Benny Morris on Why He's Written His Last Word on the Israel-Arab Conflict

The historian, best known for exposing IDF atrocities from 1948, now says it's the Palestinians who are not interested in a two-state solution.

Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon
Coby Ben-Simhon

After 30 years, he’s giving up. “This is the last book I will write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” declares historian Benny Morris, sitting on the balcony of his home, overlooking distant lush hilltops covered with cypresses and pines. A pioneer in researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and one of the most prominent Israeli historians of his generation, he has had his fill of the exhausting and bloody cycle that he has documented for the past three decades. “The decades of studying the conflict, which led to nine books, left me with a feeling of deep despair. I’ve done all I can,” he says. “I’ve written enough about a conflict that has no solution, mainly due to the Palestinians’ consistent rejection of a solution of two states for two peoples.”

This weary feeling about the bitter encounter between the two sparring peoples is given profound expression in the new Hebrew edition of his book, “One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict” (first published in English in 2009). In the book, Morris describes for what he says is the last time another chapter in the history of relations between Israel and the Palestinians. Given the circumstances, he concludes his research with an incisive political essay that could be read as an indictment. “It’s a historical essay that has a political purpose and a political explanation,” he admits. “My aim is to open readers’ eyes to the truth. The objective is to expose the goals of the Palestinian national movement to extinguish the Jewish national project and to inherit all of Palestine for the Arabs and Islam.”

To Morris, a professor of history in the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, his book is akin to a dead-end journey. Rather than sketch a way out, he seeks to entrench himself within a sober-eyed view of a hopeless reality. “The book deals with the various objectives and solutions that have been proposed throughout the history of the conflict,” he explains. While at the start, the two movements Zionist and Palestinian sought to establish their own state on the entire territory, a shift occurred at a certain point. The movements followed different trajectories in terms of their intentions.

“The Zionist movement started out calling for the establishment of a Jewish state on all the territory of the Land of Israel, but from 1937 on, its leaders gradually abandoned the claim of 'it’s all mine’ and adhered to the ambition to form a sovereign Jewish state in part of the territory of the Land of Israel. Thus it changed its approach and consented to territorial compromise: that is, to the idea of two states for two peoples, a decision that derived in part from the logic of dividing the land between the two peoples living in it.”

Hands resting on a wooden table, Morris cites venom-filled quotes from the Palestinian National Charter, the Fatah constitution and the Hamas charter. He asserts that, unlike the Zionists, since its inception the Palestinian national movement has never retreated from its demand to establish a single state in the disputed territory.

“The Palestinian national movement has remained unchanged, throughout the different periods of the struggle, whether under the leadership of Hajj Amin al-Husayni or his successor, Yasser Arafat,” says Morris with near-palpable disgust. “It did not even change during the years of the Oslo process. In the end, both sides of the Palestinian movement the fundamentalists led by Hamas and the secular bloc led by Fatah are interested in Muslim rule over all of Palestine, with no Jewish state and no partition.”

A couple of charming dogs scamper about in the shade of the fig and olive trees. After Morris gets the two to calm down, he goes back to making his argument: “In the Zionist movement, they understood under the impress of Hitler’s deeds and rising anti-Semitism in Europe that the Jewish people needed a refuge and a state. Because of the urgency, and because they had to save the nation, the Zionists were prepared to abandon the dream of Greater Israel and to make do with part of it. The same policy was supported by the major powers that also strove for compromise. This impact the Holocaust, the demand of the major powers and even a sense of justice led the Zionists to conclude that two states for two peoples should be established here. This conclusion was manifested, of course, in the acceptance of the UN Partition Plan in 1947.”

But the Zionist movement didn’t always support the idea of compromise.

“This was the guiding line of the Zionist movement in the years 1948-1977, and has been again since 1992. Aside from a few years of euphoria in which the right held power and propounded the idea of Greater Israel, the Israeli position was one of compromise. The brief euphoria dissipated very quickly. Since the first intifada in 1988, about two-thirds of Israelis support territorial compromise. The Palestinians, no. They have consistently even if outwardly they seemed ready for compromise never accepted the legitimacy and the claims of the Zionists. The Palestinian movement doesn’t care about Jewish history. They deny the connection between the Jews and the Land of Israel. The Jewish narrative is completely foreign to them.”

