invented the guillotine for public and frequent execution.

The U.S.A arose from the actions of what would certainly be called terrorism and insurgency against the British empire – they even destroyed and wiped out entire pro-British civilian towns (in now modern day Canada), not to mention their bloody genocide against the native Americans. To this day, U.S.A has anti-cuba terror training camps in Florida, where their harbour Luis Posada Carriles, who blew up a cuba civilian plane. The U.S. has refused to extradite him to South American governments who want him on terrorism charges.

Britain had a number of bloody civil wars, but the true horror of the activities they undertook to raise their state into an international empire are too numerous to be written in this piece. Suffice to say, Winston Churchill was voted in a poll as the ‘best briton of all time’, despite inventing the idea of ‘strategic bombing’ (mass bombing of civilian cities – yes, he and not Hitler did it first!), and he advocated that civilians be bombed to ‘spread a lively terror’ – what do you call someone who bombs civilians to spread terror amongst them? (answers on a postcard).

The Israeli government was infamously fought for and formed by confirmed terrorist groups the Haganah and the Stern gang, who pioneered terror bombings against civilians targets like hotels and cruise ships.

Even the innocuous ANC in South Africa who fought against racist apartheid South African government used terror tactics of blowing up shopping malls, restaurants and cafes with civilians, to make their point. They even fought and killed rival groups in ways not too dissimilar to I.S. Yet all these groups, individuals and causes are praised, and (minus the ugly facts of course) commemorated. It is argued that although modern Westerners may condemn these actions, they are explained away as either ‘the result of a terrible time’, or ‘unfortunate, but necessary at the time’.

The only argument any Western media pundit, politician or Western-learning Muslim, who hold any praise for the individuals or groups who did ‘what was necessary’ could ever say against I.S. is that I.S. are fighting for the wrong cause (which is portrayed as ‘Islam’). Of course, it always has been the case in Western history and foreign policy, that as long as a group fights for ‘freedom’, little regard is paid to the tactics. Our response is, I.S. are no different to the history of some Western armies, Western covert-backed groups and even some of the ‘founding fathers’ of Western nations – therefore they certainly have no basis to judge I.S.  – I.S’s crimes come from being a good student of the West, right down to their corporate structure and organisation and ability to use social media!

The Muslim response to Western media regarding I.S. is that Islam condemns ISIS as it considers that both the cause and the tactics must be correct, and Islam unreservedly condemns terrorism and the targeting of civilians. However, we should also explain to them that I.S. are the product of a reaction to Western foreign policy in the region that arose out of the actions of the U.S, UK and their puppets in the region. 

If the Muslim world is left alone, this will give Muslims the peace, space and time to unify and intellectually evolve into a refined civilisation that future generations can live in. Muslims do not want any ‘intervention’ from the outside powers which caused all these problems in the first place. The continuing use of violence, intimidation and persecution by Western powers (and their puppets) to prevent the cause of Muslim independence and self-directed political destiny, has produced the kind of extreme reactions we currently witness in the Muslim world.

To read more about the background of ISIS and the situation of Iraq after the fall of Mosul, read my piece ‘ISIS: Storm or Pawn?’

‹ The ‘No one kills in the name of Atheism’ Argument

Is ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) Undermining Syrian revolution? (Al Jazeera English, 5th July 2014) ›

Categories: ARTICLES, Muslim Debate Initiative, Muslim World / Middle East, Revival Thought (Al Nahda), The Muslim Debate Initiative, Zara Faris

Tags: abu bakr al baghdadi, caliphate, iraq, IS, isis, syria

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'Conquerors, my son, consider as true history only what they themselves have fabricated.'[1] Thus remarked the old Arab headmaster to young Saeed on his return to in the summer of 1948 in Emile Habiby's tragicomic novel The Secret Life of Sacid, the Ill-fated Pessoptimist. The headmaster spoke about the Israelis more in sorrow than in anger: 'It is true they did demolish those villages ... and did evict their inhabitants. But, my son, they are far more merciful than the conquerors our forefathers had years before.'[2]
Most Israelis would be outraged by the suggestion that they are conquerors, yet this is how they are perceived by the Palestinians. But the point of the quote is that there can be no agreement on what actually happened in 1948; each side subscribes to a different version of events. The Palestinians regard Israelis as the conquerors and themselves as the true victims of the first Arab-Israeli war which they call al-Nakba or the disaster. Palestinian historiography reflects these perceptions. The Israelis, on the other hand, whether conquerors or not, were the indisputable victors in the 1948 war which they call the War of Independence. Because they were the victors, among other reasons, they were able to propagate more effectively than their opponents their version of this fateful war. History, in a sense, is the propaganda of the victors.

The conventional Zionist account of the 1948 War goes roughly as follows. The conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine came to a head following the passage, on 29 November 1947, of the United Nations partition resolution which called for the establishment of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Jews accepted the UN plan despite the painful sacrifices it entailed but the Palestinians, the neighbouring Arab states and the Arab League rejected it. did everything in its power towards the end of the Palestine Mandate to frustrate the establishment of the Jewish state envisaged in the UN plan. With the expiry of the Mandate and the proclamation of the State of Israel, seven Arab states sent their armies into with the firm intention of strangling the Jewish state at birth. The subsequent struggle was an unequal one between a Jewish David and an Arab Goliath. The infant Jewish state fought a desperate, heroic and ultimately successful battle for survival against overwhelming odds. During the war, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to the neighbouring Arab states, mainly in response to orders from their leaders and despite Jewish pleas to stay and demonstrate that peaceful co-existence was possible. After the war, the story continues, Israeli leaders sought peace with all their heart and all their might but there was no one to talk to on the other side. Arab intransigence was alone responsible for the political deadlock which was not broken until President Anwar Sadat's visit to thirty years later.

