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, May 17, 2011

Siege Democracies

Israel is a unique type of society.  It is a siege society that is also a democracy--a siege democracy. Siege societies are quite common among autocracies as these usually embody the concentration of power in the hands of a single tribe, ethnic group or religion in a society that unites--at least temporarily--the other elements in that society against it. In the Middle East examples of this type of siege society are found among the various military dictatorships especially the present Ba'athist dictatorship of the Alawites in Syria, the former Ba'athist dictatorship of the Sunni in Iraq, the Ghaddafi clan in Libya, and the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain. But because free elections preclude a minority group from permanently perpetuating itself in power, these societies are rare among democracies. They are only found when a tribe or ethnic or religious group constitutes a majority in a state but a minority in the region--part of the periphery in constant conflict with the regional core.

I can think of only four instances of modern siege democracies in the twentieth century. The first was in South Africa where the white settlers established a herrenvolk (master race) democracy where the franchise was restricted to members of the herren volk, in this case the whites. No doubt many Afrikaners would have opted to restrict the franchise to Afrikaners as was the case in the Boer republics in the previous century. But that had ended in disaster and military conquest at the hands of the British Empire. Until decolonization in the 1960s the British Empire (renamed Commonwealth) was fine with democratic rights being restricted to whites. But when former colonies made up the majority of members of the Commonwealth that all began to change.

The real siege in South Africa began after the Sharpeville massacre of March 1960. And it really did not become an effective physical siege until the dissolution of the Portuguese Empire in Southern Africa in 1974-75. Faced with the collapse of white rule in neighboring Rhodesia in December 1979, the ruling National Party began a two-track strategy of offering independence to Namibia and building its own internal settlement there with subordinate ethnic parties. In the mid-1980s the West signalled its impatience with the ruling white minority by voting for largely symbolic trade sanctions in 1985-86 in the U.S. and the EEC. After fifteen years of applying a Total Strategy to cope with the Total Onslaught the securocrats under President P.W. Botha lost power to the traditional conservatives in the National Party. President F.W. de Klerk negotiated an end to white rule from a position of great strength.

The second instance is in Northern Ireland where the Protestant British settlers who had arrived in the early 17th century used gerrymandering and corporate votes to perpetuate their rule over the native Catholic Irish. Under autonomy within the United Kingdom the Protestant unionists ruled for fify years from 1922 to March 1972 when they were forced to finally close down their provincial parliament. From March 1972 until December 1999 they experienced direct rule from London through the Northern Ireland Office. This was a second-best solution that most unionists and nationalists could live with. Irish republicans could not live with it and continued an insurgency until August 1997. There are still small groups of fringe republican extremists that attempt to continue a terrorist campaign against British rule today, but they lack popular support for this.

In 1970 a new multiparty political system was started when a small group of liberal unionists created the Alliance Party in April. This was followed four months later by the Social Democratic and Labour Party, an uneasy alliance of moderate nationalists and Catholic trade unionists to replace the ineffective Nationalist Party. In 1971 the Rev. Ian Paisley, a firebrand Protestant preacher with his own church, the Free Presbyterian Church, created the Democratic Unionist Party. These three parties competed with the former ruling Ulster Unionist Party and with occasional new unionist parties. In 1982 they were joined by Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, as competition for the SDLP. In 1973 the Northern Ireland Office, at the urging of the Alliance Party, changed the franchise system from the first-past-the-post to the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a type of proportional representation, for assembly and local council elections. The DUP and SDLP are in many ways religious parties representing fundamentalist Protestants and the Catholic Church respectively.

The third siege democracy was Maronite Lebanon, which as a democracy controlled by the Maronite Christians lasted from independence in 1943 until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in April 1975. The Maronites ruled by a form of consociational democracy in which every important public post as well as the seats in parliament were parcelled out to the various sectarian ethno-religious groups on the basis of the 1932 census. Demographic changes took place in the four decades since the census was conducted, but the Maronites refused to allow a new census to be held out of fear that they would lose power. The result was civil war followed by three decades of Syrian occupation and since then five years of Syrian control through Hezbollah.

The fourth siege democracy is Israel. It has a split personality. It behaves like Northern Ireland internally and like apartheid South Africa externally. Like South Africa, it rules over a foreign territory captured in a defensive war and refuses to give it up. Like South Africa, it had a strategy of alliances with other friendly countries--non-Sunni Arab countries or groups: Turkey, the Shah's Iran, the Kurds in Iraq, the Africans in Southern Sudan, and the Maronites in Lebanon. South Africa had its detente policy under Prime Minister John Vorster in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Pretoria made common cause with conservative African leaders like those in Malawi, Gabon, Zaire and with Israel in the Middle East. Like South Africa, it conducted air and ground raids into neighboring countries that allowed Palestinian guerrillas and terrorists to operate from their territory. In fact Israeli generals taught this strategy to South Africa in the 1970s. 

Jerusalem will in the next decade face a fundamental choice of identity. Will it choose the route of negotiated solution like the unionists in Northern Ireland? Or will it choose the route of herrenvolk democracy and minority rule like the whites in South Africa? Maybe the ruling Likud will be able to disguise this like the Maronites in Lebanon by making half-hearted attempts to negotiate. As the siege tightens the choices will grow starker. 

No comments:

Post a Comment