1916 and All That

1916 and All That

I’m your new blogger, Peter Eisenstadt.

The lead article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books, is a sobering account of recent developments in Syria (are there any other kind?), headlined, “Is This the End of Sykes-Picot?”  Its author, the superb Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn, makes an argument that has been increasingly heard recently–that the enormous centrifugal political and social forces that have been unleashed in Syria might finally scramble the wobbly, jerry-rigged national boundaries that were established in the wake of World War I.

(The Sykes-Picot Agreement, for those who need a refresher, was the secret 1916 agreement between the British and French governments, represented respectively by diplomats Sir Mark Sykes and  Georges Picot, detailing how to divvy up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. In every history of Zionism that I have ever read, it is the opening act to the Balfour Declaration.  And speaking of the theater, I have long thought of  Sykes and Picot and their peers as the forerunners of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers, promising about 400% of the available land in the Middle East to various groups of Sunnis,  Shiites, Christians,  Jews, Alawites, and Hashemites, helping to create a mess we are still trying to untangle.)

No one knows what will happen in Syria, and it certainly has the potential to remake international boundaries, but in general, people underestimate how difficult and infrequent it is for international borders to change.  Any existing border has the benefit of a tremendous amount of geographic inertia, protected by sleeping dogs and undisturbed hornets nests that would be roused at the hint of any change. For reasons that are not entirely clear,  post-colonial borders in Asia and Africa have proved to be more enduring than those between European countries. I believe that the separation of the Sudan and South Sudan is the only significant boundary change in the almost wholly arbitrary division of nation-states in post-colonial Africa.

Even sub-national borders are often very difficult to change.  In the United States there have been significant changes to the boundaries of states only twice: in 1820, when Maine split from its non-coterminous parent state of Massachusetts, and in 1863, when, under the pressure of the Civil War, Virginia and West Virginia went their separate ways. Pundits can decry the irrationality of the state boundaries and the makeup of the US Senate all they want—it is the most badly proportioned legislative body in the world, where, on a per capita basis, a citizen of Wyoming has 70 times as much representation as a citizen of California–we are stuck with the current boundaries of the fifty states and their political consequences for perpetuity.
But, however much the Syrian civil war might redraw Middle East realities, it is hard to see how it will have much impact on the quasi-international boundary dividing, as they say, Israel proper from Israel improper, the Green Line. Of articles on the various benefits and deficits of the one and two state solution there has been no end, and much of it is besides the point.

Since this is my first post for Partners for Progressive Israel, let me give an abbreviated version of  my Middle East credo.  There is no one-state solution; if by a “one-state solution” one means a unitary democratic and egalitarian state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, it is an impossibility.  Israel will never agree to it voluntarily, and there is no way, save an unimaginably bloody and probably nuclear war, to create a scenario by which Israel will be compelled to accept it.  And whatever a de jure Israeli annexation of the West Bank is–apartheid or whatever–it is not, despite what one often reads, a one-state solution, since it will solve nothing.  It is a one-state problem.

And so, the only alternative are separate Israeli and Palestinian states, and this will happen, and it’s coming will not tarry as long as the messiah has. But there is no denying that the current arrangement is subject to powerful forces of geographic inertia.

Let me present two axioms that have long governed my view of the prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine.

  • Axiom 1: All colonial situations, such as the West Bank, in which sovereignty has no underlying legitimacy and is maintained solely by explicit or implicit use of military force are inherently unstable, and they all end–peacefully or otherwise.  And though the colonial power usually maintains the illusion that its military superiority will enable it to maintain the status quo indefinitely, this is almost always an illusion. This is why there are almost no remaining colonial occupations left in the world today.  
  • Axiom 2: The most difficult colonial situations to unwind are those in which the colonizer and the colonized are geographically adjacent, and situations in which the colonizer has established settler enclaves among the colonized population, such as the situation between Great Britain and Ireland, or between Israel and Palestine.        
The weakest argument one often hears for a two-state solution is that single, unitary states combining contending national groups are fatally flawed, and must eventually be reduced to the lowest national denominator.  This strikes as untrue historically, and questionable as a matter of  political philosophy.  I am neither for nor against the national independence of, say, Quebec, Catalonia, or Scotland.  There are arguments to be made on both sides, and every situation is different. The biggest problem with any two-state division is determining the dividing line, and it invariably will create new injustices, leaving some people marooned on the wrong side.  There are plenty of examples of failed two-state divisions, such as Northern Ireland and Ireland, Greek and Turkish Cyprus,  and India and Pakistan.

And there are many examples, such as the former Yugoslavia, or the empires of the Ottomans or the Hapsburgs, that, depending on how the example is framed, can be seen as exemplifying the virtues of  national division along ethnic lines or maintaining supra-ethnic sovereignty.  The larger point is that the political and geographic arrangements between contending national groups are perhaps less important than the undeniable reality that they will someday have to find a way to live together, or destroy one another.

Getting back to Israel and Palestine, the differences between one- and two-state solutions can easily be fetishized. The reality, which everyone on some level knows, is that international or constitutional arrangements, and lines on the map, will only go so far and do so much.  Unless both sides make a conscious and difficult choice to do so, nothing can or will prevent Israel and Palestine from living in a state of perpetual war. And getting them to make that choice needs to be the goal of all people who want to see the occupation end and Israel at peace with its neighbors and at peace with itself.    

I’m an independent historian and author, and have involved myself in this issue by being active in J Street. This links to an article about me, and this lists the books I’ve authored.  
By | 2013-06-11T01:07:00-04:00 June 11th, 2013|Blog|1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Richard Schwartz June 11, 2013 at 1:02 pm - Reply

    Excellent blog post.

    Kol hakavod, Peter. Looking forward to your future posts.

    I think it is essential that we keep stressing the following which reinforces Peter’s message:

    While it will be difficult to obtain, Israel needs a comprehensive, sustainable 2-state resolution of her conflict with the Palestinians in order to avert renewed violence, effectively respond to her economic, environmental, and other domestic problems, and to remain both a Jewish and democratic state. Failure to obtain such a resolution will result in a very negative future for Israel, the Palestinians, the US, and, indeed, much of the world. This is not only my view, but also that of many Israeli strategic experts, including all the living retired heads of the Shin Bet. Don’t believe it? Please see the Israeli Academy Award-nominated movie, “The Gatekeepers.”

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