Running out of Solutions
By Evan R. Goldstein, Foreign Policy,Posted April 2009
For Benny Morris the Israeli left isn’t where it used to be. – “Talk to any Palestinian; they don’t know about the Jewish past, and Jewish suffering doesn’t interest them,” he says. “They believe that Jews have no legitimate right [to] be here. That belief underlines their vision that Palestine must be all Arab and must be regained by them down the road.”
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On an overcast afternoon in early April, unsmiling men with big guns and earpieces patrol the sidewalk in front of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia. A short walk up the road on Azza Street, Benny Morris sits outside a cafe, radiating despair. “Iran is building atomic weapons at least in part — maybe in large part — because it intends to use them. The people there are religious fanatics,” he says in a rapid staccato. “Israel is under existential threat, and that is how Israel’s military and political leaders must see the situation.” In a 2007 essay, Morris, a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University, imagined a “second holocaust”: nuclear-tipped Iranian missiles raining down on Haifa and Tel Aviv. “A million or more Israelis … will die immediately,” he predicted.
That is not the sort of language one expects from an icon of the left and an intellectual lodestar for supporters of the Palestinians. But Morris, 60, like much of the Israeli left, has grown ever more cynical about the prospects for a two-state solution and for peace. In his new book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, Morris argues that the Palestinian national movement has never in fact reconciled itself to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. His shift from Oslo Accords optimist to embittered pessimist is emblematic of the disappointment and frustration that has ravaged the Israeli left since the second intifada. “Morris is a one-man microcosm of what many Israeli Jews of the Labor-Zionist strain have undergone in the past decade,” says David B. Green, opinion editor at Ha’aretz‘s English edition. “They recognize that we’re not on the verge of peace, that this conflict may not be resolvable, and that they were naive to think that was the case.”
Educated at Cambridge University, Morris started his career in the late 1970s as a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, at that time a left-leaning newspaper. In 1987, he published his first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, making an international name for himself. Morris’s rigorous account of how the exodus of 60 percent of Palestine’s Arabs during the 1948 war was the result both of self-induced flight and forced expulsion by Jewish military forces challenged official Israeli dogma, and ultimately helped shape the intellectual and cultural climate that birthed the Oslo peace process.
“Many Jews in Israel wanted to stick to the official version of events, but Morris forced them not to be so smug and self-righteous about the past,” says Hebrew University historian Alexander Yakobson. Throughout the mid-1990s, Morris continued to express his hope that an honest reckoning with the history of the conflict might help reconcile Arabs and Israelis.
But Morris’s optimism was first shattered in 2000 when Yasir Arafat rejected Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton’s two-state proposals.
“Not only did they say no, but they launched a terroristic and guerrilla war against both the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and Israel itself, suggesting that they are not just after the territories but want to drive the Jews out of Palestine,” Morris says. His dismay was further exacerbated when Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 failed to staunch Palestinian violence. “The moment Israel pulled out from a chunk of Arab territory, as the Arabs have always been demanding, it turned into a base for rocket attacks,” fumes Morris, who went to jail for three weeks in 1987 for refusing to serve as an army reservist in the occupied territories. Now he believes that Palestinian irredentism is probably never going away.
Solidly built with a thick patch of graying curly hair, the brusque and opinionated Morris has a reputation as an indelicate spokesman for his own views. In an infamous 2004 interview with Ha’aretz, he advocated confining Palestinians in “something like a cage.” At the time he explained: “I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another.” (Morris later apologized.)
This kind of blasphemy has alienated many of his former comrades on the left. Tom Segev, a prominent columnist, has suggested that Morris “flipped out” as a result of the suicide bombings that plagued Israel a few years ago. Historian Avi Shlaim has described Morris’s embrace of the “orthodox Zionist rendition of the past” as “simplistic, selective, and self-serving.” And Ilan Pappe, the most radical of the Israeli revisionist historians, has denounced Morris as a “bigoted thinker” and a “charlatan.”