You write in the book that the Palestinians’ basic claim is that the land belongs to the original inhabitants who were here before 1882. In other words, before the first aliyah. For this reason, they view the Jews as thieves with whom there can be no compromise. But some would say you are describing a monolithic Palestinian voice, as if all Palestinians are radical Islamists.

“It’s true there’s a difference between the extremists, who say directly that they want to wipe out the State of Israel, and the secular nationalists, who outwardly say they’re ready for a compromise accord. But actually, both of them, if you read their words very carefully, want all of Palestine. The secular leaders if you can call them that like Yasser Arafat and President Mahmoud Abbas, are not prepared to accept a formula of two states for two peoples. So as not to scare the goyim, they project a vagueness about it, but they think in terms of expulsion and elimination.”

What do you mean exactly when you say “in terms of expulsion and elimination”?

“Arafat, since the ‘70s, after Fatah’s guerrilla warfare failed to yield results, concluded that the liberation of the homeland would be accomplished through a ‘policy of stages.’ The idea of the ‘struggle in stages’ was meant to achieve the gradual elimination of Israel and a solution of a single Arab state. In other words, the Palestinian Liberation Organization leaders continually put on a conciliatory face in order to please the West, but actually their goal was to eliminate Israel in stages, since they couldn’t do it in one blow.

“The same staggered strategy, which sees the establishment of a state in the occupied territories as the first stage in the conquest of the entire land, was, in their view, better than a direct strategy of endless military confrontation. Abbas says it day in and day out, and continues to demand the right of return.”

Isn’t it legitimate for the Palestinians to demand the right of return for some of the refugees?

“The realization of the right of return essentially requires the destruction of the Jewish state. For the same reason, Abbas currently refuses to hold negotiations with the Israelis. Because negotiations could lead to a resolution to the conflict. He has no desire or intention of reaching a solution of two states for two peoples.”

The book was first published in English in 2009. The general spirit of the book, as you yourself describe it, has been echoed repeatedly by Israeli politicians and journalists, who fixed the image of the Palestinian side as “no partner,” while the Israeli side was making a maximum effort to reach an accord. In this regard, do your arguments add anything to the public discourse?

“The book was written several years after the end of the second intifada [in 2005], under the impression that it [had] left. The book is relevant to the extent that the Palestinian discourse and the Palestinian objectives have not changed, and their actions, i.e. terror, are continuing by means of the rockets that are being launched almost daily, and could also return when circumstances warrant by means of suicide bombers.

“In this context, it is vital to show the continuous, historical line of thinking that characterizes the Palestinians which, at its base, does not give Jews any legitimate right to this place. The first section of the Hamas charter says, ‘In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate ... Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.’ It is important that we recognize who we are facing.”

The public debate about the conflict is mired in prejudices. Don’t you feel you’re adding fuel to the fire with such a demonic depiction of the Palestinians? After all, we, too, like the Palestinians, outwardly talk about compromise, but meanwhile settle in their territory with the clear intention of preventing a solution to the conflict. Some of our people torch mosques, and shoot at innocents. We’re not exactly saints.

“The demonization is not equal on the two sides. In the Israeli education system, in general, there is no demonization of the Arab. He might not be described positively, but he’s not the Devil. There, the Jews are completely demonized. The Palestinian authorities are busy deeply implanting the demonization. The Palestinian people think we can be made extinct. We don’t think that about the Palestinians. What I am doing is describing the history; I’m not demonizing. The book describes the Palestinian position. If there’s demonization in it, it simply derives from the things that they themselves say and do. I’m only letting them express themselves. What they say is what has adhered to their image.”

