Blogs > HNN > Josh Nathan-Kazis: Review of Benny Morris's One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009)

May 12, 2009 3:51 pm

Josh Nathan-Kazis: Review of Benny Morris's One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (Yale University Press, 2009)

[Josh Nathan-Kazis is a journalist and editor of New Voices: The National Jewish Student Magazine.]

After a disheartening few months, prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine seem brighter than they have in years. In Washington, the Obama administration is putting heavy pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to embrace a two-state solution, while in Damascus the exiled leader of Hamas is making statements in support of partition along pre-1967 borders. It's not a rosy picture, but it could be worse. Don’t get your hopes up, says Benny Morris, in his new book, "One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict." Morris, the Israeli historian whose work on the displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 War of Independence exploded the myth that the refugees left on their own terms, has written a deeply pessimistic but thoroughly convincing work arguing that none of the current endgames are viable.

"One State, Two States" positions itself as a response to recent support for a binational state from left-wing academics, most famously New York University professor Tony Judt. Rather than limiting his critique to Judt, however, Morris takes on Judt's critics as well, arguing that the American-supported two-state solution is no more workable than binationalism.

The book offers a thorough history of one-state and two-state solutions from the beginning of the Zionist project. Morris shows that prominent mainstream Zionists, from the earliest settlers to Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, had hoped to settle and declare a state in all of Palestine, including land in what is now Jordan and Lebanon. Those ambitions were gradually relinquished by most Zionists under pressure by the mid-1930s to secure any refuge at all for Europe's Jews.

Meanwhile, Morris argues, the Palestinian national movement consistently refused to moderate its territorial claims. Beginning with their rejection of the Peel proposals, a British partition plan approved by the Zionists in 1937, Morris writes that "the Palestinian Arabs viewed the conflict as a zero-sum game that allowed of no compromise and would necessarily end in one side's destruction or removal." He portrays the Jewish binational movement as having been stymied by a lack of interested Arab partners, dismisses later avowals of support for a two-state solution on the part of Fatah as part of a strategy to take back Palestine in phases, and argues that Palestinian President Yassir Arafat's rejection of Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak's two-state proposal at Camp David in 2000 amounted to "denying the legitimacy and right to life of an existing state…"

In light of what he views as persistent Palestinian intransigence, Morris has nothing good to say about the prospects of a two-state resolution to the conflict. "Put simply, they appear very bleak," he writes. "Bleak primarily because the Palestinian Arabs, in the deepest fibers of their being, oppose such an outcome, demanding, as they did since the dawn of their national movement, all of Palestine as their patrimony."

On a practical level, Morris writes that a Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza is economically unviable, particularly if destitute Palestinian refugees from camps in Syria and Lebanon return. Faced with overcrowding and a nonexistent economy, Morris argues that a Palestinian state would attack Israel and Jordan in search of land and resources.

In the last few pages of his book, Morris suggests a twist on the traditional two-state formulation that he says might be more tenable than a Camp David-style formulation. He proposes a Jewish state mostly within the 1967 borders alongside an Arab state consisting of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan. He argues that Jordan's size would allow the peaceful absorption of Palestinian refugees, decompressing Gaza and emptying the camps in Syria and Lebanon.

His plan is sketched only briefly. Morris acknowledges that Jordan's king, Abdullah II, might worry that a massive influx of Palestinians would threaten his hold on power, but does little to explain how to mollify his concerns. What's most surprising, however, is that, after arguing for an entire book that Palestinians are essentially opposed to any sort of partition, Morris makes little effort to explain how they would be satisfied by a deal with Jordan. He writes that Palestinian militants could be controlled by the Jordanian security apparatus, but it's not clear why the Jordanians would succeed in Gaza and the West Bank where Israel has failed. Perhaps Morris assumes that Jordan's authoritarian regime, which has been condemned by human rights groups for its torture of Islamist prisoners, would be able to apply tactics that Israel could not. Leave the savages to the savages, Morris seems to say.

It's an unsatisfying ending to a discouraging book. Morris is convincing in his portrait of a Palestinian national movement unable to let go of its vision of a unified Palestine, and in his skillful destruction of any notion that there is some clear way forward. What does it say, then, that he has no defensible proposal of his own?

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Elliott Aron Green - 6/17/2009

Truths to be taken into account for knowledge of that period include

1-- Arab collaboration with the Nazis and in the Holocaust in particular, especially in the person of Haj Amin el-Husseini, chief leader of the Palestinian Arabs from ca. 1921 to ca. 1950. Husseini spent most of the war years in Europe in the Nazi-fascist domain, urging Germany and its eastern European satellites to kill more Jews, organizing SS divisions among Bosnian and Kossovo Muslims, calling on Arabs over Radio Berlin to "Kill Jews wherever you find them," etc. This was well known to Jews in Israel in the 1945-1950 period.

2-- the age-old Muslim oppression of Jews as dhimmis in Israel and elsewhere.

3-- the fact that the first people driven out of their homes in Israel's War of Independence were Jews. Jewish neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv and in what later became Jordanian-occupied eastern Jerusalem underwent armed attacks by Arab irregular forces loyal to Husseini in December 1947-January 1948. This led to the flight of Jews from those areas in those months. You can check on this in the English-language Palestine Post [now Jerusalem Post] for those months. The Post's offices were themselves subject to a bomb attack in, as I recall, February 1948, which killed about 12 persons. You might also try the NYTimes for those months, let's say from 11-30-1947 to Feb 28, 1948. It's too bad that Morris did not mention the Jewish flight from the Shimon haTsadiq quarter in Jerusalem in December 1947 in his book.

N. Friedman - 6/17/2009

Mr. Butler,

Professor Morris has surely done his best to get at the truth.

In fact, his analysis has changed in two ways over the decades. That is what honest people do. They think and examine facts to be sure that they have things right. And, when new facts that do not jive with past understandings are examined, honest people change their opinions.

First, he has now more closely examined evidence showing the factual information regarding the motivations of the Arab side to the dispute. That factual information does not support the view of Arabs being mere righteous victims. It shows the impact of substantial religious thinking related to the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, most especially Jews and it related to treating the dispute as a religious war against Jews. Which is to say, it cannot be truthfully said that the Arab side was merely defending itself.

Second, he has reconsidered his own analysis, which more closely examines the motivations on the Jewish side. Such is certainly necessary in view of the fact that his earlier examination of the dispute failed to sufficiently examine the Arab side. And, any fair examination shows that, in fact, the Jewish side often, but certainly not always, acted merely to defend itself.

You would do well to read his book 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, in which he shows rather well that the simple anti-Israel narrative you believe in is, as a matter of simple examination of the facts, not a possible history of the dispute. It is, instead, politics trumping genuine historical investigation.

james joseph butler - 6/16/2009

Benny Morris has a tortured relationship with the truth. As the first Israeli historian to acknowledge the sins of the Naqba he shared the facts regarding Israeli ethnic cleansing in Palestine-1948. Having told the truth he retreated.

Now he recognizes the truth of the dilemma that Israelis and Palestinians face together and sadly he calls upon Jordan to solve his problem. Why not ask Coney Island to solve Israel's problem? The truth is that both sides must recognize that neither can win without validating the other. There are smart people on both sides when will they both understand the futility of the status quo?