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

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lessons from Alliance for Meretz

In 1998 during a research trip to Belfast Northern Ireland I was told by leading members of the Alliance Party that the party would now come into its own with peace. I was very skeptical. So when I returned three years later, I asked Sean Close, an Alliance member of the legislative Assembly, about these predictions. He qualified the prediction by saying that it would take an entire term of the Assembly, without interruptions, for people to begin to change their political thinking.

The Northern Ireland party system has five main parties: two unionist (the Democratic Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party), two nationalist (Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party), and the non-sectarian Alliance Party, which draws votes from both unionists and nationalists as well as from those who don't consider themselves part of either tradition. Alliance was founded in April 1970 as the first new party of Northern Ireland's party system followed four months by the SDLP.

Close has now been vindicated by the results of the local council elections. Although Alliance gained only a single extra MLA for a total of eight (out of 108) and improved its share of the vote in the Assembly election, it showed major gains in the council elections, gaining 22 seats. Most of these were at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), which has now become a rural party most dominant in the western half of the province. Alliance along with the ruling DUP and Sinn Fein dual, was the major party winner. It posted its largest total of council seats in 30 years--since 1981. Its record was in 1977 when it gained over 14 percent of the vote in council elections, ahead of the DUP (Sinn Fein was not then contesting elections). 

What struck me from my research into the party in 1998 was two things. First, Alliance's natural arena was the local councils. It could not hope to compete in most Westminster constituencies with their first-past-the-post voting system. And Assemblies from 1972 to 1998 had been more noted for their long absences than for their occasional temporary presence. Second, Alliance had the most innovative policies of any party in Northern Ireland. But sectarian voting habits prevented the party from reaping the benefits. The 1981 Hunger Strike, which led to the prolonged suicide of ten republican prisoners, resulted in the party dying out west of the Bann River. After 1981 it was a Greater Belfast party flourishing only in those constituencies with a pronounced unionist majority. In these it would receive votes from liberal unionists and from liberal nationalists who thought that the SDLP did not have a prayer of winning.

Meretz, the liberal Zionist party in Israel, would do well to imitate Alliance. Alliance never abandoned its support for power sharing and for negotiations and the rule of law. But when the situation was not ripe for peace it concentrated on other issues: the economy, civil rights, policing, etc. Meretz should not abandon a sincere commitment to the two-state solution. But it should emphasize other issues when the situation is not ripe for peace--opposition to religious coercion, support for Arab civil rights within Israel, opposition to human rights violations by the IDF and Shin Bet. These in the long run may do more to advance the cause of peace than crying in the wilderness.

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