Morris, the preeminent Israeli historian writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh in 1948 to parents who were immigrants from England “passionate Zionists,” as he describes them. His father was the first secretary of the Hashomer Hatzair movement in England, and later served as Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand.

“They came here just before the founding of the state,” says their son, at his home in Srigim Li On, in the Elah Valley. “After a brief time on Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, my parents were part of a group that founded Kibbutz Yasur, which was built on the ruins of the village of Al-Birwa, the birthplace of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. That’s why I feel a certain connection with Darwish,” he notes casually and laughs.

His childhood was spent between Jerusalem and New York. “A year after I was born, my parents left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem. My father, who’d been the kibbutz driver, got a job with the Jewish Agency. Later on he joined the Foreign Ministry and worked in information [hasbara]. When I was 9, he was sent as a consul to New York. I remember very little from my childhood there,” says Morris, without any noticeable regret. “I remember getting mugged in the park and having my chessboard stolen. I remember that at Ramaz, the school I went to, they mixed together Talmud, Bible, Jewish history and general studies. It was a private school, one of the best in New York. Most of the graduates went on to top universities like Harvard and Columbia.”

But Morris took a different path. Although he thought about continuing his studies in the United States, after high school he returned to Israel and enlisted in the Nahal, serving in the 50th (Paratroop) Battalion. “The period of my military service was relatively quiet. They shot at us a little bit in the Jordan Rift Valley, there were a few ambushes, but not the experience of real combat. The only event possibly worth noting was in ‘67, at the start of the Six-Day War, when I took part in an operation that’s recorded as a footnote in the history books. While Golani and the 8th Brigade breached the Syrian lines in the northern Golan Heights, we new recruits carried out a diversionary action in the southern Golan Heights. Our battalion commander was killed by a Syrian bombardment.”

In the War of Attrition, Morris took a more significant part in the fighting and was sent to an outpost on the Suez Canal. There, in 1969, he was wounded by Egyptian shelling, which led to his early discharge from military service. After that, he began studying history and philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“I didn’t think about becoming a doctor or lawyer, or a historian for that matter,” he says, taking a piece of watermelon from a bowl. “History simply interested me. After three years I saw that philosophy didn’t interest me, so I decided to pursue a doctorate in history. I studied in Jerusalem for another year and then I continued at Cambridge University.”

He returned to Israel in 1977. When he was unable to find a teaching position, he began working as a translator and for the classified ads section of the Jerusalem Post. Not long afterward, when he was 28, he moved from the classified section to the news pages and began a new career, first as an education reporter and later as the diplomatic correspondent. But Morris soon found that journalism didn’t satisfy him. “As a journalist, I felt a need to do something ‘more serious,’” he says. “I thought about writing a book that would tell the story of the Palmach [the elite strike force of the Haganah, the prestate underground Jewish militia]. I contacted the Palmach Generation Association and they gave me access to their archive, which was still classified at the time in the IDF Archive [where there was a copy of everything]. I got down to work.”

But his Palmach book which he started working on at the end of 1982, just as the first Lebanon war was unfolding did not reach fruition. “I’d started working on the Palmach archive, but after about two months of work, when I was sitting one day in the library in Efal, this Palmach political commissar a man called Sini, Yisrael Galili’s former aide came up to me and said: ‘You know what, Benny, we’ve decided that one of our people will write the history of the Palmach. You’re fired.’”

But Morris wasn’t ready to give up on his ambition of publishing a book. “Ironically, while working in the Palmach archive, I was exposed to material that dealt with the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. For example, I came across the expulsion order for the residents of Lod and Ramle, issued by Yitzhak Rabin on behalf of Yigal Allon. These materials were linked somehow to the war in Lebanon, when for the first time I saw refugees from the Al-Rashidiya camp some of whom I interviewed. The Lebanese refugees captured my imagination. I felt that the Palestinian refugee phenomenon could be a good subject for a book. In fact, if I hadn’t been prevented from finishing the book on the Palmach, I probably would have spent years writing a totally different book.”

