Life in fortress-Israel can be a comfortable buffer to reality. But reality has an awkward habit of crashing the party. Reports from places like Gaza and East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the wider West Bank, remind us that the current situation mere kilometres away from Israel’s cosmopolitan heart is an abject human tragedy. This state of affairs is the result of complex, myriad factors with which we’re all familiar. For the purposes of this piece, however, I’m going to single out one phenomenon as especially culpable for today’s mess: the deification of the nation-state. The golden calf of the 20th century.
The ideas of both ‘nation’ and ’state’ are relatively new human constructs. Their marriage is just one of an infinite number of ways to organize a society. That said, the nation-state model has become so entrenched in our worldview that, today, it’s virtually unthinkable for us to conceive of a regional politics, let alone a world system, structured any other way. We’ve mistook the medium for the message. It’s what the nation-state represents that matters: justice, identity, security, independence. These values are indispensable. The nation-state isn’t.
Therefore, I argue it’s high time to talk seriously, and pragmatically, about other arrangements for creating and maintaining lasting justice in Israel-Palestine. Here, I plan to do just that. After painting a quick picture of what life outside the box could look like, I’ll refute the inevitable counterargument–that this all just wide-eyed hippie fluff–by wrapping-up with some concrete actions we can take now, to help change the rules of the game for the better.
First, let’s remind ourselves of what we’re dealing with. Both the arguments for, and against, the two-state and bi-national one-state ’solutions’ alike are premised on the idea that the only legitimate unit of politics is the territorially contiguous, wholly sovereign state, governed by the majority, for the majority.
But this is a self-perpetuating myth.
In fact, the ’state,’ let alone the ethno-nation-state, is a political entity entirely foreign to the Middle East (let alone the rest of the post-colonial world). Rather, it’s the vestigial remnant of an outdated Western European construct, forged in the aftermath of bloody medieval Christian wars, then exported by force to regions, and imposed on peoples, for whom the concept was totally contrived. It’s an invasive species, as they say in ecology.
In contrast, before the First World War, what’s today called the ‘Middle East’ was then the Ottoman empire. At that time, the region was governed by the ‘millet‘ system, whereby a central imperial aribter (the Turkish-speaking Ottomans) ruled over multiple ethnic and religious communities at arm’s length, maintaining a fairly stable status quo. Under this system—and completely unlike neighbouring Europe—each ethno-religious community was entitled to its own set of devolved cultural and legal authorities, so long as it paid tribute to the imperial peacekeepers via local landed-elites.
The Ottoman system was painted retroactively by its Western conquerors as a decrepit, crumbling empire. But today it’s clear that this arrangement was far better than its subsequent colonial inheritors’ at maintaining peace and stability in the diverse eastern Mediterranean. Just look at the tragic history of 20th-century Lebanon. And we’re all familiar with the tale of post ‘48 mandate Palestine.
The imposition of a political logic that demands ethnic and religious homogeneity on this otherwise mixed bag of cultures, traditions and communities is a misguided historical idiosyncrasy, to put it nicely. To be blunt, it’s flat-out stupid. But hindsight is 20/20. Moreover, this early-modern misstep is by no means irreversible.
In fact, in Israel-Palestine, demographic change and settlement patterns seem to be sealing the fate of nation-state logic day by day. A two-state scenario seems increasingly distant and imbalanced: any Palestinian state-to-be would be a weaker, smaller version of an uber-militarized, hyper-ethnocentric Israel. While nominally ‘independent,’ Palestine would be de-clawed, subject to the military and economic whim of its heavily armed neighbour. Kind of like pre-war Germany. If this were to work in a durable manner, so be it. But it seems increasingly unlikely.
At the same time, i think there is a very warranted fear that a ‘unified,’ democratic bi-national state in Israel-Palestine would rapidly degrade into continuous low-grade ethnic, religious and class-based warfare. South Africa, with its appalling rates of violent crime, is by far a best-case scenario model for such a state. It’s also incredibly optimistic: do you really think Jews and Arabs could peacefully contest one-person, one-vote, majority-wins-type elections when the demographic balance between the two groups is so close, and so hotly contested? Without some sort of neutral arbiter that maintains a monopoly on violence, this seems quite unlikely.
To my mind, it’s pretty clear that no peaceful modus operandi will be possible until all sides feel justice is being served, and convincingly perpetuated, by the institutions in place. Yet, no existing set of institutions comes close to fitting the job description! This is why it really is time for a drastic re-think.
Here’s one idea at least worth contemplating. We all recall that the current situation was first made legitimate by a nascent UN, back in an era when the self-determined nation-state was virtually the only acceptable form of sovereign political entity (note, United ‘Nations’). With that in mind, I argue now’s the time for the UN to take responsibility for what its earlier incarnation helped create, and instead begin to foster a grounded alternative to the nation-state in Israel-Palestine. Seriously. Nothing else has worked, and it would set a fantastic precedent for other regions.
So, what would a functional, non-nation-state polity in Israel-Palestine look like? What kind of institutional characteristics could it feature in order to fit the job description above? To recap, however the system’s structured, its number-one requirement would be to provide a long-term, robust sense of justice, resilient to demographic change and other systemic shocks. With that in mind, I suggest a non-nation-state framework combining the following features:
A) a reinvigorated Ottoman-inspired millet system that explicitly devolves religious and ethnic matters to the level of community (not a huge stretch, as some of these Ottoman laws still exist in the Israeli legal code today);
B) a system of constitutional federalism among communities, mildly akin to the EU; and,
C) a widely-acceptable, culturally-neutral supreme arbiter, with a clear monopoly on violence (e.g. a permanent, militarily- and judicially-empowered UN presence).
