A Northern Ireland solution for Palestine?

Israeli academic Neve Gordon was the target of a forceful backlash from peers and Israel lobby groups like J Street four years ago when he endorsed the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targeting Israel – albeit as a last-ditch effort to save the “two-state solution.”

Now, using this week’s conference of the Israel lobby group J Street as a hook, Gordon has come back with an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times concluding that the two-state solution is essentially finished.

Gordon proposes a sort of hybrid one-state solution modeled on the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the “Good Friday agreement”) in Northern Ireland.

Here is an excerpt of Gordon’s op-ed:

Northern Ireland offers a real-life model of a just and equitable one-state solution because it accommodates ethno-national distinctions between citizens. In political science it’s called “consociationalism.”

Premised on collective and individual entitlements, a consociational government guarantees group representation, ensures power sharing in the executive branch and offers group vetoes. It could assure both the Israeli and the Palestinian communities that no important decision would be made without the broad consent of representatives of both groups. No less important is the notion of “parity of esteem,” one of the core concepts of the Northern Ireland peace process.

It requires each side to respect the other side’s identity and ethos, including linguistic diversity, culture and religion.

In order to guarantee political equality to the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement assigned essentially equal status to two executive roles — the first and deputy first ministers. Each group has an equal number of legislative committee chairmanships, and membership balance on public bodies, including the judiciary and police forces. Israelis and Palestinians would have to create their own model, and at least initially, it might be good to add to this basic setup internal territorial partition of certain areas, but with porous borders.

Consociationalism offers a tenable framework for beginning to address the contradictions arising from Israel’s wish to concurrently sustain its Jewish character, control territory in which 4.5 million Palestinians live, and maintain a democratic system.

Northern Ireland as a model

While it is encouraging to see the discussion moving in this direction, it is important not to understand what happened in Northern Ireland as a potential way around the need for real, deep decolonization – “ethical decolonization” as Omar Barghouti puts it – entailing the removal of the privileges of Israeli Jews in exchange for citizenship and “indigenization.”

“Consociationalism” can’t be a back door to retain Israeli Jewish privilege and the power that comes with it.

Indeed, elements of the Good Friday agreement were explicitly borrowed by the Palestinian, Israeli Jewish and other authors of the 2007 One State Declaration which offers principles for a single, democratic, decolonized and secular state:

Any system of government must be founded on the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens. Power must be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all people in the diversity of their identities.

“Consociational” features – not specific to the Belfast Agreement – have already been proposed by intellectuals and political leaders among Palestinian citizens of Israel, notably in the 2007 document “The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel” published by the National Committee for the Heads of the Arab Local Authorities; the “Democratic Constitution” published by Adalah; and the Haifa Declaration.

While these documents spoke only about democratizing present-day Israel within its pre-1967 boundaries, they were provocative enough that Israel’s Shin Bet secret police promised to “disrupt the activities of any groups that seek to change the Jewish or democratic character of Israel, even if they use democratic means.”

Yet there are also aspects of the Northern Ireland agreement that would not and should not apply in Palestine, where Zionist settler-colonialism is more recent than English-Scottish settler-colonialism in Ireland.

And of course Israeli settler-colonialism is still an ongoing process of violent dispossession.

Learning more

In my own work, I’ve looked at Northern Ireland closely both in terms of the political process that led to agreement, and in terms of the institutional-legal form of a political settlement.

In a 2012 article for Al Jazeera (“Finkelstein, BDS and the destruction of Israel), I summarize the relevant historical similarities between Palestine and Ireland and how the principles of the Good Friday agreement could apply in Palestine.

The Al Jazeera piece is partly based on a longer article, “Lessons for Palestine from Northern Ireland: Why George Mitchell Couldn’t Turn Jerusalem into Belfast,” included in the forthcoming book Palestine and the Palestinians in the 21st Century, edited by Mimi Kirk and Rochelle Davis.

I also examined the implications of the Belfast Agreement for Palestinian and Israeli Jewish “self-determination” claims in a 2010 policy brief for Al-Shabaka: “Reclaiming Self-Determination.”

And in 2011, in two articles in the journal Ethnopolitics I looked at how leading scholars of “ethnic conflict” have failed to take seriously the idea that partition might not be the solution in Palestine, but the problem.

Without diminishing its significance, it is also important to acknowledge that their are strong critiques of the Belfast Agreement within Ireland.

Gordon’s piece comes just weeks after University of Pennsylvannia professor Ian Lustick’s New York Times op-ed calling for examination of alternatives to the “Two-State Illusion” set off storms of outrage from die-hard defenders of a two-state solution.

These steps are still tentative, but it’s good to see this discussion coming – belatedly – into the mainstream.

As the two-state solution fades, we can now expect the discussion to shift away from simply putting the “one-state solution” on the agenda, to much more focus on what kind of state it can be.