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, December 21, 2012

What are Alliance's Future Prospects?

Mick Fealty over at Slugger O'Toole had an interesting post about the middle ground of Ulster politics. As he defines it this consists of the two moderate sectarian parties, the Ulster Unionists (UUP) and the SDLP, and the non-sectarian Alliance Party. In the summer of 1998 when I was researching my first book, Native vs. Settler: Ethnic Conflict in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and South Africa (Greenwood, 2000) I found a dearth of published information on Alliance. I did manage to find an unpublished Masters Thesis on Alliance written in the early 1990s for a politics degree in France as well as the back issues of Alliance's in-house newsletter in the politics collection of the Linen Hall library in Belfast. This book included a chapter on Alliance that then became the core of my next book, Indispensable Traitors: Liberal Parties in Settler Conflicts (Greenwood, 2002).

I learned that Alliance had actually begun life as a non-parliamentary pressure/ginger group, the New Ulster Movement, in Belfast in early 1969. After about a year it decided to form a party that was both liberal and non-sectarian. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland was launched in April 1970 months before the SDLP. It had its best recruiting periods in its first three years in 1970-73 as The Troubles were becoming a republican insurgency against the state. Alliance reached its peak in a local election in 1977 at just under 15 percent of the total--higher than for the DUP. Then it began to slowly slide back until 1981 when it lost almost all of its vote west of the Bann River. It again had an above-average  recruiting period in the mid-1990s as the province was moving out of The Troubles following the first IRA ceasefire. But by 1997 the vote was shrinking back down to its previous high of 6.5 percent. This continued to deteriorate until it hit just over five percent.

I interviewed a number of Alliance figures including its first leader, Oliver Napier, and then Assembly Speaker John Alderdice and his brother, Lord Mayor David Alderdice, who was kind enough to give me a tour of City Hall before the interview. Noting that the party after the 1981 hunger strike had been limited largely to Greater Belfast--to constituencies with a unionist majority, I suggested to several members that the party declare itself to be a unionist party (it was on record as being pro-union) but emphasis its differences with the other unionist parties i.e. its two Catholic party leaders, high percentage of women office holders, innovative policies, etc. They replied that the party would lose many more votes than it would gain by doing this as its members regarded themselves as belonging to the Other tradition: participants in or issue of mixed marriages or simply non-religious.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Former First Minister David Trimble links protests to East Belfast Seat

In an interview published today on the Newshound site, former First Minister David Trimble, who now sits in the British House of Lords for the Conservatives, linked the flag protests and riots that have engulfed Northern Ireland over the last ten days to the DUP's loss of its East Belfast seat to the Alliance Party in the last general election. This was the seat of party leader Peter Robinson who had held it since first being elected in 1979. It was also the Alliance Party's first parliamentary seat. Trimble was implicitly criticizing his former party, the Ulster Unionist Party, which has teamed up with the DUP to protest the compromise crafted by Alliance with the two nationalist parties on the Belfast City Council. As Alliance councilor Laura McNamee points out in an interview, had Alliance not acted the two parties would simply have voted to eliminate the flag flying over Belfast City Hall altogether.

So what are the motives for the unionist parties in these protests? Peter Robinson gets to act out and extract some revenge on Alliance for taking his seat. He may even stir up the electorate enough to win the seat back for his party in the next election. The UUP by putting Alliance on the defensive may end the attrition of party members to the party that has been going on since the last general election when Alliance outperformed the party. And the tiny Progressive Unionist Party can look statesmanlike by issuing statements calling for restraint and condemning the violence while also condemning the compromise. So, the unionist parties are the winners. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Needing inferiors for self-asteem in Belfast--sectarian riots

For the last six days there has been renewed rioting by loyalists mobs in Belfast and now in Derry also ostensibly over a compromise provision that limits the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall to only seventeen designated days per year. Nationalists wanted the flag not to be flown at all at the City Hall but settled for an Alliance Party compromise motion that limited it to flying on designated days only. Alliance offices have been broken into in response to the compromise and a leaflet put out by the DUP calling on constituents to let Alliance know how they feel about the measure. Unionist commentator John Coulter sees this possibly reverberating to the benefit of the struggling UUP.

