A Pragmatic Vision for Israel's Left: A Reply to Benny Morris

A credible vision for the Left requires sticking to our moral principles, but to take a much more pragmatic approach to peace-making.

The Israeli Left needs a new vision.

One of the most disturbing defectors from its ranks is Benny Morris. When, in 2001, he started to state, time and again, that he did not believe in the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, his voice was impossible to ignore.

Here is a man whose intellectual integrity and commitment to factual truth is unwavering; who was jailed for refusing to serve in the West Bank in the 1980s; who had risked his own academic career to stick to the historical truth about Israel's role in the creation of the Palestinians refugee problem in and who cannot possibly be taken to be a representative of some state-manufactured ideological narrative. This important historian now said that David Ben-Gurion should have completed the transfer, because he cannot see that Arabs will ever accept Israel - certainly not an easy proposition to stomach.

He reaffirms his pessimism in a recent article in the Guardian, and says that Barack Obama is taking on mission impossible, that his attempt at renewing the peace process is doomed to failure. The title of his recent book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine conflict, is misleading, because its thesis is that the conflict cannot be resolved. He believes that Palestinians in particular, and Arabs in general, have never accepted Israel's existence, and that they will not do so for a long time.

There are deep reasons for Morris' disillusionment. Like most Israelis he is traumatized by the shattered hopes of 2000, when the failure of Camp David was followed by the second intifada.

The Israeli left's position until 2000 had two components. The first was a moral vision: Israel must not be a state that does not respect human rights. Holding on to the territories is immoral because it refuses millions of Palestinians the most basic rights.

The second was an empirical prediction: if Israel were to propose to the Palestinians a withdrawal from the territories, peace would ensue. This prediction was shattered after Camp David 2000, when the bloodshed reached new, terrible heights. Benny Morris, like many Israelis, took this to be the death of the left's empirical prediction. His conclusion has been that Arab and Palestinian Rejectionism are here to stay, and that the conflict cannot be resolved for generations to come.

Morris' mistaken hope for "peace now" in the 1990s was representative of the left (and that includes me); we were too busy with lofty principles, and not attentive enough to facts on the ground. We didn't realize that the Palestinians were still ambivalent about peace, and that their governance was catastrophic, rife with corruption and internal power struggles.

We also weren't paying enough attention to Israel's actions. As many reviewers of Morris' book have pointed out, he doesn't say a word about Israel's continuing land expropriations and settlement expansions, which led many Palestinians to doubt that Israel truly meant peace. The combination of Israel's insincerity and the Palestinians' internal chaos had catastrophic consequences.

Morris, in a Haaretz interview with Ari Shavit, says that he continues to be a man of the left, because he continues to favor the two-state solution in principle. He just doesn't believe it's feasible. Morris' state of mind is reflected in the left's disappearance in the Knesset: Israel's citizens are not willing to vote for principles, if they see no realistic hope for peace.

While I respect Morris' intellectual integrity and greatness as a historian, I think he is wrong, because his assessment of the present is strongly influenced by the trauma of the failure of Camp David 2000, notions about the clash of civilizations and the nature of Islam. I believe that there are good empirical reasons to believe that peace is possible, and that the left needs a new, pragmatic vision to regain the public's support.

Neither Palestinian nor Arab Rejectionism are immutable laws of nature. Morris is not relating to a sea change in the Arab world, because this change is not a sudden love for Israel. Arab leaders know that the days of their oil-based economies are limited, and many of them are attempting to modernize their countries. They also know that political Islam threatens their own regimes, and that only economic development and a positive horizon of a future for their disaffected youth will prevent an Islamic takeover. They know that such modernization requires close ties to the West. This is reflected in the Arab League's peace initiative that Morris, like all Israeli governments, simply chooses to disregard.

Morris is also inattentive to ongoing changes in the West Bank. General Dayton of the U.S. has documented the increasing effectiveness, transparency and accountability of the Palestinian security forces he is training. It is surprising how little attention Morris pays to the revolution that Fatah has undergone and the rise of a younger, much more pragmatic leadership and the deserved respect Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is gaining for his unflinching sense of justice and pragmatic efficiency.

My answer to Benny Morris is that we need to awaken from the trauma of 2000. A credible vision for the Left requires sticking to our moral principles, but to take a much more pragmatic approach to peace-making. No Israeli government will be able to move out of the territories tomorrow, before the security situation has cleared up. But we must dismantle settlements and roadblocks in the heartland of Palestine to improve quality of life and make economic development possible, and to speed up along the road toward establishing a Palestinians state, even with temporary borders. A great effort toward building the Palestinian economy must be made to give hope to Palestinians youth. This is a realistic possibility: there are many businesspeople willing to invest in Palestine's economy and to create genuine synergies between Israel and Palestine.

I anticipate the following objection: "Aren't you selling out to Netanyahu's ploy of 'economic peace'? Aren't you abandoning the basics of the Left's vision?"

The answer is a clear "no". I have no idea what Netanyahu's vision for the future is - and sometimes I doubt that he has one. My vision is very clear: a retreat to the 1967 borders and unequivocal assertion of the Palestinian right to their own state. We need to stick to our ideals, and yet be pragmatic in creating a blueprint for the details of the peace process. That's hope we can believe in.

This article originally appeared in the Comment is Free section of guardian.co.uk

Previous blog entries by Carlo Strenger:

  • Why Israel's left has disappeared

  • One-state solution is a blueprint for a nightmare