Such a system could allow people to identify with an ethnic or religious group of their choice (or, instead, adopt a secular, non-ethnic ‘UN citizen’ marker), while not being forced to conflate that identity with their greater political or civic allegiances. The day-to-day politics of the region could be run by a series of intercommunal multistakeholder groups, each allowed its own election rules. Meanwhile, the greater regional system (e.g. information-and-resource sharing, defense, public order, intercommunal relations, vote counting, etc.) could be maintained and arbitrated by the empowered, permanent, UN presence i mention above. This is a radically different model of democracy–regionally devolved rather than forcefully centralized, shaped around managing shared resources rather than politicizing identities, neutrally moderated versus self-auditing.
While unfamiliar, such a system would be far more compatible with regional demographics. It would also set a fantastic global precedent. An eventual network of such locally nuanced ‘Special UN Administered Regions,’ if you will, would make it far easier in the long-run to coordinate globally on important issues of growing transboundary concern (e.g. sharing of common resources such as water and air, international trade, human migration, collective security, etc.).
Call it absurd, fine. Today, it might appear so. But this kind of system is no less crazy, far more just and far more adaptive, than the current state of affairs. In time–and i argue sooner than many of us think–a network of internationally-administered, culturally pluralistic regional systems like this will likely seem far saner than the present anarchic struggle amongst would-be ‘homogeneous’ nation-states for recognition, arms, and resource-monopolies. This is especially true in the hyper-interconnected 21st century.
What it takes to actually get from here to there is some concerted effort at imagining and articulating pragmatic-utopian alternatives like the one i’ve sketched out above. To get ourselves out of the box, we have to show each other that there are bigger and better things to realistically be had. Here are a few ideas on how to begin change now, not later. Some may work better than others, but, if you had the misfortune to be born in, say, Gaza City, none is less sane than the current status-quo:
1) Call for the Palestinians to be granted some form of provisional UN ‘citizenship.’ Giving Palestinians a set of internationally recognized civil rights–even symbolic ones–under UN administration will have an effect on Israeli military policy, and help change the rules of the game. (Apparently, this was briefly done for Kuwaiti-resident Palestinians in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. In order to facilitate their receipt of Iraqi reparations, the UN acted formally as Palestinians’ state. It was a temporary arrangement, but successful.)
2) Call for an international (e.g. UN) peacekeeping presence in eastern Palestine to be phased in to replace the Israeli military, at the very least while the PA trains and strengthens. It’s best if other Muslim countries can play key roles in the new multilateral force. Turkey is a prime contender, here: Prime Minister Erdogan has already expressed his willingness to put troops on the ground.
3) Help raise awareness around a key, less-recognized driver of Israeli settlement construction: control over the aquifers (i.e. natural stores of groundwater) located under the West Bank. Push for UN-administered, joint Israeli-Palestinian teams to be set up to manage resources like water in a shared and equitable manner. The creation of a series of functional multistakeholder management bodies like this can help lay the foundation for a future UN-administered, multibody, multistakeholder political system. Such a system opens up all sorts of new avenues for a more robustly democratic polity.
4) Zionism doesn’t have to be painted as a complete mistake, nor does the Nakba have to be relived each year as an increasingly insulting tragedy. Rather, if given a half-decent opportunity to think outside the box, many proud Jews, Arabs and Muslims alike can agree that the nation-state idea is just unhelpfully foreign to the region, and not particularly adaptive to it. It’s time to move beyond the old constructs, while preserving what people truly value: a sense of justice and security, identity and coherence. Start building consensus around a post-nation-state system. The time is ripe–people need to hear it said in order to imagine it.
5) Non-nation-state (or even innovative one-state) solutions, though, won’t be seen as viable tools for realizing people’s values until those of all political and religious persuasions can imagine how they might work. With that in mind, let’s get to it. We need to discuss the need for this sort of political and institutional innovation openly; get it out into the public sphere. Digital media seems a logical place to start–popular TV and print news the holy grail. In the meantime, make your ideas visceral: maps, images, and videos. We have a growing cornucopia of tools at our disposal. Why not use them?
6) Take people’s religious beliefs seriously. They matter. Demonstrate how a non-nation-state solution can complement multiple groups’ religious values. E.g. for Judaism, moving past the intellectual confines of the nation-state–a European notion responsible for so much Jewish suffering, the Holocaust included–can be construed as a sign of ‘tikun olam’ (world-fixing); being a true ‘light unto the nations.’ With respect to Islam, the Muslim ideal does not distinguish between people based on race or ethnicity. This sense of egalitarianism under one transcendental law far predates Western emancipation movements, and is arguably quite compatible with non-state-based, more imaginative versions of democratic governance. The millet system itself is a Muslim creation. Muslims can help imbue it with new life, re-crafting it as a key institution for the new modus operandi. Getting rabbis, ‘ulama and devout constituents from various religious factions on board is key. The more irredentist they are at first, the better. We may be surprised at our results. Even amongst the seeming hardest of hard-lines there are cracks.
Maybe you found this thought-provoking. Maybe you thought it was drivel. Regardless, the main point is this: if blind committment to the nation-state model isn’t helping, why hold ourselves and our children hostage to it? On the most fundamental level, it’s not the construct that people care about, it’s what the construct helps fulfill: a sense of identity, justice, security and coherence in a bafflingly complex world. These are basic human needs. If our goal is lasting peace, they cannot be dismissed. Period. We therefore need political arrangements that fulfill these needs in a more dynamic, adaptive way. This is quite obvious. To my mind, what seems most promising for Israel-Palestine is an innovative process of internationalization, combined with thoughtful de-centralization. But dynamic solutions like this can’t come about about unless we start imagining. To steal wantonly from an anonymous predecessor: Be realistic, demand the impossible. Put another way, declare war on obsolete ideas–but have thoughtful replacements at hand. This is the only way forward. We owe it to each other.