Middle East hawks should welcome the UN Palestine vote

At their very best, Israeli-Palestinian partition plans envision the same kind of complex ethnic patchwork rejected by western diplomats in Bosnia.
James Ron
21 September 2011

As the UN vote on Palestinian statehood draws near, conservatives in Israel and elsewhere warn this could spell disaster. This view is wrong-headed, however, and Middle East hawks should instead be rejoicing in the street. After all, the Palestinian UN bid will set the idea of a democratic, bi-national state back for decades, prolonging Jewish rule over the Land of Israel for years to come.

For some years now, a handful of serious analysts have been warning that the biggest threat to Jewish statehood is not a Fatah-run West Bank, Hamas-run Gaza, or any combination of the two.

Instead, the bigger challenge is an earnest, internationally-supported Palestinian demand for a democratic political system, based on the principle of “one person, one vote,” in the entire strip of land sandwiched between the Jordan and Mediterranean sea.

Where does this fear come from?

In the 1980s, Israeli analysts such as former deputy Jerusalem mayor Meron Benvinisti warned that Jewish settlement activity was creating a de-facto, bi-national state. Jewish settlers were building thousands of new homes around West Bank Palestinians to prevent withdrawal, and their effort was bearing fruit. 

The problem, Benvinisti said, was that this effort had created a discriminatory political entity based on ethnic identity. Jews in this de-facto bi-national state were full citizens, but Palestinians were divided in two. Those living within Israel proper enjoyed many (but not all) legal rights, while those living in the occupied lands were relegated to inferior status.

Throughout the 1990s, politicians dismissed Benvinisti’s warnings as baseless fear-mongering. Israel could withdraw from the West Bank at any time, they said; once a peace deal was signed, a viable Palestinian state would easily emerge. 

In the last few years, however, many observers have changed their tune. Many now realize that the Jewish community in the West Bank is large, determined, and deeply rooted in the Israeli body politic. An ever-expanding grid of roads and other infrastructure binds “Palestine” tightly to Israel, making separation unlikely and - perhaps - impossible.

This means the two peoples will remain entertwined for decades, if not centuries. In fact, their co-joining may well be permanent.  

If true, the real task facing Israelis, Palestinians and their international allies is how to craft an equitable, democratic, and peaceful bi-national state. A pro-Palestine UN vote, however, distracts attention from this goal, keeping all eyes focused on the unobtainable chimera of partition.

If Israelis and Palestinians were instead to sit down and begin hammering out the details of a joint country, they might finally stop swimming against the tide of history.

South Sudan aside, territorial partition has largely fallen out of global favour, possibly for good reason. Instead, the international community typically supports the democratization of unitary states as an antidote to conflict. From the Balkans to Africa, experts argue that ethnically partitioned states are part of the problem, not the solution.

Take Bosnia, where the international community invested so much energy to reverse ethnic cleansing. Although local nationalists rejected shared institutions, foreigners did not give up. And while that conflict is not over, international persistence in favour of a democratic and multi-ethnic Bosnia has given moderates political space.

Democracy is also the international policy of choice for Rwanda, site of the murderous 1994 genocide by radical Hutus. Despite the Tutsis’ awful suffering, any attempt by today’s Tutsi-led government to formally subjugate or expel Hutus would trigger bitter international condemnation.

Instead of extending this logic to the Middle East, however, western powers have helped perpetuate Jewish and Palestinian fascination with mono-ethnic states. Rather than promoting shared political institutions, western diplomats persist in claiming they can divide an already tiny area into even smaller ethno-nationalist enclaves. 

Consider this. When Israelis and Palestinians were last in serious peace negotiations ten years ago, the plans under discussion envisioned a Jewish-majority state on 72% of mandatory Palestine, with the remaining 28% divided into three semi-isolated Palestinian enclaves: northern and southern portions of the West Bank, along with a Gaza Strip semi-island.

Negotiators further devised a tortured scenario of ethnic sub-sectors within the Palestinian enclaves. Jewish settlers were to be concentrated in fortified zones, and then connected to Israel through a network of special highways. Arab East Jerusalem - itself an enclave between the northern and southern West Bank - was to be a patchwork of "sovereign" ethnic neighborhoods, with street-by-street security arrangements.

Israeli architect Eyal Weizman described this odd arrangement as "stacked sovereignties," an arrangement  akin to a modern airport. Israel-Palestine would be a shared physical space where distinct populations, each with their security clearance and illusion of independence, are shuttled to and fro along separate but parallel causeways.  

Is there any wonder the deal collapsed? Even if both sides had accepted the plan, how long could such a bizarre scheme survive? At their very best, Israeli-Palestinian partition plans envision the same kind of complex ethnic patchwork rejected by western diplomats in Bosnia.

Partition continues to tempt, however, because it seems to offer easy solutions. Israelis realize they can’t preserve a Jewish majority without formally subjugating or expelling Arabs, while Palestinians know freedom requires a democratic and responsive state. A two-state solution falsely promises to satisfy both. Elites on both sides, moreover, have promised their populations that all will be well once partition is finally enacted. 

Yet the evidence increasingly suggests that Israeli analyst Meron Benvinisti was right: decades of determined Jewish settlement activity - with the active support of many in the Israeli government - has made viable partition impossible. 

It is for this reason that Middle Eastern hawks should rejoice, rather than bemoan, the impending UN vote. It substantially reinforces false Palestinian hopes for statehood, perpetuates international fascination with partition, and postpones the day when Arabs and Jews are finally forced to sit down and hammer out the details of a shared democratic space. 

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