Benny Morris: Why the "Peaceniks" in Israel Have Been Unsuccessful

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Benny Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University and the author, most recently, of the book One State, Two States.]

Israel’s left-wing parties, primarily Labor (but also the farther-left Meretz), were dealt a mortal blow by Yasser Arafat’s rejection of the two-state compromises successively offered by Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton, in July and December 2000, and by the Palestinians’ violent follow-up, the launching of the Second Intifada. If there is no Palestinian Arab peace partner, then what’s the point in voting for peace-mongering parties? All Israel’s left-wing parties are selling is pie in the sky.

Clinton settled into a comfortable retirement, but the Israeli left failed to recover from the events of 2000. The Labor Party, which since 1948 has traditionally received between one-third and one-quarter of the votes in each general election and often formed and led Israel’s coalition governments (1949-1977, 1984-1986, 1992-1996, 1999-2001), emerged from the February 2009 general elections with about 11 percent of the vote (13 seats in the 120-seat Knesset or parliament) and is currently a junior partner (though Barak is defense minister, a key portfolio) in the very right-wing coalition government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Even the ultra-right-wing Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, enjoys a stronger parliamentary base (15 seats). Meretz has three.

But there is one major respect in which the current political map inaccurately reflects Israeli public opinion and its ideological and political underpinnings. Most Israelis, to judge by nearly every opinion poll, want peace with the Arabs based on a “territorial compromise,” meaning granting Palestinian sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and the bulk of the West Bank (the desired fate of East Jerusalem, including the Old City and its sacred sites, is more problematic); most Israelis have tired of ruling the Palestinians. These positions have been prompted by historical events and demographic realities. But also, in some measure, by the drumbeat of peace movement activities over the decades since Israel’s conquest of the territories in 1967....

...[I]t was not the shortcomings or failures of these dozens of peace organizations...that resulted in the absence of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This result was mainly due to Palestinian rejectionism and intractability. There was never, as there still is not, a credible, serious Palestinian partner for peace with Israel, not before 1948, and not since. In the years 1920-1948 no Palestinian leader would contemplate either a bi-national, one-state arrangement with the Jews based on political parity or the partition of Palestine into two states, one for the Jews, the other for the Arabs. Indeed, in 1937, the Arab leadership flatly rejected the two-state solution, proposed by the British Peel Commission, which would have given the Zionists only 17 percent of Palestine. The pre-eminent Palestinian national leader during the 1930s and ’40s (and arguably in the 1920s as well), Haj Amin al Husseini, rejected all talk of compromise and consistently advocated substantially reducing the number of Jews already in the country (i.e., by mass deportation, or worse).

Nothing has changed since. The 1950s were a hiatus, while the Palestinians licked their wounds from 1948. But when they re-emerged politically under Yasser Arafat and Fatah/the PLO in the 1960s, and during the following two decades they flatly rejected all talk of a two-state solution, preferring the replacement of Israel either in one fell swoop or in stages by a Palestinian Arab state, possibly to include a small Jewish minority....

Given this reality, Israel’s peace movement—and Israel’s peace-minded political leaders, from Rabin and Peres, through Barak, Sharon (who evacuated the Gaza Strip), and Olmert (who, in negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, reportedly offered the Palestinians more than Clinton had, and, of course, was turned down flat)—cannot be held to account for the failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians (or, indeed, Syria, which, in 1994-1996 and again in 1999-2000, even when offered the Golan Heights, refused to sign on the dotted line). Hermann’s book—a work of otherwise fine political analysis and synthesis—never really makes this clear, which is its great failing.

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