Benny Morris is the picture of the contemporary Israeli intelligentsia. In Morris’ work, we find the disappointed politics of the old Labor Party, once dominant in Israeli politics, now consigned to barely 10% of the Knesset.
In Morris one can also see the frustrated idealism of the Meretz party, once the conscience of the mainstream left and progressive activists to balance Labor’s mainstream pragmatism.
Morris, like his country, was born in 1948. He was a paratrooper in the army, and in 1969 was wounded during Israel’s war of attrition with Egypt. He worked for twelve years as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, which was at the time a major left-leaning newspaper in Israel.
The historian again saw action as a reservist in Lebanon in 1982, but refused to serve just six years later in the West Bank, and was jailed for his stance. That same year, he gained national fame with his groundbreaking study, The Birth of the Palestinians Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.
Through the early 90s, Morris was regarded as an ultra-leftist and an icon of Post-Zionism. But as the Oslo years wore on and hopes for peace dimmed from the pinnacle they reached with the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn in 1993, like so many Israelis , Morris grew more pessimistic and disillusioned.
With the Al-Aksa Intifada’s violence leaving hopes shattered during the early years of this decade, Morris started speaking much more about “Arab mendacity” and the desire of Palestinians and all Arabs to sacrifice everything for the sake of destroying Israel. This was most evident in a 2004 interview in Ha’aretz, where Morris criticized David Ben-Gurion for not expelling all the Arabs from the nascent state of Israel, among other things.
His newest book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict illustrates the scope of Benny Morris’ work.
Morris is an outstanding researcher. He digs down and assembles facts in minute detail. But as a polemicist, and in general as a thinker, he is not particularly adept. When he sticks to the facts, he has shown himself to be remarkably skilled at presenting them in an even-handed and thorough fashion, even when they do not support a view he holds. But when drawing conclusions or taking leaps of deductive reasoning, he tends to fall very short, with enormous, even prejudiced, bias coming through very sharply.
This too is well illustrated in his latest book. One State has three sections. The middle one which, though also flawed, is by far the best, details the history of both one- and two-state ideologies and strategies, from early bi-nationalism through to present-day diplomacy on the Oslo/Annapolis track.
That history is not encouraging, with one solution after another being obstructed or rejected by one side or the other, sometimes both. But for Morris, the history is really two histories: one of pragmatic acceptance of partition of the land of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael on the part of the Jews, and the other the constant rejection of coexistence by Arabs.
Morris sets the tone in his first chapter, a review of the current rise of one-state thinking, largely among Palestinians and their supporters. He quotes, at some length, from Rashid Khalidi’s very worthy book The Iron Cage, accompanied by a flat statement that, despite Khalidi’s assertion to the contrary, Khalidi supports a single-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Morris offers no evidence for this assertion. He simply states it, based only on Khalidi’s exposition of the one-state position—an exposition that is clearly critical of the stance. And, one might add, an exposition that Morris himself would almost immediately imitate in this same book.
As Morris moves into his history of bi-nationalist ideas, notions of federated states and the various plans to partition Palestine, he works to trace a line from the earliest Palestinian and Arab opposition to Zionism directly and consistently through to today’s Palestinian proposals for full statehood and an end to the conflict. Morris, in his attempt to draw that direct line, makes no attempt to adjust his reading for circumstances. Thus, he sees the absolute rejectionism of Zionism by the Arab world before 1948 in the same light as he does the PLO’s gradual acceptance of a two-state settlement through the 1970s and 80s. For him, it cannot be possible that the Palestinians have come to accept the two-state solution as the only option, despite still believing that this is an unjust solution.
It seems that for Morris, Palestinian acceptance of a two-state solution can only be sincere if they recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist movement. That hardly seems a realistic standard. No Palestinian I have ever encountered, including the many who completely acknowledge that Jews have a historic, cultural and religious connection to the land, endorses a two-state solution on that basis. They do so because they recognize it is the only feasible solution.
This shouldn’t be such a leap. Morris himself has documented the fact that the acceptance by the Yishuv leadership, under David Ben-Gurion, of the Peel partition plan of 1937 was a tactic, and that Ben-Gurion never intended to settle for that small patch of land. It was a pragmatic decision. This is true today as well, for a great many Israelis—they don’t want to give up the West Bank, and certainly not any part of Jerusalem, but most remain willing to do so in order to end the conflict.
It is very telling that Morris’ analysis of the decline of the Oslo process makes no mention of the massive expansion of settlements. He pays a great deal of attention to the issue of expunging parts of the PLO charter (the amendments made have never been deemed sufficient by Israel) and the ongoing terrorism in the 90s. But he sees no role in the failure of the peace process for the massive explosion in the number of settlements and settlers in those years or the sharp decline in the Palestinian standard of living. This was due, in part, to the Palestinian Authority’s own corruption. However, the most direct factors were the increasing restrictions placed on Palestinian freedom of movement due to the settlements and their accompanying bypass roads, combined with the elimination of most of the jobs in Israel for Palestinians, as Israelis shifted to employing foreign guest workers from the Philippines, and Thailand, among other places, for menial labor.
Morris offers no alternative to the one-state or two-state solutions. He only suggests the revival of an old idea of subsuming, either by confederation or annexation, a Palestinian entity under Jordanian rule. The notion is far from the table, as it is an option that no one but a few Israelis desire. Beyond that, and not surprisingly, there is no constructive thought here.
In the final chapter, Morris does make some very important points about the problems with a two-state solution. The geography of partition has always been a major issue, one that has generally been understated. From the Peel Commission partition plan in 1937 to the Clinton Parameters in 2000, when one actually looks at the proposals on a map, they certainly don’t look like very practical alternatives. Also, the process of building an independent Palestinian economy is going to take a very long time, and even if successful, that economy is not likely to be on a par with Israel’s. And that will always be the comparison.
There are other problems with a two-state solution, and they’re getting worse every day. Morris demonstrates one of the biggest: the anger and bigotry that decades of conflict have spawned. One example: “Israeli Jewish society remains largely secular, with Western, democratic values predominating. This can hardly dovetail with the authoritarian and religious values of Palestinian Arab society…”
Morris includes in his division Israel’s Palestinian citizens, pointing out the greater crime rates among Arabs than Jews within Israel’s borders. He conveniently ignores the universally accepted correlation between wealth and social status with crime rates and instead attributes the difference to the distinction between the Jewish culture and the Arab.
There are real reasons on the ground that a two-state solution is a lot more difficult than many people believe it to be. And I certainly agree that any one-state formulation is a non-starter. But Morris demonstrates what might be the greatest obstacle to any resolution: the irrational, bigoted hatred of the other. For him, there is no such thing as a trustworthy Arab.
Too many Israelis and Palestinians, as well as their supporters throughout the world, hold views of this type. Morris typifies the Israeli version. We’ve all heard a great deal about the Palestinian one, in places like the Hamas charter, or the Muslim one that Mahmoud Ahmedinejad displayed again so well in Geneva a few weeks ago. Until that mindset is overcome, hope is, indeed, in very short supply.