This conventional Zionist account or old history of the 1948 War displays a number of features. In the first place, it is not history in the proper sense of the word. Most of the voluminous literature on the war was written not by professional historians but by participants, by politicians, soldiers, official historians and by a large host of sympathetic chroniclers, journalists, biographers and hagiographers. Secondly, this literature is very short on political analysis of the war and long on chronicles of the military operations, especially the heroic feats of the Israeli fighters. Third, this literature maintains that 's conduct during the war was governed by higher moral standards than that of her enemies. Of particular relevance here is the precept of tohar haneshek or the purity of arms which posits that weapons remain pure provided they are employed only in self-defence and provided they are not used against innocent civilians and defenceless people. This popular-heroic-moralistic version of the 1948 war is the one which is taught in Israeli schools and used extensively in the quest for legitimacy abroad. It is a prime example of the use of a nationalist version of history in the process of nation-building.

Until recently this standard Zionist version of the events surrounding the birth of the State of Israel remained largely unchallenged outside the Arab world. The fortieth anniversary of the birth of the state, however, witnessed the publication of a number of books which challenged various aspects of the standard Zionist version. First in the field, most polemical in its tone, and most comprehensive in its scope, was Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. A former Director of the Arab Affairs Department of the left-wing Mapam party and editor of the monthly, New Outlook, Flapan wrote his book with an explicit political rather than academic aim in mind: to expose the myths that he claimed served as the basis of Israeli propaganda and Israeli policy. 'The myths that forged during the formation of the state', writes Flapan, 'have hardened into this impenetrable and dangerous ideological shield.'[3] After listing seven myths to each of which a chapter in the book is devoted, Flapan frankly admits the political purpose of the whole exercise. 'It is the purpose of this book to debunk these myths, not as an academic exercise but as a contribution to a better understanding of the Palestinian problem and to a more constructive approach to its solution.'[4] Other books which were critical in their treatment of the Zionist rendition of events, though without an explicit political agenda, included Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949[5], Ilan Pappe, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51[6] and my own Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine.[7] Collectively we came to be called the Israeli revisionists or the new historians. Neither term is entirely satisfactory. The term revisionists in the Zionist lexicon refers to the right-wing followers of Zeev Jabotinsky who broke away from the mainstream Zionism in 1925 whereas the new historians are located on the political map somewhere to the left of the mainstream. On the other hand the term new historians is rather self-congratulatory and dismissive, by implication, of everything written before the new historians appeared on the scene as old and worthless. Professor Yehoshua Porath of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has suggested as alternative terms pre-history and history. But this is only slightly less offensive towards the first category of historians. So, for lack of a better word, I shall use the label 'old' to refer to the proponents of the standard Zionist version on the 1948 War and the label 'new' to the recent left-wing critics of this version, including myself.

The first thing to note about the new historiography is that much of it is not new. Many of the arguments that are central to the new historiography were advanced long ago by Israeli writers, not to mention Palestinian, Arab and Western writers. To list all these Israeli writers is beyond the scope of this article but a few examples might be in place. One common thread that runs through the new historiography is a critical stance towards David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel and its first Prime Minister. Whereas the old historians tend to view Ben-Gurion as representative of the consensus among the civilian and military elites, the new historians tend to portray him as the driving force behind 's policy in 1948, and particularly the policy of expelling the Palestinians. Many of the recent criticisms of Ben-Gurion, however, are foreshadowed in a book written by former IDF official historian, Lieutenant-Colonel Israel Baer, in prison after he was convicted of spying for the [8]

A significant start in revising the conventional Zionist view of British policy towards the end of the Palestine mandate was made by Gavriel Cohen in a volume with a characteristically old-fashioned title - Hayinu Keholmim, 'we were as dreamers.'[9]Yaacov Shimoni, deputy-director of the Middle East Department in the Foreign Ministry in 1948, published a highly perceptive article on the hesitations, doubts, reservations and differences of opinion that attended the Arab decision to intervene in in May 1948.[10] This article which is at odds with the dominant Zionist narrative is all the more noteworthy for having been written by an insider. Meir Pail wrote another corrective to the notion of a monolithic Arab world, focusing in particular on the conflict between King Abdullah of and the Palestinians.[11] The Zionist version about the causes of the Palestinian refugee problem was called into question by a number of Israeli writers and most convincingly by Rony Gabbay.[12] Finally, the argument that 's commitment to peace with the Arabs did not match the official rhetoric can be traced to a book published under a pseudonym by two members of the Israeli Communist Party.[13]

Although many of the arguments of the new historiography are not new, there is a qualitative difference between this historiography and the bulk of the earlier studies, whether they accepted or contradicted the official Zionist line. The difference, in a nutshell, is that the new historiography is written with access to the official Israeli and Western documents whereas the earlier writers had no access, or only partial access, to the official documents. This is not a hard and fast rule; there are many exceptions and there are also degrees of access. Nevertheless, it is generally true to say that the new historians, with the exception of the late Simha Flapan, have carried out extensive archival research in , and and that their arguments are backed by hard documentary evidence and by a Western-style scholarly apparatus.

Indeed, the upsurge of new histories would not have been possible without the declassification of the official government documents. adopted the British thirty-year-rule for the review and declassification of foreign policy documents. If this rule is not applied by as systematically as it is in , it is applied rather more liberally. Both and have also started to follow the American example of publishing volumes of documents which are professionally selected and edited. The first four volumes in the series of Documents on the Foreign Policy of Israel are an invaluable and indispensable aid to research on the 1948 War and the armistice negotiations which ended it.[14]

On the Arab side, there is no equivalent of the thirty-year-rule. On the 1948 War little access is allowed to the relevant Arab archives and this restriction does pose a serious problem to the researcher. It is sometimes argued that no definitive account of the 1948 War, least of all an account of what happened behind the scenes on the Arab side, is possible without proper access to the Arab state archives. But difficulty should not be construed as impossibility. In the first place, some official Arab documents are available. A prime example is the report of the Iraqi parliamentary committee of inquiry into the question which is packed with high-level documents.[15] Another example is the collection of official, semi-official and private papers gathered by the Institute for Palestine Studies.[16] In addition,there is a far from negligible literature in Arabic which consists of first-hand accounts of the disaster, including the diaries and memoirs of prominent politicians and soldiers.[17] But even if none of these Arabic sources existed, the other available sources would provide a basis for an informed analysis of the 1948 War. A military historian of the Middle Ages would be green with envy at the sight of the sources available to his contemporary Middle Eastern counterpart. Historians of the 1948 War would do much better to explore in depth the manifold sources that are available to them than to lament the denial of access to the Arab state archives.

