Israel Palestinians Zionism

One state advocates: More lessons from South Africa, Northern Ireland

What follows is another guest column from Tom Mitchell. As he notes in the first line, those who advocate a single, “secular” binational state in what is now Israel and the Palestinian territories often cite Northern Ireland and South Africa as examples of countries that resolved deep-seated ethnic conflicts and forged one, common nation. He analyzes the nature of the “power-sharing” in those two countries and concludes that, for a number of reasons, they don’t offer the lessons some hope that they offer.

The standard disclaimer applies: the views expressed in the article below do not necessarily reflect those of the Realistic Dove.



By Thomas Mitchell


Northern Ireland and South Africa are often cited as examples demonstrating that power sharing would work between Arabs and Israeli Jews in a single state. I contend that they demonstrate nothing of the kind. This is because the political situation in South Africa is very different from that in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, and it is too early to judge the ultimate success or failure of power sharing in Northern Ireland.

South Africa

In Palestine, Jews and Arabs have always considered themselves to belong to separate national movements. This is as true today as in 1948.

In contrast, the African National Congress (ANC) and its affiliate organizations have always insisted that they are South Africans just like the whites. It was the whites, especially the Afrikaners, who insisted on dealing with the majority in both ethnic and racial terms.

Afrikaners originally saw themselves as a separate nationality from even English-speaking whites and it took almost a century to change this perception. For demographic reasons, the ruling Afrikaner National Party promoted the concept of a white South African nation and began to co-opt English-speaking whites. By the early 1990s a majority of white South Africans—about three-fourths of English-speakers and about forty to fifty percent of Afrikaners were willing to consider majority rule with protections.

Another major difference: in Palestine, the native liberation movements have embraced “armed struggle” and refused to distinguish among sabotage, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism. This has produced in turn among the Israelis a greater tolerance of collateral damage to civilian Palestinians when combating this armed struggle. A similar process occurred in Northern Ireland involving British security forces collaborating with pro-state loyalist terrorists to combat the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

In South Africa, however, the whites’ National Party government was the main practitioner of terrorism, with the ANC eschewing it in favor of sabotage and limited guerrilla warfare.

In Israel and the Palestinians territories (and, for that matter, Northern Ireland), there are deep divisions among political parties and factions jockeying for power. In South Africa, the National Party and the ANC dominated the negotiations involving multiple parties. The ANC and the National Party could both safely ignore their rivals.

A referendum in 1992 established that President De Klerk had solid support for negotiations with the ANC over “power sharing.” The National Party negotiated poorly and ended up with a deal with little real power sharing President Nelson Mandela included the National Party and Inkatha in the first majority rule government in order to ensure initial political stability, but there was no mandatory power sharing mechanism. Even the federalist elements in South Africa are relatively minor.

Seeing this and the ineffectiveness of the National Party as an opposition party, most whites eventually changed their allegiance from the National Party and Afrikaner nationalists to the tiny, former anti-apartheid Democratic Party and made it the major white party.

Northern Ireland and Israel/Palestine

In Northern Ireland, there were four main parties: two Irish nationalist and two British unionist. The two nationalist parties were the SDLP and Sinn Fein, the latter being the political wing of the IRA-—although they have always denied this. The two unionist parties were the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the more moderate party, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the more extreme led by the Rev. Ian Paisley, who headed the Free Presbyterian Church and engaged in anti-Catholic bigotry.

Because the IRA was four years delinquent in disarming and continued its criminal activities and violent intimidation in republican ghettoes, power sharing broke down repeatedly. Fiinally, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) replaced the Ulster Unionists (UUP) as the main unionist (pro-British/Protestant) party. The IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, also surpassed the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) to become the dominant nationalist party among the Irish (Catholics).

The DUP and Sinn Fein are now attempting to see if they can share power—or carve it up between them—more successfully than the more moderate UUP and SDLP did. This is the equivalent of expecting the Likud and Hamas to succeed in peace negotiations where Labor and Fatah failed.

The problem in Israel/Palestine is that there is a major imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the Palestinians refusing to acknowledge this difference in their negotiating style and demands. Palestinian rhetoric and terror, as well as Jewish history, have led to a profound mistrust of the Palestinians by Israelis; continued Israeli settlement of the West Bank before and during the Oslo process led to a similar Palestinian mistrust of Israelis. Zionism was founded as a political movement because Jews in Europe feared their Gentile neighbors. They predicted that the combination of Jewish lack of power, racial anti-Semitism, and radical nationalism would lead to a great tragedy for the Jews. The fact that this prediction came true in dimensions unimagined by the Zionists led to a powerful acceptance of the equation of security with sovereignty and military power. Over sixty years of conflict between the Palestinians and the Zionists has not led to a lessening of this feeling.

