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Book Review: Benny Morris, One State, Two States


Benny Morris
One State, Two States,
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, 240 pp
ISBN 9780300122817

Almost any book about the Middle East by Benny Morris has to be an important book, and this one is both important and timely. The Obama administration is pressing for a "Two State solution" and the Arab states are at least saying they are committed to such a solution. At the same time, there were two conferences dedicated to a "One state solution" or alternative to the "two state solution. One conference was held by right wing Zionists, and one by anti-Zionists, each pushing "solutions" that will basically obliterate the other side.

Morris traces the history of various "solutions" proposed for the conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine. He shows that the various binational and cantonal solution never really had any support and are unworkable. He shows that all the "one state" solutions are fraudulent illusions, based on the underlying conviction that the land belongs to them, and the notion that it is possible to sell foreigners on dubious ideas such as the "Secular Democratic State" - an entity that does not exist, and could not exist in the Middle East. He likewise shows the very great difficulties in the way of a two state solution. It is hard to fit two little states in a tiny area about the size of New Jersey, with inadequate water supplies, and with one of the states split in two by about 50 KM of desert. The land from the river to the sea is a geographic unity he argues. The water supply of the coast depends on the West Bank, and Palestinian sewage flows into Israel on the rivers. The 2000 square mile Palestinian state would not be large enough to absorb all the Palestinian refugees. These are all important arguments, to be sure.

But then Morris proposes his own favorite solution, that the land of the West Bank will become part of Jordan:

.... a partition of Palestine into Israel, more or less along its pre-1967 borders, and an Arab state, call it Palestinian-Jordanian, that fuses the bulk of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the east bank, the present-day Kingdom of Jordan.

Morris neglects to say what government there would be in Gaza, but he does say that the large area of the Palestinian-Jordanian state would allow for resettlement of the Gaza refugees there.

Alone among the proffered ideas, this one is not really analyzed critically. There are three obvious objections. The first is that if the land is a geographic unit as Morris states, given the West Bank and Gaza to Jordanian administration is not any better than dividing it between Israelis and Palestinians. The second is that the "Jordanian option" is as dead as the binational state and the "One State Solution." In fact, when the very same option was raised at the recent Knesset conference on alternatives to the two state solution, and an Israeli MK proposed a bill that would give Palestinians Jordanian citizenship, the Jordanian Foreign Ministry was quick to summon the Israeli ambassador and express its extreme displeasure:

Nasser Judeh issued a strong protest to the ambassador "over a debate in the Knesset on a motion on a so-called two states for the two people on the two banks of the Jordan River."

Judeh said Jordan was "dismayed by the debate and categorically and totally rejected the proposal submitted by a Knesset member, calling on the Israeli government for a clear explanation of what took place in the Knesset."

It is indeed not clear why Israelis busy themselves with handing out citizenship in other peoples' countries and trying to decide the future of their neighbors for them, or what good anyone thinks can come of such debates. The proposed union of Palestine with Jordan would deprive the Jordanians of their kingdom. It would create a large Palestinian controlled state next to Israel. If Benny Morris is right that the irredentism of the Palestinian Arabs is implacable, this state would have every motivation to attack Israel, and a much better chance of succeeding than the tiny Palestinian state proposed in the two state solution. There is also the little matter of what happens to Gaza. Perhaps it will be evacuated and turned over to Israel in a territorial swap, which would leave the Palestinian-Jordanian state with no port on the Mediterranean, or perhaps it will be incorporated into Egypt, an idea that the Egyptians have rejected, or perhaps it will be part of the Palestinian-Jordanian state, a proposal that is bound to meet strenuous objections from Egypt. Thus, the only conclusion is that the "Jordanian option" is just as problematic as any other.

Morris is to be lauded for providing a more or less balanced account of the vicissitudes of "solutions" proposed to the Arab-Jewish and Arab Israeli conflict. It is a valuable antidote to the rosy and vacuous prattle of people who propose solutions that have no relation to the history of the conflict or the reality of Jewish and Arab national aspirations, as well as the deceptive disinformation and myths of advocates of the one state solution like Virginia Tilley. It is a reminder to airheads and spin artists that the conflict did not start in 1967, was not caused by the Israeli occupation of Arab lands in the Six Day War, and cannot be resolved simply by setting back the clock and the borders to June 4, 1967. It would probably save a lot of trouble and misunderstand if Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and everyone on their team had read this book before plunging ahead to cut the Gordian knot of Israeli-Arab peace.

