What Will Shlomo Ben-Ami Say at Cooper Union Next Week?

A lot of us are looking forward to the big debate over Walt and Mearsheimer’s paper next Thursday at Cooper Union. The ideas are finally coming where they belong: to New York. They were germinated in Chicago and Cambridge, broke ground in London, have popped up in Washington, and are finally arriving here, the center of the power structure in the U.S., where they ought to be debated. (And, interestingly, the pugilist who kept volunteering to be on the card, Dershowitz of Brooklyn, is nowhere in sight).

The wild card in the debate is Shlomo Ben-Ami, a historian and former Foreign Minister (one of the cool things about Israel is that being a young country, people get to have manifold roles—generals like Moshe Dayan and Yigael Yadin also get to be archaeologists). Ben-Ami will be arguing against the Mearsheimer-Walt thesis. Presumably he will take them on over the alleged role of the Israel lobby in such political events as the Camp David negotiations of 2000, in which he participated.

Because on one of the more controversial assertions of the paper, Ben-Ami is in agreement. Here is Walt and Mearsheimer’s discussion of the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948:

[T]he creation of Israel in 1947-48 involved acts of ethnic cleansing, including executions, massacres and rapes by Jews, and Israel’s subsequent conduct has often been brutal, belying any claim to moral superiority.

This statement angered many supporters of Israel. Some said W-M were anti-Israel. Like historian Benny Morris, per Michael Massing in the New York Review of Books:

Benny Morris, whom Mearsheimer and Walt frequently cite, dismissed their work in The New Republic as “a travesty of the history that I have studied and written for the past two decades.” He faulted them, among other things, for…falsely accusing Israel of adopting a policy of expelling Arabs in 1948…

But Ben-Ami sides with Walt and Mearsheimer on this issue. Earlier this year he published a book called Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. I’ve not finished the book, but it’s stunning, layering a restrained manner and careful scholarship over a moral backbeat. Because Israel has “lived by the sword,” Ben-Ami asserts, the military has taken “too central a function in defining both Israel’s war aims and her peace policies.” (cf, Lebanon 2006)

On 1948, Ben-Ami is emphatic. The historical record shows that once the Palestinians violently sought to oppose the ’47 U.N. partition plan, the Zionists adopted a policy of pushing them out of their homes, and never letting them return.

The reality on the ground… was that of an Arab community in a state of terror facing a ruthless Israeli army whose path to victory was paved not only by its exploits against the regular Arab armies, but also by the intimidation, and at times atrocities and massacres, it perpetrated against the civilian Arab community. A panic-stricken Arab community was uprooted under the impact of masacres that would be carved into the Arabs’ monument of grief and hatred… Benny Morris[‘s] thesis about the birth of the refugee problem being not by design but by the natural logic and evolution of the war is not always sustained by the very evidence he himself provides…Ben-Gurion…also instructed that abandoned Arab villages needed to be settled by Jews even before the end of hostilities…. Israel’s formal rejection of the refugees’ claim for return — a position that remains intact to this day — rather than the expulsion and dispossession, is the real defining moment of the conflict..

Israel as a society also suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians because it could not really come to terms ith the fact that its finest Sabras, the heroes of its war for independence and the role models of the new nation, expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them, and dispossessed them.

Wow. Strong stuff. And now let’s be clear (and not emotional) about something: Walt and Mearsheimer cite ethnic cleansing not to deprive Israel of its right to exist, but because they are political scientists, who wish to see a more evenhanded American policy in a powderkeg region that has experienced a cycle of violence for more than 60 years, a cycle that persists because both sides have sought to valorize their actions on moral grounds, and outside powers have indulged these moral delusions. It will be interesting to see whether the issue comes up next week…