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One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict
One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict
Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 2010
256 pp., $20.00

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Paul C. Merkley


One State, Two States

Recovering the history behind the slogans.

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Once again, we are hearing about "the two-state solution" to the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, construed as something only dolts, dullards, and vicious ideologues refuse to recognize as deriving from the highest of laws in place in the cosmos. To turn one's back on the two-state solution, we're told, is to turn one's back on all that the diplomats have allegedly accomplished since 1993—and to do so at the very moment when even the hereditary enemies of Israel (the Saudis, the Egyptians, and even (if you believe Jimmy Carter, the Syrians, the Iranians, Hezbollah and Hamas, in their heart of hearts) have come to recognize its sublime character.

Time to reach for the shelf that holds Benny Morris' One State, Two States, published last year by Yale University Press. For this book, Morris, who is generally regarded as the dean of academic revisionist Israeli historians, went back to all the notes he had gathered over the course of the years of writing The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1988), The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (2004), Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 (1999), and 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (2008; see the review in Books & Culture, March/April 2009, pp. 40-42). He sifted everything carefully for examples of all the many proposals of the past for reconciling Jewish and Arab designs upon the land the British governed as the Palestine Mandate (from 1922 to 1948).

So much imagination and invention, so much idealism and so much cunning, so much propaganda and so much double talk, went into these many now-forgotten proposals for "resolving the Jewish-Arab (or "Israeli-Arab," or later still, "Israel-Palestine") conflict! The permutations and combinations of the terms of these projects are astronomical in number. Long before the vote for Partition was taken in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947—a vote that was supposed to settle the matter for eternity— there had been advocates (all of them Jews) of a one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs would share. Practical details varied greatly: there was the "bi-national state", as proposed by Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, and there were "cantonal" arrangements, under which Jews and Arabs would live separated lives while some other, imposed authority, usually pictured seated in internationalized Jerusalem, would represent the general interests of all in such matters as defense and international relations.

By November 1947, the leaders of the Jews—not only those living in Palestine but those all around the world—had become reconciled to the Partition of the Mandate, even though the portion to be assigned to the Jews was only about one-quarter of what the State would become following the War of Independence of 1948 and the Six Day War of 1967. But the Arabs living within the Mandate adamantly refused to concede any part of what was, they said, one great Arab patrimony. And so they appealed to the god of war—accompanied by the armies of the several Arab states then in the world and by Arab and Muslim volunteers from all over the world.

Morris shows that at no point in this entire record is there any evidence of Arab support for the concept of a binational state such as the Jewish idealists were still proposing at the time of the UN's debate on Partition. On the other side of the coin, Morris has no difficulty demonstrating that that when the senior Zionist statesmen, led by David Ben-Gurion, stood up and saluted the two-state solution in 1947, many of them, if not most of them, secretly expected that, as Ben Gurion put it, the State achieved in 1948 would serve as "a Jewish Piedmont"—meaning that, as the minor Kingdom of Piedmont grew and grew by picking quarrels with its neighbors until it became the Kingdom of Italy (1848-1870), so opportunities would ere long be provided by the military failures of the Arab leaders to enlarge the borders of Israel, so that in due course there would be a single State of Israel with borders more like those of David's Kingdom, and perhaps extending further, all the way from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates. But Morris also shows that the painful experience of governing Arabs who found themselves within Israel's real borders eventually turned the leaders of all of Israel's mainstream parties against the one-state vision. Only among a small minority at the fringes of Israeli politics is that pre-emptive vision of the One State still saluted.

Historians have had to reckon with a kaleidoscope of transient banners appearing and then disappearing over the heads of the leaders and the crowds on the Arab side. There was Ottoman unity, Arab Nationalism, Syrian Nationalism, and most recently Palestinian Nationalism. But from beginning to end it has always been (as Morris shows) about the rights of Islam—and those rights are exclusive, pre-emptive and zero-sum in character. The objection to the existence of a Jewish polity in the region follows from a deeply entrenched, religiously based contempt for the Jews, the sons of pigs and monkeys.

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