Thursday, October 30, 2008

Benny Morris still atoning for past sins

Book Review: Benny Morris, 1948: The first Arab-Israeli War

Morris, Benny
1948: A History of the First Arab Israeli War
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2008, 524 pages

Benny Morris is one of Israel's foremost historians. What he writes must be read, and is often considered authoritative. His writing is generally lucid and well organized, and is therefore a joy to read. It is certainly convincing. He tells a good story. Anyone interested in the history and historiography of Israel is going to have to read this book, because Morris wrote it, and because it does have a lot of useful information about the Israel war of Independence.

Regrettably, Morris tells a somewhat different good story, and tells it convincingly, every time he writes a book. Having propagated a number of indefensible myths about Israel's 1948 War of Independence in his earliest works, he can now make a career of debunking the myths that he helped to create, and he is, in part, doing so.

The war, it will be remembered, was conducted in two major phases: the civil war under the British and the war with the Arab states after May 15, 1948. As Morris now states clearly, and somewhat or completely contrary to earlier pronouncements:

* Israel had no transfer policy. The leadership of the Yishuv did not contemplate expelling the Arabs of Palestine, and Plan D of the Haganah was not a plan to expel the Arabs.

*Israel did not win the war against the invading Arab countries because of decisive military superiority or numbers.There was no Jewish Juggernaut. Morris's previous method was to cite the supposed 25,000 or 30,000 or 35,000 Haganah (the numbers keep changing) recruits that existed on paper on May 15, 1948 and to compare these with the approximately 22,000 invaders. Now he remembers to tell his readers what should have been obvious. Half of the supposedly vast numbers of Haganah troops were home guards and headquarters and logistic staff. The Arab armies also had such personnel back in their home countries. Haganah had about 16,500 men in 9 combat "brigades." The Arabs, in addition, as Morris notes, had support and air force personnel at home, and thousands of irregulars as well as the ALA ("Arab Liberation Army") of Kaukji in the field. In this book, Morris also "remembered" the 1947 CIA report that predicted that the Jewish Yishuv would lose a war against the Arabs of Palestine. It directly contradicts his earlier "authoritative" pronouncement that most authorities agreed that the Israelis would win. Perhaps in his next book, Morris will also "discover" that a large number of the Haganah "troops" were middle aged men like those sent to guard the old city, who could not fire a gun, or Gadna troops (aged 14-16) like those who helped save Notre Dame de France from the Jordan Legion and its British officers. He might also reveal that many of the Haganah "troops" had little or no training, and some were just off the boat and couldn't speak Hebrew. He tells us about some of these troops and about many failures that were due to shortages of manpower, poor equipment or no equipment and lack of training and strategic vision. Morris tries to "balance" the impact of the facts by noting that though the Arabs had tanks and airplanes, they were lousy tanks and airplanes anyhow, in poor repair. Of course, some bad aircraft and tanks are better than none at all. Overall, his treatment of the military balance is much more factual than it was in his previous presentations, or in those of fiction writers like Ilan Pappe.

But the significance doesn't alwas seem to register in Morris's summaries and conclusions: the Israelis were a bunch of amateurs who had trained underground with almost no arms, facing several organized state armies that had been trained, for better or worse, by Britain. Having a few officers who were World War II veterans is not a substitute for having an army trained as a unit by professionals, an army that could operate in the open and conduct maneuvers together. Having actual airplanes and tanks, however poorly serviced, rather than aircraft and tanks that exist only on paper in Czechoslovakia was a huge advantage. Having a few Spitfires was infinitely preferable to having 4 defective Czech Avia S-199 (Messerschmidt imitation) aircraft that, aside from being located in an airfield in Czechoslovakia when most needed, had a perverse tendency to shoot themselves down (the machine guns would shoot out the propellers) and were un-airworthy because they had the wrong engines (the Heinkel bomber engines were much too heavy). Morris tells us about the arrival of these aircraft, but he doesn't mention their wonderful aerodynamic qualities.

More: Book Review: Benny Morris, 1948: The first Arab-Israeli War

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