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Israel in 1948


“The Achilles’ heel of the Arab coalition is Lebanon. Muslim supremacy in this country is artificial and can easily be overthrown. A Christian State ought to be set up there, with its southern frontier on the river Litani. We should sign a treaty of alliance with this State. Then, when we have broken the strength of the Arab Legion and bombed Amman, we could wipe out Transjordan; after that Syria would fall. And if Egypt dared to make war on us, we would bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. We should thus end the war, and would have settled the account with Egypt, Assyria and Chaldea on behalf of our ancestors.”

David Ben-Gurion, 1948

In their first test of strength with the ‘natives’ in 1948, the Zionists had gained control of nearly four-fifths of Palestine, expelled most of the Palestinians from these territories, and repulsed the combined forces of five Arab proto-states.

Yet, the Zionists were not about to rest on their laurels: their interests did not lie in making peace with the Arabs. The events of 1948 had demonstrated what they could achieve; with minor losses of their own, they had obliterated Palestinian society and handily beaten back the Arabs.

This was a historic moment, a messianic moment, that would be seen by many as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. This was no time to seek peace by making amends to a weak, defeated enemy.

Their stunning military victory would only encourage the Zionists to aim for their maximalist goals, which now appeared attainable. The Zionists would augment their numbers, expand their territory, and strive to become the dominant power in the Middle East.

* * *

In 1948, the Jewish colonization of Palestine had only just begun. At this point, Israel contained some 650,000 Jews, who made up only four percent of the world’s Jewish population.

If Israel aspired to house half the world’s Jewry, its population would have to expand more than ten-fold. Israel’s share of world Jewry would have to rise dramatically because this was an imperative of Zionist ideology, which promised that Israel would be a safe haven for the world’s Jews. It would be embarrassing for the Zionists if this Jewish ‘safe haven’ housed only a small fraction of the world’s Jews.

In addition, Israel would be driven towards demographic expansion by two other objectives: the Zionist goal of territorial expansionism and the need to maintain a crushing military advantage over its neighbors.

With only “seven hundred thousand Jews,” Ben-Gurion insisted, Israel “cannot be the climax of a vigil kept unbroken through the generations and down the patient centuries.” Even if Israel did not face any external threats to its security, “so empty a state would be little justified, for it would not change the destiny of Jewry, or fulfill our historic covenant.”

As a result, soon after 1948 – indeed even before 1948 – the Zionists were working to bring millions of Jews into Israel. In the calculation of Zionists, a demographic expansion of this magnitude was not only desirable: it was also necessary and attainable.

Zionist ambitions would carry Israel beyond the territories it had conquered in 1948. “Zionist mainstream thought,” writes Benny Morris “had always regarded a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River as its ultimate goal.”

* * *

At various times, Zionists had made more expansive territorial claims that included – besides Palestine – Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Sinai.

In October 1936, even while accepting the recommendations of the Peel Commission to partition Palestine, Ben-Gurion had explained, “We do not suggest that we announce now our final aim which is far reaching – even more so than the Revisionists who oppose Partition.”

In another speech in 1938, Ben-Gurion revealed that his vision of a Jewish state included Cis-Jordan [the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean], southern Lebanon, southern Syria, today’s Jordan, and the Sinai. Ten years later, he spoke, grandiosely, of settling “the account with Egypt, Assyria and Chaldea on behalf of our ancestors.“

Again, in October 1956, at a secret meeting in Sèvres (France), attended by Israel, France and Britain, Ben-Gurion proposed a ‘fantastic’ plan – his own words – to change once again the map of the Middle East. Under this plan, Israel would occupy the Gaza Strip and Sinai, the West Bank (while Iraq would annex the East Bank of the Jordan), and southern Lebanon up to the Litani River (so that Lebanon could become a more compact Christian state). Little Israel’s ambitions knew no bounds.

* * *

The Israelis could not be generous – if they were so inclined – because they knew that the Palestinians and neighboring Arabs would seek to reverse their gains.

In 1948, at one fell swoop, the Zionists appear to have obliterated Palestinian society; but this was partly illusory. Unlike the white colonists in the United States, the Israelis had displaced the indigenous population, not exterminated them.

Concentrated in territories that shared borders with Israel – in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon – the Palestinians living in squalid refugee camps were not about to forget their dispossession. Over time, as they suffered the deep sting of their losses, as they gained the support of kindred Arabs and Muslims, as they organized, and as their numbers grew, they would resume their struggle against the Jewish colonists.

Indeed, Israel would bring their resistance home in June 1967 by conquering the remaining Palestinian territories.

In addition, over the long haul, even with renewed Jewish immigration into Israel, the Palestinian still inside Israel would pose a demographic challenge to the exclusively Jewish character of the Israeli state.

* * *

Israel would face resistance from neighboring Arab states too.

The Arabs could not recognize the existence of a colonial-settler state in Palestine: not because the settlers were Jewish, but because they were invaders who had arrived on the backs of imperialist powers and taken their country from them.

If the Arab proto-states capitulated – as they did all too quickly after the defeat of June 1967 – the peoples of the region would continue to oppose Israel. The Zionists understood this; they were well aware of the traumatic wounds they had inflicted on the Islamic and Arab psyche.

If Israel was to survive, the Zionists could not allow this collective trauma to find political expression. The Israelis would do everything in their power to destroy the Arab nationalist movement before it gained strength; and they had little time to loose.

Quickly, they would have to acquire massive military superiority over the Arab states, and demonstrate it decisively – as they did, in 1956 and 1967 – to force the dominant political classes in the Arab world to accept Israel on Israeli terms.

In order to acquire this military power, and no less the ability to demonstrate it repeatedly – in violation of international laws – Israel would have to forge a ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

* * *

Israel’s conflict with the Arabs is not a dispute over borders.

Stripped of the legal chicanery supporting its creation, the Zionist project is a declaration of war by a powerful segment of Western Jews, with support from Western powers, against the Arabs. This is no ordinary war either. As a pure settler-colonialism, the Zionists had smashed Palestinian society and dramatically altered the demographic character of an important part of the Islamic heartlands.

The impact of Israel would not be local because it was an affront and a challenge to the larger Islamicate world.

In consequence, as the Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims – in growing circles – would slowly mobilize to resist this colonial insertion, the Zionists would also galvanize Jews and Christian Zionists in the Western world, but especially in the United States.

The Zionists would work tirelessly to convert a settler-colonial project into a civilizational conflict between the United States, leading the ‘Judeo-Christian’ West, and the Islamicate. Indeed, this was their strategy for sustaining for perpetuating their assault on the Palestinians and their hegemony over the Middle East.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (2007). Send comments to

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M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at

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