The Zero Sum Question

One State, Two States
By Benny Morris
Yale, 256 pages, $26

The question of how or even whether to divide the strip of land that lies between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been something of an obsession for generations of world leaders and pundits, not to mention the Jews and Arabs who were directly affected in a conflict that was going on long before the State of Israel was created in 1948.

The choices that have presented themselves for ending the fighting over the land of Israel/Palestine are stark: Either there can be one unitary state in which Jews and Arabs live happily or unhappily together or the disputed property can be split one way or another into Jewish and Arab states. Though there were always some Jews who hoped for a unitary Jewish state ruling over all the land, the Arabs’ superior numbers generally meant that primarily those who opposed Zionism and wished to ensure the end of Jewish sovereignty over any portion of the country have supported the one-state solution.

Those who thought the only sane solution to the problem was separate Arab and Jewish states have embraced the two-state solution. This is the option endorsed by the United States government as well as by many Israelis. For decades, the conventional wisdom put forward by most enlightened observers has been that if only Israelis and Palestinians could agree to share the land in this manner, Middle East peace would naturally flow from such a two-state deal. But now along comes the historian Benny Morris to burst that bubble with a new book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict.

Morris first made waves in 1988 with The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, a book that debunked the notion that all of the Arabs who fled during Israel’s War of Independence had left of their own volition. Because he concluded they had not, Morris was lumped for a time in polemical debates with anti-Zionist revisionist historians who sought to delegitimize the Jewish state. But Morris had already demonstrated his differences with them in the conclusion of his 1989 book, in which he wrote that “the Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab.”

The “new historians” were arguing that Israel was founded on the basis of a great crime; Morris differed. In the decades since, he has labored in the archives with an open mind. His latest book, a slim account of the two-state solution, is premised on the conviction that, rhetoric aside, the Palestinian Arabs have never accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish state, and that “one-statism” was, is, and remains the dominant Palestinian position.

One State, Two States opens with the unexceptional assertion that one-statism is the dominant line among the Palestinians who are Islamist radicals in the camp of Hamas, but also—in what may be startling news for some—among Fatah “moderates,” the anti-Zionist intelligentsia on Western campuses, and the punditocracy. The “moderates” and their academic backers say they have given up on “two states for two peoples,” ostensibly because Israel’s presence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem is so entrenched that it will never agree to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice Lines—an unalterable Palestinian demand, along with the “right of return for Palestinian refugees.”

But this conflict is not over borders, as Morris makes clear: “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.” This steadfast rejectionism is painfully predictable because it is premised on the conviction that the Jews are colonial interlopers who have no connection to the Land of Israel predating the arrival of the Arabs and the birth of Islam.

The struggle, therefore, is not about borders but over the zero-sum question of which people is, or will be, the majority population. It didn’t matter that the Arabs had never been sovereign in the country; compromise was out of the question. Nor did it matter that nearly 80 percent of the Jewish National Home, as defined by the League of Nations and the Balfour Declaration in 1917, had been lopped off by the British in 1922 and turned over to the Arabs as Transjordan. There was no way the Arabs would agree to share the land or to acknowledge that Jewish sovereignty was legitimate.

Zionist idealists sought to accommodate the Arabs by proposing a bi-national solution. Morris summarizes the efforts of a number of small groups that pursued it. But these groups lost steam in the wake of a 1929 Arab attack on the Jews of Hebron (a community that had been living there continuously since the Biblical era with the only previous interruption happening during the rule of the Crusaders in the 12th century) and subsequent murderous uprisings throughout Palestine between 1936 and 1939. Like those American Jews who support the J Street radicals pushing for a solution that would be imposed on Israel by the United States, the pacifist rabbi and Hebrew University founding president Judah Magnes hoped that a bi-national state would be forced on the parties even if it meant a permanent Jewish minority. But in the wake of the April 1948 slaughter of a convoy of medical staff and faculty heading to Hadassah Hospital and Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, Morris tells us, even Magnes gave up, went home, and died.

From the late 1920s onward, Zionist pragmatists grudgingly accepted the concept of partition. Yet every Zionist “yes” to compromise was met by an Arab “no.” Arab leaders rejected the July 1937 Peel Commission, which would have granted Arabs the bulk of the country west of the Jordan. They even said no to the 1939 White Paper, issued by Neville Chamberlain’s government in London, that essentially proposed a unified independent Palestine with Arab and Jewish representation in government according to the respective sizes of their population (effectively overturning the Balfour Declaration that had been issued two decades earlier). And they then rejected the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan that would have created two states.

The 1948 War, Morris reminds us, ended “in an effective two-state partition of Palestine, albeit between Israel and Jordan,” with the Jews holding 8,000 square miles and the Arabs holding 2,000 in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet for 19 years, there was no state for Palestinian Arabs created in either territory, and after the Six Day War in 1967—when, in the wake of their war of aggression, Arabs lost dominion over the West Bank and Gaza as well—they once again said no to peace, no to recognition, and no to negotiation.

Even in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, in which the Palestinians formally recognized the state of Israel, Morris writes, Palestine Liberation Organization chieftain Yasir “Arafat kept dropping hints, in speeches in Arabic to Muslim audiences, that he was still wedded to the phased policy of liberating all of Palestine and had no intention of honoring a two-state settlement.” The Palestinians said no in July 2000 to the Clinton plan at Camp David; no at Taba in early 2001; and no at the end of 2008, when Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas dismissed Ehud Olmert’s offer of virtually 100 percent of the West Bank. These refusals are comprehensible only if one appreciates how viscerally the Arabs feel that the Jewish presence in Palestine is a cancer that needs to be kept from spreading until it can, ultimately, be excised.

One State, Two States illustrates ably just how steadfast the Arabs are about not sharing the land. Genuine moderates who expressed the slightest interest in compromise were isolated or murdered. Long decades of largely self-inflicted suffering and displacement have only hardened Palestinian hearts, rather than making them reconsider the pointlessness of their intransigence. Morris shows how the differences between Fatah, the supposedly legitimate Palestinian negotiating partner, and Hamas, the illegitimate terrorist faction, are inconsequential as far as acceptance of Jewish legitimacy in Palestine is considered.

One State, Two States is a gloomy, concise, and spot-on account of where prospects for peace with the Palestinians stand: in the same ditch that the Palestinian Arabs began digging a century ago. Morris is right to acknowledge that non-strategic settlement building close to Palestinian population centers in the West Bank has been unhelpful. Yet he is honest enough to acknowledge that most Israelis would be ready to uproot these communities in return for genuine peace. As Morris puts it, a one-state solution is a non-starter; the two peoples couldn’t possibly live comfortably under one roof. At the same time, the prospects for a two-state solution are bleak “because the Palestinians, in the deepest fibers of their being, oppose such an outcome.” About the only glimmer of hope Morris holds out is for some kind of West Bank-Gaza-Jordan confederation. His next book, I imagine, will tell us why this, too, is a non-starter for the Palestinians. To paraphrase Woody Allen, reading this book reminds me that we Israelis are at a crossroads in our relations with the Palestinians: One path leads to oblivion while the other to a total abyss. Pray we choose wisely.

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