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.

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