Arab-Israeli Conflict / The Lesser Evil

In his latest work, Benny the historian meets Morris the commentator, providing us not only with the facts but also with his prejudices

One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, by Benny MorrisYale University Press, 240 pages, $26

Pragmatism is the compromise between desire and necessity. Confronting reality means modifying our dreams and fantasies. Take the example of a commenter on my blog who goes by the moniker of "MadZionist." He consistently hawks the line that Jordan is Palestine. Needless to say, this is hardly a moderate position. Sixty years ago, though, the MadZionists of the day would have argued - pace Jabotinsky - that Jordan is Israel. Perversely, then, MadZionist's position represents a form of progress, however incremental, proving the old adage that the left invents the ideas that the right eventually implements.

In his new book, "One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict," the Israeli historian Benny Morris assesses the gradual evolution of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships toward pragmatism. According to Morris, the Israelis have consistently modified their position in accordance with the reality, finally arriving at a pragmatic endorsement of the two-state solution, while the Palestinians have never abandoned their goal of establishing a Palestinian state in the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

For Morris, partitioning the land between an Israeli state and a Palestinian one is an imperfect solution. "[T]he very shape and smallness of the Land of Israel/Palestine ... makes its division into two states a practical nightmare and well nigh unthinkable." Nonetheless, he concludes that this still "remains the only sound moral and political basis for a solution offering a modicum of justice and, hence, a chance for peace, for both peoples." In short, it is the lesser evil.

Before examining attitudes about the two-state solution, Morris casts his eye over the history of the one-state solution. He describes the members of Brit Shalom, a small group of pre-state Jewish intellectuals who supported the establishment of a bi-national state, as utopian dreamers who lacked any Arab allies, noting that any Palestinian who endorsed cooperation with the Zionist movement tended to end up getting shot. He goes on to suggest that this is because the Palestinians 80 years ago viewed bi-nationalism in much the same way as they viewed Revisionism: "Put simply, the Palestinian Arab nationalist movement, from inception, and ever since, has consistently regarded Palestine as innately, completely, inalienably, and legitimately ?Arab' and Muslim and has aspired to establish in it a sovereign state under its rule covering all of the country's territory." The argument against a single bi-national state in which both people would live in parity was exactly the same as the argument against a sovereign Jewish state: Both "solutions" went against the wishes of a majority of the pre-state population, which was predominantly Palestinian.

In more recent times, though, the one-state solution has experienced something of a renaissance among Palestinians and their supporters, as well as on the fringes of the Israeli-Jewish community, prompting Morris to remind us of its obvious flaws: "Demography has trumped geography, and the prospect of fashioning one state for the two peoples that inhabit the country is even more illogical and unrealistic than the geopolitical division of the country."

Deconstructing Tilley

According to the one-state vision, the two peoples would share power in a single, democratic entity, with neither side gaining privilege over the other. It's an idea that was endorsed by American academic Virginia Tilley in her book "The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock" (2005 ). Morris summarily deconstructs her ideas, rejecting her optimistic faith in the possibility of political coexistence by emphasizing the cultural differences and mutual hatred that persists between the two sides. One less effective argument he employs, though, is the notion that "Palestinian Arabs, like the world's other Muslim Arab communities, are deeply religious and have no respect for democratic values and no tradition of democratic governance." If there is one thing the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have learned from Israel it is democracy, even if they have not always voted in a way that we - or their would-be leaders - have liked.

Morris bases his thesis of Palestinian rejectionism on the core documents of the various Palestinian national movements. He looks in detail at the Palestinian National Charter, the Fatah Constitution and the Hamas Charter, and finds them all to be cut from the same cloth. In 1996, Morris tells us, the Palestinian National Council voted to "amend the charter in line with Arafat's commitments to excise the articles calling for Israel's destruction," but it never created a new charter to reflect the optimism of the Oslo-era, nor has the PLO ever altered its goal of a "secular democratic state in Palestine." The Fatah Constitution, promulgated in 1964 and never revoked, states that "the Palestinian struggle is part ... of the world-wide struggle against Zionism, colonialism and international imperialism," among other gems.

