Israel historian's two-state backflip

Benny Morris: One State, Two States. Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-300-12281-7

Benny Morris: One State, Two States. Yale University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-300-12281-7 Can the Palestinians and Israelis live together? This is the fundamental question at the heart of Morris' book. The answer, according to Morris, is no. The alternatives, for the Jews and the Palestinians to live under one roof in one state or in two separate national states, are, he argues, unworkable and ultimately detrimental to Israel.

Morris starts his book with a brief survey of the growing literature on the binational state proposition. This idea has been explored and promoted by authors such as Tony Judt and Virginia Tilley in response to the ethnic and religious mix of today's Israel, and the pertinent question of economic viability for the future Palestinian state that is expected to emerge on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Proponents of a 'secular and democratic binational state' have taken issue with the Zionist vision of Israel as a Jewish state for obvious reasons. What about the rights of the Arabs who live there?

Morris acknowledges that taking the Zionist dream to its logical conclusion would entail removing the Arab population from Israel. This was indeed advocated by early Zionist leaders. David Ben-Gurion, who later became Israel's first Prime Minister, is quoted by Morris: 'With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement] .... I support compulsory transfer. I don't see anything immoral in it.'

Although this idea has become less and less acceptable in Israel, it is still seen as the way forward by a small minority represented by the Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party.

The recent proposal to introduce a loyalty bill is aimed at Israel's 1.5 million Arabs who regard the 1948 creation of Israel as a day of catastrophe, not of jubilation. Two national narratives are colliding here and the Zionist camp is hoping to use the state machinery to suppress the contending view.

Morris is renowned as a historian of integrity and impartiality. His scholarship on the birth of Israel and its impact on the Arab population was a direct challenge to the established view in Israel.

In his seminal work The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and subsequent publications, Morris documented a counter narrative which gave voice to the dispossessed Palestinians. Morris saw the rise of Palestinian nationalism as directly linked to the assertiveness of Zionists in Palestine.

These were courageous points to make when those representing conventional wisdom rejected responsibility for the flight of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, even denied the existence of a 'Palestinian nation'. They prefered instead  to use the term Arab (a generic term that down-played differences between Arab-speaking people).

With this background in mind, it is shocking to read Morris' present book. He seems to have come full circle. Not only does he reject the idea of a binational state for Jews and Palestinians, he also rejects the idea of a Palestinian state. Instead he advocates the joining of the Palestinian territories with Jordan.

Morris' argument for the rejection of the binational state is first and foremost based on the demographic dynamics of Jews and Arabs. This is a familiar argument. Any attempt to accommodate the two people within a unitary state would make the Jewish population a minority that would be at the mercy of the majority Arab population.

Morris is highly sceptical about that proposal and rejects the 'secular democratic binational state' formula as a smokescreen for a deliberate attempt at disenfranchising Jews.

This is a disappointing and a revealing book. It marks a significant revision in Morris' position. His earlier concern with the Palestinian national narrative has given way to an overarching concern with the promotion of the Jewishness of Israel. This comes at the expense of Palestinian national aspirations.

Morris' shift reflects a shift in Israeli public opinion following the failure of the peace process and the growing violence. Morris represents the almost universally-held opinion in Israel when he accuses the Palestinians, even the Fatah leadership in the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, of still dreaming to push the Jews to the sea.

This book reveals a deep-seated sense of anxiety and mistrust that will hamper any future attempts at peace.

Shahram AkbarzadehA/Prof Shahram Akbarzadeh, Deputy Director, National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne.

Topic tags: Benny Morris, One State, Two States, Israel, Palestine, Jew, Arab, ISBN 978-0-300-12281-7


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Existing comments

It is a strange position for Morris to take, given that the idea of uniting Palestine with Jordan has not been given much support and would not sit well with the Palestinians. I would love to know the Jordanian view. Some suggest that they are as keen about Palestinian statehood as the Israelis. But I am wondering, Professor Akbarzadeh, is the book worth reading despite the above criticisms?
Ashlea | 12 June 2009

Hello Ashlea, I could not agree with you more. The idea of joinng the Palestinian territories with Jordan is so fanciful I wonder what Morris was thinking. But this book is certainly worth reading. Morris has a wealth of research material and presents a vivid and easy-to-read account of the debate in Israel.
Shahram Akbarzadeh | 13 June 2009

I have reviewed the book elsewhere. Definitely not his best book, but still worth a read. My conclusions below.

Morris himself favours a two-state solution, but is extremely pessimistic about its chances of success. He argues that a small Palestinian state will meet neither the practical needs nor the national aspirations of the large Palestinian refugee population. But he provides little empirical evidence to support this view, and ignores many earlier books by both Israeli and Palestinian commentators which have provided a detailed vision of a successful two-state polity.

I would personally have liked Morris to do some serious political theorizing about potential strategies to persuade an Israeli Government to dismantle the West Bank settlements in order to facilitate the establishment of a viable Palestinian State. Instead, he concludes with some superficial mutterings about reviving the old Jordanian confederation proposal which King Hussein rejected way back in the late 1980s.

Overall, this book gives the impression of being rushed particularly in the concluding chapter, and falls short of what it might have been. Nevertheless, the historical overview is crucial in reminding us that the core narratives of the two peoples are unlikely to dramatically change, and that any path towards peace and reconciliation based on mutual compromise is likely to be rocky indeed.

Philip Mendes | 14 June 2009

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