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David Frum


By David Frum, originally written June 14, 2010, posted May 6, 2011

[reprinted with permission]

“Why is Israel blockading Gaza anyway?”

“Why doesn’t Israel just make the Palestinian Authority an offer of the West Bank and Gaza?”

“Why are there checkpoints on West Bank roads into Israel?”

“Why are there so many Palestinian refugees?”

Anyone interested in the Middle East issue hears these questions often. The protagonists to the tragic conflict may suffer from an excess of ancient memories. But for many observers, history started this morning – nothing beforehand is remembered at all.

Benny Morris’ short (very short!) new book "One State, Two States: Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Problem" is a useful primer for those who’d like to be reminded of the basics of recent Israeli-Palestinian history. At once breezy and authoritative, it carries special weight and interest by virtue of its authorship. Benny Morris is Israel’s leading “new historian,” one of those revisionists who debunked early Zionist morality tales.

Morris’ reputation rests on a now classic work, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem", originally published in 1989 and then revised and expanded in a new edition published in 2003.

The version of Israeli history propounded in the 1950s and 1960s told a tale of heroic Jewish virtue. The founders of the State of Israel wished to live in peace alongside their Palestinian Arab neighbors. Like Abraham uncomplainingly paying an absurdly inflated price for the cave of Macpelach, the early Zionists purchased every dunam of land from willing sellers. If thousands of Arabs fled the Jewish-majority areas of the new state after Partition in 1947, they did so in response to radio propaganda from the Arab capitals – disregarding the pleas of Zionist leaders to stay, live in peace, and build a new state together.

Touching as this story is, as any Cherokee can tell you: this is not how new states are built.

Drawing on the archives of the Israeli army, Morris told a more realistic story. Almost every one of the political and military leaders of the Jewish population in Palestine had lived through the bloodletting of the 1936-39 Arab revolt. Most remembered the lethal anti-Jewish riots of 1929, incited by the inflammatory preaching of the Palestinian religious leader, Haj Amin al Husseini. By 1947, Jewish leaders had arrived at a conclusion that coexistence was not going to be workable.

The UN Partition resolution was voted on Nov. 29, 1947, to go into effect on May 15, 1948. Palestinian Arabs immediately took up arms, attempting to repeat 1929 and 1936. This time, the leaders of the Jewish population responded with decisive and effective force. By May 15, Palestinian society had cracked apart; the Jewish state was born. When the armies of six Arab states invaded in May, the Jews had a nation and an army ready to meet and defeat them.

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Population details with minute exactitude, town by town, what happened to the pre-1947 Arab population. Palestinian historians accuse Israel of deliberate ethnic cleansing. Morris acquits Israel of that charge, with a couple of local exceptions. But he makes clear: when Palestinian Arabs fled scenes of fighting, the Israelis welcomed their departure, expedited it, and took care to prevent any possibility of return: demolishing vacated houses, clearing abandoned orchards and olive groves.

The 1989 Morris told this story with great sympathy for the defeated Palestinians. In the 2003 revision – finished in the throes of Yasser Arafat’s terrorist second intifada – Morris expresses rather less.

In his 2009 short book, Morris has arrived at an even harder-edged position still.

One State, Two State addresses the core issue of the peace process: the willingness of the two sides to accept the legitimacy of each other’s national existence.

On the Israeli side, that acceptance came gradually and grudgingly – but ultimately and definitively. The early Zionists envisioned a Jewish state spreading over all the Biblical Holy Land, not only the hills of ancient Judaea, but also Gilead on the eastern bank of the Jordan River.

But the rising threat of Nazi genocide forced the Zionists of the 1930s to rethink. The leaders of the Zionist mainstream agreed to accept any territory allowed them by the British to create a refuge for the increasingly desperate Jewish populations of Europe. They accepted the 1937 Peel plan which allotted the Jews a coastal strip plus Galilee, but no Jerusalem and no Negev.

Not that the Zionist leaders liked the Peel plan. They hated it. But they accepted the need for it, and were prepared to make a peace with it. Ditto in 1947, when they urgently needed to find homes for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Ditto in 1949, when they signed an Armistice with the neighboring Arab states, hoping it would mature into a final peace.

Through a survey of the diplomatic record that is at once meticulous and compact, Morris documents that no corresponding acceptance ever took place on the Palestinian side.

"The PNA [Palestine National Authority], for its part, after protracted foot-dragging and American and Israeli pressures, made good or appeared to make good, on its commitment of 1993 regarding the [Palestine National Charter]. On 24 April 1996 the [Palestine National Council] met in Gaza and by a vote of 504 to 54, with 14 abstentions, decided to amend the charter in line with Arafat’s commitments to excise the articles calling for Israel’s destruction. The resolution also authorized the PLO’s legal committee to redraft the charter and present the new version to the PLO Central Committee.

But two problems have obtruded. The first is simple: the PNA/PLO failed during the following thirteen years to ‘redraft’ an amended charter or adopt a new, alternative charter which omits the articles endorsing Israel’s destruction. The second is more complicated and bears directly on Palestinian mendacity, which has accompanied the shifts and turns in Palestinian politics and diplomacy vis-à-vis Israel since the 1970s. The official Palestinian translation into English of the first part of the 24 April resolution read: “The Palestinian National Charter is hereby amended by canceling the articles that are contrary to the letters exchanged between the PLO and the Government of Israel 9-10 September 1993.” But the earlier  Palestinian version of the translation, posted on the official PNA web site, stated that the PNC had “decided to change/amend” the charter, meaning that the PNC intended at some point in the future to amend the charter, not that it had “hereby amended” the charter. And neither version specified what exactly was to be amended or had been amended.

So, quite naturally, many PLO stalwarts insisted that the charter had not in fact been changed. … The matter was (apparently) resolved during Bill Clinton’s brief visit to Gaza on 14 December 1998, when by a show of hands the gathered members of the PNC, the PLO Central Council, PNA ministers, and Arafat voted overwhelmingly to endorse the PNC resolution of 1996 ….

Still, the six years of Palestinian foot-dragging and squiggling over the charter – important both as symbol and as substance – had left many Israelis skeptical. … Did their obvious reluctance to carry out these commitments not hint at the basic untrustworthiness of Israel’s ‘partners’ in peace? (130-132)"

The Palestinians never did get around to producing that promised new charter.

These incidents – and many more like them – combined with the much more militant rejectionism of Hamas and data from Palestinian opinion surveys lead Morris to a sad conclusion:

"Put simply, [the prospects for a two-state solution] appear very bleak. 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. And I would hazard that, in the highly unlikely event that Israel and the PNA were in the coming years to sign a two-state agreement, it would in short order unravel.  (194)"

So Morris, the one-time “new historian” finds himself cast back on the oldest of Israeli ideas: a hope that Jordan can somehow be induced to assume some kind of responsibility for the West Bank. It’s a strange ending to 200 pages of debunking wishful thinking to end with a wish of one’s own – but that’s what close study of the Middle East does to you.

Without the rather wan recommendations, all the previous material in One State, Two States is a concise, careful and bracing survey of the history of the conflicting nationalisms of Palestine. Those beginning their reading will find One State, Two States an excellent place to start. Those in danger of succumbing to optimism or worse about the so-called peace process will find One State, Two States a useful reminder of why this conflict is so uniquely difficult to settle.

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