Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Northern Ireland and Israel Compared

Today I'm going to begin a series of posts that compare Northern Ireland to Israel: first, as states or polities; second, as native-settler conflicts; third, the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process for the Middle East; and finally, I'll compare the conditions that led to the Northern Ireland peace process to the Middle East to ascertain if it is ripe for peace.

Let's examine Northern Ireland using the six criteria that I claimed characterized Israeli politics. First, Northern Ireland has a proportional representation--single transferable vote (PR-STV) franchise system. This system gives each voter multiple preference votes in any election (except the Westminster parliamentary elections where it isn't used) but only one vote per voter is counted. Each voter rank orders his preference for the candidates running then the counters count each of the ballots to see if any of the candidates in the multi-member constituency have captured the "quota" (total number of votes divided by number of seats plus one) on that count. If one has all of his preferences are then disregarded on future counts and the next preference is transferred to one of the other candidates that (s)he expressed a preference for. This system is just as easy as the proportional representation-list system used in Israel for voters, but a little bit more complicated to administer so that results take a little longer to be compiled.

The system results in roughly the same number of parties as seats in a constituency. Because parties have to also compete in first-past-the-post Westminster elections there are normally only two viable parties for each of the two main communities in Northern Ireland. These are traditionally known as the Big Four: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP); the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP); and Sinn Fein (SF). In the most recent parliamentary election in 2010, the non-sectarian Alliance Party gained a parliamentary seat for the first time in its history--in East Belfast, where it also came close to winning in 1979. The UUP also lost its sole remaining MP when she refused to participate in the alliance with the Conservative Party. Whether she can be lured back to the party is an open question. But for this year's Assembly election there will probably be six parties represented: the Big Four plus Alliance and the Traditional Unionist Voice, a splinter group from the DUP representing its traditional position before 2007.

Of the Big Four, two can be considered to be religious parties. The SDLP has a close traditional relationship with the Catholic Church in Ireland (churches on the Island are organized on an all-Ireland basis) as the SDLP supported its positions on non-violence and Irish unity. The SDLP also has a pious religious character.

The DUP has been a religious party in the Israeli sense--its longtime leader, Ian Paisley, was also the leader of the Free Presbyterian Church, a breakaway Evangelical church that he established in 1951, or two decades before he established the DUP. Until the end of 2007 he was both the moderator (or head) of the Free Presbyterian Church and the leader of the DUP. In this way he was the unionist Protestant equivalent of Aryeh Deri and Shas's spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef combined with a bit of Menahem Begin thrown in. Because power sharing with Sinn Fein was upsetting to many in the church Paisley was forced to retire as moderator in 2007. Since his retirement as party leader in 2008 the party has become more secular but it still has a powerful religious wing.

Northern Ireland, because it is a province rather than a sovereign independent country, has no army and no class of military politicians. The closest thing to a military politician was probably Ken Maginnis who was a major in the Ulster Defence Regiment and became a UUP spokesman on security affairs during the 1980s and 1990s. He lost in a bid to become party leader in 1995 to David Trimble, but then became a big Trimble supporter during the peace process. He is in many ways in the tradition of the Arab-fighter politicians in Labor like Dayan, Rabin, Allon, and Barak who supported peace for pragmatic reasons. Maginnis had excellent relations with SDLP politicians.

Northern Ireland had three paramilitary parties: Sinn Fein, connected to the Provisional IRA; the Ulster Democratic Party, connected to the Ulster Defence Association; and the Progressive Unionist Party, connected to the Ulster Volunteer Force. The UDP failed to have any of its candidates elected to the Assembly in 1998 and abolished itself in late 2001. The UDA then began receiving political advice from its own internal think tank. The PUP was reduced from two Assembly members (MLAs) in 1998 to one in 2003. Its leader, David Ervine, died in January 2007 and was replaced by Dawn Purvis. She quit the party in 2010 after the PUP was implicated in the murder of a former loyalist prisoner. The new party leader was David Ervine's younger brother. So loyalist parties are even more marginal today than they were at their height in the mid-1990s. The IRA decommissioned its weapons in 2005 and the loyalists followed in 2009.

In Israel both Labor and the Likud have paramilitary roots. Herut and Ahdut Ha'Avoda were both continuation paramilitary parties that extended the existence of a paramilitary group as a political party. But within Labor the factions quickly became personal camps organized around Allon and Dayan and then around Rabin and Peres. Yitzhak Shamir was the last paramilitary figure in the Likud and he retired from active politics in 1992.
Increasingly paramilitary links are a historical rather than a contemporary issue in the party systems of both Israel and Northern Ireland.

In both Israel and Northern Ireland the distinction between parties of the Left and of the Right is based on their position on the "native" question. In Israel after June 1967 it became the position on the occupied territories that determined whether or not a party was a member of the Left or Right. In Northern Ireland it was the position on power sharing with nationalist parties that determined whether a unionist party was Left or Right. Donald Akenson in his book God's Peoples first noticed the link between the native question and position on the political map, but he did not label it as such because he was using a different paradigm (peoples of the book) to compare Israel, the Afrikaners, and the unionists.

 After London became directly involved in administering Northern Ireland in March 1972, ethnic or religious discrimination was outlawed and measures were taken to redress the discrimination suffered by nationalists in the province over two generations. From 1922 to 1972 unionists discriminated against nationalists in terms of housing, employment, and the franchise. The latter was accomplished both through gerrymandering the legislative boundaries and by a system of corporate voting that allowed the wealthiest to have multiple votes. The PR-STV franchise system was eliminated for Stormont provincial and council elections in 1929 and not reinstated until 1973. Unionist premiers encouraged firms to discriminate against Catholics who were seen as inherently disloyal and potentially subversive. This was most pronounced when James Craig and Lord Brookeborough were the prime ministers of the province--for all but two years until 1963. Things improved under Prime Minister Terence O'Neill from 1963 to 1969, but the real break was when London took over in 1972.

By contrast, Israel has, if anything, strengthened discrimination against the Arab minority as the Left has become weaker. Under Mapai Arabs did not even freedom of movement until November 1966 as they lived under martial law. Menahem Begin as opposition leader liked to portray himself as a champion of civil rights, so the situation for Israeli Arabs did not worsen when Begin became prime minister in 1977. But as settlement of the West Bank (and Gaza) intensified, practices from the territories began to be imported into Israel proper. And during the 1990s Israeli Arab party leaders increasingly identified themselves with Yasir Arafat, the PLO, and the Palestinian cause. This has meant that increasingly Arabs are seen by the Israeli Right as disloyal and even subversive. Attacking Arabs is a means for ultra-Orthodox and national religious Jews to identify themselves with their secular Jewish countrymen while separating themselves from the Arabs. It is also a way for Russian Jews (and non-Jews) to do the same thing.

Israeli law has traditionally discriminated against Arabs in terms of land allocation and rights and in terms of rights derived from national service.

Thus Northern Ireland has either in the recent past or present displayed five out of six traits of Israeli politics. The biggest difference between the two is that Israel is sovereign and Northern Ireland is not. Northern Ireland is a province of the United Kingdom that has always been administered under unique laws. In the early 1970s anti-terrorist legislation was passed that allowed the British government to exclude Northern Ireland residents from the rest of the UK by simply naming them. Ordinary British citizens, especially in England and Wales, tend to think of Northern Ireland as either foreign territory or a colonial possession rather than as part of the core territory of the country. Thus, Northern Ireland is almost a no man's land--neither truly Irish nor truly British but a mixture of both, a frontier territory.

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