Irish republicans in the IRA gave up the armed struggle because they failed to make progress over three decades in their goal of driving the British out of Northern Ireland by force. Sinn Fein was not able to ostracize the unionists internationally to anywhere near the same extent that the ANC was able to ostracize the Afrikaners.

The SDLP was able to persuade Sinn Fein that their problem was with the unionists and not with London, and that only a political solution was possible.

Power sharing had been tried in 1974 and failed after five months, due to resistance from both the IRA and unionists. Ulster Unionist objections to the 1974 power sharing experiment were dealt with in the negotiations that led to the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The IRA gave up the legitimacy of military struggle in exchange for political struggle and the unionists agreed to some connections with the Republic of Ireland in exchange for Dublin giving up its claims to sovereignty over Northern Ireland.

This meant that the IRA was basically agreeing to a single state on unionist grounds. A one-state solution would only work in Israel/Palestine if the Palestinians were willing to come into Israel on terms acceptable to the Zionists. It is doubtful that there are such terms that both sides could accept. Israel certainly is not ready to surrender. Are the Palestinians?

Dr. Thomas G. Mitchell is the author of Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa and of Indispensable Traitors: Liberal Parties in Settler Conflicts.

12 thoughts on “One state advocates: More lessons from South Africa, Northern Ireland

  1. Nice piece. However, there is one factor you left out, and this is the effect of outside powers having an interest in the conflict, in other words, the conflict can not be isolated so that only internal factors could be considered in reaching an agreement.
    For South Africa this meant the interests of the surrounding black African states. However, they have little military or economic power, their influence was felt mostly in the United Nations and other international forums. So of the three conflicts mentioned in Dr Mitchell’s piece, this was one that could be dealt with the most in isolation.
    Regarding Ireland, the outside powers involved were the Republic of Ireland and the United States, (the US due to the presence of the large Irish population there). The Republic of Ireland, which gave a lot of support to the IRA in the early years of “The Troubles” itself underwent a major transformation during the years that the Northern Ireland agreement was taking form, joining the EU, secularizing (i.e. having the Catholic Church lose some of its standing and power) and undergoing rapid economic development. That gave the local population in the Republic a changing perspective on what was going on in Northern Ireland and reduced the popular committment to the most extreme elements in the Nationalist population which had existed for decades. In the US, the end of the Cold War led to a relaxation of international tensions and the Irish-Americans joined this feeling and many decided that they would support an agreement in Northern Ireland after many supported the IRA for many years. The 9/11 attacks also reduced sympathy in the US for terrorist movements worldwide.

    The Arab/Israeli conflict is totally different. The Palestinians, as they themselves point out in the charter of FATAH are an integral part of the Arab/Islamic world. They continually have to take into consideration what elements outside the Palestinian camp are thinking. They have never been given a “blank check” in order to reach an agreement with Israel on their own terms. A good example is over the future of Jerusalem. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia (and Morocco, too, although I am not sure why) view themselves as having an interest in Muslim holy places and so the Palestinians must take into consideration their views during negotiations with Israel. They are not free agents in the matter. Outside powers such as Iran, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia support financially and military various armed groups that do not necessarily accept the Palestinian Authority’s jurisdiction. Same with the “refugee problem”. Thousands of Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and other countries and the interests of these countries must be taken into account when negotiating the future of the refugees.
    On a basic level, the Arab/Islamic world has very serious problems about recognizing the right of a dhimmi Jewish people to have a sovereign state in Dar-Al-Islam (the Realm of Islam) and although some Arabs are willing to consider a cease-fire with Israel as being in the interest of the Arab/Islamic world (e.g. Egypt and Jordan), others oppose it, viewing such a cease-fire as allowing the strengthening of the Zionist regime. All these conflicting forces impinge themselves on the Palestinians and Syrians who are negotiating with Israel.

  2. Mr. Ben-David,
    You are essentially right, of the three conflicts mentioned the Israeli-Palestian/Arab-Israeli is the most difficult to solve both because of the issues involved and because of the interest that certain outside powers have in perpetrating the conflict. My purpose in the above piece was to challenge Ali Abunimah’s contention that S. Africa and Northern Ireland established good precedents for a one-state solution.