But Morris’s opinions are manifest in a very real way in Israeli politics. Consider the election results from February. The Labor party, which dominated Israeli politics until 1977 and has been the traditional home of the Zionist left, came in fourth with a meager 13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, its worst showing in the history of the state. Meretz, the other “major” left-wing party, garnered a pathetic three seats. This latest outcome is hardly an aberration: The center-right has won every election since Barak was voted out of the prime minister’s office in 2001.
And reconciliation with the Palestinians is starting to seem like a dream from a bygone era, even to Morris. “Talk to any Palestinian; they don’t know about the Jewish past, and Jewish suffering doesn’t interest them,” he says. “They believe that Jews have no legitimate right [to] be here. That belief underlines their vision that Palestine must be all Arab and must be regained by them down the road.” Morris takes a sip of carrot juice and continues: “The peace camp has been tragically undermined by Arab recalcitrance. When an Israeli politician campaigns on a plan to broker a two-state solution, the Israeli public is no longer interested because they know the other side doesn’t want it. So they vote for Netanyahu or someone else who speaks in terms of conflict management rather than solutions.”
Discredited by events, the left has fractured into various currents; but its collapse has not brought triumph for the right. To a large extent, the peace camp is a victim of its own success; its central policy — two states for two peoples — has become the common coin of Israeli politics. “Partition is no longer a left-wing position,” Yakobson says. “There are very few rational people on the right who doubt that if the Israeli public is convinced that getting out of the West Bank will bring peace, a clear majority will support withdrawal.” Pointing to the rise of the centrist Kadima party, which comprises primarily disillusioned Likudniks, Yakobson adds that its leader, Tzipi Livni, is “more forthcoming as far as concessions to the Palestinians than Yitzhak Rabin was in the early 1990s.” Even Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s extreme-right foreign minister, supports a two-state solution. And it is likely that Prime Minister Netanyahu will soon bow to political reality and at least pay lip service to the two-state paradigm. (Of course, professing support for the creation of a Palestinian state is not the same as pursuing policies that make it more likely that one will come about.)
But, although Morris remains a committed two-stater, voting for Meretz and Labor, he’s not so sure anymore that a two-state solution is realistic: “Jewish Israeli society and Palestinian Arab society are in a different place in terms of history, culture, and values,” he says. “You can see this most clearly in Muslim terrorism around the world, and their attitude towards women and intellectuals. Add to that a long history of violence and hatred over the last 100 years, not to mention different languages and a different God. It is inconceivable that a society of Jews and Arabs could function right now as one state in Palestine.” Moreover, he doesn’t believe that the narrow parcel of land sandwiched between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea can be partitioned along the lines proposed by Ehud Barak and Bill Clinton in 2000. “The West Bank and Gaza are not sufficient for the Palestinian’s needs; they need more space to resettle the diaspora of refugees who want to come home.” So Morris advocates attaching the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan — which is today majority Palestinian — and making that combined entity the Palestinian state. Such an arrangement, he says, has a better chance of defusing the forces of Palestinian militarism and revanchism.
But won’t such a scheme be fiercely opposed both by Palestinian nationalists and the monarchy of Jordan? “There are a number of large obstacles, but there are large obstacles in the path of any solution,” Morris shrugs and leans back in his chair. From where he sits the Netanyahu government isn’t going to push for real advances in the peace process. Not to mention that most Israelis are deeply suspicious of the Saudi initiative, which purports to offer Israel full recognition and permanent peace with the Arab states in return for a withdrawal to the 1967 border, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and, perhaps most thorny, “an agreed, just solution” to the Palestinian refugee problem.
“Israel needs to get out of the Palestinians’ hair,” Morris says, returning to first principles. “Let them rule themselves, and give them a large enough country so that they don’t feel extremely motivated to expand at Israel’s expense.” As a stab at optimism, such a gruff sentiment spoke only to the chastened expectations of the Israeli left — and to the distance Morris has come over the last decade.
Evan R. Goldstein is staff editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education.