In addition to his journalistic work, in the early 1980s Morris began writing “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.” The book, which caused a sensation, made mincemeat of the official Israeli version of events that said Palestinian refugees had fled their homes of their own accord, and put Morris at the center of a raucous public debate. Relying on a range of documents, Morris showed that the Palestinians who fled their homes between 1947 and 1949 did so largely due to Israeli military attacks, undermining the official story. He also noted that there was no deliberate policy of expulsion, but says now that “the senior Israeli command did carry out expulsions in certain areas.”

The book contained harsh findings that stained the image of the 1948 Israeli soldier. Morris described incidents of rape and slaughter that occurred in the shadow of the War of Independence, including an incident in Acre in which four soldiers raped a woman and then killed her and her father. In another incident, a female captive in the village of Abu Shusha, near Gezer, was raped repeatedly. Morris described, in chilling detail, massacres that included the arbitrary killing of hundreds of innocents old men walking in a field; a woman in an abandoned village and orderly executions carried out against a wall or next to a well. “I felt then, while I was writing it, that this was a volatile subject,” he says. “I realized that I was going to publish a different depiction than the usual depiction, than the familiar Zionist narrative. I felt that this was something different that broke with convention. And, in fact, there was a lot of anger when the book was published. Some were saying quietly that it was too early to publish what I wrote, since it would blacken Israel’s image while it was still in a struggle with the Arab world. They said the kind of things I described could give ammunition to our enemies. Today I see that there is something to that. I understood it then, too, but at the time when I was writing, Israel seemed secure. In the 1980s, it appeared as if Israeli society could weather such historical criticism.”

That pioneering research also defied the historians who’d chosen to refrain from describing the harsh facts. From this standpoint, your writing caused a real earthquake in academia, because you undermined the familiar basic knowledge.

“It was a paradox. On the one hand, the academic world quite quickly related very positively to the book. But there were also people who were discomfited by it. The research exposed the work of many scholars as whitewashing and lies. It exposed the ‘old’ Israeli historians, as I referred to them, as not having done serious history. About the same time my book appeared, works in the same vein came out, written by others including Avi Shlaim, of Reading and then Oxford University; Tom Segev of Haaretz; and Simha Flapan, a Mapam activist. None of them emerged from or worked in the Israeli academic establishment. But subsequently, it became far more difficult for Israelis to write ‘scientific’ history that is, history not based on archival material and suppressing unpleasant elements of the historical truth. Historians felt they had to fall in line with this ‘New Historiography’ in terms of modus operandi, and it became far harder to evade or distort the past. In subsequent years, even books published by the Defense Ministry included descriptions of massacres by Israeli troops.”

But your work proved to be a double-edged sword for you. While it made you a star, all the doors were closed to you.

“I was treated like an enemy of the state. This image stuck. I was ostracized. I wasn’t invited to conferences and, of course, I wasn’t offered a university position. It was a tough time. I couldn’t support myself and my family. For six years I had no job, until with the intervention of President Ezer Weizman I was hired at Ben-Gurion University in 1997. I lived off loans from friends. I had no money. In 1991 I was fired by the Jerusalem Post, which was taken over by right-wing millionaires (including Conrad Black), who dismissed all the paper’s left-leaning veteran staff. I spent the years writing further histories, published by Oxford University Press and Am Oved. But I had no job.”

Today you say you were stuck with an image that was inaccurate. But in fact, during the first intifada, just months after the publication of “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,” you refused to serve in the territories. In those years, that was a highly controversial act.

“True. I saw the first intifada that erupted in the winter of 1987 as an effort of a people to throw off a 20-year military occupation. This effort, in the main, was not lethal, and the protesters did not use live-fire weapons. They’d simply had enough; they wanted to be rid of the yoke of occupation that is how I saw it. I did not feel it right to take part in the suppression of this nonlethal uprising, and I refused to do reserve duty in the Nablus Casbah. I felt that the Palestinian struggle for independence was legitimate and that the oppression was fundamentally illegitimate. The second intifada was a totally different story. Against the backdrop of the waves of terror attacks, the Palestinian uprising certainly looked like it was geared to destroying Israel. Therefore, today I am opposed to refusal to serve in the territories.”

