Can Israel Learn from International Experience?
The Al-Aqsa Intifada has revealed once more that Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian territories is dragging the state into intensifying waves of local and regional violence and growing levels of international tension and isolation.
The intifada has also opened our eyes to the distorted mirage of peace created by the Oslo process. Lulled by that mirage, the Israeli public grew blind to the way Oslo facilitated a massive growth of Jewish settlements (their population has doubled since 1993!), and fed the widespread Jewish illusion that Palestinians would be willing to accept less than full sovereignty in the West Bank and Gaza. The power of the Oslo mirage has been so great that, even now that its false façade has been exposed, many liberals can still express "shock" and "bitter disappointment" at the outburst of popular Palestinian resistance. Instead of decrying the end of a reconciliation process that in fact was going nowhere, we must move to raise new models for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and towards a post-Oslo peace.
Debating in a Bubble
The uprising in the territories has thrown Israeli society into a state of uncertainty and, at times, even panic. After the initial surprise and anger, born of the illusion that Jewish and Palestinian elites could stitch together a deal contrary to natural justice and based on the imposition of a Pax Americana, many calls and proposals for a "total Israeli-Palestinian separation" began to surface from different corners of the Israeli political map. This tenor was most prominent around Prime Minister Barak, whose election slogan last year already proclaimed, "we are here, and they are there," and who has recently hinted at the specter of "unilateral separation," in which Israel will retreat from the densest areas of Palestinian population, create a de facto international border, and annex most Israeli settlements.
The various options for separation, including Barak's, have been panic reactions to a crisis, and not part of a reasoned debate or honest re-examination of the situation. As is common to Israeli debates, the discussion has taken place mainly within a Jewish bubble, without anyone listening to, let alone seriously considering, Palestinian ideas, needs, or concerns. Barak himself declared, "we have no partner." Israel's ethnocratic need to reach unity with the West Bank Jewish settlers has assumed a far higher urgency among leaders and the public alike than the necessity to engage with the Palestinian nation from which, after all, separation is to be achieved.
This attitude was vividly reflected by the large banners decorating the stage at the main public ceremony commemorating the fifth anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, at Rabin Square on November 4 this year. The banners told the audience loud and clear: "Together We Remember," and "Together We Continue." This vague sense of "togetherness" is of course aimed at the Jewish public, including the settlers and the circles from which Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir, emerged. No attention, no mention, no reference, was made in these banners to the Palestinians, the occupation, or the settlements, for which Rabin was assassinated.
Further, the Jewish debate is being staged without attention to the rich international experience of partitions and separation, from which Israelis and Palestinians can learn many potent lessons. Israeli Jews are as convinced as ever that their situation is unique—historically, politically, and even morally—from the many examples of ethnocratic states. But this blinkered approach is doomed to lead the state into the very same problems, grief, and circles of violence experienced by colonial states reluctant to relinquish that which is not theirs. The writing is on the wall, and Israelis must open their eyes to avoid further "shocks" and "conceptual collapse," as the current crisis is often portrayed.
What Can We Expect?
A brief glance at international experience shows that separation can assume several forms, and that there is usually a direct link between the type of separation and the ensuing levels of conflict, violence, and political instability. At one end, is the (rare) case of partition by agreement, while at the other extreme is the option of unilateral, forced, and unequal separation. Several other possibilities fall between the two extremes.
An example of the first option, separation-by-agreement, can be found in Czechoslovakia, which was divided into two states—Slovakia and the Czech Republic—in the early 1990s. In what was described as a "velvet partition," the two peoples who formed the Czechoslovakian state decided democratically to partition the state, despite an eighty-year history of a Czech-dominated government. While some ethnic tensions do persist, the two states coexist in peace and mutual respect. Both accommodate ethnic minorities from the neighboring nation. Such minorities are granted full civil rights and have not become a major obstacle to the stable and peaceful relations which have developed between the two states. The lesson to Israel is clear: mutual agreement between two peoples to separate as equals is likely to lead to a stable, peaceful, and democratic political order.
At the other extreme is the very problematic case of apartheid in South Africa. This regime developed as a result of unilateral separation between whites and blacks, first temporarily, and later permanently. In the apartheid regime, as is well remembered, the powerful and wealthy group, the whites, determined for the subordinant blacks where and how they might work, live, invest, migrate, or be governed.
In order to sweeten the pill of racist oppression, the South African government titled the black areas "states," and recognized their "independence" while keeping the lion's share of the country's land and resources in white hands. But the attempt to force long-term patterns of racial separation eventually collapsed. The "independent" bantustans did not generate stability but resistance to the regime.
This rich South African state gradually deteriorated into economic decline and intensifying waves of violence. Its (partial) recovery only came in the 1990s, when South Africa recognized the equality of all citizens, nullified all forms of forced racial segregation, and became a secular, democratic state. The lesson here for Israel is conspicuous: a forced unilateral separation, of the type planned by former Prime Minster Netanyahu, and recently by Barak, is doomed to turn into a double-edged sword. Such a solution is a sure recipe for continuing violence and instability, economic decline and social disorder.
