As an American who is intensely interested in Israel — and why shouldn’t I be fascinated with one of the most dramatic and miraculous stories in history — I’ve read a lot of books about the Jewish state. And I’ve written reviews of many of them on other platforms.
When I recently discovered the ability to blog at the Times of Israel, I posted several items on the judicial reform crisis that was then occupying and engrossing all of Israel, and me as well. My three posts evoked a tremendous response in the form of two comments, one of which was complimemntary.
So, I recently thought, why not post some of my reviews here, as a way of further enhancing my growing profile with the Israeli public?
And that is what I’ve decided to do, starting with the post below. The books reviewed are several years old, but so what? Nobody has read every book, and my reviews might be useful or interesting to two, three, or even four people! So here goes.
My first post concerns One State, Two States by Benny Morris. I think his book is of continued relevance since it demonstrates why the much-bruited “two state solution” is a chimera, and why the left now commands so little support in Israel.
Book Review — One State, Two States by Benny Morris
There was a time when Israeli historian Benny Morris was a darling of the left. The most prominent of the Israeli “New Historians,” he had written a seminal work exploding the Zionist myth that the 700,000 Palestinians who became refugees during the first Arab-Israeli war fled the country of their own accord or at the urging of their leaders. Relying on IDF archives, Morris showed that in many cases Palestinians were expelled pursuant to the orders of IDF commanders, who feared their villages would otherwise become bases for rear-guard actions against Israeli forces. Even worse, in the view of many Israelis, Morris’ book exposed atrocities committed by some Jewish units, including massacres and rapes, that were hardly consistent with the “purity of arms” on which the IDF prided itself.
And as an additional element adding luster to his left-wing cachet, Morris had been jailed for refusing to serve in the occupied territories during the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.
Despite this impressive liberal pedigree, nobody would today accuse Benny Morris of being a man of the left. In a remarkable 2004 interview with Haaretz, Morris said that the 1948 expulsions of Arabs were necessary for military reasons and that the Jewish state could not have come into being without them. More surprising still, he suggested that David Ben Gurion failed to finish the job of “ethnic cleansing,” and that doing so would have avoided much suffering for all concerned and stabilized the State of Israel for generations. And while he said that further expulsions of Arabs under present conditions would be neither moral nor realistic, he could envision “apocalyptic” circumstances in which such action might be justified by a threat to Israel’s survival.
What accounts for the startling distance that Benny Morris has travelled since the former paratrooper went to jail to protest what the Arabs call “the occupation”? Quite simply, the Palestinians’ unyielding irredentism and rejection of any compromise with Jewish sovereignty in any part of the Holy Land. That implacable position, maintained throughout the century-long Arab-Israeli conflict (though at times dressed up to be more palatable to “gullible Westerners,” as Morris calls them) has caused Morris to despair of the “two-state solution” so ardently and endlessly pursued by a long line of American diplomats. Morris’ disillusion with a “peace process” that he and most Israelis originally greeted with so much hope is emblematic of why the Israeli left has suffered such a precipitous decline.
The scales began to fall from Morris’ eyes when Yasser Arafat summarily rejected, without counter-offer, the sweeping proposals for a “two-state solution” made to him in September and December of 2000, first by Ehud Barak and then, in sweetened form, by Bill Clinton. Arafat’s rejection was followed in short order by the outbreak of a far more lethal intifada, which ultimately caused the deaths of more than 1,000 Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks. Whether or not this eruption of terrorism was actually planned and ordered by Arafat, it is certain that neither he nor any other Palestinian leader did anything to discourage it.
The swiftly unravelling “peace process” caused Morris to undertake a more rigorous analysis of the sincerity of the Palestinians’ professed readiness to live together with Israel. One State, Two States is the result, and it should be read by anyone inclined to blame Israel for failing to achieve peace with the Palestinians. Only those with prejudices too entrenched and visceral to allow for reexamination are likely to come away without realizing that the real “obstacle to peace” is not Israeli settlements in the West Bank – Israel has previously dismantled settlements in both Sinai and the Gaza Strip – but the Palestinians’ adamant rejection of any Jewish state in what they consider to be Muslim lands, wherever its borders might be drawn.
As Morris recounts, in the early days of the Zionist movement, both Jews and Arabs viewed themselves as solely entitled to all of the Holy Land. Further, Zionist leaders were not beyond toying with the idea of the voluntary or involuntary “transfer” of Arabs from areas to be made part of the Jewish State. Over time, however, mainstream Zionists came to realize that a portion of Mandatory Palestine was all they could realistically hope for. Thus, over the opposition of the rightwing Revisionists, Zionist leaders accepted the partition plans proposed in 1937 by the British Peel Commission, and by the U.N.’s November 1947 partition resolution, though both awarded the Jews far less than the “Land of Israel” that some thought had been given them by God.
