Interview: Benny Morris

The Israeli left-wing historian has come to a stark realisation - that Middle East peace is virtually impossible


Benny Morris says he was "mobbed by Muslim hooligans" during a visit to London recently

Benny Morris says he was "mobbed by Muslim hooligans" during a visit to London recently

Peace between Israelis and Palestinians has proved stubbornly elusive since the false dawn of the Oslo Accords of 1993. But there remains a broad consensus on what should be the basis of any deal - a two-state solution. Spend any time in the company of Israeli historian Benny Morris, however, and you will be quickly disabused of the idea that peace could be around the corner, if only you could get Israelis and Palestinians to sit round the table long enough.

A two-state solution may be "reasonable and just", along the lines drawn by President Clinton 11 years ago, he believes; but the Palestinians are not interested in it. His scepticism has a particular edge since he was always considered a man of the left - he was jailed for refusing to do military service in the West Bank in 1988.

"I have been pessimistic since the year 2000 when in effect the Palestinians rejected a reasonable offer of peace by Ehud Barak and a slightly better offer by Clinton in December 2000," he says. "From that point on, the Palestinians displayed a disinterest in peace and a two-state solution. What they want is all of Palestine. And so whether you have negotiations or not, their end game is Israel's elimination."

All the international manoeuvring to get the two sides to resume talks may therefore be no more than "shadow-boxing". But it is a diplomatic game that Israel has to play - and in his view, under its current right-wing government, it is not playing well.

"The diplomatic position of Israel has deteriorated steadily over the past few years and especially in the last two years under Netanyahu," he argues. "He is not considered by the world community as a credible peace partner. He doesn't do the right things or say the right things or even make the right bodily gestures. He doesn't seem really to be interested in peace."

We've been in the west bank for 40 years. It is high time we got out

Israel's government should accept a settlement freeze, both to convince Palestinians who might be genuinely interested in peace of its good faith and also to "take the West off Israel's back". Israel should "call the Palestinians bluff" and negotiate "and maybe something will change. But if it does not, at least the West will understand that Israel did its bit."

The Ben-Gurion University professor, who was born to British kibbutzniks in the year of Israel's independence, has been professionally studying the conflict for 40 years as a former diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Post and the author of half a dozen books.

His first major work in 1987, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-9, established his reputation as one of Israel's so-called new historians who reshaped understanding of its War of Independence. His researches blew apart the comfortable myth on which a generation of Zionists had been weaned, that the 750,000 or so Palestinians displaced from their homes had largely left on the orders of Arab leaders. That might have happened in one or two places, he explained, but the exodus resulted from multiple factors including collapse of Arab morale and the natural tendency of civilians to flee fighting, but also, most controversially, their expulsion in some areas by Israeli military commanders.

But while the accusations of "ethnic cleansing" began to grow against Israel, Morris maintained that the ultimate responsibility for the Palestinian dispersal lay with the Arabs who had rejected the UN partition plan and resorted to violence to thwart it.

Morris provides commentary on political events through a blog on the National Interest website, along with incisive book reviews; over the past year, he has attacked the anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe as "one of the world's sloppiest historians", while dismissing the pro-Zionist Efraim Karsh's recent book as so one-sided as to often seem like "shop-soiled propaganda".

He is currently taking a break from the Middle East, coming towards the end of a four-month sabbatical on a Kennedy-Leigh fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. But he was reminded of the passions that Israel arouses last week while giving some talks in London organised by the Anglo-Israel Association. A lecture at the London School of Economics went smoothly, but on the way there he says he was "mobbed by Muslim hooligans… shouting: 'fascist', racist'," which was "quite unpleasant".

Although dubious of Palestinian intentions, he says it would be a "breakthrough" if they were to accept the Clinton formula of "two states for two peoples. It would be an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of a Jewish state side by side with a Palestinian state. That's why they refuse to do it - because they hope that you can have an interim two-state solution, in which eventually the Jewish part will become Palestinian."

Even if a two-state deal were signed, it would not hold because it offers "too little territory for the Palestinians". Gaza is "chock full" and the West Bank too small to contain its growing population plus millions of returning diaspora Palestinians. The Palestinians would feel "hemmed in" next to a Jewish state four times larger, which they would argue was unfair.

Hence he suggested in his last book, One State, Two States, that a more viable option would be a joint Palestinian-Jordanian state - although he concedes there are "enormous obstacles".

Though a peace deal is not on the horizon, the status quo cannot indefinitely hold either, in his view. Sustaining Jewish rule over a growing Arab population in the West Bank in the long-term is "untenable… We have been doing that for 40 years and it is high time we stopped. But the question is how you get out of there without endangering your basic security."

But Israel may have to decide sooner than later. If the Palestinians push for their threatened declaration of independence this September, he says that Israel might consider withdrawal from 90 per cent of the West Bank to behind its security barrier- if it felt able to guarantee its security.

While some Israeli politicians like ex-defence minister Moshe Arens have advocated annexing the West Bank, Morris says he cannot see that happen without turning Israel into "a dictatorship or apartheid state".

And as for the binational one-state concept, it may appeal in "coffee-shops in Paris and London", but is plain "silly" in the context of the Middle East. "Look at history," he says. "These two peoples are going to live quietly together? Who are we kidding? They are going to kill each other and the Arabs will probably end up winning and the Jews will leave… if there ever is a binational state."

    Last updated: 10:52am, June 23 2011