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The folly of a Middle East ‘two-state solution’BY: Dan Rottenberg 09.27.2011
Politicians, pundits and diplomats agree that a two-state solution is essential to peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Which leaves just one question: Can anyone recall a two-state solution that wasn’t an unmitigated disaster?
The two-state solution
“I truly believe that a two-state solution is the only way to ensure a more stable Middle East and to grant Israel the security and well-being it desires.”
Ehud Olmert, prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009, wrote that last week in the New York Times without much fear of contradiction: For the past 20 years, Jews and Arabs alike have repeated much the same mantra. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated by a Jewish extremist in 1995, “knew the only way to ensure a democratic Jewish state with viable, secure borders was to accept a Palestinian state alongside it, equally secure and viable,” wrote Gareth Evans, former foreign minister of Australia, in last week’s Inquirer.
I’m all for peace and security. But it astonishes me that no one in this global amen chorus has noticed the elephant in the Middle East room, to wit: Can anyone recall a two-state solution that wasn’t an unmitigated disaster?
Have you noticed, for example, how peacefully Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants got along after they were officially separated in 1921? Are Turks and Greeks in Cyprus, or Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, more secure since a green line was imposed between them? Does no one recall that when the former Yugoslavia was broken up into ethnic states in the 1990s, each new state’s first order of business was a combination of ethnic cleansing and warfare against any new neighboring state that might object to said cleansing?
Hindu-Muslim death toll
Perhaps the warm relations between North and South Korea, or between the former East and West Germany— which pitted Communists against capitalists— don’t provide appropriate parallels to Jewish Israel and Arab Palestine. But the division of British India into Hindu and Muslim states in 1947 comes mighty close. So let’s consider the results from that subcontinent:
The initial partition into India and Pakistan resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Since then, more than 15,000 Muslims and Hindus have died in three wars fought over a glacier. Another 40,000 to 100,000 (depending on who’s counting) have died in the insurgency in the disputed province of Kashmir.
Oh, did I mention that both countries, to protect themselves from each other, have now armed themselves with nuclear weapons?
Today pundits and diplomats generally agree that the partition of India in ’47 was a terrible mistake. Why, then, do these same pundits and diplomats insist that partition of Israel/ Palestine is a brilliant panacea?
But surely, you object, my logic suffers from a serious flaw: If a separate Pakistani nation hadn’t been created as a refuge for Muslims, the slaughter might have been even worse.
Really? Are Pakistan’s 180 million Muslims noticeably happier, safer, more prosperous or more spiritually fulfilled than the 160 million Muslims who stayed in India?
Yes, yes, you reply, but we don’t live at the end of history. Once India and Pakistan resolve their border disputes, then Hindus and Muslims will coexist peacefully in their separate neighboring nations.
Color me dubious. When you impose a border between antagonistic peoples, I submit, you create border disputes that will never be resolved.
The reason isn’t merely that separating hostile peoples deprives them of the opportunity ever to appreciate each other as humans, or that it exacerbates their mutual prejudices and fears until, inevitably, each side concludes that it must destroy the other group before the other group destroys them.
On a more pragmatic level, bunching people in separate distinct homelands makes it much easier for them to bomb each other than it would be if they all lived together willy-nilly.
During the first Gulf War in 1991, remember, Saddam Hussein tried to elicit sympathy from Arab leaders by firing rockets into Israel. But he took care to aim those rockets only at Haifa, an overwhelmingly Jewish city. Hussein spared Jerusalem and Tel Aviv because he knew that in those places he might kill as many Arabs as Jews, thus muddying the whole point of his exercise. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were safer from Iraqi bombs precisely because Arabs and Jews there live in relatively close proximity to each other.
Philadelphia’s Know-Nothing riots
If you’re seriously interested in peace and security for Jews and Arabs, you could do worse than study the experience of Philadelphia’s Catholics and Protestants in the 19th Century.
At a time when anti-Catholic passions ran high, the Catholic parish of St. Augustine, seeking isolation as a means of self-protection, built a church in Kensington, far removed from the city’s Protestant neighborhoods. But the organizers of another Catholic parish adopted the opposite strategy: In 1841 they built St. Patrick’s Church just off Rittenhouse Square, in the midst of a Protestant community of wooden frame dwellings. Such close proximity, they astutely perceived, was the best way to protect their church from being set on fire: If St. Patrick’s burned, so would the homes surrounding it.
So what happened during the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing riots of 1844? St. Augustine’s in Kensington was burned to the ground. But in Rittenhouse Square, Protestants and Catholics banded together successfully to protect St. Patrick’s from arson.
These downtown Protestants and Catholics detested each other— forgive me, but I’ve forgotten why— but one thing they hated even more was the prospect of losing their homes over a point of theology.*
Or consider the true story of a married couple I know who slept in a queen-size bed. The wife complained that her husband, while asleep, constantly encroached on her half of the bed. The husband, in turn, complained that his sleeping wife poked him with her sharp nails and elbows.
Eventually they consulted a therapist. You or I or certain pundits and diplomats might have recommended that the unhappy couple purchase a larger bed, or separate beds. The therapist suggested the opposite.
“Get a smaller bed,” she told them. “It will force you to learn to live together.” So it is in the Middle East.
What, you ask, could be worse than living in close proximity to strangers who hate you? One thing: Living across the border from strangers who hate you.
When Robert Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors,” he intended it ironically. Too bad poetry isn’t taught at schools of government and diplomacy.♦
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