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Exodus

Exodus

Mini Teaser: Morris turns to the origins of the one-state and two-state conceptions. It helps explain how the Israelis and Palestinians got themselves into this intractable conflict in the first place.

by Author(s): Walter Laqueur

Benny Morris, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 256 pp., $26.00.

 

THE ARAB-ISRAELI conflict has preoccupied American presidents and administrations since the 1960s out of all proportion to its intrinsic importance, and this will be true, in all probability, in the years to come. The reasons are far from obvious, for the region is of no particular strategic or economic importance. As far as the number of victims is concerned, the conflict ranks quite low on the list of external and internal wars in recent decades. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed in the Algerian civil war and the Iran-Iraq War, and many more still in Darfur, Somalia, the Philippines, Chechnya, Pakistan, Yemen, the Lebanese civil war and so on. The number of Israeli Jews killed during the last thirty years was also quite small.

So perhaps there is some other explanation for the heightened importance of the conflict. Isn't it true that Palestine and Jerusalem are key to the religions of both Muslims and Jews, hence the depth of the emotion? Then it is the perception that counts, not the number of victims. Not so fast. Jerusalem (or to be precise, one specific place in Jerusalem-the al-Aqsa mosque) appears only once in the Koran, and in any case the conflict predates the upsurge in Muslim fundamentalism.

Maybe instead it could be argued that if Arabs kill Arabs it is an internal affair, but once non-Arabs are involved, it becomes an international problem of far wider importance-Islamophobia, a crime against humanity. But this does not account for the preoccupation of the Western media with the Arab-Israeli conflict. When Hafez al-Assad, the former president of the Arab state of Syria, suppressed a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama in 1982, many more people were killed than in all the intifadas, the recent Lebanon wars and the Israeli invasion of Gaza combined, and yet these incidents were not covered with nearly as much fervor by the media. Events in Israel and Palestine figure very prominently, whereas there are no television cameras or foreign correspondents in the regions of Africa, Asia and the Middle East where mass killings are taking place and affecting millions of people.

Or is it perhaps the fear that the conflict, albeit directly affecting only a small number of people, might trigger a larger conflagration-something akin to Sarajevo in 1914? Anything could happen in the age of weapons of mass destruction, but we have not reached this stage yet and such fears certainly do not explain past and present concerns about Palestine; Pakistan is a far more dangerous place and so is Iran.

No wholly convincing answer has so far been provided to the questions of why there is such a preoccupation with this tiny region in the Middle East and why it is believed to be the main danger to world peace.

 

NO CONFLICT, except perhaps the cold war, has produced as great a volume of literature as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Dozens of weighty books have appeared during the last year alone. Most of the leading protagonists in the negotiations have provided their accounts. The most recent wave began with Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israeli foreign minister at the time of the failed negotiations at Camp David in 2000, and his Scars of War, Wounds of Peace. The leading American mediators have provided their recollections as well: Dennis Ross (The Missing Peace), Martin Indyk (Innocent Abroad), Aaron David Miller (The Much Too Promised Land), and former-U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer-not to mention former-President Jimmy Carter (We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land). There have been recent comprehensive, analytical accounts too (for instance Lawrence Freedman's A Choice of Enemies); books about the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, as well as the first and second intifadas; about the Israeli settlements (Gershom Gorenberg's The Accidental Empire and Idith Zartal and Akiva Eldar's Lords of the Land); about the Israeli lobby in the United States; and about Hamas. On the Arab side of the nonfiction aisles there were also many advocates, such as Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi and public intellectual Edward Said. But books by Arab political leaders or diplomats are fewer; there is no tradition, as in the West, for Arab prime ministers or other leading officials to write books about events in which they were involved (Saddam Hussein was an exception, but he wrote novels). There are some, but they suffer from what an Egyptian writer, Tarek Heggy, has called "our culture of denial." There might also be an element of fear at play. Let us not forget that the former-Egyptian minister Yousef el-Sebai was killed for no other reason than having accompanied Anwar Sadat on his flight to Jerusalem.

Of course, writers of memoirs sometimes suffer from memory lapses. President Carter, who regards the Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 border as one of the main stumbling blocks to peace, does not mention that it was precisely under his administration that many of these settlements were established or rapidly developed-and even more precisely, those situated in the middle of Arab territory (such as Ariel, Elon Moreh, Bethel, Kfar Adumim, Karnei Shomron, et al). But all in all, most memoirs or other works within this field are of some value for understanding the latest phase in this stormy conflict. They deal with the many attempts in recent decades to find peaceful solutions or at least armistices of long duration-the summits at Camp David, Taba, Annapolis, and the countless smaller meetings and exchanges.

Yet hardly any of them offer real solutions to the conflict, save technical suggestions. One of the few, and very notable, exceptions is Benny Morris's One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict.

 

BENNY MORRIS is the leading, most productive and certainly most widely discussed Israeli historian of his generation. It is also fair to say he may be one of the most controversial. Born on a kibbutz the year Israel came into being, he was the first and most prominent of the new post-Zionist historians, breaking certain taboos of official Zionist historiography. Rather than repeating the party line that Palestinians left their homes in 1948 only at the urging of Arab leaders, Morris said instead that the refugee problem came into being under different circumstances, indeed sometimes as the result of panic, sometimes following advice given by Arab leaders to flee, but in certain cases Arabs were expelled by Israeli armed forces. He argued there was cruelty and even crimes against humanity. A man of principle, in protest against Israeli "occupation," Morris refused to do his military-reserve service in the occupied territories of the West Bank, and for this he was arrested in 1988. He became the favorite source of reference and authority of the Left and of Palestinian writers.1

But as with all good scholars, he was willing to amend his arguments based on new evidence. Over the course of further studies, Morris became far more critical of the Palestinians who in 1948 had tried to destroy the new Israeli state. Eight hundred of them had been executed or massacred during the war that year (but so had hundreds of Jewish civilians), a number infinitely smaller than in any comparable conflict. Contrary to his earlier arguments, he found there had been individual cases of expulsion of Palestinians, but no systematic Israeli policy of ethnic cleansing.

Morris went even further. Having once been opposed to the perceived Israeli forced migration, he now thought not doing so was a mistake. On occasion ethnic cleansing (in the sense of a population transfer or exchange; think Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent and other parts of the world) had defused conflicts and stabilized the situation. Is it not likely that the same would have happened in Palestine? In light of growing Palestinian extremism-the case of an existential threat to the state-an Israeli policy of expulsion seemed to Morris to be wholly justified.

As a result of such unorthodox reflections (based on further studies following the second intifada), Morris came under heavy attack from his erstwhile comrades and supporters. The darling of the Far Left became a traitor to the good cause, labeled a racist, chauvinist and perhaps even a fascist. He was boycotted by the circles that had once fervently backed him. But Morris was not swayed: while still favoring Israeli compromises to resolve the conflict peacefully, he saw no such readiness on the other side. The Palestinians' opposition to the existence of the state of Israel was fundamental and total, based on a culture of revenge and religious belief. In brief, he no longer saw a chance for peace, certainly not in his lifetime. In his newest book, his ideas have evolved once again.

 

IN ONE STATE, Two States Professor Morris discusses past and present ideas laid out by both Jews and Arabs concerning the future of Palestine-should it be one state or two, and what would be its character? Following a long (perhaps overlong) discussion of recent articles in American and British literary journals, mainly by Jewish writers with strong opinions (but not equally strong backgrounds in the history of Palestine and its present condition), Morris turns to the origins of the one-state and two-state conceptions. It helps explain how the Israelis and Palestinians got themselves into this intractable conflict in the first place.

Essay Types: Book Review