1948: The First Arab-Israeli War

Ben­ny Morris
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011
All of Ben­ny Mor­ris’ books have made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to our under­stand­ing of the Mid­dle East. This book is his best yet. 1948 is bril­liant­ly con­ceived, bril­liant­ly writ­ten, bril­liant­ly expres­sive. Mor­ris writes an excit­ing nar­ra­tive. On the one hand he explains the events of the 1948 war that cre­at­ed Israel. On the oth­er hand he debunks and demys­ti­fies some of the great­est myths of the 1948 war. He explains and puts into con­text with­out dimin­ish­ing the mag­ni­tude and the impact of 1948. For instance, Mor­ris points out that in 1948, at the time imme­di­ate­ly lead­ing up to the War, there were only 650,000 Jews in Pales­tine to fight 40 mil­lion Arabs. And then he explains that while small in num­ber oth­er fac­tors were on the side of these Jew­ish fight­ers. They had well led chains of com­mand, they had the home court advan­tage, and they were dri­ven by the need for vic­to­ry. Los­ing the 1949 War was tan­ta­mount to death. The real­i­ty is that by win­ning the first Arab-Israeli war Israel trans­formed the entire Arab world. And as Mor­ris observes, The war was a humil­i­a­tion from which that world has yet to recov­er.”


How does 1948 com­pare to your pre­vi­ous work?
In the past, I have writ­ten about one par­tic­u­lar aspect of the war— about the cre­ation of the Pales­tin­ian refugee prob­lem in 1947 – 49, for exam­ple, or more gen­er­al­ly about the course of the Zion­ist-Arab con­flict from 1881 to 2000. In this book I address the whole of the 1948 War in its polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary aspects, tak­ing in as well the inter­na­tion­al con­text and inter­ven­tions, the Arab world, and the inter­nal Israeli scene. I try to present a good over­all pic­ture of what hap­pened and why, from the UN han­dling of the Pales­tine issue to the Israeli- Arab armistice agree­ments that end­ed the war.

What do you think at bot­tom is the cause of the Arab-Israeli con­flict?
I would say that there is a ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­pute between two peo­ples who claim the same patch of land. It is a very small patch of land, and so the idea of divid­ing it between the two is extreme­ly prob­lem­at­ic in a tech­ni­cal sense. 

But it is also a cul­tur­al-reli­gious con­flict between the Islam­ic East and the West. The Islam­ic Arab world sees Israel — as it sees itself — as an off­shoot and out­post of the West in — in their view — a Mus­lim area and as an infi­del, inva­sive pres­ence. Israel and Zion­ism are seen by the Islam­ic Arab world, and by the wider Islam­ic world, as ille­git­i­mate. This, at root, is the cause of the ongo­ing con­flict. Were they to accord it legit­i­ma­cy, the prob­lem in Palestine/​Israel would be sol­u­ble. At present, giv­en this mind­set, it isn’t. 

Are there any lessons to be learned from the study of the 1948 War? 
To be sure, many Israelis will learn that they must remain strong and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced; oth­er­wise they will be over­whelmed by Arab num­bers and fer­vor. The Arabs might learn that they must improve them­selves, at least on a tech­no­log­i­cal- sci­en­tif­ic lev­el, and bet­ter their soci­eties and armies if they hope to over­come Israel— though it is pos­si­ble that if they do, they may lose the desire to destroy Israel. 

Oth­ers may sim­ply learn about the con­flict and the nature of the two con­tend­ing soci­eties, at least as they were in 1948, and with cer­tain impli­ca­tions for the present and future.

Mic­ah D. Halpern is a colum­nist and a social and polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor. He is the author of What You Need To Know About: Ter­ror, and main­tains The Mic­ah Report at www​.mic​ah​halpern​.com.

Discussion Questions