Susie Linfield on How to Think About the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Posted on Jun 5, 2009
Nor have the cultural, social and political chasms between the communities been bridged; on the contrary, anyone who thinks the secular, educated, mini-skirted women of Tel Aviv and the masked men of Gaza will somehow merge into a unified, peaceful entity is either extremely deluded or playing a very cruel game. What kind of legal system could such a “country” have? (Hamas—and not only Hamas—openly professes adherence to sharia law.) What would it teach its children in school? (And in what language?) What kind of electoral and political system would it create? What would be its relation to religion, to religious freedom, to religious institutions—and, for that matter, to secularism? What kind of press would exist, and with what kinds of laws—if any—regarding obscenity and blasphemy? What kind of social policies—what kind of rights—for women, children and gays would it enact? What kind of army would it forge? What foreign policy would it follow? How would this “state”—a mutant construct—remain internally intact for even a day; how would it conduct itself, externally, amid the family of nations? And since such a state would, inevitably and fairly quickly, become demographically dominated by Palestinian Arabs, why would anyone imagine that the rights, the freedoms and the cultural integrity of the Jewish minority in this “binational” society would be protected?
Merely raising these questions makes the point. But what, then, of the two-state solution?
The most interesting part of Morris’ book is his tracing of Zionism’s trajectory regarding the idea of two sovereign states living side by side in mutual acceptance. Two-statism was foreign to the original Zionists, and it took several decades—and the force of blunt, unyielding political realities—for Zionism to embrace it.
In the beginning, Zionism was unabashedly maximalist: “The movement’s aim, from the start, was the conversion of the whole country into a Jewish state,” Morris writes. “That is how both Zionism’s leaders and foot soldiers saw it.” But in the 1930s, two fatally simultaneous factors forced the Zionists to change. The first was the refusal of the Western democracies to admit Europe’s increasingly imperiled Jews into their countries; the second was the closing-down, by the British, of Jewish emigration to Palestine at the start of World War II—exactly the moment, of course, when so many Jews desperately needed to emigrate. As the need for an immediate haven became increasingly evident and increasingly urgent, the Zionists abandoned their founders’ maximalist dreams, and partition—as praxis—became acceptable. Thus, Morris writes, in the decade following the 1937 Peel Commission (the first two-state proposal), “the Zionist mainstream … internalized and came to accept the principle of partition. The mainstream abandoned the goal of a Jewish one-state solution encompassing all of Palestine. To be sure, in no small measure it was the Holocaust that persuaded the Zionist leaders to make do with what history had to offer, while it was still on offer. … History—meaning the British, the Americans, the Soviets, all under pressure by the Arab world and by the realities of Palestinian demography—would simply not award the Jews all of Palestine. So partition it had to be.” This had nothing to do, as Morris writes, with “altruism or a sense of fairness,” and everything to do with the reality principle.
The Six-Day War of 1967 was a watershed, for it “trigger[ed] powerful expansionist messianic urges in the Israeli public, especially on the right and among religious nationalists,” and undermined Israeli acceptance of partition; one disastrous result was the building of settlements in the occupied lands (something Morris has always opposed). The settlements are unjust and indefensible, both morally and militarily; they have become an albatross around Israel’s neck and caused immense suffering to the Palestinians; they are a major impediment to peace and to a two-state solution; they have, in a sense, blackmailed Israel’s political discourse. Still, there is no doubt that the great majority of Israelis oppose the idea of a “Greater Israel,” if only for practical reasons, and are willing to trade land for peace; the “expansionist weltanschauung proved short-lived,” Morris writes.
Alas, the Palestinians, and the larger Arab and Muslim world, failed to follow a parallel political development: and this, to me, is the gloomiest part of Morris’ book. “Throughout the Mandate years,” Morris writes, “the Palestinian Arabs viewed the conflict as a zero-sum game that allowed of no compromise and would necessarily end in the one side’s destruction or removal.” Much of this book traces the consistent, ferocious tenacity of this maximalism and its deep roots, as Morris sees it, in fundamentalist Islamic ideas about purity and holy war. But whether based in politics or religion or both—something that, I expect, will be heatedly debated—there is no doubt that the destruction of Israel, far more than the building of a Palestinian state, has been the holy grail—the non plus ultra—of Arab politics since 1947; the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies in 1967 added energetic, furious fuel to this fire. (Thus the defiant Arab League resolution of September 1967, which responded to the Israeli offer to return the Sinai and Golan Heights with the infamous, defiant “triple ‘no’ ”: no to recognition of Israel, to negotiations, and to peace.) Tortuous decades later, under pressure from the United States and other countries, the PLO renounced the project of exterminating Israel, though organizations like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah have not.
But Morris has grave doubts about even those Palestinian organizations that presumably accept a two-state solution. First, he notes that no such solution—starting with 1937’s Peel Commission and up through the Clinton-Barack proposals of 2000—has ever been accepted as good enough by the Palestinian leadership. “For years, the Palestinians had been demanding a two-state solution; for years, Israel had stalled,” Morris argues. “Now, at last [in 2000], when Israel (and the United States) offered it, the Palestinians turned it down. … Arafat rejected the terms … not because of their detail but because of their underlying principle: two states for two peoples.” Second, even those Palestinian organizations that claim to adhere to a two-state solution also demand the return of the original Palestinian refugees, and their descendants, to Israel. And here we come to the crux of the problem (and to the subject of Morris’ first book). When the Palestinians demand the “right” to return, they are essentially demanding two states of Muslim Arabs: one in the West Bank and Gaza, the other in Israel. To my knowledge, the only Palestinian intellectual who has been honest enough and gutsy enough to say this, and to point out both its disingenuousness and its impossibility, is the president of Al-Quds University (and former PLO representative) Sari Nusseibeh—though he has, alas, scant following among his own people.
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