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An Exchange with Bennie Morris

The following is an e-mail exchange between the well known Israeli historian, Benny Morris, and KATHLEEN and Bill CHRISTISON, initiated when Morris wrote to criticize an article written for CounterPunch.org by the Christisons. The article, entitled “Finally It Broke My Heart”: Random Impressions from Palestine, ran on September 24, 2004. The exchange is reprinted below exactly as each correspondent wrote, including any mistakes and infelicities that might have resulted from the haste inherent in e-mail communication.

September 25, 2004

Dear Christisons,

I happened to come upon your recent description of a trip through Israel\Palestine. At one point I encountered the word ‘honesty’.

So I was struck by your brief description of the history ‘Saffuriya’ — today and originally called ‘Tzipori’, a word meaning ‘my bird’ in Hebrew. You mention the Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, etc. but not the Jews, though it was a Jewish town for hundreds of years, more than a thousand years before the Arabs swept out of Arabia and conquered Palestine and forcibly converted its inhabitants to Islam.

Is this ‘honest’?

Unfortunately, it characterizes the piece.

Benny Morris


September 26, 2004

Dear Dr. Morris,

It’s a treat to get a message from someone like you. You’re quite right that we didn’t mention that Saffuriya was Jewish at one time in its long history, and this was a mistake. But you seem to be justifying Israel’s expulsion of the town’s Palestinian inhabitants in 1948, the demolition of their homes, and the confiscation of their lands on the basis that Jews had suffered at the hands of Muslim conquerors 1300 years earlier. Although we’re not historians, the notion that in 1948 Jews “coveted” Palestinian land (your word in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem) and “feared” (your word again) that the Palestinian inhabitants might return unless their land was confiscated, their homes demolished, and the few stragglers trucked away, seems to us a travesty of human decency. Whether or not Jews suffered a millennium and a half earlier at the hands of these Palestinians’ distant ancestors (and the factual picture here is unclear), the deliberate ruination of these people’s lives because Jews wanted a measure of exclusivity is racism pure and simple.

Incidentally, we assume you could not have failed to notice that the word “honesty” appeared in our article as a characterization of your historical work. Actually, we’ve cited your works several times previously and usually, although not always, in a very favorable way. Kathleen’s two books, Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession, relied very heavily in spots on your history of 1948. You undoubtedly won’t appreciate the third reference, which was in another CounterPunch article earlier this year, but you should perhaps take a look at it, at Offending Valerie. Being an honest historian clearly doesn’t necessarily mean that one is unbigoted in one’s attitudes toward other human beings.

Kathy & Bill Christison


September 26, 2004

My letter to you ‘justified’ nothing. But your erasure of the Jewish portion of Tzipori’s history seemed calculated to underline the Palestinians’ sole right to the site — to Palestine in toto.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that both peoples have a just and legitimate claim to the Land of Israel\Palestine, and even though the Arab nation, of whom the Palestinians are a part, have 22 other states, Palestine should be divided into two states, more or less along 1967 lines. Unfortunately, the Palestinians have traditionally rejected such a solution (1937, 1947, 1978) and in 2000 once again rejected the Barak-Clinton proposals of July-December which posited precisely such a solution.

I think honesty requires a bit of objectivity, a bit of balance, a bit of trying to see things from more than one perspective, whatever one’s own political beliefs — and this was sorely lacking in your article.

Benny Morris


September 27, 2004

You raise a huge variety of points in a brief message. We did not say or imply that the Palestinians have a “sole right” to all of Palestine, but we do believe that they had a right not to have been evicted from any site in order to make room for Jews (or anyone else). This includes not only Saffuriya-Tzippori but all the other almost 400 villages in which they once lived. Like you, we too believe that both peoples have a just and legitimate claim to the land of Palestine-Israel and that it should be shared between them. We wonder, however, how you square this belief with your statement in the lengthy Ha’aretz interview of January 9, 2004, that Ben-Gurion should probably have “carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country — the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. . . . [A]s an historian, I assert that a mistake was made here.” Or will you now argue that this wish for, to paraphrase your message, the erasure of the Palestinian portion of Palestine’s history was the kind of unintentional oversight that we made in not mentioning Saffuriya’s Jewish history? (Your use in the Ha’aretz interview of the term “the whole Land of Israel” automatically indicates, perhaps unintentionally, an erasure of Palestinian history and rights.)

