A Response to Daniel Levy

04.17.12 5:25 PM ET

The number of distortions and misrepresentations in Daniel Levy's piece (April 16, "Of Herrings and Elephants: Benny Morris and 'Palestinian Rejectionism'") is mind-boggling (and saddening) and reflects poorly on the honesty and integrity of the "peaceniks" who he may, in some way, represent.

Let's take the title, which places "Palestinian rejectionism" in inverted commas, as if perhaps to say: The Palestinians have always accepted Israel and still do; what "Palestinian Rejectionism"? Well, even Daniel Levy, with whose historical output I am unfamiliar, knows that between the inception of the Palestinian national movement in the 1920s and 1988 all Palestinian leaders and spokesmen rejected Israel's legitimacy and right to exist. On this I think there is wide agreement.

Thus it was that the Palestinians rejected the two-state solutions proposed by the international community in 1937 (the Peel Commission recommendations) and 1947 (UN General Assembly Resolution 181); and thus it was that the PLO's "National Charter" from the 1960s—which has never been replaced, and which PLO stalwarts like Farouk Qadumi insist is still in force—calls for "jihad" to "destroy the Zionist and imperialist presence" in the Middle East, i.e., uproot Israel. So, incidentally, does the Constitution of the Fatah, the main component of the PLO whose leaders head the Palestine National Authority, which governs the bulk of the West Bank from Ramallah.

And while it is true that Yasser Arafat, the PLO's leader from 1969 to 2004, formally accepted Israel's "right to exist" in his exchange of letters with Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, he did so, it would appear, as a tactic to gain Israeli and international standing and approval, which were necessary as a springboard for his subsequent  effort (the Oslo Process) to gain Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a first stage in the projected two-stage campaign to destroy Israel and gain control of all of Palestine.

How do I know that Arafat's pacific asseverations were insincere? Both because of subsequent words and deeds. Shortly after signing the first Oslo agreement, Arafat was caught on tape telling a Muslim audience in Johannesburg that  he regarded that pact as merely another "Hudnat Hudeibiya"—a temporary arrangement reached by Mohammed with the Quraish tribe in 628 AD before he went on to renege and utterly destroy them two years later.

The "jihad will continue," Arafat promised his audience in 1994. And in 2000 he told President Clinton at Camp David that there had never been a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem's Old City—effectively rejecting the legitimacy of Jewish claims to Jerusalem and, by extension, to the Land of Israel/Palestine in toto. Palestinian spokesmen, despite fourteen hundred years of Muslim tradition, continue to deny the e existence of the Temple and, in effect, the Jewish heritage of the Land of Israel/Palestine. No rightful claim means that Zionism/Israel is illegitimate.

But, of course, deeds are more important than words, and in 2000, in July and in December, Arafat went on to reject comprehensive Israeli and American peace proposals (the Barak proposals and the Clinton Parameters) and to lead his people into and through the Second Intifada, a massive terrorist war directed against both Israel's control of the territories and Israel itself. As in 1947-1948, the Palestinians responded to a historic compromise and reasonable peace proposals with a flat "no" and with war. None of Arafat's sidekicks at the time - not Abbas, not Abu Alaa, not Saeb Erikat—raised a voice in dissent or objection, and in 2008 Abbas went on to reject similar proposals by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister of the day. (Again, no senior Palestinian figure demurred.) Were I to write that rejectionism would seem to be in the Palestinians' political DNA, I would be accused of racism. So I won't.

But, in a major way, harping on the sins of Arafat and Abbas is like flogging a dead horse. They are old hat. Since 2006, when the Islamist Hamas won the Palestinian general elections, which all observers proclaimed were fair, and since the Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip the following year, Abbas and his aides—the Fatah—do not really represent the Palestinian people. Opinion polls generally show that in a prospective election, the Hamas would win more votes in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank than any other party.  

And even if Abbas were to sign an agreement with Israel, it would never stick, from the Palestinian side. It would be rapidly undermined and overthrown by the Hamas and the other more open—and, let it be said, honest—rejectionists (much as in the 1970s and 1980s the few prominent Palestinians who were willing to discuss peace with Israelis were gunned down by their more militant peers—as, incidentally, were outside Arab leaders, such as Abdullah of Jordan and Sadat of Egypt, who had talked or made peace with Israel).