If the release of rich new sources of information was one important reason behind the advent of historical revisionism, a change in the general political climate was another.[18] For many Israelis, especially liberal-minded ones, the Likud's ill-conceived and ill-fated invasion of in 1982 marked a watershed. Until then, Zionist leaders had been careful to cultivate the image of peace-lovers who would stand up and fight only if war was forced upon them. Until then, the notion of ein breira, of no alternative, was central to the explanation of why went to war and a means of legitimizing her involvement in wars. But while the fierce debate between supporters and opponents of the Lebanon War was still raging, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave a lecture to the on wars of choice and wars of no choice. He argued that the Lebanon War, like the Sinai War of 1956, was a war of choice designed to achieve national objectives. With this admission, unprecedented in the history of the Zionist movement,the national consensus round the notion of ein breira began to crumble, creating political space for a critical re-examination of the country's earlier history.[19]

The appearance of the new books on the 1948 War excited a great deal of interest and controversy in Israeli academic and political circles. A two-day conference on the end of the War of Independence, organized by the Dayan Centre and the Institute for Zionist Research at Tel Aviv University in April 1989, turned into a confrontation between the old Zionist version represented by historians, journalists and veterans of that war and the new version represented by Benny Morris and myself. Several of the speakers argued, with good reason, that the new historians did not develop a new school or new methodology of historical writing but used conventional historical methods to advance new interpretations of the events of 1948. On the merits of the new interpretations, opinions were sharply divided. Members of the old guard, especially the Mapai old guard, bristled with hostility and roundly condemned the new interpretations. The response of the Israeli academic community, both at the conference and in subsequent reviews and discussions, was more measured. Some of the findings of the new historiography, and especially the findings reported in Benny Morris' book, became widely accepted in the Israeli academic community and found their way into university reading lists and high school textbooks.

Among the critics of the new historians, the most strident and vitriolic was Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion's biographer. Teveth's attack entitled 'The New Historians' appeared in four successive full-page instalments in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz on 7, 14 and 21 April and . Teveth subsequently published an abridged and revised version of this series in an article entitled 'Charging Israel with Original Sin' in the American-Jewish monthly, Commentary. In this article, Teveth describes the new history as a 'farrago of distortions, omissions, tendentious readings, and outright falsifications.'[20] Teveth pursues two lines of attack. One line of attack is that the new historiography 'rests in part on defective evidence, and is characterized by serious professional flaws.'[21] The other line of attack is that the new historiography is politically motivated, pro-Palestinian, and aimed at delegitimizing Zionism and the State of Israel.

In support of this last claim, Teveth quotes a passage from Benny Morris's article on 'The New Historiography', a passage which states that 'how one perceives 1948 bears heavily on how one perceives the whole Zionist/Israeli experience... If was born tarnished, besmirched by original sin then it was no more deserving of that [Western] grace and assistance than were its neighbours.' Teveth goes on to say that the original sin Shlaim charges with consists of 'the denial to the Palestinian Arabs of a country' while Morris charges with 'creating the refugee problem' and both charges 'are false.'[22]

Teveth must have gone through the two books in question with a fine tooth comb to discover evidence of the political motive that he attributes to their authors but he came up with nothing. This is why he was reduced to quoting from the Tikkum article which he builds up in a farrago of distortions of his own into the political manifesto of what he calls 'the new historical club.' But even the quote from the article does not demonstrate any political purpose; all it does is to point out that Western attitudes towards are influenced by perceptions of how came into the world. This is surely undeniable. Benny Morris replied in Ha'aretz and in a second article in Tikkun that, as far as he is concerned, the new historiography has no political purposes whatsoever. The task and function of the historian, in his view, is to illuminate the past.[23] My own view is that the historian's most fundamental task is not to chronicle but to evaluate. The historian's task is to subject the claims of all the protagonists to rigorous scrutiny and to reject all those claims, however deeply cherished, that do not stand up to such scrutiny. In my view many of the claims advanced by the old historians do not stand up to serious scrutiny. But that does not mean that everything they say is untrue or that is the sole villain of the piece. In fact, neither Benny Morris nor I have charged with original sin. It is Shabtai Teveth who, in face of all the evidence to the contrary, continues to cling to the doctrine of 's immaculate conception.[24]

It is Teveth's counter-attack which is politically motivated. Like so many other members of the Mapai old guard, he is unable to distinguish between history and propaganda. Any attempt to revise the conventional wisdom with the help of new evidence that has come to light is therefore immediately suspect as unpatriotic and calculated to harm the reputation of the leader and the party who led the struggle for independence. For Teveth and other members of the Mapai old guard, the events in question do not yet fully belong to history but represent their party's and their country's finest hour. They are too wedded, personally and politically, to the heroic version of the creation of the State of Israel to be able to treat the new historiography with an open mind.

Interestingly, individuals on the political right in , whether scholars or not, respond to the findings of the new historiography with far greater equanimity. They readily admit, for example, that did expel Palestinians and even express regret that she did not expel more Palestinians since it was they who launched the war against her. Right-wingers tend to treat the 1948 War from a realpolitik point of view rather than a moralistic one. They are therefore spared the anguish of trying to reconcile the practices of Zionism with the precepts of liberalism. It is perhaps for this reason that they are generally less self-righteous and more receptive to new evidence and new analyses of the 1948 War than members of the Mapai old guard. The latter put so much store by 's claim to moral rectitude that they cannot face up to the evidence of cynical Israeli double-dealings or brutal expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians. It is an axiom of their narrative that is the innocent victim. And it is their concern with the political consequences of rewriting of history that largely accounts for the ferocity of their attacks on the new historiography.

