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Middle East hawks should welcome U.N. Palestine vote

As a U.N. 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 U.N. 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.

James Ron
James Ron

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.

Dismissed in ’90s as fear-mongering
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 intertwined 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 U.N. 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.

Partition has largely fallen out of global favor
South Sudan aside, territorial partition has largely fallen out of global favor, 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 favor 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 promote shared political institutions, Western diplomats persist in claiming they can divide an already tiny area into even smaller ethno-nationalist enclaves.

Negotiations a decade ago
Consider this. When Israelis and Palestinians were last in serious peace negotiations 10 years ago, the plans under discussion envisioned a Jewish-majority state on 72 percent of mandatory Palestine, with the remaining 28 percent 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.

A false promise
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 U.N. 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.

An Israeli, U.S. and Canadian citizen, James Ron holds the Harold E. Stassen Chair of International Affairs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. He is now a visiting professor at CIDE, a Mexico City research institute. This article first appeared on openDemocracy.net.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/22/2011 - 09:38 am.

    NY Times this morning:

    1.HIGHLIGHT (What’s this?)
    Rolf Westgard
    St Paul
    September 22nd, 2011
    7:49 am
    I have been a loyal contributing Democrat for 60 years. If Obama continues to block Palestinian UN admission, the party has had my last nickel.
    Recommended by 132 Readers
    Rolf Westgard

  2. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/22/2011 - 11:47 am.

    Ron offers some interesting thoughts…but they will never happen. The concept of a bi-national state would be an anthema to both sides, who are deeply polarized.

    He also points out the settlements in the West Bank, where there could be a tiny glimmer of hope for such a plan, but ignores Gaza where the friction is greater.

    Saddest of all, is the fact that both side could prosper in such an arrangement. The Isrealies have technology and manufacturing — but they need labor. But, now I am being rational — so that won’t work.

    Additionally, there are 7 million Israelies including (about 20% non-Jewish Arabs); and about 4 million Palestinians. But the Palestinians are growing at a much faster rate (Jews are growing at only 3%/yr) — it would not be long before the non-Jewish populaton would dominate, and that the Jews would never accept. Indeed, the concern about Judaism’s disappearance has been less a Holocaust (“never again”), but assimilation as is actually happening in America.

    What Netenyahu and the conservatives in Israel have failed to learn is that time is on the side of the Palestinians, and as an American Jew myself, I can tell you that his stance is being fortified and encouraged by Jews in this country. As a client once told me when I proposed a radical idea to him: “You are a great coat holder” meaning I would hold his coat when he went out to do battle with my idea. So it is with American Jews — very adamant, but they do not live the life, insecurity and risk of the Israeli Jews.

    No, I am afraid Mr Ron must go to Plan B. On the other hand, Plan B has never worked either, nor Plan C,D,E — well you get the idea. Very discouraging, and no end in sight I fear.

  3. Submitted by rolf westgard on 09/22/2011 - 05:16 pm.

    For negotiation to succeed. the two sides need to be roughly equal. When one side is totally dominant, you have dictation, not negotiation. That is why Obama’s absurd notion expressed today at the UN, “Ultimately, it is the Israelis and Palestinians, not us, who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them” was met with stony silence.
    I can’t believe that this is the man I voted for.

  4. Submitted by myles spicer on 09/23/2011 - 08:41 am.

    Rolf, the reality is BOTH sides have villified Obama. I guess on this basis there is some sort of equality.

    Looking back, every single president and every adminstration (sans a glimmer of hope by Carter which died with Sadat) has failed to bring these parties to peace using every carrot and stick in the book.

    Actually, Obama has shown a modicum of “balance”; and it may be too early to make a final judgement on his prospects for success. Am I hopeful? No, but willing to wait a few more years to see if he can make any progress in a conflict that is now almost 70 years old.

  5. Submitted by Neal Krasnoff on 09/25/2011 - 10:39 pm.

    The Jews do not need anyone’s permission to be an independent, self-governing people in Eretz Yisrael.

    The post-Zionism of Mr. Ron does not recognize the objective fact that Arabs and Islamists have wanted the Jews dead even before Israel was re-established in 1948.

    Let the Arabs go the their part of the Mandate – Jordan.

    At least when the Islamic Republic of Palestine is established with Ram’Allah as its capital, the Jews will no longer be responsible for the Arabs. No more water, power, humanitarian aid, nothing. They will be on their own.

    And let the Islamic Republic of Palestine launch a single missile against Israel. It will be an act of war, and all bets are off.

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