Levy writes that the Hamas "has increasingly moved" towards accepting Israel or making peace with the Jewish state. This is simple nonsense—and a conversation with any Hamasnik, high and low, in Gaza or outside, would set him straight. The Hamas leadership has consistently said, over and over again, that it will never recognize Israel or make peace with Israel, and, in Arabic, before Arab audiences, has clearly proclaimed its policy of seeking Israel's destruction.

Some Western naïfs may be taken in by occasional statements by this or that Hamas dignitary about a willingness to enter into a temporary ceasefire—a hudna—if Israel agreed to withdraw to the 1967 borders and accept the "right of return." But these are tactics, and on the policy goals the Hamas leadership has never budged an inch. They believe that Allah and justice require Israel's destruction and that it is a practical goal, given the on-going empowerment of the Muslim world. The gradual, contemporary takeover of the Arab world by sister Islamist parties in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, etc.—incidentally, the main result, thus far, of the so-called Arab Spring—and Iran's steady march toward nuclear weaponry surely reinforce the Hamas's belief in the realism of this aspiration.

No Hamasnik that I know of has ever denounced or renounced any part of the Hamas Constitution or Charter of 1988. It calls, simply and explicitly, for "jihad" to "obliterate" Israel. The charter defines "the Jews" as the people who "slew the prophets" and instigated "World War I …and World War II, through which they made huge financial gains," "instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world", etc. (If you are rubbing your eyes and don't believe that these quotes are accurate, take a look at the Covenant in the internet.) The Hamas, says the Covenant, strives "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine"—echoing, incidentally, Arafat's oft-iterated goal of "raising the flag of Palestine over the walls of Jerusalem," which all his listeners, in Arabic, understood as code for taking control of all of Palestine.

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Levy tries to paint me as a spokesman of the Netanyahu administration: "Morris seems to be attempting to give a veneer of intellectual respectability to the well-rehearsed propagandist whining of apologists for Israeli policies and Israeli settlement."

This is absurd. I have criticized successive Israeli governments and their policies for decades and have always opposed the settlement enterprise as an obstacle to peace (as I wrote in the piece that Levy trashes; he seems to have missed that sentence). I have chided successive Israeli governments for not taking up the Saudi (Arab League) peace initiative of 2002, despite its basic flaws, and convening negotiations to sound out Arab sincerity about peace-making.

The problem with the Arab peace initiative is that it refers to UN General Assembly resolution 194 of December 1948 as the necessary basis for the solution of the refugee problem—and the Arabs interpret that resolution, as I do, incidentally, as endorsing the "right of return" (albeit of peace-minded refugees, which I'm not sure is how one should define many of the prospective returnees). The mass return to pre-1967 Israel of Palestinian refugees, of whom the PA says that there are 5-6 million, would mean the end of the Jewish state.

\And the fact that Abbas and all Palestinian spokesmen are unwavering in their endorsement—contrary to what Levy tells us (look in the internet under "Abbas," "Abu Alaa," "Erikat," etc. and "right of return")—is a major signal, to me at least, that the Palestinians do not seek a solution based on two states for two people, the Clinton formula, but, ultimately, want and intend to have all of Palestine. Let me just add that all the Arab states, including those that have peace treaties with Israel, officially, publicly and consistently, endorse the "right of return," raising a serious question mark concerning their long-term acceptance of Israel's legitimacy and existence.  

And, since 2000, I have repeatedly stated that the Clinton Parameters (of December of that year) offer the only serious basis for a peace settlement which would give both sides a modicum of justice. I did not write, as Levy mendaciously quotes me, that the parameters promised the Arabs "100 per cent of East Jerusalem." I wrote that Clinton proposed a Palestinian state, living side by side in peace with Israel, that comprised about 95% of the West Bank, "100 per cent of the Gaza Strip" and East Jerusalem—or, as Clinton put it, the Arab-populated districts of the city to be under Arab sovereignty, including in the Old City, the Jewish districts to be under Israeli sovereignty.

The parameters regarded the 1967 borders as the baseline for the boundaries of the two states but allowed for small, equal swaps of territory to allow for the retention by Israel of large blocs of settlement (the Etzion Bloc, etc.), and this remains American government policy. The parameters provide for the "return" to the West Bank and Gaza of refugees or their resettlement outside the Middle East but implicitly bar a mass return to Israel.  If there is ever to be an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, it will have to be based on the Clinton Parameters, give or take. All right-thinking Israelis and Westerners understand and acknowledge this. The problem is that the Palestinians rejected these parameters back in 2000-2001 and continue to reject them, and so long as this remains their position, no peace is possible.

