A Second Response to Benny Morris

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There is a certain redundancy to arguing with Benny Morris. The case he makes is easily debunked but the position he represents on rejectionism needs to be taken seriously, given the role that this narrative plays in perpetuating the conflict and the human misery for Palestinians, and not infrequently for Israelis. This piece will focus on that deeper narrative. But first, a little pushback, as Morris can’t be given a free pass on his deceptions.

Thankfully, we can all go back and read his original piece and my rebuttal, so that we can see whether he was misquoted regarding the offer to the Palestinians on East Jerusalem, or on his depiction of the Israel-Egypt Camp David accords and what they say or imply about Palestinian statehood. Some of Morris’ new material is also revealing (and inaccurate). For instance, he talks of Fatah and the PLO, “whose leaders head the Palestine National Authority, which governs the bulk of the West Bank from Ramallah.” Since when does having a limited administrative control and even more limited security control of 40% of an area constitute “governing the bulk”?

Most of Morris’s rebuttal is a repetition of what he calls the history of Palestinian rejectionism. And it matters that he gets the history wrong. Here’s how the Israeli and Palestinian delegations summarized the negotiations which ended in January of 2001 in a joint communique:

Given the circumstances and time constraints, it proved impossible to reach understandings on all issues, despite the substantial progress that was achieved in each of the issues discussed. The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli elections....The two sides took into account the ideas suggested by President Clinton together with their respective qualifications and reservations.

So much for this being about one sided rejectionism, but that doesn’t stop Morris from placing the blame for the failure of the 2000-1 exclusively on Palestinian shoulders (indeed, it was Israel under a new government led by Ariel Sharon which refused to resume negotiations, and today’s Netanyahu government, not the Palestinians, which rejects the Clinton parameters and Arab peace initiative, both of which are favorably referenced by Morris).

According to Morris, Arafat then led his people into the second intifada, a claim which the international commission led by George Mitchell pointedly failed to substantiate. It is a claim also severely undercut by Israeli documentation showing that over-preparation by the IDF and overuse of force, including one million rifle shells in the first days, were crucial to the escalating violence of the intifada. We are told that that Abbas indulged in similar rejectionism in response to then Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s 2008 proposals, a claim which Olmert himself was again busy refuting in a speech at the J Street conference just last month.

Finally, we are back re-litigating 1947-1948. Morris denies having made the case that for the nascent Jewish state, implementation of partition “necessitated transfer,” and denies being a champion of cleansing. Yet he is hoist by his own petard, it is all there—in his historical writings, in his books, in his Haaretz interview of 2004. In 1948 and After, he describes how intent the then Yishuv leadership was “to thwart the emergence of a Palestinian-Arab state.” In Refabricating 1948, Morris notes “at no point during the 1930s and 1940s did Ben Gurion ever go on record against the idea or policy of transfer. On the contrary, Ben Gurion left a paper trail a mile long as to his actual thinking. And no amount of ignoring, twisting and turning, manipulation, contortion, and distortion, can blow it away.”

In Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948, Morris goes into more details on the transferist inclinations of the Zionist leadership, ending with his own conclusion that “the most logical solution to the Zionist democratic problem lay the way of transfer.” No one has done a better job of demonstrating how the UN partition resolution, 181, was a recipe for transfer than Benny Morris. For a blow-by-blow account of historians versus historians on this, read Benny Morris’ critique of Steve Walt and John Mearsheimer, and their response. As the latter conclude, “Morris is certainly free to disagree with us today, but only by repudiating his prior scholarship.”

Morris takes umbrage with my describing him as a champion of future ethnic cleansing. Let’s see whether that is justified. Well, Morris says he opposes expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, except under circumstance of Israel “being under existential threat.” According to Benny Morris, writing just one month ago, Iran represents “an existential threat to Israel.” He set the bar, he met the bar, and for good measure, he recently shared with us via Moment magazine that “the Israel I want to see is more humane, more open, less religious and—to put it frankly—less Arab.” Benny Morris tells us that he prefers his Palestinian rejectionists to be “more open and honest” like “Hamas,” but I’m not sure I prefer my Israeli bigots to be “more humane, more open” like Morris.

But let’s get to the deeper level of the rejectionism debate. It is, after all, such an important piece of real estate to own; a narrative that can effectively attribute rejectionism to the other side is probably more precious than any single inch of territory, for it has such momentous implications for how one approaches this conflict and what to do about it. Of course, every people has its stories and mythologies and interpretations of the past, sometimes more romanticized, and more or less harmless. And I have no interest in suggesting either side has been blameless, or in exonerating the Palestinians for the mistakes they have made, and certainly not in defending whatever indecipherable strategy Palestinian leaders might be pursuing today. However, this notion of rejectionism is so central to pro-Israel advocacy, has become so entrenched among even very mainstream sympathizers with Israel that it has become a powerful antidote to ever being able to make progress in advancing a better future for all the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.

Advancing an all-embracing dogma of rejectionism, as Morris does, requires quite a few historical shortcuts and logical disconnects. For instance, when Palestinian leaders suggest compromises, they are invariably being disingenuous. The only sincere Palestinian position is the hardest of hard-line Palestinian position. If one quotes Palestinian statements from negotiations, the informal understandings reached with Palestinian leaders (such as the Beilin Abu-Mazen Stockholm document of 1995, or the Geneva Initiative, or other Track 2 efforts), official documents signed by the PLO (like the 1993 letter recognizing Israel’s right to exist), or suggestions of change and developments in Palestinian approaches, (such as Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal telling Associated Press’s Mohammed Daraghmeh that “the common ground is the state on the 1967 borders”), then this can always be dismissed as subterfuge, as tactics, as a nod and a wink to “Western naïfs.” According to this logic, why wouldn’t the Palestinians take a state on 90% of the West Bank and sign some document, only to rescind it later and launch their supposed plans for the destruction of Israel from a better point of departure? How can Morris explain this when he attributes to the Palestinians a “two-stage campaign to destroy Israel” (starting with statehood in the West Bank and Gaza)?

