Courtesy Reuters

A War to Start All Wars

Will Israel Ever Seal the Victory of 1948?

In This Review

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War
By Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 2008
544 pp. $32.50
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For 60 years, both the Israelis and the Palestinians have used the past to illuminate the present and confer legitimacy on their nations' respective founding myths. Of course, Zionists and Palestinian nationalists were not the first to embellish the stories of their nations' births or make excuses for their tragedies. Throughout history, nations have been born in blood and frequently in sin. This is why, as the French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote, they tend to lie about their pasts.

The birth of the state of Israel in 1948 has long been the subject of self-congratulatory historiography by the victorious side and grievance-filled accounts by disinherited Palestinians. To the Israelis, the 1948 war was a desperate fight for survival that was settled by an almost miraculous victory. In the Arab world, accounts of the war tend to advance conspiracy theories and attempt to shift the blame for the Arabs' defeat. In both cases, the writing of history has been part of an uncritical nationalist quest for legitimacy.

Refusing to admit that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained by the sins of Israel's birth and eager to deny the centrality of the Palestinian problem to the wider conflict in the Middle East, the Israelis have preferred to dwell on their struggle for independence against the supposedly superior invading Arab armies. But the war between the indigenous Palestinian population and the Yishuv, the organized Jewish community of Palestine, was arguably the fiercest phase of the conflict. It was during this period -- between November 30, 1947, and May 15, 1948 -- that the fate of the nascent Jewish state really seemed to hang by a thread. Nevertheless, the popular notion cultivated since then has repressed the memory of this fighting and focused instead on the heroic stand of the tiny Yishuv against the invading Arab armies during the second phase of the war, from May 15, 1948, to the spring of 1949. When the war was over, the Palestinian problem practically disappeared from Israeli public

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