A little over a year ago, on Feb. 14, 2006, Amy Goodman of Democracy, Now! conducted a joint interview with antiZionist gadfly Norman Finkelstein and the Israeli historian and diplomat Shlomo Ben-Ami, author most recently of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Arab-Israeli Tragedy. In the conversation, Finkelstein said the kind of things you'd expect from him.
The surprising part were the things said by Ben-Ami. Here is Goodman's first question and Ben-Ami's response:
Well, I want to start going back to the establishment of the state of Israel, and I'd like to begin with Israel's former Foreign Minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami. Can you talk about how it began? I think you have a very interesting discussion in this book that is rarely seen in this country of how the state of Israel was established. Can you describe the circumstances?
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, for all practical purposes, a state existed before it was officially created in 1948. The uniqueness of the Zionist experience, as it were, was in that the Zionists were able, under the protection of the mandate, of the British mandate, to set up the essentials of a state - the institutions of a state, political parties, a health system, running democracy for Jews, obviously - before the state was created, so the transition to statehood was a declaration, basically, and it came about in the middle of two stages of war, a civil war between the Israelis and the Jews and the Arabs in Palestine and then an invasion by the Arab armies. The point that I made with regard to the war is that the country, to the mythology that existed and exists, continues to exist mainly among Israelis and Jews, is that Israel was not in a military disadvantage when the war took place. The Arab armies were disoriented and confused, and they did not put in the battlefield the necessary forces.
So, in 1948, what was born was a state, but also original superpower in many ways. We have prevailed over the invading Arab armies and the local population, which was practically evicted from Palestine, from the state of Israel, from what became the state of Israel, and this is how the refugee problem was born. Interestingly, the Arabs in 1948 lost a war that was, as far as they were concerned, lost already in 1936-1939, because they have fought against the British mandate and the Israeli or the Jewish Yishuv, the Jewish pre-state, and they were defeated then, so they came to the hour of trial in 1948 already as a defeated nation. That is, the War of 1948 was won already in 1936, and they had no chance to win the war in 1948. They were already a defeated nation when they faced the Israeli superpower that was emerging in that year.
In these lines, Ben-Ami basically agrees with the New Historian critique of the Zionist founding myth. But he doesn't stop there. In her next question, Goodman quotes from Ben-Ami's book on the expulsion of the Palestinians:
AMY GOODMAN: You have some very strong quotes in your book, of your own and quoting others, like Berl Katznelson, who is the main ideologue of the Labor movement, acknowledging that in the wake of the 1929 Arab riots, the Zionist enterprise as an enterprise of conquest. You also say, "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 massacres that would be carved into the Arabs' monument of grief and hatred." Explain that further.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Well, you see, there is a whole range of new historians that have gone into the sources of - the origins of the state of Israel, among them you mentioned Avi Shlaim, but there are many, many others that have exposed this evidence of what really went on on the ground. And I must from the very beginning say that the main difference between what they say and my vision of things is not the facts. The facts, they are absolutely correct in mentioning the facts and putting the record straight.
My view is that, but for Jesus Christ, everybody was born in sin, including nations. And the moral perspective of it is there, but at the same time it does not undermine, in my view, in my very modest view, the justification for the creation of a Jewish state, however tough the conditions and however immoral the consequences were for the Palestinians. You see, it is there that I tend to differ from the interpretation of the new historians. They have made an incredible contribution, a very, very important contribution to our understanding of the origins of the state of Israel, but at the same time, my view is that this is how - unfortunately, tragically, sadly - nations were born throughout history.
And our role, the role of this generation - this is why I came into politics and why I try to make my very modest contribution to the peace process - is that we need to bring an end to this injustice that has been done to the Palestinians. We need to draw a line between an Israeli state, a sovereign Palestinian state, and solve the best way we can the problem, by giving the necessary compensation to the refugees, by bringing back the refugees to the Palestinian state, no way to the state of Israel, not because it is immoral, but because it is not feasible, it is not possible. We need to act in a realistic way and see what are the conditions for a final peace deal. I believe that we came very, very close to that final peace deal. Unfortunately, we didn't make it. But we came very close in the year 2001.
Ben-Ami's argument here is pragmatic -- acknowledging a Right of Return for Palestinians would destroy the Jewish state. Morally, however, he seems to agree that the Palestinians actually deserve the right to return to their homes.
In the next exchange with Goodman, he addresses Nakba-denial:
AMY GOODMAN: Before we get to that peace deal, another thing that you have said. "Israel, as a society, also suppressed the memory of its war against the local Palestinians, because it couldn't really come to terms with the fact that it expelled Arabs, committed atrocities against them, dispossessed them. This was like admitting that the noble Jewish dream of statehood was stained forever by a major injustice committed against the Palestinians and that the Jewish state was born in sin." I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear that the author of these words is the former Foreign Minister of Israel.
SHLOMO BEN-AMI: Yes, while, at the same time, a historian. I am trying to be as fair as possible when I read the past, but it's a very interesting point, the one that you make here, about us trying to obliterate the memory of our war against the Palestinians, and the whole Israeli 1948 mythology is based on our war against the invading Arab armies, less so against the Palestinians, who were the weaker side in that confrontation, because it didn't serve the myth of the creation of the state and of the nation. So we need to correct that. There is no way - there is no way we can fully compensate the refugees and the Palestinians, but we need to do our very, very best to find a way to minimize the harm that was done to this nation.
Goodman then turns to Finkelstein, who praises Ben-Ami's portrayal of the foundation of Israel:
NORMAN FINKELSTEIN: Well, I agree with the statement that there is very little dispute nowadays amongst serious historians and rational people about the facts. There is pretty much a consensus on what happened during what you can call the foundational period, from the first Zionist settlements at the end of the 19th century 'til 1948. There, there is pretty much of a consensus. And I think Mr. Ben-Ami, in his first 50 pages, accurately renders what that consensus is.
Finkelstein does differ with Ben-Ami on some points of interpretation after that, and then the entire conversation moves to the Camp David process.
The point of this diary is that the Nakba happened, and that, as Finkelstein says, serious historians rational people have very little dispute left about the facts.