Saying goodbye to the Israeli one-state prophet

Though we were intellectual rivals, Meron Benvenisti, writer and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, was right about one big thing.

Former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti. July 24, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti. July 24, 2008. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Meron Benvenisti died last week on Rosh Hashanah at the age of 86. He was a passionate, brilliant, and charismatic iconoclast, a bold and energetic researcher, and a prolific and powerful writer. His visceral attachment to the whole country, his knowledge of and sense of responsibility for Palestinian suffering, and his comfort with confronting conventional wisdom with inconvenient truths, gave his work a compelling urgency that sometimes obscured its lack of nuance.

He was a political organizer, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem in the 1970s, an archeologist, a scholar of the Crusaders, a land dealer, a public policy researcher, and a journalist. But he will be remembered primarily as a prophet — a tormented, hyperbolic, anguished, but, in the end, undeniably accurate prophet. Prophets only need to be right about some things to be remembered for their prophecy. Meron was right about one big thing: that the future of Palestine, the future of the Land of Israel, will grow out of a one-state reality from the river to the sea — a reality he identified as such earlier than almost any Jewish Israeli.

Meron’s life, as he described it, was a long process of disillusionment with the conventional Zionism that he absorbed as a youth. His father, who cared not a whit for the country’s Arab inhabitants, was a distinguished geographer who was obsessed with the Zionist principle of “Yediat Haaretz” (knowing the land). Meron took that principle to its logical extension, loving not only the land but the Palestinian Arabs inhabiting it. Their natural comfort in the landscape and their tenacious human attachment to the “places” of their habitation — not simply to the map image of a politically designated “space” — was his model for what it meant to be what he claimed to be: a native of the country. Intimately exposed to Palestinian suffering and the injustices imposed upon them, he came to see the Zionist project not as building the land, but the “obliteration of the landscapes of my childhood.”

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Israeli scholars and journalists covering the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank began talking about approaching the point of no return — echoing the warnings of their Palestinian counterparts. The savviest observers, such as Danny Rubinstein, Yehuda Litani, and Amos Elon, contended that within a few years, or even months, the Gush Emunim settlement movement, and the right-wing parties and governments that supported it, would make the establishment of a Palestinian state impossible.

Meron was the most articulate, most fervent, best informed, and most effective voice among them. Armed with detailed plans and information about this strategy made available to him by the Land Settlement Department of the Jewish Agency, which worked hand in glove with the settlers and Likud government ministers, Meron was able to stimulate a vivid and, for liberal doves, terrifying sense of closing opportunities for peace. It was, he told journalist Thomas Friedman in 1982, “five minutes to midnight.”

At first, his warnings were hailed by Israeli politicians such as Abba Eban and Lova Eliav. But as time passed, as settler leaders and government ministers praised his findings as proof of the success of their project, and as the number of settlers passed threshold after threshold, Meron’s former political allies turned on him. Suddenly, he was vilified for supporting the settlement of the entire Land of Israel, secretly hoping to unite the country under a Jewish government by undermining the will to resist annexation with his thesis of irreversibility.

View of the separation wall and Al-Aqsa compound in the background on February 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
View of the separation wall and Al-Aqsa compound in the background on February 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

When I was a young professor at Dartmouth College, I hosted Meron and was in contact with him irregularly over the decades. He found my approach irritating, focusing as it did on the implicit theories undergirding his idea of a “point of no return,” and on whether the data gathered from Gush Emunim and government planners was reliable. We were, in that sense, intellectual rivals, but I greatly respected him. While other analysts and politicians would regularly forecast the passing of a point of no return as a way to mobilize support from worried doves (only to renounce the existence of such a point after it had passed), Meron was faithful to his analysis.

Without any attractive alternative to a two-state solution available, and therefore without being able to reassure his audience that their fondest dreams would not be dashed, he was, except for one brief period during the First Intifada, consistent in his argument that there never would and never could be an independent Palestinian state. He believed that the peoples living in the land, trapped in an intercommunal conflict, would simply have to find a way to live with one another in the same country and in the same state.

I grieve Meron’s passing. He was not only one of the most dynamic and interesting people I have ever met, but also, even from a distance, one of my most important intellectual and political interlocutors. In the early 1970s, we were both shocked at the hubris and shortsightedness of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. We each developed interests in British rule in Ireland as a case holding warnings and opportunities for Israel and Palestine. His arguments and data gave urgency and definition to my work in the State Department in the Carter administration, on whether the Camp David Accords could be used to advance a land for peace deal or not. In a series of articles and books, I sharpened my thinking on his arguments, which always provoked and deserved rigorous evaluation.

Although I do not believe Meron was right in the late 1980s that the failure of the two-state solution was inevitable, I have come to the bitter but liberating conclusion that, in the world as it did develop, that option is no longer available. That acceptance of the one-state reality, and of the fact that the future will be determined by its dynamics, not by negotiations, required a long and wrenching process of disillusionment and learning. In that way as well as in others, I feel that, with age, I have come to understand Meron better. For as he emphasized in his later writings, throughout his intellectual, political, and spiritual journey from fervent Zionist to a quasi-Canaanitish democrat, he too learned via processes marked more decisively by disillusion than enlightenment.