TORONTO — Israel’s continuing occupation of the West Bank looms as a major factor in its growing delegitimization, claims a leading Israeli historian.
“Today, we’re witnessing the steady delegitimization of Israel in the international community,” said Benny Morrris in a recent speech at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.
The erosion of Israel’s legitimacy is taking place especially in European university campuses, the incubators of future political leaders in Europe, noted Morris, who teaches Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“This is an existential matter for Israel, a threat,” added Morris, who has written such critically acclaimed books as The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 and Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict.
Asserting that Israel’s occupation is an “abnormality” in the 21st century, he said that given the imperatives of demography, Israel cannot survive as a Jewish democratic state unless it withdraws from the West Bank.
“It’s an existential necessity for Israel to end the occupation,” he declared.
Arguing that the 44-year occupation has morally corrupted Israel, Morris warned that the world will not countenance it for much longer.
Israel should pull out unilaterally or after it signs an agreement with the Palestinians.
But in light of the fact that radical Palestinian factions continually fired rockets into Israel after its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel might be faced with the same threat in the West Bank.
“This is an enormous dilemma,” he said.
Jews have a just and legitimate claim to the West Bank, the crucible of the Jewish people. But since so many Palestinians live there, the West Bank should be partitioned in accordance with the terms of a two-state solution.
A withdrawal from the West Bank would help Israel build greater support in the west for its legitimacy, he said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not made sufficient efforts to reach a compromise agreement with the mainstream Palestinian leadership, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.
But even a conciliatory approach by Netanyahu’s government would not necessarily induce the Palestinians to sign an agreement with Israel, he added.
The problem is that Israel’s legitimacy is disputed by the Palestinians in general and by Arab countries, despite Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. “They won’t sign a real peace accord with Israel, and if they do, it won’t last.”
Morris claimed that most Palestinians do not accept Israel’s existence and prefer the path of armed resistance.
Since the 1930s, when the first partition plan was presented by Britain, the Palestinians have rejected a two-state solution.
In the summer of 2000, at the Camp David summit, Abbas’ predecessor, Yasser Arafat, turned down an Israeli proposal to cede more than 90 per cent of the West Bank because he sought much more than was offered by Israel.
“He wanted all of Palestine,” said Morris, adding that the current PA leadership hews to the same position.
In a sense, then, it does not matter what Israel does or does not do with respect to the Palestinians in the West Bank, he observed.
Yet a solution may be attainable if the Palestinians embrace Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and drop their demands for the return of Palestinian refugees to their former homes in Israel, he suggested.
In his view, the most serious immediate threat to Israel is Iran’s nuclear project.
“Iran is striving for an armoury of nuclear weapons, and it’s possible it’s geared to the destruction of Israel.”
As sanctions will not deter Iran from building such an arsenal, the United States should bomb Iranian nuclear sites in a concerted campaign of several weeks’ duration, said Morris.
But since Washington lacks the will to launch such attacks, only one option remains – an Israeli preemptive strike.
Israel, however, lacks the capabilities to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. At best, Israel would set it back by only several years, and prompt Iran to retaliate, both directly and indirectly through its surrogates, Hamas and Hezbollah.
“A lot of nasty things would happen.”
Turning to the recent popular uprisings in the Arab world, known collectively as the Arab Spring, Morris said, “Not anything good for Israel will come out of it.”
The rebellions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt may well bring Islamic rather than liberal governments to power, he predicted in a sombre forecast.
In a brief analysis of Israel’s home front, Morris said that Israel can thrive if it manages its economy efficiently and fully integrates haredi Jews and Israeli Arabs into society.