One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict Benny Morris Yale University Press 240pp £18.99 ISBN 978 0300122817 The Making of Modern Israel 1948-1967 Leslie Stein Polity 412pp £20 ISBN 978 0745644660
Benny Morris is well known as one of the Israeli ‘new historians’. His evaluations of Israel’s birth in 1948 punctured both the official Israeli and Palestinian versions of that traumatic era. Morris only works from original documentation and rejects testimonies since memory after so many years is selective. His new book is essentially a trek through the evolution and history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Its anchor is based on whether there should be a two-state solution or whether the variants of a one-state solution are the future goal. These could include a greater Palestine with a Jewish minority, a greater Israel with a Palestinian minority, a state of all its citizens and a cantonised state. Morris skilfully dismembers all these possibilities and shows them to be unworkable and Utopian at this stage in history.
Morris emphasises the rise of Islamism to a much greater extent in One State, Two States than in his previous books. A common theme is Palestinian rejection — whether nationalist or Islamist — of the Jews’ right to national self-determination in their corner of the Middle East. However, although the succession of unimaginative Israeli governments, populated by recycled and often failed politicians, is underplayed, Morris doesn’t pull his punches and can be brutally direct in his views. Such honesty makes this a good introductory account to the conflict.
Leslie Stein’s book covers the period between the founding of the state of Israel and the Six Day War in 1967. It, too, is a broad, yet comprehensive account of the halcyon years when socialist ideals and the romance of the kibbutz characterised the country before the settlement drive on the West Bank. Although this is perhaps a more traditional history of Israel it does not gloss over the black spots. Stein devotes much space to detailed accounts of Israel’s three wars during this period and the ensuing loss of life. There is less about the intricate machinations of Israel’s political parties and their interpretation of Zionist ideology. Stein, an economist by profession, writes on Israel’s early attempts to make ends meet and the huge financial burden in absorbing hundreds of thousands of new immigrants. Some were Holocaust survivors, while others had been stripped of their livelihoods and savings and driven out of Arab states. There are vivid descriptions of the ma ‘abarot, the tent cities which Jewish immigrants and refugees were forced to inhabit in the early 1950s. In one encampment, 50 toilets served a population of 4,000, causing it ‘to be permeated by the stench of excrement’. This was caused in part by the lack of foreign exchange to purchase sewage pipes.
By 1948 the Arab world had reduced the conflict to a zero sum game. Most Jews felt that, if they lost the war, they would be annihilated. For the Arabs, it would merely be a setback until the next time. Stein quotes the well-known figure of 6,000 citizens losing their lives — some one per cent of Israel’s population. However, he comments that if the age range of the Israeli soldiers who actually took part in the fighting — between 17 and 20 years — is taken instead, the death rate rises dramatically to the equivalent of six per cent of that population. As the Israeli military historian, Martin van Creveld, noted: ‘The blood bath was more intense than that undergone by either Britain or Germany in the First World War.’
Both Morris and Stein deconstruct the belief that there was a blueprint for the expulsion of some of the Palestinians who left in 1948. Stein in particular elegantly demonstrates how the understanding of Tochnit Dalet (Plan D) has been stretched from being an operational military document, preventing the invasion of Arab armed forces, to a Zionist intention to conquer and destroy the rural areas of Palestine.
Stein also traces Ariel Sharon’s early career as commander of Unit 101, which was a reprisal group for Israeli civilians killed by Arab infiltrators. While nearly all the members of this elite unit were wounded at one time or another, the killing of 69 civilians in the Jordanian village of Qibya led to accusations that the unit had degenerated into ‘a coterie of professional killers’. Stein remarks that, although Ben-Gurion covered up for Sharon, many years later he confessed that he was deeply ashamed of the Qibya raid.
Both books demonstrate that the issues in this terrible and seemingly endless conflict are complex and that neither side is blameless. Last year Israel celebrated 60 years of prosperity and advancement. The state of Palestine has yet to come into existence. Israel moves forward. Palestine stands still. Israel builds its future. Palestine guards its past. Stein’s work provides a good introduction to this sad saga for the perplexed and the uninitiated.
History Today October 2009, Vol. 59, Issue 10