Israel's Plight: 1948 and Today

The interview with historian Benny Morris that appears in today's Foreign Policy website raises interesting questions. Morris, as interviewer Evan R. Goldstein points out, was once a hero of the academic Left, and a leading advocate of the rights of Palestinians. But reality has over the years forced Morris to reconsider much of his early assumptions.

Now, he has, like the majority of his countrymen, become "more cynical about the prospects for a two-state solution." He makes a basic argument: "The Palestinian national movement has never ... reconciled itself to Israel's existence as a Jewish state." Once a supporter of the Oslo Accords, Morris has become what Goldstein calls an "embittered pessimist." Like the shattered Israeli Left and once strong peace movement, Israelis know that they are not on the verge of peace, and that given Palestinian and Arab attitudes, the conflict may not be resolvable.

Every new American presidential administration, including  that of Barack Obama, starts with the assumption that they are positioned as no one before has been to restart the "peace process." The policy makers in the Obama administration think that given a new attitude and favorable response in the world to Obama's charismatic personality, that he will succeed where others have failed.

If so, President Obama is poised to learn a tough lesson. He could save himself a great deal of trouble and useless "negotiating" by listening to Morris, and trying to come up with other solutions than another round of meaningless peace negotiations.  It took the events of 2000 to shatter Morris's own illusions. Not only did Arafat reject the offers of Barak and Clinton, but, says Morris, "they launched a terroristic and guerrilla war ...suggesting that they are not just after the territories but want to drive the Jews out of Palestine." Israel later unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005- though of course the Palestinians still call it "occupied Gaza,"-and the Palestinian response to Israel's withdrawal "turned it into a base for rocket attacks." Morris, who once went to prison for refusing to serve as a reservist in the occupied territories, now holds that the Palestinian's irredentism is not going to disappear.

The proof is in the pudding. Israel agrees with Morris. The left-wing parties barely exist, and the center-right has won every Israeli election since 2001. Morris argues that the Palestinians believe the Jews have no legitimate right to be in Palestine and that they never did. The problem is the same one that existed in 1947 and 1948, when the Zionist movement accepted partition. Only they did. The Arab states then, and the Palestinian leadership now, do not. As Morris says: "Jewish Israeli society and Palestinian Arab societ are in a different place in terms of history, culture, and values." Morris cites Muslim terrorism, the Muslim attitude towards women,  and the long history of violence and hatred. That means, he sorrowfully concludes, that "it is inconceivable that a society of Jews and Arabs could function right now as one state in Palestine." Morris has one potential solution: attaching the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan- already a majority Palestinian area- and making that the new Palestinian state.

That, of course is an old solution, rejected many times by Jordan, as well as Palestinian nationalists. But Morris argues it is more realistic and possible than any of the alternatives.

I, for one, think that Morris' analysis of the hopelessness of a two-state solution as it is now proposed is correct. And it is not surprising. My wife and I have written a new book, which is being published today, and will be in bookstores by May 12th if not before.  Its title is A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel, and is published by Harper/Harper Collins. You can order it here on Amazon.com.  

One of the things we have found is that if you look back at Israel's origins, and the problems facing President Truman from 1945 to 1948, is the continued rejectionism of the Arab and Palestinian leadership back then. When the UN set up a special commission to investigate a potential solution for Palestine, Jamal Husseini, vice chair of the Arab Higher Committee, told the UN that Palestinian Arabs would not collaborate with the UN commission and would not even testify before it.  When the UNSCOP commission finally came out for a two state solution, the Arab League denounced partition and Zionism as completely illegitimate. Palestine, as the minister of foreign affairs for Trans-Jordan put it, had to be "an Arab state." Husseini added that the Arab would drench the Holy Land "with the last drop of our blood in the lawful defense of all and every inch of it." They had a simple goal: "no partition, no further Jewish immigration and no Jewish State." Going back to ancient times, he and other Arab leaders argued that Jews had no ties to Palestine at all, and that the Zionists sought to take it "from the Arab inhabitants."

  When the UN finally voted for partition on Nov. 29, 1947, the Arab delegates stormed out of the UN hall. Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League, stood up, one journalist wrote, "their white robes and headdresses shook as the mentioned to the delegates from the other Arab states to follow them. At the door...Pasha shouted, 'Any line of partition drawn in Palestine will be a line of fire and blood." And as the world learned, when Israel was created on May 15, 1948---five Arab nations immediately invaded the new Jewish state.

The story is the same, decades ago, and today. The Israelis opt for peace; the Arabs opt for an all Arab Palestine, without Jews.  Sometimes, history does not move very far.