Although politics and history have got mixed up in the debate about 1948, and although this debate often resembles a dialogue of the deaf, the very fact that a debate is taking place is a welcome change from the stifling conformity of the past. A J P Taylor once remarked that history does not repeat itself, it is historians who repeat one another. The old historiography on the emergence of is a striking example of this general phenomenon. As for the new historiography, whatever its faults, it at least has the merit of stimulating a re-examination of time-hallowed conventions.

Six major bones of contention can be identified in the ongoing debate between the new and the old historians: Britain's policy at the end of the Palestine mandate, the Arab-Israeli military balance in 1948, the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem, the nature of Israeli-Jordanian relations during the war, Arab war aims, and the reasons for the continuing political deadlock after the guns fell silent. Let me now review briefly the main arguments and counter-arguments on these six key issues in the debate, bearing in mind that I am not a detached or neutral observer but one of the protagonists in the debate.

1.    British Policy

The first bone of contention concerns British policy in between and . Zionist historiography, reflecting the suspicions of Zionist leaders at that time, is laden with charges of hostile plots that are alleged to have been hatched against the Yishuv during the twilight of British rule in . The central charge is that Britain armed and secretly encouraged her Arab allies, and especially her client, King Abdullah of Jordan, to invade Palestine upon expiry of the British Mandate and do battle with the Jewish state as soon as it came into the world. For Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government headed by Clement Attlee, is reserved the role of chief villain in this alleged conspiracy.

Ilan Pappé, using English, Arabic and Hebrew sources, has driven a coach and horses through the traditional Zionist rendition of British policy towards the end of the mandate, and I tried to follow along the trail that he had blazed[25] The key to British policy during this period is summed up by Pappé in two words: Greater Transjordan. Bevin felt that if had to be partitioned, the Arab area could not be left to stand on its own but should be united with . A Greater Transjordan would compensate for the loss of bases in . Hostility to Hajj Amin al-Husayni, who had cast his lot with the Nazis during the Second World War, and hostility to a Palestinian state, which in British eyes was always equated with a Mufti state, were important and constant features of British policy after the war. By February 1948, Bevin and his Foreign Office advisers were pragmatically reconciled to the inevitable emergence of the Jewish state. What they were not reconciled to, was the emergence of a Palestinian state.

The policy of Greater Transjordan implied discreet support for a bid by Abdullah, nicknamed 'Mr Bevin's little king' by the officials at the Foreign Office, to enlarge his kingdom by taking over the . At a secret meting in on , Bevin gave Tawfiq Abul Huda, 's Prime Minister, the green light to send the Arab Legion into immediately following the departure of the British forces. But Bevin also warned not to invade the area allocated by the UN to the Jews.  An attack on Jewish state territory, he said, would compel to withdraw her subsidy and officers from the Arab Legion. Far from being driven by blind anti-semitic prejudice to unleash the Arab Legion against the Jews, Bevin in fact urged restraint on the Arabs in general and on in particular. Whatever sins were committed by the British Foreign Secretary as the British mandate in approached its inglorious end, inciting King Abdullah to use force to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state was not one of them.

If Bevin was guilty of conspiring to unleash the Arab Legion, his target was not the Jews but the Palestinians. The prospect of a Palestinian state was pretty remote in any case because the Palestinians themselves had done so little to build it. But by supporting Abdullah's bid to capture the Arab part of adjacent to his kingdom, Bevin indirectly helped to ensure that the Palestinian state envisaged in the UN partition plan would be still-born. In short, if there is a case to be made against Bevin, it is not that he tried to abort the birth of the Jewish state but that he endorsed the understanding between King Abdullah and the Jewish Agency to partition between themselves and leave the Palestinians out in the cold.

The Zionist charge that Bevin deliberately instigated hostilities in and gave encouragement and arms to the Arabs to crush the infant Jewish state thus represents almost the exact opposite of the historical truth as it emerges from the British, Arab and Israeli documents. The charge is without substance and may be safely discarded as the first in the series of myths that have come to surround the founding of the State of Israel.

2.    The Military Balance

A second myth, fostered by official and semi-official accounts of the 1948 War, is that the Israeli victory was achieved in the face of insurmountable military odds. is pictured in these accounts as a little Jewish David confronting a giant Arab Goliath. The war is portrayed as a desperate, costly and heroic struggle for survival with plucky little fighting off marauding armies from seven Arab states. 's ultimate victory in this war is treated as nothing short of a miracle.

The heroism of the Jewish fighters is not in question. Nor is there any doubt about the heavy price that the Yishuv paid for its victory. Altogether there were 6,000 dead, 4,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians, or about 1 per cent of the entire population. Nevertheless, the Yishuv was not as hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned as the official history would have us believe. It is true that the Yishuv numbered merely 650,000 souls, compared with 1.2 million Palestine Arabs and nearly 40 million Arabs in the surrounding states. It is true that the senior military advisers told the political leadership on that the Haganah had only a 'fifty-fifty' chance of withstanding the imminent Arab attack. It is true that the sense of weakness and vulnerability in the Jewish population was as acute as it was pervasive and that some segments of this population were gripped by a feeling of gloom and doom. And it is true that during three critical weeks, from the invasion of by the regular armies of the Arab states on 15 May until the start of the first truce on 11 June, this community had to struggle for its very survival.

But the Yishuv also enjoyed a number of advantages which are commonly downplayed by the old historians. The Yishuv was better prepared, better mobilized and better organized when the struggle for reached its crucial stage than its local opponents. The Haganah, which was renamed the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) on 31 May, could draw on a large reserve of Western-trained and home-grown officers with military experience. It had an effective centralized system of command and control. And, in contrast to the armies of the Arab states, especially those of and , it had short, internal lines of communication which enabled it to operate with greater speed and mobility.