Far more importantly, we also note that you selectively omitted a critical piece of contrary evidence — perhaps the most important political development in Palestinian history — in your enumeration of the instances in which Palestinians rejected a two-state solution. It is not hard to understand, except perhaps if one is arguing only from a Jewish perspective, why Palestinians took such a long time before they were ready to accept the dismantling and division of their national homeland; thus you are correct in saying that they rejected the two-state formula in 1937, 1947, and 1978. But can it simply be an oversight that you failed to mention the major change in Palestinian policy that resulted in their acceptance of two states in 1988? Could you truly have forgotten that this PLO decision — constituting as it did the formal relinquishment of all claim to 78% of a land Palestinians considered to be theirs and the acceptance of independence in only 22% of that land — was a massive concession to Israel’s existence? This decision was formally reaffirmed at the 1993 signing of the Oslo Declaration and has never been repudiated. Despite your disillusionment with the Palestinians after Camp David 2000, all subsequent negotiations and all subsequent Palestinian policy have been based on the assumption that Israel’ s existence is sacrosanct and the two-state solution is the goal.

At Camp David, the Palestinians rejected a bad deal; they did not reject Israel. We don’t have time to go into all the details here, but you should read accounts of the peace process by Charles Enderlin, Yossi Beilin, Rob Malley, Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton, and Madeleine Albright. You will not find in them any evidence — despite the very anti-Arafat views of the last three authors — that Arafat ever rejected the two-state solution as you contend, only that he would not accept Israeli offers of a Palestinian state that would have been disconnected, indefensible, and non-viable. The Palestinians were still trying to negotiate for a decent two-state formula when Barak lost his election and Clinton left office. You are no doubt aware of the account by Israel’s former MI chief Amos Malka of a deliberate campaign to portray Arafat, falsely, as opposed to the two-state solution.

As to the critical issue of balance and objectivity, we totally agree that one must be able to view a situation from more than one perspective. But balance and objectivity and an open perspective do not require a conclusion that both sides are half right or in any way equally right. Balanced treatment does not require splitting the difference between the two sides, when one side has already made the major concession that is evident in the Palestinians’ agreement to the 78-22 split. We have concluded after long years of study of both perspectives that, although both peoples have a just and legitimate claim to Palestine-Israel, they do not both have a just and legitimate claim to the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. So long as Israel is accorded exclusive claim to 78% of the land of Palestine-Israel, it does not have an automatic “right” to any of the occupied territories, unless the Palestinians willingly concede parts of these territories in negotiations (which they have already indicated a willingness to do). In any consideration of the disposition of the occupied territories, one certainly must take Israeli security interests into account, but true balance and fairness in any post-Oslo negotiations require that all earlier negotiations and arrangements be taken into account as well. One must condemn Palestinian terrorism, but one must also condemn the very existence of Israel’s occupation, deemed almost universally to be illegal — meaning each and every Israeli measure taken to perpetuate the occupation, including Israeli-only settlements, Israeli-only roads, construction of the separation wall on Palestinian territory, land confiscations, house demolitions, destruction of agricultural land, destruction of wells, assassinations, sniper killings, aerial bombardments, tank incursions into cities, and so on.

One final, minor point, which we raise only because you did: the idea that, as you put it, the “Arab nation” has 22 “other states” is a non-issue. First — a nitpick — as you must know, there are not 22 Arab states; there are 22 members of the Arab League, including the PLO, a non-state, and such non-Arab states as Somalia, Djibouti, Comoros, and Mauritania. Secondly, and far more to the point, Palestinians are from Palestine and should never be expected to have to move elsewhere for any reason. Jews refused to be settled in Uganda or anywhere else outside the land of their biblical heritage, and expecting the Palestinians to relinquish their heritage because Israel wants the land would be a grave injustice.

Kathy & Bill Christison


September 28, 2004

Much of what you write is correct. But many Israelis, myself included, are not convinced that the Palestinians are really agreeable to a two state solution, 78:22 per cent or of any other kind, and ultimately seek Israel’s destruction and replacement by one Arab-Muslim state. We fear that the PLO’s ‘change of course’ in 1988 was tactical, not real and heartfelt. Arafat has said as much to audiences when he did not believe he was being taped and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad — who represent many if not most Palestinians — say as much publicly and consistently. I know of practically no Palestinian leader who will say, openly and forthrightly, that ‘the Jews have a legitimate claim to Palestine, as do the Palestinians, that Zionism and Israel are legitimate entities’ — and this is the basis of the problem. And that is why all Palestinian spokesmen, except Sari Nusseibeh, who unfortunately represents nobody except a handful of reasonable, civilized Palestinians, insist on the ‘Right of Return’, its acceptance by Israel and the world community, and its implementation. This is the litmus test of the Palestinians’ real, ultimate intentions vis-a-vis Israel. And so long as they hold to it and advocate it, it means they are not sincere in their professions of a two state solution, and seek such a ‘solution’ as a tactical step before going on to demand Israel’s ultimate dissolution and replacement (implementation of the Right of Return will necessarily transform Israel into an Arab state).