But while Morris is balanced in the sense that he lashes out equally at both sides, he is not objective. He has a thesis and he sets out to prove the thesis. That thesis is that nothing whatever has changed in the basic positions of the sides in the Arab Israeli conflict in about 100 years, and in a sense it is quite true. The Arabs never accepted the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination in the land between the river and the sea or any part of it. The Zionists never really accepted the legitimacy of Arab claims to the same land. Any peace solution would be imposed on grudging partners, each of whom would be plotting to get back their lost land, or ready to seize it at the first opportunity. The Hamas certainly do not intend to give up their claim to all of Palestine. Some "moderate" Palestinians, like Abbas Zaki, insist that Fatah is still out to vanquish Israel:

"The PLO is the sole legitimate representative [of the Palestinian people], and it has not changed its platform even one iota...Let me tell you, when the ideology of Israel collapses, and we take, at least, Jerusalem, the Israeli ideology will collapse in its entirety, and we will begin to progress with our own ideology, Allah willing, and drive them out of all of Palestine."

This quote, from 2009, sounds no different than some of the many monstrous quotes that Morris assembled from 1948, and for that matter, not much different from what Arabs told the King-Crane commission after World War I.

Appearances might be deceptive. History often moves very slowly, and often the same slogans are used in new ways because of their symbolic value and historic resonance. However, even in the unchanging Middle East, things do change from time to time.

Morris makes an error or elision which may seem minor, but it hides a whole train of logic. He tells us that George Antonius was "Christian Arab Jerusalemite" (p. 103). True, Antonius lived in Jerusalem at the time. But Antonius, the father of Arab nationalism in a sense, was born in Egypt of Egyptian-Lebanese parents. He was born in 1891 in Cairo and only settled in Jerusalem in 1921. Like Izzedin el Qassam, Fawzi Al Kaukji and others who are thought of as "Palestinian" Arab heroes, Antonius was immigrant, with no more title to the land than any of the Jewish immigrants, many of whom settled in the land before these Arabs. The point is, that in those days, Palestine was the hood ornament on the automobile of Arab nationalism, a cause that was the focal point of many grievances. Palestine was the front line of the Arab national struggle, so the "fighters" came to Palestine and became "Palestinians." But the object was not creation of a Palestinian Arab state. The struggle in 1935 or 1948 was between the Arab people and the Jews, who were seen as interlopers representing Western imperialism. But Pan Arab nationalism of the kind represented by Antonius eventually faltered. He wrote "The Arab Awakening," but when the Arabs awoke, they saw that each Arab state had particular concerns that prevented it from engaging whole heartedly in an Arab nationalist enterprise. In the meanwhile Shiite and Sunni versions of radical Islamism developed, and a real Palestinian Arab nationalism emerged for the first time in history. These changes cannot be ignored entirely, but Morris did so. In a footnote (page 222 n20) he explains that the book is limited to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and therefore he did not discuss the threat posed by Iran to Israel. But Iran is directly relevant not only to Israel itself, but to the conflict with the Palestinians which it is interested in perpetuating, and because it is a threat to the Arab world. A good part of the Arab world now looks to the United States to save it from Iran, and is not at all interested in eliminating the "hegemony" of the United States and Western powers, as it might have been 30 or 50 years ago.

Iran is not the only factor omitted from Morris's considerations. The book is set in widely spaced type, and one has the feeling that it would have been much better if those spaces had been filled with much relevant material that was omitted. If we are talking of peace solutions, the fate of the various failed British and US initiatives such as the Rogers plan deserves careful examination. Most curiously, though you might not notice it on first reading, all the events of the 1948 Israel-Arab war seem to be omitted, as well as those of 1948-1967. Surely, the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948 had some important effect on the questions being discussed! Nonetheless the whole period and the problems it created are practically ignored. Likewise, Morris doesn't discuss the very relevant fact that no Palestinian state was created in the West Bank and Gaza between 1948 and 1967. That has to have a bearing on the "two state solution" question. It is fair to conclude in fact, that while the Arab states did not want a Jewish state, they didn't want a Palestinian state either, not in part of Palestine and certainly not in all of it, and they never made a serious attempt to create such a state. These omissions are all the more curious since Morris has written books and articles on both subjects.

The events that foiled the doomed "Oslo process" are also discussed only superficially. If you are convinced that the enmity is the result of basic initial conditions and is unchanging, then there is no point in discussing "subsidiary" events, because they could not really affect the course of history. In this way, of course, you bolster the case that the entire sorry course of Israeli - Palestinian peace was simply the unfolding of a fate that was written in advance. Morris doesn't pay much attention to the fact that Israel built homes for over 100,000 settlers during the Oslo period. This surely did not help to advance the peace process or show that Israel really intends to return this land. It is true, as Morris tells us, that Israel removed the settlers and settlements in Gaza, but that removal was on a much smaller scale. At the very least, the settlement activity and the continuation of illegal outposts have to be examined to see what they tell us about the different forces at work in Israeli society. The disengagement from Gaza had to be a sign that something changed in Israeli society and government thinking, since nobody builds settlements and homes with the intention of tearing them down.