    This is why any serious approach to resolve the conflict will require even more dedication in terms of time and resources than that which the British and Irish governments devoted to resolving the Northern Ireland conflict over the last 20 years. Since President Carter from 1977-79, I don’t see that same level of commitment by any subsequent administration.

    Morocco sees itself as guardian of the Holy Places because the royal family, like the Hashemites of Jordan and countless other Muslims, claim a direct lineage back to Muhammed.

  3. Y. Ben-David,

    The Arab/Israeli conflict is totally different. The Israelis, as they themselves would rather not point out, are an integral part of the Jewish world. They continually have to take into consideration what elements outside the Israeli camp are thinking. Unfortunately, they have been given a “blank check”, not to reach an agreement with Palestinians, rather to ethnically cleanse them. A good example is over the future of Jerusalem. If and when they decide to reach a just peace, including occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian State, that blank check will be cancelled.

    Let’s not be blind in one eye!!!


  4. Paul,
    Since its creation Israel has related to the Jewish world mainly as someone to a rich uncle and as providing refuge to poorer relatives. It has never really conferred with the Jewish diaspora on an equal basis the way wartime allies do as with the U.S. and Britain during World War II and the Cold War.

    As far as Jerusalem goes, there is no precedent in history of two normal sovereign states–I’m not counting the Vatican–sharing the same city as their joint capital. This does not mean that it cannot be done, merely that the Palestinians built themselves extra problems by insisting on taking for their capital a city that had already been claimed by their enemy as its capital.

  5. This piece misses out the discrimination that Catholics faced in Northern Ireland, most notably gerrymandering of the local councils to give the Protestant community disproportionate power (Bloody Sunday was a civil rights march). Therefore, while the IRA’s campaign included a desire for a United Ireland, it also included a civil rights element for establishing proportionate electoral power. While the former aim has not been achieved, the latter has.

    Turning to Israel-Palestine, one can argue that Jews have a disproportionate power relative to the Palestinians (whether Israel citizens or not), which generally translates into discrimination against the Palestinians.

  6. I should clarify my last statement to note that while I believe the Catholics have gained, approximately speaking, proportionate electoral power, I do not necessarily believe it was achieved because of the IRA’s actions. Actually, I suspect it was achieved in spite the IRA.

  7. Meyerick Kirby-

    The problem for people like me, who are outsiders to the problems of Northern Ireland is that a legitimate struggle for civil rights by the Catholic got hijacked to support a terrorist campaign aimed at overturning the Northern Ireland state. Of course, this leads to the question of whether Ireland should have been partitioned in the first place, but if it hadn’t, then there would have been a large, disgruntled Protestant minority in a united Ireland as opposed to a large, disgruntled Catholic minority in Northern Ireland. Which would have been preferable is not clear to me.

  8. My point is that all talk of one-state versus two-state versus bi-national state is all fairly pointless in my opinion. The point is to ensure that no group is being discriminated by the others, which generally means sufficient mechanisms to ensure each group has a voice and protection.

  9. In addition I was troubled by Mitchell’s statement:

    This meant that the IRA was basically agreeing to a single state on unionist grounds. A one-state solution would only work in Israel/Palestine if the Palestinians were willing to come into Israel on terms acceptable to the Zionists.

    It seems to be suggesting that the Catholic community accepted some form of defeat, and that they ‘rolled over’ and played by the Protestant community’s rules, which isn’t quite accurate.

    (P.S. I’m not catholic or Irish, rather an English atheist, albeit with some experience of Catholic/Protestant sectarian conflict)

  10. a legitimate struggle for civil rights by the Catholic got hijacked to support a terrorist campaign aimed at overturning the Northern Ireland state.

    I’m not sure ‘hijacked’ is the right word. Most of the groups interested in protecting Catholic rights in Northern Ireland are probably also republicans. It stand to reason that people of a certain group will believe they are less likely to be discriminated against in a country where they are the majority. Surely, that’s one of the chief arguments in favour of Israel.

    Unfortunately, as you have alluded to above, it has the danger of merely reversing the roles, such that the oppressed become the oppressor, and vice versa. Ergo, my emphasis is not on the existence of nation states, but on minority protection.

  11. Mr Kirby,

    Again, as an outsider, it seems to me that the Nationalists did basically capitulate to the main Protestant/British demand…that Northern Ireland be recognized as a separate state which is organically connected to the Crown and the United Kingdom. However, the British and Unionists agreed to essentially pay off the Nationalists with cold hard cash in order to get their acquiesence to this.

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