During the unofficial phase of the war, from December 1947 until , the Yishuv gradually gained the upper hand in the struggle against its Palestinian opponents. Its armed forces were larger, better trained, and more technologically advanced. Despite some initial setbacks, these advantages enabled it to win and win decisively the battle against the Palestine Arabs. Even when the Arab states committed their regular armies, marking the beginning of the official phase of the war, the Yishuv retained its numerical superiority. In mid-May the total number of Arab troops, both regular and irregular, operating in was between 20,000 and 25,000. IDF fielded 35,000 troops, not counting the second-line troops in the settlements. By mid-July IDF fully mobilized 65,000 men under arms,by September the number rose to 90,000 and by December it reached a peak of 96,441. The Arab states also reinforced their armies but they could not match this rate of increase. Thus, at each stage of the war, IDF significantly outnumbered all the Arab forces ranged against it and by the final stage of the war its superiority ratio was nearly two to one.[26]

IDF's gravest weakness during the first round of fighting in May-June was in firepower. The Arab armies were much better equipped, especially with heavy arms. But during the first truce,in violation of the UN arms embargo, imported from all over , and especially from , rifles, machine-guns, armoured cars, field guns, tanks, airplanes and all kinds of ammunition in large quantities. These illicit arms acquisitions enabled IDF to tip the scales decisively in its own favour. In the second round of fighting IDF moved on to the offensive and in the third round it picked off the Arab armies and defeated them one by one. The final outcome of the war was thus not a miracle but a faithful reflection of the underlying Arab-Israeli military balance. In this war, as in most wars, the stronger side ultimately prevailed.

The Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem

A third bone of contention between the old and the new historians concerns the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. The question is: did they leave or were they pushed out? Ever since 1948 Israeli spokesmen have maintained that the Palestinians left the country on orders from their own leaders and in the expectation of a triumphant return. Accounts written by old historians echo the official line. Arab spokesmen have with equal consistency maintained that forcibly expelled some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and that , therefore, bears the full responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. The question of origins is thus directly related to the question of responsibility for solving the Palestinian refugee problem. Arab claims that the notion of forcible 'transfer' is inherent in Zionism and that in 1948 the Zionists simply seized the opportunity to displace and dispossess the Arab inhabitants of the country rendered this controversy all the more acrimonious.

Benny Morris in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem investigated this subject as carefully, dispassionately and objectively as it is ever likely to be. Morris found no evidence of Arab leaders issuing calls to 's Arabs to leave their homes and villages nor any trace of a radio or press campaign urging them to flee. On the Israeli side, he found no blanket orders handed down from above for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinians. He therefore rejected both the Arab order and the Jewish robber state explanations. His much-quoted conclusion is that 'The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Arab-Israeli war; in smaller part, it was the deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians.'[27] Benny Morris has already replied in detail to Teveth's criticisms and it would serve no useful purpose for me to give a blow by blow account of the battle between them.[28] But it seems to me that Teveth's position on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem is about as sophisticated as the old saying haya ness vehem nassu - there was a miracle and they ran away. Anyone who believes that will believe anything.

Another category of critics of Benny Morris' book consists of Israeli orientalists. Some orientalists, like Yehoshua Porath, have been highly supportive. Others, like Asher Susser, Emmanuel Sivan and Avraham Sela, have written in a more critical vein while giving credit where credit is due. The recurrent criticism from this professional quarter is that Morris has made very little use in his book of Arabic sources. In response to this criticism, Morris posed a question: would the consulting of the Arabic materials mentioned by the critics have resulted in a fundamental revision of the analysis of the Palestinian exodus or added significantly to the description of this exodus given in his book?[29] Avraham Sela concedes that the use of the Arabic sources would have probably not changed the main conclusions of Morris's study on the causes of the Palestinian exodus. But he goes on to argue that neglect of the available Arabic sources and heavy reliance on the Israeli documents is liable to produce an unbalanced picture.[30]
While a number of Israeli Orientalists consider that Morris attached too much weight to Israeli actions, compared with other factors, in the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, many other reviewers felt that in his conclusion Morris lets off rather lightly. An observation which is frequently made, by Western as well as Palestinian reviewers, is that the evidence presented in the body of the book suggests a far higher degree of Israeli responsibility than that implied by Morris in his conclusion.[31] But despite the shortcomings of Morris's conclusion, his book remains an outstandingly original, scholarly and important contribution to the study of a problem which lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

4.    Israeli - Jordanian Relations

A fourth issue which gave rise to a lively controversy in is the nature of Israeli-Jordanian relations and, more specifically, the contention that there was collusion or tacit understanding between King Abdullah and the Jewish Agency in 1947-49. That there was traffic between these two parties has been widely known for some time and the two meetings between Golda Meir and King Abdullah in November 1947 and May 1948 have even featured in popular films. Nor is the charge of collusion a new one. It was made in a book published by Colonel Abdullah al-Tall who had served as a messenger between King Abdullah and the Jews, following Tall's abortive coup and defection to [32] A similar charge was levelled against Ben-Gurion by Lieutenant-Colonel Israel Baer in the book he wrote in his prison cell, following his conviction of spying for the [33] Tall condemned king Abdullah for betraying his fellow Arabs and selling the Palestinians down the river. Baer condemned Ben-Gurion for forming an unholy alliance with Arab reaction and British imperialism. A number of books and articles on Zionist-Hashemite relations have also been written by Israeli scholars, the most recent of which are by Dan Schueftan and by Uri Bar-Joseph.[34] But out of the recent crop of books on this rather unusual bilateral relationship, it is my own book Collusion Across the Jordan which achieved real notoriety on both sides of the and has been singled out for attack by the old historians.

The central thesis advanced in my book is that in November 1947 an unwritten agreement was reached between King Abdullah and the Jewish Agency to divide Palestine between themselves following the termination of the British mandate and that this agreement laid the foundation for mutual restraint during the first Arab-Israeli war and for continuing collaboration in the aftermath of this war. A subsidiary thesis is that knew and approved of this secret Hashemite-Zionist agreement to divide up between themselves rather than along the lines of the UN partition plan.