To this I would add that Netanyahu's implicit rejection of the 1967 borders as the basis for an agreement and his persistence in beefing up the settlements—despite the occasional removal of a settler house or caravan-cluster from some god-forsaken hilltop or casbah—are doing the cause of peace no good and are directly contributing to the tarnishing of Israel's image abroad, which ultimately will affect the policies toward Israel of Western governments, including America's.

Some might find Levy lecturing me on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the nakba—the Arabic word for the Palestinian catastrophe and the creation of the refugee problem in 1948—a bit odd. But Levy is a true believer and headstrong. He knows what happened, without room for reservations and qualifications and nuance.  Levy charges me with "cheating with facts" (?)  (I'm not sure what that means – either something is a fact, meaning it is true, or it isn't) and with "sloppiness with historical accuracy" (sic). (He is often intemperate in tone—Morris "heaps deceit upon deceit"—which almost always is a sign of a weak argument.) He implies that I said that the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian Camp David accords spoke of prospective Palestinian "statehood."

Of course, I said no such thing. The accords offered the Palestinians "autonomy" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—and many protagonists and observers at the time, including Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and, probably, Anwar Sadat, believed (and, in Begin's case, feared) that this "autonomy" would devolve into full-fledged Palestinian statehood.  Begin surely breathed a sigh of relief when Arafat promptly rejected the offer and denounced Sadat, which helped lay the ideological groundwork for the Egyptian president's assassination three years later.

I never said that UN General Assembly resolution 181 of November 1947—proposing the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish—"necessitated" "transfer" (i.e., the expulsion of Arabs from the Jewish state-to-be). What "necessitated" the "transfer" was the Arab rejection of the resolution and the launching by the Palestine Arabs in November-December 1947 of hostilities to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state and, possibly, to throw the Jews into the sea, and the subsequent pan-Arab invasion of the country in May 1948.

In order to win their war for survival, and it was that, the Zionist militias, chiefly the Haganah, had no choice but to overrun the Palestinian militia bases—the villages and Arab urban neighborhoods (much as the Arab militias, in order to win, would have had to overrun the Zionist militia bases, the kibbutzim and Jewish urban neighborhoods). But the Jews were more efficient and did the overrunning, which (along with occasional Israeli expulsions and Arab orders or advice to certain communities to leave) resulted in the inhabitants' flight and the creation of the refugee problem.

Levy calls me a "champion" of "cleansing." I am no such thing. Indeed, I have consistently gone on record as opposing the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the West Bank\Gaza. I would regard such expulsion as immoral and impractical. But I have also said that in apocalyptic circumstances, when and if Israel's six million Jews would be under existential threat—expulsions might well occur. And in 1948, three years after the Holocaust, the Yishuv was precisely under such existential threat –and justified in doing what it felt was necessary to defend and save itself. (No, I'm not justifying rape or other atrocities, or massacres – these are always reprehensible and never justified.)  

Had the Palestinian Arabs, and the Arab world in general, accepted the two-state solution offered by Resolution 181, as the Zionist mainstream did, there would have been no war, nobody would have fled or been expelled, and the conflict may well have been resolved. It wasn't Resolution 181 that "necessitated" expulsion – it was the Arab rejection of the resolution and the war that they unleashed. To say that the Arabs could never have accepted the resolution is to say that the Arabs were incapable of compromise – which carries a waft of racism.

Lastly, Levy objects to my occasional use, in the past, of the word "barbarian". Well, how would he define societies that carry out or condone the murder of thousands of women each year simply because they look the wrong way at a man or glance at the wrong man or dress the wrong way (the Arab world); or who practice mass coerced female genital mutilation (Egypt); or which put men on trial for homosexuality (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.); or cut off the arms of thieves (Saudi Arabia) or stone women who are charged with adultery (Iran); or kill masses of fellow Arabs or Muslims, often in funeral processions, in suicide bombings (Iraq); or which dance on rooftops or hand out sweets to children to celebrate the blowing up of a bus crammed with civilians (Palestine); or who shoot down and torture many thousands of civilians who say they merely seek freedom (Syria)? If Levy has a better word, let him offer it.