Professor Benny Morris is a controversial and fascinating figure. Once one of Israel's New Historians, he subsequently revised his own revisionist approach to the events of 1948. In his 2009 book One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, Professor Morris wrote about Muslims and Arabs in terms that offend me as much as similar writing about Jews would offend me. That didn't stop me reading and enjoying the book after getting a signed copy from Professor Morris at an event in London, but I remain uncomfortable with his turn of phrase on occasions.
In his interview with Friday's Jewish Chronicle (JC), Professor Morris referred to having been "mobbed by Muslim hooligans" while en route to deliver a recent lecture at the LSE. What would be the reaction if a Palestinian academic had reported being "mobbed by Jewish hooligans" while en route to deliver a recent lecture at the LSE? Surely some people, myself included, would have been deeply uncomfortable with such language?
The problem is that Professor Morris appears to be stating a simple truth about what happened while he was on the way to deliver his lecture, and denying such a truth would help nobody. I'm sure that the people who "mobbed" Professor Morris did include some Muslims and it sounds like a very unpleasant incident that deserves to be condemned. I just wonder, given the size and diversity of Britain's Muslim communities, whether these hot-headed young men and women really have much in common with the pious, orderly people who tend to worship at mosques in my part of London? Most of those latter people have little, if anything, to do with politics, least of all the Hard Left politics exhibited by the anti-Israel demonstrators who behaved so disgustingly towards Professor Morris.
Professor Morris disturbs me when he writes:
Uncurbed, Muslim intimidation in the public domain of people they see as disagreeing with them is palpable and palpably affecting the British Christian majority among whom they live, indeed, cowing them into silence. One senses real fear (perhaps a corner was turned with the Muslim reactions around the world to the "Mohammed cartoons" and the responses in the West to these reactions.) Which, if true, is a sad indication of what is happening in the historic mother of democracies and may point to what is happening, and will increasingly happen, in Western Europe in general in the coming decades.
That simply is not an accurate description of what it feels like to live in Britain today. One can be fully aware of the threat posed by Islamist extremist groups, without exaggerating the problem as Professor Morris does. That is not to deny the significance of the problem, or to deny what happened on the evening in question. I would, moreover, note that, when I went later in the same week to an LSE event on Turkey, I saw not a single demonstrator; the ongoing problems faced by Turkey's Kurds apparently matter not at all to any of the people who demonstrated against Professor Morris. The presence of anti-Israel demonstrators, and the apparent absence of anti-Turkey demonstrators, surely testifies to the ugly, disproportionate hysteria which frequently surrounds the debate on Israel/Palestine, in contrast to those other, equally important (if not sometimes more important) issues that are barely debated at all.
The preceding paragraphs are a lengthy build-up to the main point that I wish to address, summarised thus in the JC interview with Professor Morris:
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."
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 complexity of Professor Morris's position is that he both calls on Israel to fully embrace peace talks and a settlement freeze, and acknowledges that doing this might achieve nothing. That is profoundly depressing, but it reflects the reality of what happened at Camp David in 2000.
Why, therefore, do I go on hoping that peace can be achieved? Very simply, it is because I, as a grassroots political activist and blogger, would have nothing to contribute by simply saying that there is no chance of peace. Since there is no alternative to trying to achieve peace, I believe that it is necessary to go on trying. So, although Professor Morris is perhaps right to say that peace cannot be achieved, I hope that he (and I) will be proven wrong, and I believe, with him, that Israel must, at the very least, be seen to do its bit to achieve peace. I understand the argument that whatever Israel does for peace, it won't get any credit, so why bother? I understand that argument, but I refuse to buy it, as the price for buying it is to give up and to allow Israel's detractors to set Israel's agenda.
Israeli President Shimon Peres is right when he says that: "Whoever accepts the basic principle of the 1967 lines will receive international support from the world...Whoever rejects it will lose the world." There is no contradiction between believing that and believing in Israel's right to be tough and assertive in its national defence; the two things are not mutually exclusive.