This thesis challenges the conventional view of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a simple bipolar affair in which a monolithic and implacably hostile Arab world is pitted against the Jews. It suggests that the Arab rulers were deeply divided among themselves on how to deal with the Zionist challenge and that one of these rulers favoured accommodation rather than confrontation and had indeed cut a deal with the Jewish Agency to partition at the expense of the Palestinians. The thesis also detracts from the heroic version which pictures as ringed by an unbroken circle of Arab hostility and having to repel a concerted all-out attack on all fronts. Not surprisingly, the official history of the War of Independence fails to even mention the unwritten agreement with King Abdullah.[35] Even when this agreement is acknowledged, the official line is that Abdullah went back on it at the critical moment and that it consequently had no influence, or only a marginal influence, on the conduct of the war.[36]

Regurgitating the official line, Shabtai Teveth hotly denies that the Jewish leaders were involved in collusion or had an ally on the Arab side. He coyly admits that 'Israel and Jordan did maintain a dialogue' but goes on to argue that 'at most theirs was an understanding of convenience ... There was nothing in such an understanding to suggest collusion designed to deceive a third party, in this case the Palestinian Arabs.'[37] Again, anyone who believes this, will believe anything. If all that transpired between and was a dialogue, then it was a rather curious kind of a dialogue because it lasted thirty years, because it was clandestine, because it was directed against a common rival, and because money changed hands. That the dialogue broke down between May and August 1948 is not in doubt. But surely, if one takes a long-term view of this relationship, a strategic partnership, if not an unholy alliance, would be a more appropriate term than a dialogue.

Teveth is evidently so wedded to the doctrine of 's immaculate conception that he is totally impervious to any evidence that contradicts it. He has made up his mind and he does not want to be confused by the facts. His article provides a fine example of the absurd lengths to which the old historians are capable of going to suppress unpalatable truths about the way in which came into the world. Judged by the rough standards of the game of nations, the dalliance between the Zionists and the Hashemite king was neither extraordinary nor particularly reprehensible. Both sides acted in a pragmatic fashion to advance their own interest. A problem arises only as a result of the claim that 's conduct was based on morality rather than self-interest.

The relations between and in the 1948 War were reviewed recently by Avraham Sela in a 66-page long article in Middle Eastern Studies. Sela's use of archival sources and comprehensive examination of the literature on this subject, especially in Arabic, make this a valuable contribution to the historiography of the 1948 War. It does not lead me, however, to revise any of the arguments I advanced in Collusion Across the Jordan. Sela's thesis is that 'the conditions and basic assumptions that had constituted the foundations of the unwritten agreement between Abdullah and the Jewish Agency regarding the partition of Palestine as early as the summer of 1946 were altered so substantially during the unofficial war (December 1947 - May 1948) as to render that agreement antiquated and impracticable.'[38]

I believe that despite all the changes, the earlier accord and the long history of co-operation going back to the foundation of the Amirate of Transjordan in 1921, continued to exert some influence over the conduct of the two sides. Sela maintains that in the early part of the war, the two sides, and especially the Israeli side, behaved according to the old adage 'à la guerre comme à la guerre'. Even if this is a valid conclusion regarding , it is emphatically not valid, in my view, in relation to . Although the accord was no longer binding and contact was severed, each side, and especially Jordan, continued to pursue limited objectives and acted with restraint towards the other until the war ended. Though they became enemies at the height of the war, they remained in Uri Bar-Joseph's apt phrase, the best of enemies.

In conclusion, Sela tells us that war is a complex and intricate phenomenon. This is indisputable. One reason for this complexity is that war involves both politics and the use of force. The old historiography deals mostly with the military side of the war. I tried to redress the balance by looking at the political side of the war and more particularly at the interplay between politics and strategy. Sela goes on to state that 'The collusion myth implicitly assumes the possibility for both Zionist and Palestinian acceptance of the partition plan and its peaceful implementation.[39] I assume nothing of the kind. On the contrary, precisely because the Palestinians rejected partition, I consider collaboration between Abdullah and the Jewish Agency to have been a reasonable and realistic strategy for both sides. In other words, I accept that in the period 1947-49 had no Palestinian option or any other Arab option, save the Jordanian option. King Abdullah was the only Arab head of state who was willing to accept the principle of partition and to co-exist peacefully with a Jewish state after the dust had settled. From March-April 1948 this understanding was subjected to severe strain as the Jews went on the offensive. In the period May-July 1948, the two sides came to blows. From Abdullah's post-war vantage point, this was merely a fitna, a family quarrel, and the Jews had started it. And after the initial outburst of violence, both sides began to pull their punches, as one does in a family quarrel.

There remains the question of whether the term collusion is appropriate for describing the relations between Abdullah and the Jewish Agency and later the State of Israel. Some of the criticisms of the book were directed at its title rather than its substance. It was for this reason that for the abridged and revised paperback version of the book I opted for the more neutral title The Politics of Partition.[40] In the preface to the new edition I explained that although I had dropped the offensive word from the title, I was still of the opinion that the Israel-Jordan link-up involved at least some of the elements associated with collusion: 'it was held behind a thick veil of secrecy; its existence was hotly denied by the participants; it was directed against a third party; it involved more than a modicum of underhand scheming and plotting; and it was consciously and deliberately intended to frustrate the will of the international community, as expressed through the United Nations General Assembly, in favour of creating an independent Arab state in part of Palestine.'[41] On reflection, I rather regret that I changed the title of my book. The original title was an apt one. Collusion is as good a word as any to describe the traffic between the Hashemite king and the Zionist movement during the period 1921-1951, despite the violent interlude in the hot summer of 1948.

5.    Arab War Aims

Closely related to Israeli-Jordanian relations is the question of Arab war aims in 1948, a fifth bone of contention between the old and the new historians. The question is why did the Arab states invade with their regular armies on the day that the British mandate expired and the State of Israel was proclaimed? The conventional Zionist answer is that the motive behind the invasion was to destroy the newly-born Jewish state and to throw the Jews into the sea. The reality was more complex.

