On Balfour’s 100th Anniversary, Time for a New Definition of Sovereignty, Independence and the Nation-State
PALESTINE - ISRAEL, 13 Nov 2017
1 Nov 2017 – November 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the letter from Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour to British Jewish leader Walter Rothschild in which the British Government promised Jews a “national home” in Palestine should they win the war, while offering only to safeguard the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”
Most “non-Jews”–i.e., Palestinian Arabs–joined by key members of Palestine’s existing Arab Jewish population and some Diaspora Jewish figures, understood that Balfour’s promise would lead to permanent hostility between the two emerging nationalist communities. Some local Jewish leaders even put forward an alternative to the Balfour Declaration, declaring that peace in the Holy Land would only be possible if “both sides… develop their national homes in the same land, which is destined to be one state.”
It’s tragic but fitting that on the Balfour Declaration’s centenary the most right-wing government in Israel’s history is pushing to annex large swaths of the West Bank to Jerusalem, permanently foreclosing the possibility of a second state being created on the territory of Palestine/Israel, and returning the conflict to its roots as a zero-sum territorial struggle between Jews and Palestinians.
Of course, Palestinians are not unique in being on the losing end of the Post-World War I nation-state order. Catalans and Kurds are only the most recent and newsworthy examples of how states established on territories with more than one ethno national community—never mind established after the conquest and occupation of territories with large indigenous populations—have failed to provide equal political, economic and social rights to all inhabitants.
Tibetans, Kashmiris and Biafrans, like Chechens and South Ossetians, all have claims to self-determination comparable to those of East Timorese, Slovaks and South Sudanese, who have achieved independence with decidedly mixed results. The difference is that the former groups have never been and likely never will be strong enough to force the countries controlling the territory to allow them independence, or even substantive autonomy.
For every state like the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia that peacefully dissolves along ethnic or “national” lines there are more Yugoslavias and Sudans where bitter civil wars produce mass destruction and even genocide that leaves new states, when they are established, with great difficulty in creating viable political and economic systems. Even the European Union, history’s most successful supra-national arrangement, takes a dim view of secession by ethnic communities within its members states, as its support for “Spanish constitutional unity” makes clear.
And yet even as the chances for Catalan, Kurdish or even Palestinian independence remain slim, the status quo seems equally untenable and prone to violence. Is there really no alternative to the zero-sum conception of territorial sovereignty, which has defined the international order since the Treaty of Westphalia nearly 400 years ago? Is there no system that could offer nations living under the control of more powerful states the chance at a fuller measure of self-determination without diminishing the territory and power of the existing state?
The case of Israel-Palestine is perhaps the most interesting example of how alternative ways to share sovereignty over a given territory are discussed among academics and experts. Some of these alternatives focus on sharing sovereignty vertically rather than horizontally, thus opening space for two political entities to exist not just side by side but intermixed with each other on the same territory. Over the last ten years, a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international scholars have developed the idea of parallel states “superimposed” on each other over the same territory as one possible solution to this intractable problem, In our view it opens up avenues forward in many other ostensibly “frozen conflicts” as well.
As applied to Israel and the Occupied Territories, a parallel states solution would create two state structures, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians, which would share sovereignty over the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. The states would each have sovereignty over their respective populations and cooperate in the management of the larger territory.
Each would have their own symbols, educational systems, political and to some extent economic structures, while external security and broader economic and legal systems would be developed and function jointly (with Israel supervising overall security and defense). A permanent negotiation mechanism could adjudicate specific legal, territorial and commercial claims and conflicts as they occur. Most important, a structure of parallel states would allow free movement for people and goods over the whole area, including the right for both peoples to “return” to, live and settle across Israel and the Occupied Territories. In so doing, this arrangement would address presently irresolvable conflicts over Jerusalem, settlements and refugees.
It’s worth noting that, given present demographics, such an arrangement is likely the only way Israel could remain both a Jewish and a democratic state without engaging in a level of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that, while advocated by an increasing share of the country’s Jewish leadership and even population, would be unacceptable to all but its most faithful supporters. Indeed, a parallel states solution would both fulfill yet update the aims of the Balfour Declaration, enabling Israel/Palestine to serve as “a national home for both the Jewish and the Palestinian people,” upholding the “civil and religious rights” of both Palestinian and Jewish communities.
While the parallel states concept has been most fully developed with reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is applicable to many of the other present-day conflicts over territory, sovereignty, minority rights and political control that threaten to spin out of control and towards large-scale violence. All these conflicts are made more intense because the political and economic order in which they exist—the modern nation-state and the capitalist world system—have evolved over half a millennium as intensely hierarchical and even exclusivist systems, deriving their power from how they divide, push out, and hierarchize people based largely on identities such as race, ethnicity, and religion.
As long as peoples’ core identities continue to be grounded in an exclusivist understanding of the relationship between people, governments and territory, most of the conflicts described here will remain irresolvable, periodically generating counter-movements in response—such as the Islamic State—which are equally if not more destructive than the system they’re attacking. Now more than ever, political leaders, policy-makers and citizens alike need to think outside the straitjacket of the territorially grounded nation-state and imagine forms of political identity and governance in which diversity of identities and governance are encouraged and empowered rather than denied and repressed.
As the Balfour Declaration passes its one hundredth anniversary, Israel/Palestine is an ideal place to start.
Mark LeVine is Professor of History at UC I.
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