Following the repeated terror attacks and the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit, Morris’ positions in relation to the conflict changed sharply. In a 2004 interview with Haaretz Magazine, he claimed that in certain conditions, expulsion was not a war crime, and that there were circumstances in history when expulsions were justified such as when the alternative was someone killing you.

You said that people were mistaken when they labeled you a post-Zionist, and you described Palestinian society as being like a “serial killer” whose people should be locked up “in a cage.” You called Arafat a “liar” and the Arabs “barbarians.”

“I may have gone a little overboard. I think that I wasn’t careful enough in choosing my words, although I still stand behind what I said. I said that the Palestinians should be put in a cage so they won’t be able to get here to place bombs in buses and restaurants. The word ‘cage’ did not go over well and perhaps it was the wrong word to use. Of course, I meant fenced off. As for the refugee situation, I still maintain that it was a requirement of the reality. Since the Palestinians tried and intended to destroy us, and their villages and towns served as bases in wartime, the winning side had to take over villages and expel populations. This situation was built into the nature of the war, even if people from the left have a hard time swallowing it. Massacres are always reprehensible, but the Jews behaved much better than other nations in similar circumstances.”

You pointed out the dichotomy between the “new historians” who did not adopt the Zionist narrative, and the “old historians” who wrote from an establishment perspective. But your book and the general approach with which you wrote this essay definitely express the Israeli consensus, and perhaps an even more right-wing view than that. Some will say your historical analysis is more characteristic of the old historians.

“I don’t see myself as an ‘old historian’ or as someone who is taking back any of his words. All of my writing, both before and after 2000, is faithful to the truth that comes out of the historical documents. I did not change the facts or the way of looking at the past, although I did learn to appreciate the depth of the Arabs’ rejection of Zionism and the idea of territorial compromise. I definitely accept the Israeli narrative about Camp David, which says that the Palestinians were made both by Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton unprecedented offers, and that they turned them down. In my book I argue that this is essentially their consistent, perpetual line since the dawn of the Palestinian national movement. Just as they rejected the two-state offers in ‘37, ‘47 and ‘77, they rejected the offer in 2000.”

One of Morris’ most striking conclusions is that, regarding the past, there was no point at which the Israelis could have acted differently. “There are people who believe that we blew an opportunity here or there,” he says. “There is even a hint of this, perhaps, in my book ‘Border Wars,’ about the peace talks between Israel and its neighbors after ‘48. But a more thoughtful look back shows that no opportunity appears to have been missed. There simply was no readiness for peace on the other side. They didn’t want to accept us here. As long as the Jews wanted a state of their own, under their control, no acceptable accord could be reached with the Arabs. Not before ‘48 and certainly not afterward, when the Arab side was also prompted by vengefulness.”

Revenge is one of the explanations that Morris places on the table to explain the intransigence of the Palestinian national movement. “Aside from revenge, the Palestinians have absolute faith in the justice of their side, which derives in part from religious faith. What God commands, and what his interpreters on Earth say that God commands, is the definite truth. While the Jews are much more skeptical about this sort of interpretation, the Palestinians feel that justice is on their side and that God doesn’t want the Holy Land to be shared with another people. Another thing: They absolutely believe that time is working in their favor. And the Palestinians feel that they have the backing of 400 million (or so) Arabs and another billion-odd Muslims around the world. So why compromise?”

In the second chapter of “One State, Two States...” you discuss the two main accepted models for a resolution of the conflict: two states for two peoples, or a single binational state of some kind in which Jews and Arabs live together. The problem is that neither of these models is realistic, in your view. At the end of the book you propose as a solution a federation between Jordan and Palestine.