It is true that all the Arab states, with the exception of , rejected the UN partition plan. It is true that seven Arab armies invaded the morning after the State of Israel was proclaimed. It is true that the invasion was accompanied by blood-curdling rhetoric and threats to throw the Jews into the sea. It is true that in addition to the regular Arab armies and the Mufti's Holy War army, various groups of volunteers arrived in Palestine,the most important of which was the Arab Liberation Army, sponsored by the Arab League and led by the Syrian adventurer Fawzi al-Qawukji. More importantly, it is true that the military experts of the Arab League had worked out a unified plan for the invasion and that this plan was all the more dangerous for having had more limited and realistic objectives than those implied by the wild pan-Arab rhetoric.

But King Abdullah, who was given nominal command over all the Arab forces in , wrecked this plan by making last minute changes. His objective in sending his army into was not to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, but to make himself master of the Arab part of which meant preventing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Since the Palestinians had done next to nothing to create an independent state, the Arab part of would have probably gone to Abdullah without all the scheming and plotting, but that is another matter. What is clear is that, under the command of Glubb Pasha, the Arab League made every effort to avert a head-on collision and, with the exception of one of two minor incidents, made no attempt to encroach on the territory allocated to the Jewish state by the UN cartographers.

There was no love lost between Abdullah and the other Arab rulers who suspected him of being in cahoots with the enemy. Abdullah had always been something of a pariah in the rest of the Arab world, not least because of his friendship with the Jews. and felt threatened by his long-standing ambition to make himself master of Greater Syria. , the leader of the anti-Hashemite bloc within the Arab League, also felt threatened by Abdullah's plans for territorial aggrandizement in . King Farouk made his decision to intervene in at the last moment, and against the advice of his civilian and military experts, at least in part in order to check the growth of his rival's power. There were thus rather mixed motives behind the invasion of . And there was no single Arab plan of action during the 1948 war. On the contrary, it was the inability of the Arabs to co-ordinate their diplomatic and military plans that was in large measure responsible for the disaster that overwhelmed them.

The one purpose which the Arab invasion did not serve was the ostensible one of coming to the rescue of the embattled Palestinians. Nowhere was the disparity between pan-Arab rhetoric and the reality greater than in relation to the Palestinian Arabs.[42] The reality was one of national selfishness with each Arab state looking after its own interests. What was supposed to be a holy war against the Jews, quickly turned into a general land grab. Division and discord within the ranks of the ramshackle Arab coalition deepened with every successive defeat. 's leaders knew about these divisions and exploited them to the full. Thus they launched an offensive against the Egyptian army in October and again in December 1948 in the confident expectation that their old friend in would keep out. The old historians by concentrating almost exclusively on the military operations of 1948 ended up with the familiar picture of an Arab-Israeli war in which all the Arabs were united by a single purpose, all were bent on the defeat and destruction of . In retrospect, however, the political line-up on the Arab side in 1948 appears much more complicated and the motives behind the invasion of much more mixed.

6.    The Elusive Peace

Last but not least of the contentious questions in the debate between the old and the new historians is the question of why peace proved unattainable in the aftermath of the first Arab-Israeli War. At the core of the old version lies the notion of Arab intransigence. According to this version, strove indefatigably towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict but all her efforts foundered on the rocks of Arab intransigence. The new historians believe that postwar was more intransigent than the Arab states and that she consequently bears a larger share of the responsibility for the political deadlock which followed the formal ending of hostilities.[43]

Evidence to back the new interpretation comes mainly from the files of the Israeli Foreign Ministry. These files burst at the seams with evidence of Arab peace feelers and Arab readiness to negotiate with from September 1948 onwards. The two key issues in dispute were refugees and borders. Each of the neighbouring Arab states was prepared to negotiate with directly and prepared to bargain about both refugees and borders.

King Abdullah proposed an overall political settlement with in return for certain territorial concessions, particularly a land corridor to link with the , which would have enabled him to counter Arab criticisms of a separate peace with . Colonel Husni Zaim, who captured power in Syria in March 1949 and was overthrown four months later, offered Israel full peace with an exchange of ambassadors, normal economic relations and the resettlement of 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria in return for an adjustment of the boundary between the two countries through the middle of Lake Tiberias.[44] King Farouk of demanded the cession of and a substantial strip of desert bordering on Sinai as his price for a de facto recognition of . All three Arab rulers displayed remarkable pragmatism in their approach to negotiations with the Jewish state. They were even anxious to pre-empt one another because they assumed that whoever settled up with first would also get the best terms. Zaim openly declared his ambition to be the first Arab leader to make peace with .

In each case, though for slightly different reasons, David Ben-Gurion considered the price being asked for peace as too high. He was ready to conclude peace on the basis of the status quo; he was unwilling to proceed to a peace which involved more than minuscule Israeli concessions on refugees or on borders. Ben-Gurion, as his diary reveals, considered that the armistice agreements with the neighbouring Arab states met 's essential needs for recognition, security and stability.[45] He knew that for formal peace agreements would have to pay by yielding substantial tracts of territory and by permitting the return of a substantial number of Palestinian refugees and he did not consider this a price worth paying. Whether Ben-Gurion made the right choice is a matter of opinion. That he had a choice is now undeniable.

The controversy surrounding the elusive peace is examined in a book by Itamar Rabinovich, former Rector of Tel Aviv University and one of 's leading experts on modern Arab politics. The title of the book, inspired by a poem by Robert Frost, is The Road Not Taken: Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations. This title implies that the failure of these talks was not inevitable, that there was another road leading to peace - the road not taken. But the book does not advance any thesis nor does it engage directly in the debate between the old and the new historians. Rabinovich prefers to remain above the battle. So reluctant is he to assign blame, that his book ends without an explicit conclusion. All he would say is that 'the choices of 1948-49 were made by Arabs, Israelis, Americans and others. The credit and responsibility for them belong to all.[46] 'Rabinovich's implicit conclusion, however, is that because of the instability of the Arab regimes, Ben-Gurion was justified in his refusal to assume any political risks for the sake of peace. Yet in every crucial respect Rabinovich's account undermines the claim of the old historians that encountered total Arab intransigence and confirms the revisionist argument that Israeli intransigence was the much more serious obstacle on the road to peace,[47]


This article is concerned with the old Zionist version of the first Arab-Israeli war and with the challenge to this version posed by the new historiography. My conclusion is that this version is deeply flawed and needs to be radically revised in the light of the new information that is now available. To put it bluntly, this version is little more than the propaganda of the victors. The debate between the old and the new historiography, moreover, is not of merely historical interest. It cuts to the very core of 's image of herself. It is for this reason that the battle of the historians has excited such intense popular interest and stirred such strong political passions.

