The idea of binationalism – a single state comprising the entire territory of the Mandate of Palestine – is not a new one, but it has been favored by different people at different times. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was popular within certain factions of the Zionist movement; now, it seems to be advocated mainly by pro- Palestinian groups. One of its most avid modern exponents is Moammar Qaddafi, who has advocated combining the Israeli and Palestinian territories into a new country called IsraTeen.
A number of Palestinian intellectuals have lately taken up the call for IsraTeen as a means of slicing through the Gordian knot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A binational state would indeed resolve some of the stickiest issues very neatly – sovereignty can be parceled out according to local majorities, Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza can stay where they are, and the holy sites of each religion will be accessible to all. In many ways, binationalism is an attractive option – but, at the present time, I don’t think it’s a realistic one.
A Dual Dilemma
Binationalist proposals often begin with the argument that a viable Palestinian state is impossible, so the best solution is to combine the two. I discussed that argument in the first article in this series. The prospects of a binational state, however, run up against two other hard facts. First, both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs have developed very distinct and very strong national identities – and both have done so the hard way. Second, each believes, with some justification, that it needs protection from the other.
The “mutual protection” objection to binationalism is framed most often in terms of Jews’ fear of being overwhelmed by a faster- growing Arab population, but it applies to Palestinians as well. In fact, it may be the Palestinians who would be most vulnerable during the formative period of a binational state. At present, Jews still hold a slim advantage in numbers and a much greater advantage in economic power, and a key minority, the Druze, is allied with the Jews rather than the Palestinians. The disparity in economic power will be especially telling during the early years, and if the examples of Germany and South Africa are any guide, they will last at least through the medium term. If IsraTeen were formed today, most major companies and media outlets in 2010 would probably be Jewish-owned, and this would translate into considerable political power.
Assuming that the disparity between Jewish and Arab fertility rates continues, however, the Palestinians will solidify their demographic advantage in the medium to long term – and this is where the fears of the Jewish side kick in. Jews have been a minority in nearly every place they have lived for the past two millennia; there have at times been cities or districts with local Jewish majorities, but never an entire country. The condition of being an available, easily scapegoated minority has, to say the least, often led to uncomfortable situations, and even the periods during which Jews lived congenially with their neighbors often proved temporary. It is thus natural that many Jews equate safety with being a majority in a country of their own. Call it a Jewish pathology if you will, but it will be psychologically very difficult for Israeli Jews to accept the idea of a binational state in which they will, once again, be a minority of the population.
A Unitary State?
Most binationalist proposals recognize and attempt to compensate for these factors. There are exceptions; binationalism is a continuum rather than a monolith, and one end of the continuum is represented by a unitary secular state that essentially transposes the Louisiana constitution to the Middle East. This approach may be appropriate and even optimal in a new society such as the United States, but it is highly questionable in a region where established group identities are much more central and where there is a long history of inter-group conflict.
It is not surprising that many advocates of a unitary binational state are Marxists who believe that ethnic and national identities are artificial constructs that can be reconstructed at will. Ethnic identities are certainly constructs, but they are not artificial; indeed, the fact that they are constructed in large part by the group members themselves makes them very real. This is especially so where the identities in question developed through struggle. Israelis and Palestinians will not so easily discard their identities and embrace a joint IsraTeenian destiny.
Nor would constitutional protections – even strong ones – be sufficient to paper over ethnic conflict in a binational unitary state. Many binationalists argue from the vantage point of the United States, Canada or Western Europe, where constitutionalism is an unquestioned part of civic life and where constitutional guarantees are generally respected. A constitution, however, is only a bulwark against oppression if the means and will exist to enforce it. Without those things – and especially without the will – it is only a piece of paper.
Even in countries where the rule of law is strong, a constitution is not always a guarantee of individual or group rights. My choice of Louisiana as an example above was deliberate; Louisiana is a unitary state whose constitutional history tells the story of political competition between Anglophones and Francophones. For much of the nineteenth century, Louisiana was fully bilingual, but that changed in the twentieth as the anglophone community solidified its majority. In 1915, the state government banned the use of French in public schools, followed the next year by a law making public school attendance mandatory. In 1921, both these provisions were enshrined in the state constitution. It was not until 1974 that the Louisiana constitution again recognized Francophone language rights, and bilingualism in public life remained largely a figleaf until the 1990s.
Louisiana is far from an exact analogy to Israel and Palestine; I’m sure many of you can come up with closer ones. If anything, however, ethnic identities in Louisiana are softer, and the history of group conflict less intense, than in the Middle East. If the Louisiana constitutional system could be manipulated to marginalize an ethnic group, then so could the constitution of IsraTeen.
To be sure, many of the worst fears of what might happen to a Jewish minority in IsraTeen are overblown. It is not possible to vote an ethnic group out of existence. There are many measures short of that, however, that even a democratic society can take to marginalize and ghettoize a disfavored group – and if the constitution gets in the way, it can always be amended or ignored. It may be that Jews and Arabs would live in IsraTeen in a state of mutual respect, but there are no guarantees of that, and there isn’t nearly enough mutual trust for either Israelis or Palestinians to enter into a unitary relationship without such guarantees.
A Federal State?
The remainder of the binationalist spectrum attempts, in various ways, to recognize and manage intergroup competition. Further along the continuum, for instance, are proposals for a unitary state with ethnic power-sharing of the type that worked so well in Lebanon. Most modern binationalist proposals, however, involve some form of federalism, with the Mandate of Palestine divided into Jewish and Arab cantons.