Between these poles exist several other cases relevant to Israel/Palestine, especially that of Ireland. After centuries of British colonial occupation and settlement in Ireland, a violent struggle for independence erupted, leading to Irish home-rule in 1922, and later to full independence. But the partition wasn't complete: Britain annexed about a tenth of Ireland, the northeastern Ulster region, where blocks of British Protestant settlers formed the majority. However, these areas also had a large portion of Catholics who rejected their annexation to Britain and continued the armed struggle for Irish independence. That struggle extended to southern Ireland, where a thirty-year civil war ensued stemming from popular resentment to the annexation of the North to Britain.
The conflict in both sides of Ireland, but especially in the ethnically mixed North, has cost thousands of lives and has not been totally settled to this very day. The lesson to Israel is clear: unilateral annexation of settlement blocks (as planned by Barak in areas such as Ma'ale Adumim/Abu-Diss or around the city of Ariel) is likely to fan the flames of ethnic conflict for generations to come.
Finally, we can look at the case of Greece, which received its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1833, twelve years after the eruption of the Greek rebellion. The Ottomans (reluctantly) granted the Greeks independence over only half of the territory we know today as Greece, an area that accommodated only a third of the Greek people. As can be expected, the Greek state evolved into an irredentist, aggressive force. It launched a series of wars against the Ottomans which ended only a century later, with the achievement of Greece's current borders and its rule over the vast majority of Greeks. The lesson to Israel stands out: a partition perceived as illegitimate will prompt the creation of a belligerent state and generate a cycle of wars instead of enhancing peace.
Where to From Here?
Given these international and historical lessons, which option will Israel adopt? Will it advance unilateral separation, as foreshadowed recently by government officials, and drag the two peoples into waves of international conflict, violence, and isolation? Will it follow the typical path of colonial and ethnocratic regimes, which depart from territories only after decades of war and heavy human cost? Will it selec't the Irish option (Barak's favorite) of annexing settlement blocks, and condemn the two future states to an endless series of local violent conflicts? Or will it attempt to look ahead and follow the path charted by Czechoslovakia, which understood that only partition based on mutual agreement and a fair and equal solution can guarantee a stable and prosperous future?
It is important for Israeli leaders and the Israeli public to open their eyes widely, and to see that, despite the uniqueness of every state, there exists a political-geographical logic from which Israel cannot, and will not, escape. This logic points to the existence of two, and only two, options to temper the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.
The first is a political-geographical partition perceived as legitimate and just by both sides, with UN decision 242 as a basis. Israel would then retreat from all occupied territories, except for very small areas mutually agreed upon by the Palestinians. Most Jewish settlements would be evacuated, and would form an important infrastructure for the resettlement and rehabilitation of Palestinian refugees, while the large near-border settlements (such as Gilo or Ramot in the Jerusalem region) may stay under Israeli sovereignty, subject to territorial exchange.
On the Palestinian side, it should be remembered that the success of such a partition must be based on mutual sentiments of trust, and that Jewish fears and security concerns, even if appearing contrived to most Palestinians, are a real issue. The public reaction in Israel to the events of the Al-Aqsa Intifada exposed once again the depth of lingering fears among Israeli Jews, fears which can be eased only by a direct discourse of peace and coexistence by Palestinian leaders and shapers of public opinions. Continuing Palestinian violence, if not condemned by the Palestinian leadership and the intelligentsia, is likely to drive the Israelis away from the negotiating table and to negate the trust so central to fulfilling their political dreams.
Along with this political partition, there should be a strengthening of binational frameworks for addressing economic, employment, environmental, and cultural-religious cooperation for the management of the small and shared land accommodating the two peoples. These frameworks should recognize the internal pluralism of the two states, and especially Israel, which includes large and distinct Palestinian Arab and Orthodox Jewish minorities.
The second option is the granting of equal citizenship to all residents of the Israeli/Palestinian space, with the establishment of a binational (as distinct from a "secular") democratic state. Given the immense problems associated with the very division of political space (the question of refugees, Jerusalem/al-Quds, and Jewish settlements, to name just a few), this option appears more attractive than ever. This solution is favored by many among the Palestinian citizens in Israel, and by small leftist and religious circles among both Palestinians and Jews worldwide. However, given the urgent need to give full expression to Palestinian national sovereignty, and given the severe level of hostilities demonstrated during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, a political partition into two states, even if temporary, is currently the preferred option.
The various proposals for separation aired recently by Israeli politicians, academicians, army generals, and even some settler leaders (such as "annex just 11 percent of the West Bank with 80 percent of the settlers" etc.) do make some progress towards reconciliation. But any attempt to suggest that these proposals are serious peace offers is manipulative and dangerous. Such illusions will only serve to generate the next wave of violence, instead of the reachable peace for which this sorry land has waited too long.
Professor Oren Yiftachel is chair of the department of geography at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel.