Benny Morris, professor of history in the Middle East studies department of Ben-Gurion University, believes that a two-state solution, one Jewish state in the land which Israelis turned into their state in 1948, and one Palestinian state in the West Bank, is the best solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He believes two states can coexist side by side in peace. However, Palestinian authorities are cold to such a solution.
Morris does not believe that Turkey can play a leading role in peace building between Israelis and Palestinians. He said Turkey has established itself as publicly siding with the Palestinians and that the Israelis will not trust Turkey to be an honest broker. “Therefore, any Turkish efforts to become some sort of mediator are bound to fail,” he stated.
Below is the full interview with Morris.
Professor Morris, you are considered to be a leading academic and historian on the Arab-Israeli conflict. What is the root of the conflict, in your opinion?
There is a political root and a cultural, religious root. Politically there are two peoples -- the Palestinians, who became a people gradually after the 1920s, and the Jewish people, which is an old people -- who regard the land of Israel, Palestine, as theirs. There is a conflict over the territory, the land of Israel itself, not areas within it but the whole land of Israel. It is a territorial issue, a political issue in which both national movements claim that the piece of land -- which is very small, 8,000 square miles -- as their territory. This is a basic clash between two national movements which is unique because mostly national movements clash over border areas between the two states, [such as] Germany and France over Alsace-Lorraine, but here these two movements are clashing over a whole piece of territory. It also has a religious cultural aspect, in that the Palestinians, essentially a Muslim people, regard the territory as a wholly sacred Islamic land, and the Jews regard the territory as theirs, and the Palestinian Arabs regard the Jewish settlers as an infidel and culturally alien presence, which is pollution in their terms. So there is a religious aspect to this conflict which makes it more difficult to resolve than were it simply a political issue.
Is there ever a possibility of a peace process with increasing settlements in the West Bank?
Yes. Look, Israel and the Palestinians negotiated peace, they didn’t reach a settlement but they negotiated peace in stages of the settlement in the 1990s while Israel was building and expanding settlements. I wouldn’t say that building settlements is good for the peace process, it’s bad and an obstacle for peace making and it’s psychologically devastating in terms of the Palestinians, but that doesn’t completely negate the possibility of peace making. I still think that the main problem isn’t Israeli settlements or the building of them, because after all Israel uprooted the settlements in the Gaza Strip when it wanted to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, and so they could equally uproot settlements in the West Bank. This isn’t the key problem. The key problem is that the Palestinians want the whole of Palestine for themselves; both Fatah and Hamas believe that all of Palestine should be theirs; no part of it should belong to the Jews, and therefore reject a two-state settlement. This is a key issue and the key problem in resolving the conflict.
Article 11 of the UN General Assembly resolution calls for the right of return to all Palestinian refugees. How does this fit into your idea of a peace process?
No, it doesn’t. This isn’t true. The UN General Assembly in December 1948 passed a resolution which endorsed the right of refugees to return or receive compensation, but the UN doesn’t call for the return of Palestinian refugees, and the General Assembly’s votes are recommendations, they are not resolutions in the sense of something which must happen, only Security Council resolutions have that force. There are almost 5 million on the United Nations’ books, butthe [Palestine Liberation Organization] PLO maintains there are 6 million Palestinian refugees.
If the Palestinian refugees return to the area that is the state of Israel, there is no state of Israel. It becomes a majority Arab state, so the Jews, of course, who want a state of their own, not a state shared with Palestinians or to live as a minority in an Arab land, which is something they once tried and weren’t very happy with, want to maintain a Jewish state, they say “the Arabs have 23 countries, we would like one Jewish country.” If the Palestinians achieve what they call the right of return, and millions of them return to the Jewish state, there is no longer a Jewish state. So it’s not something Israel can agree to in a peace treaty with the Palestinians. On the other hand, the Palestinians do demand, and think it just that they demand it, that the refugees be allowed to return. The refugees from 1948, their children, grandchildren and their great grandchildren, all of whom are designated refugees [put this forth] as an essential demand.
As an Israeli citizen and historian, what is the solution to the conflict?
There is a reasonable solution on the table and has been for decades. Its more or less embodied in the Clinton parameters of December 2000, a two state solution, one Jewish state in the land which the Israelis turned into their state in 1948, and a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and Palestinian sovereignty, in which the two states can coexist, side by side in peace. This is the solution, and refugees should be allowed to return to the newly constituted Palestinian state, in other words the West Bank. Much of the West Bank would become available for the [resettlement] of refugees because Israel would have to withdraw settlements and settlers from the West Bank. Other Palestinian refugees should be settled in other places nd maybe a token number could be settled in Israel itself, but essentially the problem would have to be solved in [Palestine]. This two-state [solution] proposed by [President Bill] Clinton was rejected by Arafat in the year 2000 and was resurrected in talks between Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, in 2008. Again, Abbas said “no” to the two state solution.