“I say that the compromise proposals that have been continually put forward since ‘67, that are based on a Jewish state on about 80 percent of the territory of Mandatory Palestine and a Palestinian state on about 20 percent of the territory, are not realistic. The Palestinian leadership and people will not be satisfied with 20 percent of the territory of Palestine. A state composed of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem will not satisfy them. They will want to expand to Jordan, to Israel, to Sinai, or in all three directions at once. In order to satisfy the need for growth and territorial expansion, a merging of the West Bank, Gaza and Transjordan might satisfy the Palestinian urge for more territory and constitute a more reasonable and durable accord.”

MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) may be the most vocal proponent nowadays of such a confederation.

“But this was essentially the ‘Allon Plan,’ and the concept of the Labor Party in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Although never officially adopted by the party institutions, it was accepted by most of its leaders. According to this plan, Palestine would be divided into Israel more or less along the pre-’67 borders and an Arab state that could be called a Palestinian-Jordanian state, that would combine most of the territory of the West Bank and East Jerusalem with the East Bank i.e., the kingdom of Jordan.

“Ariel Sharon once talked about turning Jordan into Palestine in other words, ousting the kings, putting the Palestinians in charge in their place and thereby solving the Palestinian demand for a state. But I am talking about something different: The bulk of the West Bank united with Transjordan in one state.”

But from the moment Jordan washed its hands of the West Bank in the late 1980s, and said it viewed this as Palestinian territory, the rug was pulled from under the advocates of the Allon Plan, and since then the plan has rightly been gathering dust. Today as well, it is unreasonable to expect to convince the Jordanians, or the other nations of the world, to support this move, that would necessarily lead to a situation in which the royal family was ousted. If it’s impossible to convince anyone to go along with this idea, what’s the point of discussing it?

“Because it is still more logical than an accord between us and the Palestinians that is based on a division of Mandatory Palestine. The logic of a large Palestinian-Jordanian state is more valid than any partition plan which I support, by the way. Justice and logic say that the Palestinians should have a state alongside Israel, but the portion of the land that is designated for them in a simple partition will not satisfy them. And so the territory east of the Jordan River also has to be inserted into the equation in order to give the Palestinians a vision of space. The West Bank, even without the Jewish settlers who are there now, is a very constricted space. Gaza is one big slum. Jordan-Palestine could be the basis for an accord that will last, even if it cannot be achieved in our time. For now it is impractical and unrealistic. So the message is certainly pessimistic.”

Do you see any signs of light?

“The only optimistic thing I can say is that the history of the Zionist movement and of Israel is so unusual and unpredictable that the end of the story, or the next part of the story, could yet surprise us in a good way. Maybe. I yearn for such a surprise.”

Since you’ve decided to quit researching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what do you plan to focus on now?

“I’ve already begun to write a history of Turkish-Armenian relations from 1876-1924, together with Prof. Dror Zeevi, an Ottomanist. The Armenian genocide will, of course, figure large in it. It’s a whole new story.”

Benny Morris at his home in the Elah Valley.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
From left: President Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000.
Benny Morris.
 IDF soldiers and Palestinians during the first intifada.
3 of 3 |
From left: President Bill Clinton, Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak at Camp David in 2000. Credit: Reuters
1 of 3 |
Benny Morris.Credit: Yanai Yechiel
2 of 3 |
IDF soldiers and Palestinians during the first intifada. Credit: AP



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

Subscribe today and save 40%

Already signed up? LOG IN


Yair Lapid.

Yair Lapid Is the Most Israeli of All

An El Al jet sits on the tarmac at John C. Munro International Airport in Hamilton, Thursday, in 2003.

El Al to Stop Flying to Toronto, Warsaw and Brussels

An anti-abortion protester holds a cross in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

Roe v. Wade: The Supreme Court Leaves a Barely United States

A young Zeschke during down time, while serving with the Wehrmacht in Scandinavia.

How a Spanish Beach Town Became a Haven for Nazis

Ayelet Shaked.

What's Ayelet Shaked's Next Move?

A Palestinian flag is taken down from a building by Israeli authorities after being put up by an advocacy group that promotes coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis, in Ramat Gan, Israel earlier this month

Israel-Palestine Confederation: A Response to Eric Yoffie