He continues by emphasizing that the Hamas Covenant is overtly anti-Semitic and utterly rejects any Jewish rights to sovereignty in Palestine: "The covenant is Hamas's political constitution and credo. It has never been superseded or annulled; and though recurrently pressured to do so, the Hamas has never amended it or indicated a readiness to change any of its provisions." Contrary to what some have suggested, Morris argues that "Hamas has the virtue of speaking clearly and consistently," providing rejectionist quotations from Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshal to prove his point.

And even when the Palestinians have endorsed two states, Morris views their statements as mere weapons in the "strategy of phases" (Arafat's deputy, Salah Khalaf, 1988: "This is a state for the coming generations. At first, [the Palestinian state] would be small ... [But] God willing, it would expand eastward, westward, northward, and southward ... [True,] I [once] wanted all of Palestine all at once. But I was a fool. Yes, I am interested in the liberation of Palestine, but the question is how. And the answer is Step by step" ). According to this, the creation of two states would merely be a launch-pad for reclaiming the whole of Palestine. This argument has particular relevance to Morris' interpretation of the failed Camp David peace talks in 2000. He is confounded by Yasser Arafat's rejection of then-prime minister Ehud Barak's supposedly "generous" offer, admitting that it doesn't make sense in light of the "strategy of phases" thesis, and in the end concludes that Arafat was simply congenitally incapable of acknowledging any Jewish rights in Palestine whatsoever, even if doing so might have been strategically beneficial to the Palestinian cause.

Morris still accepts the "generous offer" theory uncritically, and it would be interesting to hear his perspective on Ehud Olmert's recent revelations regarding the deal he tried to make with Mahmoud Abbas before leaving office earlier this year. And what about Benjamin Netanyahu's recent speech at Bar-Ilan University, at which he laid out the stringent conditions the Palestinians would have to fulfill to get their own state? No doubt Morris would argue that Netanyahu's endorsement of a Palestinian state, however reluctant, demonstrates how deeply pragmatism is now embedded in the Israeli political consciousness. There is much to be said for this argument, but a more critical observer than Morris might ask if Netanyahu (and indeed other Israeli converts to the idea of a Palestinian state ) hasn't adopted his own version of the "strategy of phases." In this sense, the devil is in the details: Declaring support for two states is one thing, implementing policies that would make it feasible is quite another.

Biding its time

One of the book's major flaws is that there is not enough material on recent policies, particularly about the increasing feeling among many of the government's critics that Israel is biding its time while securing as much valuable land as it can, meaning that the creation of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state may well soon be an impossibility. The abstract notion of the Palestinians' recognizing Israel's "right to exist," which has never been invoked in any previous international dispute, is one such obstacle placed in the path, yet Morris casually adds it to the list of reasonable demands that Israel should make of the Palestinians, along with the idea that the Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

At the end of the book, in a chapter entitled "Where To?," Morris concludes that the Palestinian state should consist of Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza, an expansionist version of MadZionist's ideas, in which the Hashemite Kingdom is erased. Morris' thesis is that Palestine will be too small to survive; it needs Jordan. But this critical and provocative idea is limply and bathetically argued over the course of just three pages, as if a mere afterthought. Does Morris really think Jordanian sovereignty can be erased? Shouldn't the focus be on Israel taking the steps necessary to ensure the Palestinian state will be viable?

This brings us back to the paradox that has characterized much of Benny Morris' recent work. Since the second Intifada, Morris has become increasingly convinced that making peace with the Palestinians is impossible, a sentiment he has expressed in numerous newspaper op-eds and interviews. At the same time, he has refused to compromise on his commitment to writing empirical works of history, no matter how embarrassing they may be to the Zionist movement, as the revised edition of "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" showed. Now, though, the ideology seems to be creeping into his work, however subtly. Benny Morris has done a valuable service in compiling a brisk survey of approaches to solving the conflict, but his interpretations are less effective, relying too much on the prejudices and pessimism that have unfortunately although perhaps understandably infected many on the Israeli left in the last few years.

Alex Stein lives in Tel Aviv and works in fundraising and informal education. He blogs at

Haaretz Books, September 2009