Do you believe there is no possibility of a one-state solution?
There is, if the Israelis drive out all the Palestinians, you can have one big Jewish state in Palestine, and if the Palestinians drive out all the Jews from Palestine, you can have one big Palestinian state.
And there is no possibility of the two groups coexisting together?
You can theoretically have a bi-national state, in which there is some sort of parity between the two communities, but the Palestinians do not agree to it and the Jews don’t, either. They do not want to live in a bipartisan state in which there is parity between the two states. Each of them wants a state of their own; the Palestinians, all of Palestine, and the Jews are willing to make do with the area of Israel but they don’t want to live in a jointly governed state. You could have Jews living as a minority in a Palestinian-dominated state, but the Jews will not want it. They would rather live in America. They have tried life in Arab states, and it’s never been pleasant or comfortable and they no longer live in Arab states. In that sense, the two-state solution is a reasonable solution; a one-state solution is a figment of several intellectuals’ imaginations or Islamists who believe they can take over all of Palestine.
You have often been criticized for a supposed “shift” in your political opinions. How do you explain this?
I don’t think I’ve shifted; I’ve always believed in a two-state solution, and I still believe in a two-state solution. This is the reasonable just solution to the conflict. In my shift, what has happened in my political thinking [is that] whereas in the 1990s I thought maybe the Palestinians had at last acquiesced to Israel’s existence and were willing to share the land in a two-state solution, after the year 2000 when they said “no” to a two-state solution, from that point on I became pessimistic about Palestinian readiness to agree to a two-state solution. That’s shifted; I see the Palestinians differently.
As you’re aware, the Arab Spring has dominated every sphere of Middle Eastern life in 2011. How dangerous is this period for the Israeli state and what is the feeling within the country about the events taking place?
The Israelis are apprehensive about the Arab Spring because they are not sure it’s a spring. Nobody knows what it’s going to be; it could be an autumn, it could be a deep winter -- we just don’t know. There’s been a lot of enthusiasm, the crowds in Tahrir Square and other places appear very motivated and [are] looking towards democracy and so on, but they do not represent the masses of Egypt or even Tunisia or other places. It’s not clear what will emerge from this upheaval in the Arab streets. So far, the worst dictatorships seem to hold out very well. They held out very well in Iran, Syria and in Libya, they seem to be holding up. The weaker dictatorships have fallen, the West has been undermined in its position and in Egypt’s [peace treaty with Israel] has been gradually undermined by various steps taken by Egypt. As a result, the expectation is that relations with Egypt could worsen even to the point of the eventual annulment of the peace treaty. This is a major strategic problem for Israel.
How does this affect Israeli national security?
At the moment it’s mostly focused on Egypt, and it affects Israeli national security to the extent that the Mubarak regime, while perhaps not a particularly pleasant regime in terms of its own population, had a cold peace and has maintained non-belligerency with Israel. The overthrow of that regime, which meant stability and security on Israel’s southern border, the overthrow of that regime means that things are now open and that Israel’s south may no longer be secure. This means that any events in the north or east which might threaten Israel, Israel can no longer rely on a safe, secure southern border, which is a real problem security wise.
Given the increasing unrest within the region and the supposed threat to Israeli national security, do you believe there is a possibility of an impending attack?
There are two immediate problems. One is the Iranian nuclear project, and if it reaches fruition and they actually produce bombs, this will be a devastating event in terms of the region and Israel’s existence. The other problem is the Palestinian drive for unilateral declaration of statehood. This could devolve into widespread rioting and even a third intifada. This is an immediate security concern of most Israelis. But overwhelming this is definitely the Iranian project, which threatens Israel’s very existence, which the Palestinians, in the short term, are not.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey has won for the third consecutive time, and it is a party that is considered mildly Islamist. What does this mean for Turkish-Israeli relations?
Israeli-Turkish relations were good in the 1990s, they were good in the early part of the 21st century, but they’ve cooled under Erdoğan’s government. Nonetheless, Erdoğan has so far resisted the temptation of severing diplomatic relations -- there are still ongoing military relations, and I assume intelligence relations between the two countries -- but one cannot know what will happen in the future.
Do you believe Turkey can play a leading role in the peace process?
No. Turkey has established itself as publicly siding with the Palestinians and with the Syrians in relation to Israel, so the Israelis will not trust Turkey to be an honest broker. Therefore, any Turkish efforts to become some sort of mediator are bound to fail.