For those who buy into the rejectionist dogma, there can almost be no answer. And, of course, this propensity for insincerity is uniquely attributed to the Palestinians; it is not applicable to Israelis. Israeli leaderships’ statements and documents negating the possibility of peace and coexistence are ignored, dismissed, or treated more forgivingly. Benny Morris tells us that Palestinians “willing to discuss peace by Israel were gunned down by their more militant peers.” Yet he somehow scrubs from his story the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by an Israeli Jewish militant. We will be treated to the quotes of Palestinian leaders and Palestinian platforms but spared the fact that the Likud party platform has no reference to a Palestinian state, nor do the guidelines of the government of Israel. Likud MKs and ministers are constantly asserting the right to a greater Israel.

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Nor are Likud’s coalition allies much better. Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has said “may the Holy Name visit retribution on the Arabs’ heads, and cause their seed to be lost, and annihilate them…and cause them to be cast from the world.” Yisrael Beytenu leader and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for the bombing of “the Palestinian places of business in Ramallah” and demands loyalty oaths, and the list goes painfully on and on and on.

It is in this genre that one might understand Benny Morris’ opposition to settlements. He opposes settlements but calls them “a giant red herring.” So in some sense, his opposition to settlements is meaningless and irrelevant; it is swamped by his obsession with the latest Palestinian utterance. “Our side” is given a pass.

The rejectionist narrative brings with it another achievement—namely that one cannot take “yes” for an answer. This has defined important aspects of Israeli policy over many years (think about Israel’s response to the Arab peace initiative as one of many for instances). But it gets worse. Not only can we not accept a “yes,” we also obviate the need to explain or understand what has happened when we get a “no."

And that is the crucial distinction between rejection and rejectionism. If everything can be subsumed under the ideology of rejectionism, then the details of what was rejected don’t really matter. The corollary to this is obvious: we can avoid having a serious conversation with our own side about what we are willing to accept and how reasonable or unreasonable our own demands are. Yet the details do matter, often enormously, and to desist from the search for solutions, under the convenient spin of rejectionism, is a disastrous path.

I cannot know why Benny Morris and so many others have this prefernce for the reassuring certainties of the rejectionist motif. Morris makes the staggering claim that he "knows" that "Arafat's pacifist asseverations were insincere." He cannot really know. One could make equal claims to the insincerity of just about any Israeli leader based on their words and deeds. Remember the famous quot by PM Ariel Sharon's chief aide, Dove Weisglass, that the Gaza withdrawl would put any two-state peace effort into “formaldehyde” (although Israeli propagandists continue to claim that the Gaza withdrawal was a lurch for peace, ruined by the Palestinians). Is that Weisglass quote definitive, absolute, irrefutable proof of anything? Human decision-making is complex, people and circumstances change. The rejectionist absolutism of Morris and others is simplistic, a-historical, full of inaccuracies and arrogantly one-sided.

What can explain Morris's insistence in continuing to describe whole cultures and societies as "barbarian"? This term is an especially ugly one at a time when so many in those societies, at huge personal risk, are trying to assert their freedom, dignity, and humanity by standing up to repressive regimes, some of whom were allied to Israel and mollycoddled by the West. Or perhaps it is simply too convenient a PR tool in attempting to place all of the onus on one side.

The antidote to Morris’ rejectionism cannot just be about scoring points for the other side in this blame game. Yes, it is an important corrective to acknowledge Israeli misdemeanors.

What is far more important though about getting beyond the rejectionism dogma is to arrive in a problem-solving space. Morris finds rejectionism in the Palestinian response to the Peel commission of 1937, a proposal that included the transfer of 225,000 Palestinians to facilitate a Jewish state, or in the opposition to Resolution 181, making 400,000 Palestinians a 45% minority in a state defined as “Jewish.”

Can the proposals themselves and the Zionist and Palestinian responses be judged on their merit, or do they have to conform to a pre-determined “rejectionism” orthodoxy?

In more contemporary terms, Morris finds rejectionism in the Palestinian response to parameters that would have offered sovereignty minus on less than even the 22% of the land that the '67 lines constitute, with no acknowledgement or rectifying of the refugee predicament, and with no guarantees of equal status for Palestinians inside Israel. Whether or not Palestinian and Israeli leaders could have reached an agreement based on this formula, is it not useful to ask what is worth preserving and what is worth revising in these parameters? The rejectionism mantra renders that moot. Israel has rejected the Hamas position of full return to the '67 lines and the implementation of UN Resolution 194 in exchange for a long-term ceasefire or hudna. Palestinian activists have proposed a single shared democratic state on all the land with mutual guarantees of communal rights, a position rejected by Israeli leaders and most of their Palestinian counterparts. Members of the Israeli governing coalition and settler leaders have proposed a greater Israel on all of the territory.

Are there constructive elements that can be drawn from these various proposals? There are legitimate reasons for accepting or rejecting many different ideas. What is unreasonable and ultimately self-defeating is to expect Palestinians to accept Israeli victor’s justice twice over (after 1948 and 1967), and to embrace the legitimacy of their own dispossession and unequal status. And what is downright abusive is to excuse anything Israel has done or may do by conjuring up a catch-all narrative of Palestinian rejectionism, and in so doing, to condemn Israelis and Palestinians alike to a bleak future.