Iconoclastic Israeli historian Benny Morris has just published a new book advocating what he calls a two-state solution with the Palestinian territories in a federation with Jordan. What is most controversial about his viewpoint is his contention that even the mainstream Fatah leadership of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas does not believe in “two states for two peoples.” Abbas may advocate for two states, according to Morris, but with the expectation that alongside the Palestinian Arab state, Israel will eventually become a majority Arab state because Abbas still insists upon a Palestinian “right of return” to what is now Israel.
The New York Times included a small article that may be read as substantiating this view. Abbas rebuffed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that he recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” “I do not accept it,” Abbas said. “It is not my job to give a description of the state. Name yourself the Hebrew Socialist Republic — it is none of my business.”
Abbas allows himself wiggle room here. It would have been better for the sake of negotiations if he had endorsed the concept of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people; on the other hand, he is not denying Israel’s right to see itself as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, Netanyahu will undoubtedly use Abbas’s refusal as an argument against renewing negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
My problem with Benny Morris’s contention that the Palestinians have never ultimately reconciled with living alongside Israel is his level of certainty. There is evidence to support his argument: The Palestinian political elite rejected a two-state solution when first proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1937; they rejected it when advanced by the United Nations in 1947; and, he claims, they rejected it in 2000 when they launched the intifada after the Camp David II Summit.
Yet the case of Camp David II is much more complicated than Morris allows and is open to a variety of interpretations. I share with many the disappointment that Arafat did not either sign on the dotted line at Camp David or that all the parties (Israel, the Clinton administration and the PLO) didn’t find a way to finesse their differences, acknowledge progress regarding some issues and continue a negotiating process that could have culminated in a more fully accepted agreement – as almost occurred at the January 2001 conference at Taba (which was resolving the refugees issue to exclude an unqualified right of return) and was eventually settled on a theoretical level by the Geneva Accord of Dec. 2003.