Likewise the First Intifada and Al Aqsa Intifada should have been discussed not just as passive results of the underlying enmity. The Israeli over-reaction to the first Intifada, which resulted in numerous Palestinian dead, had to have had a radicalizing effect on Palestinians. As for the second Intifada, Morris contents himself with saying that there is "controversy" over whether or not the Palestinian leadership deliberately kindled it and goes into a long analysis of the pros and cons of the negotiations. It is most relevant for understanding the current impasse that Mahmoud Abbas himself explained in an article written in November of 2000, that the Palestinians could never allow any Jewish rights in Jerusalem, nor could they compromise on right of return. If that is true, the negotiations were doomed from the start, and likewise the current peace fever has no future either.

Moreover, Morris doesn't examine or even discuss the curious charade of the Sharm al Sheikh meeting in October 2000, in which Arafat and Egyptian President Hosni Moubarak solemnly promised to do everything possible to reign in terror, and following which Moubarak counseled Arafat to continue "resistance" and not to accede to American proposals. That incident most certainly is relevant for assessing whether Arab states can play a positive role in the peace process. Finally, Morris doesn't discuss at all the large number of testimonies from Palestinian officials, including Marwan Barghouti which admit that they orchestrated the Al-Aqsa Intifada. The fact that the second Intifada was made and not born is significant in many ways. It speaks to the intent and veracity of Palestinian leadership and their desire for peace, but it also means, once again, that the enmity and violence are not the blind and inevitable results of preordained conditions. They arise because of things that governments and leaders do, and there things that each side, as well as the United States and the European Union, could do that might have prevented the violence.

Morris's thesis is that the conflict is insoluble. All the solutions, including the one he offered, supposedly cannot work. But the fact is that conflicts do end, either because one side wins and obliterates the other side, or else because the assumptions and causes that motivated them no longer exist or are no longer a major concern. Japan found it can live without colonies in China and South East Asia. Germany found it can get along without colonies, without Alsace and Lorraine, without a big navy and without Lebensraum. It doesn't even rule the borders mentioned in the Deutschlandlied - Meuse and the Memel, the Adige and "belt" are all outside Germany. But Europe is at peace and Japan is at peace.

The "resolution" is not always "just" to any party either. The struggle of the Kurds seems to have just petered out as they were abandoned by everyone and left to be bombed by the Turks and persecuted by the Syrians. Kurds don't have "legitimate rights" and international law and the UN Human Rights Commission cease to be in effect on the borders of Kurdistan.

This conflict can and will end one day. If we want a solution that has at least a semblance of justice, then we must support a two state solution, which provides some, albeit imperfect, satisfaction for the national aspirations of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Proposing that the Palestinian Arabs should be part of Jordan, or that the Jews should all move to France, is not going to advance the prospects of peace because such solutions are neither just or realistic. The Jews don't want to go back to Europe and the Europeans don't particularly want us there. The Palestinians do not want to be part of a Jordanian state, and the Jordanians don't want them. Neither will all the problems be solved by waving our arms around and chanting improving slogans about peace and change and brotherly love. If we want the conflict to end sooner rather than later, then we have to look more searchingly at the actions of all parties and see how they contributed it, and try to understand what must be changed. Morris's book does a service in providing a realistic and sobering look at many of the enormous difficulties in the way of solving the conflict, but it tells only a part of the story. The book will do a terrible disservice if it is adopted as a mantra to prove that the conflict is inherently and permanently incapable of solution.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 1 Comment

Ami, your critique of Morris seems sound, but you err in asserting "The Zionists never really accepted the legitimacy of Arab claims to the same land." Jews accepted the partition of the remnant of the British mandate in '48 and after '67 offered to withdraw, but were rebuffed at Khartoum. You are right in noting that a conflict ends when a belligerent is beaten. That the conflict between Jews and Mohammedans has continued for so long is because it suits the Arabs and those who want to curry favour with them and coincidentally keep the Jews on a tight leash by doing so. My solution, for what its worth is to give "Palestine" a status like Puerto Rico linked to Jordan, Egypt of Israel.

Posted by Paul Winter @ 05/29/2009 06:04 PM CST

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