The debate about 1948 between the old and the new historians resembles the American debate on the origins of the Cold War. That debate evolved in stages. During the 1950s the so-called traditionalist view held sway. According to this view, Soviet expansionism was responsible for the outbreak of the Cold War while American policy was essentially reactive and defensive. Then, in the context of the Vietnam war and the crisis of American self-confidence that accompanied it, a new school of thought emerged, a revisionist school of mostly younger, left-wing scholars. According to this school, the Cold War was the result of the onward march of American capitalism, and it was the that reacted defensively. Following the opening up of the archives, a third school of thought emerged, the post-revisionist school. A re-examination of the assumptions and arguments of both traditionalists and revisionists in the light of new evidence gradually yielded a post-revisionist synthesis. The hallmark of post-revisionism is not to allocate blame to this party or the other but to try and understand the dynamics of the conflict that we call the Cold War.

The debate about the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be following a similar pattern. A traditionalist school, consisting of participants and propagandists as well as historians close to the political establishment, laid the entire blame for the 1948 War and its consequences at the door of the Arabs. Then, following the opening of the archives, a new school of mostly left-wing historians began to reinterpret many of the events surrounding the creation of the State of Israel. These historians take a much more critical view of 's conduct in the years 1947-49 and place on her a larger share of the blame for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem and for the continuing political impasse in the . The debate between the old and the new historians is bitter and acrimonious and it is conducted in a highly charged political atmosphere. It is melancholy to have to add that there is no sign yet of the emergence of a post-revisionist synthesis. Battles between historians, like real battles, evidently have to run their course.


[1] Emile Habiby, Al-Waqa'ic al-Ghariba fi Ikhtifa' Sacid Abi al-Nahs al-Mutasha'il, [The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist] (Beirut: Dar Ibn Khaldun, 1974), p.37.
[2] Ibid., p.35.
[3] Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York: Pantheon, 1987), p.8.
[4] Ibid., p.10.
[5] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
[6] Ilan and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51 (London, Macmillan, 1988).
[7] Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the : King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1988)
[8] Baer, Bitahon : Etmol, Hayom, Mahar ['s Security: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow] (Tel Aviv: Amikam, 1966).
[9] Gavriel Cohen, 'Hamediniyut Habritit Erev Milhemet Ha'atzma'ut', in Yehuda Wallach, ed., Hayinu Keholmim [We were as Dreamers] (Givatayim: Massada, 1985).
[10] Yaacov Shimoni, 'Ha'aravim Likrat Milhemet Israel-'Arav, 1945-1948' (The Arabs and the Approaching War with Israel, 1945-1948), Hamizrah Hehadash, 47:3, 1962.
[11] Meir Pail, 'Hafqa'at Haribonut Hamedinit shel Filastin miyedei Hafalestinim' (The Expropriation of the Political Sovereignty over from the Palestinians), Ziyonut, 3, 1973.
[12] Rony E. Gabbay, A Political Study of the Arab-Jewish Conflict: The Arab Refugee Problem (Geneva: Librairie E. Droz, 1959).
[13] A. Yisra'eli [Moshe Machover and Akiva Orr], Shalom, Shalom - ve'ein Shalom: Yisra'el-Arav, 1948-61 [Peace, Peace - and there is No Peace: and the Arabs, 1948-61] (, 1961).
[14] Israel State Archives and Central Zionist Archives, Political and Diplomatic Documents, December 1947-May 1948, edited by Gedalia Yogev (Jerusalem: Israel Government Press, 1980); Israel State Archives, Documents on the Foreign Policy of the State of Israel, May - September 1948, vol. I, edited by Yehoshua Freundlich (Jerusalem: Israel Government Press, 1981); Documents on the Foreign Policy of the State of Israel: October 1948 - April 1949, Vol. II, edited by Yehoshua Freundlich, (Jerusalem: Israel Government Press, 1984); and Documents on the Foreign Policy of the State of Israel: Armistice Negotiations with the Arab States, December 1948- July 1949, vol. III, edited by Yemima Rosenthal (Jerusalem: Israel Government Press, 1986).
[15] , Taqrir Lajnat al-Tahqiq al-Niyabiya fi Qadiyat Filastin (, 1949).
[16] See the references in Walid Khalidi, 'The Arab Perspective', in Wm. Roger Louis and Robert W. Stookey, eds., The End of the Palestine Mandate (London: I.B. Tauris, 1986.
[17] For a review of this literature, see Avraham Sela, 'Arab Historiography of the 1948 War: The Quest for Legitimacy', in Lawrence J. Silberstein, ed., New Perspectives on Israeli History: The Early Years of the State (New York: New York University Press, 1991).
[18] Benny Morris, 'The New Historiography: Confronts its Past', Tikkun, 3:6, November-December 1988. This much-discussed article is reprinted in Benny Morris, 1948 and After: and the Palestinians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).
[19] One historian of Zionism, Anita Shapira, was prompted by Menachem Begin's claim to embark upon a re-examination of the defensive ethos of Zionism throughout the pre-state period. Tom Segev, 'The Anguish of Poor Samson', Ha'aretz, . Anita Shapira, Land and Power: the Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. vii.
[20] Shabtai Teveth, 'Charging with Original Sin', Commentary, September 1989, p. 33.
[21] Ibid., p. 25.
[22] Ibid., p. 25.

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