The maximalist position of the Arabs, however, did not undergo a similar evolution. Xenophobic and nativist to a degree that would put today’s American opponents of immigration to shame, the Arabs rejected any Jewish immigration to a land to which the Jews, too, had an ancient religious and historical connection. Their land was, they believed, being “stolen” by the Jews, although any Jewish settlements established on land previously owned by Arabs had been duly purchased. As for the Holocaust, that was none of their concern; the Jewish genocide had been perpetrated by Europeans, they said, and should not be paid for by the Arabs.
For the Arabs, the idea of allocating any part of Palestine, no matter how tiny, to a Jewish homeland was insupportable heresy. Thus, almost immediately following adoption of the U.N. Partition Resolution on November 29, 1947, local Arab irregulars began attacking Jewish settlements and murdering Jewish civilians. Months of inter-communal fighting followed, and it was in this period the IDF’s expulsion of the residents of Arab communities began. Then, as soon as the British Mandate expired and a Jewish state was declared, Israel was invaded by the regular armies of five Arab countries. The Jews prevailed in the fighting, and an armistice that left them in control of more territory than they were awarded by the Partition Resolution went into effect on February 24, 1949.
But the Arabs’ decisive military defeats in 1948-49 and in the 1956 Sinai campaign did not disabuse them of their determination to destroy Israel militarily. Rejecting any co-existence with Israel, Egypt’s Abdul Gamal Nasser in June 1967 closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping (which threatened the country’s economic strangulation) and massed troops in the Sinai Peninsula, threatening an invasion that he said would result in “the eradication of Israel.” The rhetoric of Ahmed Shukairy, the predecessor of Yasser Arafat as head of the PLO, was even more explicitly genocidal: “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants and as for the survivors – if there are any – the boats are ready to deport them.”
The Arabs’ plans for the citizens of Israel were, of course, frustrated when their armies were routed by the IDF. But Egypt and Syria tried again with a surprise attack on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, in 1973. They achieved some initial successes that appeared to threaten Israel’s survival, but once again Israel’s forces emerged clearly victorious.
It was not until more than a decade after a fourth major Arab-Israeli war – Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which sent Yasser Arafat and the PLO fleeing to Tunisia from their Lebanese bases – that that the Palestinians appeared to have had enough. In a letter from Yasser Arafat to Yitzhak Rabin, the PLO purported to recognize Israel’s right “to exist in peace and security,” and pledged to amend the provisions of the Palestinian National Covenant that called for Israel’s destruction. That was the beginning of what some continue to call the “peace process.”
But as Morris recounts in convincing and copious detail, the Palestinians’ never intended their recognition of “Israel” to mean acceptance of the country as a Jewish state. Quoting at length from foundational Palestinian documents and speeches in Arabic, Morris shows that the Palestinian leadership told its people that the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza was only an interim stage from which to carry on the campaign to bring an end to Israel as it now exists. Whether they would accomplish that goal by “armed struggle,” or by swamping the “Zionist entity” with millions of descendants of the 1948 refugees exercising a “right of return” to a land in which they had never set foot, the unchanging objective was the same – not “two states for two peoples,” but one state dominated by Palestinian Muslims.
That is why both Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas rejected, without counterproposal, Israeli offers of a Palestinian state in Gaza and almost all of the West Bank, with its capital in East Jerusalem. It is why no Palestinian leader has ever been willing to renounce, or even compromise, on the “right of return,” or to acknowledge that a two-state settlement would constitute a final resolution of their claims. And it is why, despite constant pressure from the United States and Israel, the Palestinian National Covenant was never amended to recognize Israel’s right to exist, as Arafat had promised Yitzhak Rabin.
Palestinian rejectionism was again on florid display in a recent speech delivered by Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to the PLO Central Council. Among other incendiary remarks, Abbas proclaimed that the Zionist movement “constitutes a colonialist enterprise that has nothing to do with Judaism”; that even during the Holocaust, European Jews did not want to emigrate to Palestine (ignoring that Britain’s draconian restrictions on Jewish immigration were imposed in response to Arab demands); and that the expulsion of 700,000 Jews from Arab countries after the establishment of Israel resulted from Zionist deals with Arab politicians to force the Jews to emigrate. A more mendacious and offensive denial of any legitimacy of the Jewish presence in Palestine can scarcely be imagined. And this from a supposed “moderate” who has been called the best interlocutor that Israel is likely to have.
Although the subtitle of Morris’ book is “Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict,” his only suggestion in this regard involves a Palestinian confederation with Jordan. While that indeed seems like the best possible outcome, one wonders how Jordan could be convinced to take responsibility for the radically discontent and revolutionary populations in Gaza and the West Bank.
For the present it seems that the best Israel can do is manage the conflict – periodically “cutting the grass” to keep Hamas and other terrorists in check – while trying to encourage development of the Palestinian economy. The outlook is bleak but, in the Hebrew phrase, ein breirah — there is no alternative.