Review: Morris’s One State, Two States

Benny Morris’s newest book, One State, Two States, is a bold and unapologetic attempt to summarize the historical ideological contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and propose some semblance of a solution amidst the deadlock. Most of the volume is dedicated to cataloguing the history of the Israeli Zionist and Palestinian nationalist movements. Particularly highlighted are the respective movements’ acceptance and rejection of the “other” and the principle of territorial partition along the lines of a one or two-state solution.

Unlike many of his previous encyclopedic works, this book is a slim 200-pages, gently though effectively footnoted, and eminently readable. For this reason, it is sure to reach a broad audience. Its rich and straightforward content should be appealing to those uninformed about the conflict and to those who have been studying it all their lives. His insights into the internal dialogue of competing early Zionist movements as to the future character, political and territorial, of the Israel and the later consolidation of mainstream acceptance of territorial compromise while insisting on a distinctly Jewish state is particularly interesting. On the reverse, his review of Palestinian nationalist development seems to bring less unexpected content to light. However, it does meaningfully trace the history of Arab rejection of the very principle of Jewish sovereignty and autonomy in the Middle East. In particular, he takes to task those authors who whitewash Palestinian proposals feigning acceptance of a two-state paradigm while rejecting it in public rhetoric and practice. He charges that these accounts are motivated less by an honest reading of history than by politics, whether well or ill intentioned.

That said, many readers will find fault with the text. Israeli rightists will certainly take exception to his dismissal of the settlement movement as a popular force in contemporary Israeli politics while Israeli leftists will charge that he does not pay nearly enough attention to how Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians has contributed to their political grievances. Those sympathetic to Palestinian nationalist claims, particularly Western leftist activists and academics, will certainly be insulted by his characterization of Arab rejectionism and Islamic radicalism as the central cause of the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to achieve peace. Such ideological critiques aside, Morris’s characterization of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms flatter neither side, reiterating only those tropes and policies which the leadership of both sides have themselves consistently publically promoted. In this, his analysis is incredibly valuable, not only for its shock value, but for its intellectual honesty.

More problematic than his review of the history of these movements is his suggestions as to the conflict’s resolution. Despite being subtitled, “Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict,” only forty pages of this already brief work are dedicated to policy prescriptions. Like most in the policy world, Morris is dismissive of a bi-national state, largely because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians actually want this outcome. While Israelis wish to preserve a distinctly Jewish state, impossible in a polity in which Palestinians balance or outnumber Jews, Palestinians arguably wish to claim all of territorial Palestine for their own with no restrictions on their sovereignty.

Also like an increasing number of Israeli authors, Morris is despairing of the possibility of reaching a mutually negotiated 2-state solution. In short order, he insists that partition of Israeli territory is improbable if not impossible. This is not only because of the resource scarcity of the region, the economic non-viability of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, or the increased intermixing of Jewish and Palestinian populations in the territories and inside the Green Line. It is, he argues, because Palestinians reject the very legitimacy of a Jewish state.

His solution, then, is to seek some form of confederation with Jordan, a state which already hosts a majority Palestinian population. The logic here, follows much the same reasoning as Ephraim Inbar’s article, “The Rise and Demise of the Two-State Paradigm,” previously reviewed on this site. This, he believes, would help pacify threatening elements of Palestinian irredentism from either bank of the Jordan river. It would also mean drawing in the capable state coercive capacity of the Jordanian army and security forces to limit terrorism and give Palestinians an already functional state political apparatus though which to exercise joint sovereignty in exchange for the admittedly dysfunctional Palestinian Authority.

Unfortunately, a mere five pages are dedicated to this approach, hardly sufficient to consider the pros and cons or the wider implications of pursuing this approach. Like Inbar’s article, Morris’s logic with regard to a Jordanian confederation are guided by concern for Israeli security and domestic aspirations to delegate the Palestinian question to other bodies. It does not pay adequate attention to Palestinians’ own lackluster interest in being under the sovereign boot heel of another Arab state nor a complete rejection by the Jordanian government of even the suggestion of assuming such a responsibility. Rather than engage in an extended critique here, I refer the reader to my previous comments regarding Inbar.

In all, Morris likely overreaches in his characterization of security as being the defining element of Israeli reticence to negotiate with a fractured and dysfunctional Palestinian Authority. While Israelis may have largely made peace with the notion of territorial compromise for peace, they have not yet reached a consensus as to precisely which territories they would be willing to negotiate under what conditions. He is also probably unfair to pin so much of Palestinian rejectionism on growing Islamist sentiment. While Hamas has become markedly more powerful in the last decade in Palestinian politics and civil society, Morris’s own analysis makes clear that a rejection of shared or even divided territorial sovereignty is hardly the hallmark of a single Palestinian political movement or ideology. Finally, even if he is correct that confederation with Jordan is the most viable way forward for peace in the region, considerably more evidence must be brought to bear to make this case convincing.

These limitations aside, One State, Two States makes a valuable contribution to literature on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that should be of use to anyone interested in understanding its history and underlying political ideologies. While this book is certainly not the definitive statement on how the conflict has developed or should be resolved, its depth coupled with its brevity and coherence makes it a must read.

One Response to Review: Morris’s One State, Two States

  1. […] the ideological left to right. Notables among this list include Yehouda Shenhav, Meron Benvenisti, Benny Morris, and Ephraim Inbar. Now prominent politician on the right in Israel like Knesset Speaker Reuven […]

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