Meron Benvenisti Dies at 86; Urged One State for Jews and Palestinians

By Sam Roberts

As a political scientist, columnist and ‘the last Zionist,’ he argued against a separate Palestinian state, saying the growth of West Bank settlements had precluded it.

Meron Benvenisti in Jerusalem in 1995. A political scientist, he tracked the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and came to believe that a two-state solution was impossible.
Meron Benvenisti in Jerusalem in 1995. A political scientist, he tracked the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and came to believe that a two-state solution was impossible.Credit...Esaias Baitel/Gamma-Rapho, via Getty Images
Sam Roberts

Meron Benvenisti, a prominent Israeli-born political scientist who argued that the profusion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank precluded the possibility of a separate Palestinian state and that Palestinians and Jews could coexist peacefully only in a single, binational homeland, died on Sept. 20 in his home in Jerusalem. He was 86.

The cause was renal failure, his son Eyal Benvenisti, a professor of international law at the University of Cambridge, said.

A son of Israel’s original generation, Mr. Benvenisti was raised on a kibbutz and once described himself as “the last Zionist.” But he became disillusioned with Israel’s philosophical foundation as a Jewish state after serving as deputy mayor of Jerusalem, with responsibility mainly for predominantly Arab East Jerusalem.

After founding the West Bank Data Base Project in the early 1980s to monitor the growth of Israeli settlements, he concluded that so much land had already been appropriated that aspirations for a separate Palestinian state were illusory.

In an interview in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2012, Mr. Benvenisti described the defensive separation wall that had been built to prevent infiltration by Palestinians bent on attacking Israel as an “apartheid apparatus.” But he stopped short of characterizing Israel as an apartheid state.

“This is a master-nation democracy; in German, a ‘Herrenvolk democracy,’” he said of Israel. “We are a country that behaves like a full-blooded democracy, but we have a group of serfs, the Arabs, to whom we do not apply democracy. The result is a situation of extreme inequality.”

“The only solution,” he said, “is to incorporate Palestinians into the state on conditions of equality.” That means sharing power while maintaining separate cultural identities through an unspecified framework, he said.

“I am not proposing solutions,” he told the Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit. “That is not my job.”

As possible models, Mr. Benvenisti cited a proposal for ending the long sectarian conflict in Cyprus and the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Professor Benvenisti, his son, said in an email, “So instead of debating how a binational state should look like, his point was that people should instead focus on how to govern in a way that promotes equality and respect toward the other.”

ImageHouses for Israelis were under construction in the West Bank in 1998. Mr. Benvenisti said the growth of the settlements would preclude a two-state solution to the decades of conflict with Palestinians there. 
Houses for Israelis were under construction in the West Bank in 1998. Mr. Benvenisti said the growth of the settlements would preclude a two-state solution to the decades of conflict with Palestinians there. Credit...Sven Nackstrand/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since 2012, the population of the West Bank settlements has grown by more than 100,000, to more than 430,000. Mr. Benvenisti was among the first to warn that such a surge would preclude a two-state solution, but his prophecy went unheeded, and his proposal for a single homeland managed to alienate Israeli liberals and conservatives alike.

Ian S. Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote upon Mr. Benvenisti’s death that “prophets only need to be right about some things to be remembered for their prophecy.

“Meron was right about one big thing,” he continued. “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 Shmuel Benvenisti was born on April 21, 1934, in Jerusalem to David and Leah (Friedman) Benvenisti. His father was a distinguished geographer and a descendant of Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492; he had emigrated from Thessaloniki, in what was then Macedonia in the Ottoman Empire, to Palestine in 1913. His mother, a nurse, had arrived 12 years later from Lithuania.

After serving in the military, Meron moved to a kibbutz in 1955. He earned a degree in economics and medieval history, specializing in the Crusades, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. While there he headed the National Union of Israeli students.

He received a doctorate from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, with his dissertation on conflict management in Jerusalem and Belfast. He later taught at the Hebrew University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Johns Hopkins.

In addition to his son Eyal, from his marriage to Dalia (Wilkes) Benvenisti, which ended in divorce, he is survived by two children, Yval and Sharon Kotler, from his marriage to Shoshana Lahav; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Benvenisti in 2001. The only possible resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a binational state, he believed. Credit...Dimitri Messinis/Associated Press

Mr. Benvenisti ran Teddy Kollek’s first campaign to become mayor of Jerusalem in 1965. After the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel occupied East Jerusalem, he was given responsibility for that area and the Old City; was elected to the City Council in 1969; and was deputy mayor, in charge of the Palestinian neighborhoods, from 1971 to 1978. After campaigning unsuccessfully for the Knesset, he became a columnist for Haaretz, writing for it from 1991 to 2009.

Mr. Benvenisti first witnessed the impact of Zionism on the Palestinian population when, as a boy, he joined his father on tours to rename existing villages according to a Hebrew map of Israel’s ancestral homeland.

In his 2012 interview with Haaretz, timed to the release of his autobiography, “The Dream of the White Sabra,” he recalled planting banana trees on a kibbutz in the 1950s not knowing that he was “uprooting olive trees, thousands of years old, of a Palestinian village.” And he remembered, as a Jerusalem city official, seeing Arab homes demolished to accommodate the large plaza of the Western Wall — “the bulldozers and the clouds of dust that rose into the air and the old woman who was buried under one of the houses.”

Mr. Benvenisti said that once Israel had planted some 120 settlements on the West Bank beginning in the early 2000s under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the possibility of a Jewish state was no longer viable. “The notion of a ‘Jewish-democratic state’ is an oxymoron,” he said, “and the two-state solution is no solution.”

“The only way to live here will be to create an equality of respect between us and the Palestinians,” he said. “To recognize the fact that there are two national communities here which love this land and whose obligation is to channel the unavoidable conflict between them into a process of dialogue for life together.”

Characterizing himself as a “voice of doom” compared with Mayor Kollek’s idealism, he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1988 that he would remain in the city in which he grew up. “I knew all along that I could not escape Jerusalem: her contrasts, conflicts and contradictions are my own internal landscape,” he wrote.

And he knew, he went on, that he would some day find eternal rest in the Mount of Olives cemetery, “on the slope of the Valley of Last Judgment — just below Dominus Flevit, where Jesus, according to Luke, ‘beheld the city and wept over it saying, if thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes.’”