This has been the second major period of rioting in Belfast since the peace process was finally bedded down in mid 2007. There were major riots two years ago in North Belfast. These riots all have ostensible local causes but the real reasons are the need for loyalist paramilitary organizations to demonstrate that they still have relevance and justify their existence and the unhappiness of working class unionists--loyalists--with the gains made by nationalists and republicans since the start of the peace process. The traditional position of loyalists was to be looked down upon by middle class unionists and to look down upon nationalists. Unionist parties neglected the educational, employment and social needs of loyalists and nationalists. Loyalists compensated by looking down upon nationalists. The gains made by nationalists to a situation of equality with loyalists is seen as a net loss by the loyalists. That at least is the analysis of Peter Shirlow, lecturer at Queen's University at Belfast.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The End of the Two-State Solution? Part II

When the two-state solution was first proposed in the Middle East in the early 1970s it was envisaged as a deal between a Labor Party-led government on the Israeli side and the PLO led by Fatah on the other. Even as it was first being proposed in 1973 it was almost too late. On December 31, 1973 elections demonstrated that the brand new Likud was a competitive challenger to the ruling Labor Party. In May 1977 Menahem Begin, the leader of the 1940s Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization) or Etzel was elected prime minister at the head of the Likud. He simultaneously went about negotiating peace with Egypt and colonizing the West Bank and Gaza with Jewish settlements. A Labor-led government without the Likud would not return to power for fifteen years. 

Labor coalitions were in power for six years out of that decade. But starting in 1996 both Labor and its more dovish coalition partner Meretz began losing seats. By 2009 they had lost three-fourths of the seats they had when Rabin formed a government in 1992. That year--1992--was the only year since 1977 that the Center-Left had more seats than the Right and the religious parties. Barak in 1999 decided to build a broad coalition with the religious parties. These parties deserted his coalition as soon as he departed for Camp David in July 2000--even before he made his radical concessions on Jerusalem and borders.

The End of the Two-State Solution? Part I

Purely by coincidence, today's edition of Real Clear World has three very pessimistic articles on the Middle East peace process only about a week or two after I mailed in the manuscript for my latest book, tentatively titled Why the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Remains Unsolved: the Politics of the Two-State Solution, which will probably be published by McFarland Publishing of North Carolina sometime late next year. These three articles here, here, and here, tend to blame the Palestinians and Arabs in general rather than Israel. The first is by a noted Italian commentator on international affairs, Emanuele Ottolenghi (eight tongues); the second by The New Republic's longtime columnist Leon Wieseltier; and the last by a writer at a conservative Israeli tabloid, Yediot Aharonot (confession: this was the paper I usually read when I was a student in Israel over three decades ago because of its relatively easy Hebrew). 

The problem with the two-state solution since it was first proposed by West Bank Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals in the 1970s was that it required both sides to go way out of their comfort zones and take real risks for peace. The risks on the Israeli side--at least until Rabin's assassination by a radical religious law student in November 1995--were mainly political rather than physical; on the Palestinian side they were both. Plus these two sides had to be ready to take these risks at the same time and while the United States administration was prepared to vigorously mediate between them to reach a solution. Since the early 1990s the two sides were out of sync. First, Arafat was most desperate for a deal in 1992-93 at the start of the Oslo process when the PLO was bankrupt due to a cutoff of Gulf state contributions following Arafat's embrace of Saddam's annexation of Kuwait. But Rabin wanted to take it slow and test Arafat and develop support for a final settlement. Plus, it was not all that clear that Rabin supported the creation of an independent Palestinian state. Under Netanyahu from mid-1996 to mid-1999 Israel pursued a go-very-slow policy. By the time that Ehud Barak was ready to negotiate with the Palestinians in early 2000, Arafat was suspicious of his motives and ready to appease the Islamists and reject Israeli compromise proposals at Camp David. In October 2000 the Al-Aksa Intifada broke out with both Arafat and Arik Sharon bearing heavy responsibility for it. After that a solution was precluded until the Palestinians had a new leader. But this resulted in Sharon replacing Barak as prime minister in February 2001. A settlement now awaited a new Israeli leader as well. This did not occur until March 2006 when Kadima leader Ehud Olmert followed Sharon two months after Sharon's massive stroke.