Federalist proposals represent a far more serious attempt to combine Israelis and Palestinians into a single state while protecting the interests and aspirations of each national group. There would, after all, still be an Israel and a Palestine in a federal IsraTeen; the two would simply be cantons of a federal state rather than independent countries. Both cantons would be internally autonomous, and the cantonal and federal governments would have rights and powers defined by the constitution.
I’d like to be convinced that a federal state can work. I live in a federal republic myself and I’m convinced that, when properly done, federalism is the best way to combine the economy of scale and freedom of movement advantages of a single nation with autonomy and respect for minorities. Unfortunately, I have yet to see a realistic federalist plan that would be acceptable to Israelis and Palestinians without requiring an unrealistic level of trust.
A federalist state, too, requires trust to work. Federalism within a single nation is at bottom a constitutional system that, like other systems, can be manipulated and abused. To take an extreme example, one of the most progressive federal constitutions of the twentieth century was the constitution of the Soviet Union. During the Soviet era, the Russian federal republic even included a Jewish autonomous area in Birobidzhan, Siberia, which was the only explicitly Jewish political entity other than Israel in modern times. Federalism, however, didn’t make the Jews of Birobidzhan notably safer from the depredations of the central government than those of Moscow.
Would a federal IsraTeen be the Soviet Union? Almost certainly not. Even the most benign federal system, however, can succumb to creeping centralism. During the discussion on Aziz’ blog, for instance, Aziz cited the early United States as an example of a confederation of sovereign nations. That hasn’t been the case, though, since at least the New Deal and probably since the Civil War. Open-ended powers such as the commerce clause lead naturally to a gradual accretion of power toward the center, and – given the many costly tasks that would be necessary to integrate Israel and Palestine, as well as the need to resolve disputes and protect minorities on each side – the federal government of IsraTeen would need to have such powers.
A sufficiently detailed constitution that clearly delimits the powers of all federal units might be enough to defeat creeping centralism. One thing I’ve noticed, however, is that the more bells and whistles that Israeli-Palestinian federalist plans include to ensure the autonomy of the cantons, the more the cantons resemble two independent states. If binationalist proposals approach the two-state solution more closely as they increase in fairness, then it should follow that the fairest possible realistic solution is one in which Israel and Palestine actually are independent.
There is, moreover, another reason to prefer independence to federalism in the Middle Eastern context. In the modern world, the basic political unit is the nation-state, and nations have certain internationally guaranteed rights – integrity and control of borders, self-defense, control over natural resources – that subnational units don’t have. Moreover, given the hold that Westphalian sovereignty still has over international relations, the relationship between a federal republic and its constituent units is considered a purely internal one, and the subnational units have no internationally guaranteed rights as against their own national government. India, a federal democratic republic, can dissolve state legislatures and impose direct central rule without violating any tenet of international law, whereas an attempt to do the same thing to another sovereign state would be a grave breach of the international political order. The rights of national sovereignty are, to be sure, sometimes breached, but their existence acts as a deterrent under many – even most- circumstances. The national sovereignty package will, quite simply, make it easier for Israelis and Palestinians to protect their rights, which in turn will make long-term stability more likely.
The federal plan is not without its advantages. In response to the previous article in this series, Ikram Saeed commented:
So Israel’s future is either one where a self-destructing Palestine forces it to reoccupy GZ/WB to preserve its own security, or one where a successful Palestine sends over large numbers of migrant labourers.
Either way, real separation won’t happen. Better to try to come up with creative solutions now that allow the people currently living in the region to have physical and economic security (aka ‘human security’). One way to do that is provide a common, Israteeny identity, laughable though that may seem.
But there are other ways (including confederation, migrant labour policies, joint-security guarantees, a common military, freedom of movement), which may accomplish the same thing without impinging on closely-held national/religious identity.
All these things are easier to accomplish within the context of a federal nation. With the possible exception of confederation, however, they are also possible between two independent nations. Indeed, Israel and Palestine might be more willing to allow joint security guarantees or freedom of movement if they know that such agreements are revocable in the event of their not working out.
Even a confederation of sorts could exist, along the model of the European Union, between independent and sovereign nations – and an EU-style common market could extend far beyond Israel and Palestine. It’s possible to envision a Middle Eastern economic union involving Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and other neighboring nations; Israel and Egypt would be the natural leaders of this union as France and Germany are in the EU, but each member would have the security that comes with sovereignty and independence. The bottom line is that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the one that provides the most protection to each party while requiring the smallest realistic amount of mutual trust and goodwill – which means that it is both the easiest to put in place and the most stable once enacted.
What about the long term?
The only sure thing I can say about any long-term predictions is that they will be wrong. Sixty years ago, who would have predicted that the Mandate of Palestine would be in the mess it is in today? In the short term, I feel safe in ruling out binationalism as a realistic solution; in the long term, I can neither rule it out nor in.
Any of a number of things could happen to make binationalism a more attractive option. One possibility is the evolution of a new international order in which Westphalian sovereignty is abandoned and in which an international legal system to which subnational units can appeal is superimposed over the nation- state structure. In this case, it would be possible to construct a federal IsraTeen in which each canton would have guarantees of independence similar to those now available to independent states.
Another possibility is that mutual trust between Israelis and Palestinians, which is now virtually nonexistent, might develop to the level where a federal or even a unitary binational state might be sustainable. Such trust, however, cannot develop under the current circumstances, where one side is occupied and the other lives in fear of terror attacks. The trust and goodwill that are necessary to establish a binational state can only develop during a period of interaction as separate and equal entities.
If the Israeli and Palestinian people one day reach the point where they desire a binational state, then there will be one. This may happen at some time in the future, or it may not. The path to one state lies through two, however, and in the short term, the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel is the only viable resolution to the conflict.
Compiled By Chuq from Head Heeb Blog