One State, Two States, by Benny Morris: A Review

One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, by Benny Morris. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2009. 240 pp. $26.00 cloth. ISBN: 9780300122817.


 Daniel Breslau
Virginia Tech


[Review Forthcoming in Contemporary Sociology]


When it is difficult for a party to a conflict to acknowledge its own role in the conflict's origin and perpetuation, it will portray the other side as impervious to good will. The other side's hostility is elemental, fixed, and unprovoked. One would expect a historian of the Israel-Palestine conflict to understand this style of thought as a historical product, emanating from the conflict itself. But in One State, Two States, Benny Morris thoroughly inhabits this perspective; it informs his interpretation of the conflict from its beginnings to its present discouraging state.


Morris begins by warning readers of a resurgence of "one-state" solutions to the conflict. In his view, one-state proposals are cover for the hidden agenda of replacing Israel with a Muslim-Arab state in which Jews are at best a second-class minority. He contends that the resurgence of one-state proposals has been precipitated by Palestinian actions – Arafat's rejection of the Clinton/Barak proposals in late 2000, and the rise of the Islamist Hamas movement – and its advocacy by "a coterie of non-Arab Western intellectuals"(6).


The bulk of the book consists of a long chapter on "The History of One-State and Two-State Solutions." Beginning with the Zionist movement, Morris chronicles the ideological and political disputes among its factions, concerning the desired political relationship to the Palestinians and its territorial configuration. He shows how a range of one-state alternatives were weeded out. On the right, the revisionist Zionists, followers of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who militated for a maximalist Jewish state were ultimately frustrated by geopolitical realities.


The opposite wing of Zionism, composed of a diverse set of intellectuals and leftist organizations advocating coexistence in a binational state, failed to find significant partners on the Palestinian side who would tolerate even shared sovereignty. Morris sees the failure of the binational project as caused by, and evidence for, Palestinian intransigence. He minimizes what even Jabotinsky was acutely aware of: that the Palestinian reaction was driven by an anxiety over the prospect of their own displacement – physical, cultural, and political—an anxiety that would prove to be justified. The Zionist center, embodied by the Labor Party-led Alignment that ruled Israel for nearly thirty years, was more pragmatic than either of the one-state factions, and accepted the 1947 UN partition plan. But it is not quite right to credit this group with early acceptance of a two-state solution, as Morris does, since most of Israel's leadership rejected Palestinian statehood at least until the 1990s.


While Morris is attentive to the diversity of perspectives within the Zionist movement and Israel, there is no parallel treatment of the Palestinian national movement. His polemic tolerates no substantive distinctions between Palestinian factions. For Morris, the Palestinian National Movement, as a whole, has rejected Israel's existence, rejected even the presence in Palestine of the Jews who had immigrated under Zionist auspices (and their descendents), and has had no other goal than Palestinian-Arab-Muslim sovereignty over the entire homeland. Any utterance or strategic position consistent with these objectives Morris labels as a genuine statement of Palestinian intentions. Any deviations he treats as "tactical" or "superficial" dissimulation, "a spin invented for gullible Westerners" (168).


For the period beginning in the 1970s, when the strategic position of the Palestinian political center showed signs of moderation, this scheme leads Morris into some surprising contortions. For instance, he brings up the case of Palestinian moderates who were assassinated in the late 1970s. He describes those assassinated as "dissidents" who "struck out on their own," seeking an opening for discussing coexistence with Israel, only to be fatally disciplined by their "colleagues" (123). In fact, all the figures mentioned by Morris were at the center of Palestinian national politics. They did not strike out on their own, but were undertaking diplomatic efforts fully authorized by the PLO. Their assassins were members of the Abu Nidal organization, a rejectionist fringe.  Morris has the story backwards: it was the representatives of the political majority who sought conciliation, while dissidents killed in the name of rejectionism. The entire strategic shift toward coexistence with Israel, beginning in the 1970s and becoming PLO policy in the late 1980s, is regarded as a carefully constructed sham. When dealing with more recent history, Morris indulges in a pastime pioneered by "pro-Israel" websites that mine the media for quotes that seem to contradict Palestinian public support for a two-state solution.


Morris's insistence on forcing Palestinian history into this framework of intransigence and duplicity is surprising, since he knows very well that the Zionist movement can be, and often is, given the same treatment. The argument that the Zionists always had their eye on the whole of Palestine, and any deviation was a ruse in order to enlist international support, is equal to Morris's account in plausibility and inadequacy.


Near the end of the book, Morris's outlook is taken to its logical conclusion. Citing incompatible values, he dismisses the possibility of Jewish and Arab coexistence in a binational state. "The value placed on human life and the rule of (secular) law is completely different—as exhibited, in Israel itself, in the vast hiatus between Jewish and Arab perpetration of crimes and lethal road traffic violations" (187). So determined is Morris to avoid consciousness of Israel's role in the economic, social, and political marginalization of its Palestinian Arab minority, that he converts the symptoms of marginalization into essential cultural deficiencies.





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