And I do believe, as I said (but wasn’t fully quoted) in the Haaretz interview, it is unfortunate that the 1948 war did not end more decisively demographically, either with all the Jews pushed into the sea (as the Palestinians and Arab states intended and attempted, which is what led to the refugee problem) or all the Palestinians pushed into Jordan, where they would have established their state. The ME would have been a better place and the two peoples would have enjoyed a happier history.

Benny Morris


September 28, 2004

You’ve hit on the real tragedy of this conflict: the fact that Israelis like you and many others don’t believe or trust the Palestinians, and also that many Palestinians don’t believe or trust the Israelis. You’re no doubt correct that the Palestinians’ decision in 1988 was not heartfelt but was taken out of tactical necessity, but of course one could say the same thing about the Israelis’ decision in 1993 to recognize and negotiate with the PLO. Both of you — Israelis and Palestinians — would undoubtedly much prefer that the other wasn’t there, but that does not necessarily mean that either side is untrustworthy when it says it’s willing to live in peace with the other.

Contrary to your statement that “practically no Palestinian leader” to your knowledge has openly and forthrightly said that Jews have a legitimate claim to Palestine or that Israel is a legitimate entity, Yasir Arafat said in December 1988, “The PLO will seek a comprehensive settlement among the parties concerned in the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the state of Palestine, Israel and other neighbors . . . on the basis of Resolutions 242 and 338 and so as to . . . respect the right to exist in peace and security for all. . . . I ask the leaders of Israel to come here, under the sponsorship of the United Nations, so that together we can forge that peace. I say to them that our people, who want dignity, freedom, and peace for themselves and security for their state, want the same things for all the states and parties involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And here, I would address myself specifically to the Israeli people in all their parties and forces. . . . I say to them: Come, let us make peace.” You can perhaps argue that this was not sincere, but it most certainly does constitute an open and forthright affirmation of Israel’s legitimacy.

In our view, Israel is much less to be trusted than the Palestinians, because it is the one in possession of all the territory and therefore the one of which concrete territorial concessions would be demanded for any peace agreement. Israel has never given evidence of an intention to permit a viable Palestinian state, much less spoken or acted in a meaningful, heartfelt way about sharing the land with the Palestinians, with the result that Palestinians don’t even have any formal statements on which to base an expectation of Israeli concessions. The Israelis, but not the Palestinians, have it in their power to test the sincerity of the other side, for if Israel were to agree to a Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and Gaza, it would be fully able to defend itself if the Palestinians threatened it or violated a peace agreement in any way. This is not true of the Palestinians, who would have no possible way of defending themselves against any Israeli violations. The Israelis could rely on the old Reagan shibboleth of “trust and verify”; the Palestinians, lacking any tangible guarantees against Israeli violations, could not.

The notion that Israel is threatened by the Palestinian demand for recognition of the “right of return” is absurd. First of all, you are simply wrong that “all Palestinian spokesmen, except Sari Nusseibeh . . . insist on the ‘Right of Return’, its acceptance by Israel and the world community, and its implementation [our emphasis].” From at least the time of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, the Palestinian leadership has consistently made it clear that it does not demand actual implementation of the right of return, but rather that the refugees be accommodated through a variety of arrangements, ranging from the return to Israel of an agreed and relatively small number, through resettlement with compensation in their countries of residence or in third countries, to repatriation to the Palestinian state. They want some Israeli acknowledgement of responsibility for creating the refugee problem, but they acknowledge Israel’s right to regulate who and how many refugees enter Israel, and they have explicitly accepted Israel’s insistence on maintaining its Jewish character. Arafat has written a commentary to this effect in the New York Times. The idea that Israel could not stop three or four million Palestinian refugees from flooding Israel, or that the Palestinian leadership is demanding this, is purest paranoia.

We do understand the gist of what you were saying in Ha’aretz, despite not quoting the entire passage, but we disagree that clearing the land of either people in 1948 would have solved the problem and left a peaceful Middle East today. (In the interview, by the way, you did not in any way suggest that cleansing the Jews would or should have been a possible outcome, only that cleansing Palestinians would have relieved Jews of a big problem.) On the contrary, we believe that, even if pushed wholesale into Jordan, the Palestinians would still be clamoring for a return; Jordan is not their homeland, and they would not be satisfied to have been totally dispossessed, any more than they’ve been satisfied to be partially dispossessed. Similarly, if the Jews had been totally pushed out of Palestine, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the worldwide outcry would have been deafening, and we doubt Jews would yet be satisfied or at all happy with that outcome.

Kathy & Bill Christison


Bill Christison was a senior official of the CIA. Kathleen Christison is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession.


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