The historian, political scientist, politician and intellectual Meron Benvenisti, who published columns on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Haaretz for some 20 years, argued that the Jewish settlement enterprise in the West Bank was “irreversible” and supported a binational state, died Sunday at the age of 86. The recipient of the highest honor bestowed by the city of Jerusalem, Benvenisti is survived by two sons and a daughter.
Benvenisti was born in Jerusalem in 1934. His father, David Benvenisti, born in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, was awarded the Israel Prize in 1982 for lifetime achievement in education and geography of the Land of Israel. His mother, Leah (Friedman) Benvenisti, born in Lithuania, was a nurse.
Meron Benvenisti graduated from the Hebrew University Secondary School, known as Leyada. He served his compulsory military service in a Nahal unit at Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, near Israel’s northern border. After his discharge, in the early 1950s, he moved to Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra, nearby, and served as a leader in a youth movement. After returning to Jerusalem he enrolled at the Hebrew University in 1955, studying both economics and medieval history and going on to specialize on the Crusaders period in the Holy Land. As a student, he headed the Hebrew University student union and the National Union of Israeli Students.
His doctorate, from Harvard University’s Harvard Kennedy School, was on conflict management in Jerusalem and in Belfast. He went on to teach at the Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva and at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. He was also a research fellow at Harvard, the Wilson Center in Washington and Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, among others.
In the 1960s, he went into public service, first as head of the Tourism Ministry’s economy and development department. In 1965 he led Teddy Kollek’s first mayoral election campaign in Jerusalem, and after the Six-Day War in 1967 he was put in charge of the Old City and East Jerusalem. In 1969 he was elected to the city council, and became a deputy mayor of the city. Since the 1980s he focused on journalism, research and writing books.
In 1984 he founded the West Bank Data Base Project, gathering information about the settlements that he published in research studies and opinion pieces. From 1991 to 2009 he wrote columns in Haaretz, as well as publishing essays in international and other Israeli publications. He wrote a number of books, on the Crusaders, on Jerusalem, on cemeteries and on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and also became a restaurant critic.
Rivals and acquaintances have called Benvenisti a “lone wolf,” an iconoclast who knew no bounds. For decades he warned of what he called the irreversibility of the settlements and the occupation.
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In an interview with Ari Shavit published by Haaretz in 2012 ahead of the release of his autobiography, “The Dream of the White Sabra,” he spoke of his disillusionment with the Zionist, kibbutz society he was raised in.
“I went to Kibbutz Rosh Hanikra in the 1950s and experienced the transcendent feeling of working in the banana groves without noticing that in order to plant the banana trees, I was uprooting olive trees, thousands of years old, of a Palestinian village,” he recalled. “During that whole period...I did not understand the meaning of what I was doing.
“But when I started to deal with the Arabs of East Jerusalem, I began to understand. I saw that the problem is not only the individual rights of the Palestinians but also their collective rights,” he explained. “And when I monitored what [Ariel] Sharon was doing when he established 120 settlements in the West Bank, I suddenly realized that it’s irreversible. Finished. The Green Line is finished and the hope of a Jewish state here is finished. After all, the notion of a ‘Jewish-democratic state’ is an oxymoron, and the two-state solution is no solution.”
Zionism, according to him, brought no progress to the region, and has become, since Israel was founded and even more so after the 1967 war, a “dispossessing” movement.
This has led him to believe the only solution is a binational state. “The only way to live here will be to create an equality of respect between us and the Palestinians,” he said. “To recognize the fact that there are two national communities here which love this land and whose obligation is to channel the unavoidable conflict between them into a process of dialogue for life together.”
“I am not about to pack my bags and leave,” he added. “I do not have a foreign passport and I will not have one. I am a native son. I am native-born. I am from here. That is why I know that two national communities emerged in this land, both of which are an integral part of it. There are two national communities here that live together in the same place, one within the other. In this situation, partition is not an option. There was a time when it was possible, but no longer. This country is a shared land, a single homeland.”