Thursday, March 9, 2017

Irredentism and the Middle East

With this letter, I would like to return to the topic of the two-state solution I broached a few weeks ago but still have more to say about.

To begin by stating the obvious, there is surely no axiom relating to the Middle East more often repeated and more fervently believed—if not quite by all than surely by most—than the one that supposes that peace in the Middle East will only come when some version of the United Nations’ original Partition Plan of 1947 is somehow put into place, yielding the desired—if long overdue—dismemberment of Mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab.  This truth is so often repeated, and in so many different quarters and by so many people from such different political camps and orientations, that it has acquired the feel of a basic truth, of being the kind of foundational idea that one can damn someone, and not faintly, merely by suggesting that he or she is only paying lip service to its reasonability but doesn’t really believe in it or think of it as the sole workable solution to what would otherwise be an insoluble problem. Actually to reject it as unworkable foolishness is, in at least most non-extremist quarter, unthinkable.

I’ve spoken about the two-state solution in public many times and always positively. But now that I force myself to revisit the basic concept and to consider the parts before coming to judgment regarding the whole, I find myself surprised by how many of the ideas that constitute those parts strike me as naïve, even utopian, when considered on their own.

There is, at any rate, something surreal about the whole discussion—the endless, ongoing, passionate discussion—regarding the two-state solution, and specifically because there actually are two states, one Jewish and one Arab, on the territory of Turkish Palestine. But, of course, even that assertion is complicated and depends, at least in part, on how one views the long-forgotten Transjordan Memorandum of 1922, the British proposal ratified by the League of Nations in September of that year that allowed for the dismemberment of Ottoman Palestine into two regions, both to be administered by the British: the part west of the Jordan to be called Palestine and the part to the east of the river to be called Transjordan. This would just be so much boring administrative history, except for the detail, made explicit in the memorandum, that the point of the proposal was specifically to prevent Jews from settling in Transjordan. Nor is this a point to gloss over lightly, because it was as a direct result of that dusty memorandum that the Partition Plan of 1947—the United Nations proposal that is the bedrock upon which the two-state solution rests—only ever applied to the lands west of the Jordan, the part that was called Mandatory Palestine. And so, because the land on the east side of the river was excluded not because of historical or geographical reasons but merely because the British perceived doing so to be in their own best interests and got the League of Nations to go along with the idea, today’s proponents of the two-state solution remain mostly unaware of the undeniable fact that there actually are two states, one Arab and one Jewish, on the territory that the world took from the Turks after the First World War and gave to the British to administer.  That, however, is not what I want to write about today.

Nor do I want to focus on the obtuse unwillingness of so many who speak vocally about the two-state solution as the sole path forward to peace to take a long, hard look at Gaza…and then explain why Israel should not insist on ironclad guarantees that the citizens of some future state of Palestine will not follow the Gazans’ lead and give their nation over to radical terrorists whose whole raison d’être is the annihilation of the Jewish state. (For European nations like Ireland and Sweden that face no existential threats from without and whose right to live in peace on their own soil is contested by none to look past Gaza and pretend not to see the problem borders on the grotesque. But I’ll return to that set of ideas in a future letter.)

Instead, what I would like to bring to the discussion today are two ten-dollar words that denote related but distinct concepts, and which hardly ever appear in discussions of Middle Eastern politics: irredentism and revanchism.  The former, irredentism, denotes any popular movement rooted in the desire to reclaim “lost” territory that the proponents of the movement consider rightfully theirs. (The word derives from the Italian word irridento, which means “unredeemed” and was coined in the 1870s by activists who wished to “redeem” the Italian-speaking parts of Austria and France by making them part of Italy.) The latter, revanchism, denotes any political movement rooted in the desire to reverse territorial losses incurred through war or through some other political process, and to restore them to their original political status. (The word derives from the French word revanche, which means “revenge” and was coined by French nationalists who wanted to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine from Germany after losing those two eastern provinces in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.)  The Palestinian cause has elements of both, of course: the “redemption” of Arab land that somehow ended up as part of Israel and “revenge” both for the defeat in 1948-1949 that established Israel as an independent country and left the West Bank in the hands of Jordan and Gaza under Egyptian control, and also for the Arab defeat in the Six Day War that left the West Bank, the Golan, the Sinai, and Gaza under Israeli control.

Viewing the struggle for an independent Palestinian state through the lenses of irredentism and revanchism is an interesting experience, because it allows us to view the whole situation through a much wider lens than usual. The irredentist and/or revanchist claims of nations are, it turns out, countless. But the world takes little note of most of them: the principle that law most reasonably derives from facts on the ground—in the Latin of international law: ex factis jus oritur—is broadly brought to bear to dismiss most irredentist claims as nationalistic fantasies that cannot be expected to trump the actual boundaries of existent nations. No one, for example, is prepared to take South Tyrol from Italy and hand it over to Austria merely because there are Austrians who haven’t made peace with its loss following World War II. Nor is the world going to dismember the United Kingdom and hand North Ireland over to Ireland merely because a large majority of Irish citizens think of it as an integral part of their island-nation, which it surely is geographically, and because its citizens are almost exclusively ethnically Irish. Nor did the world seek to head off the first Gulf War merely by handing over Kuwait to the Iraqis who claimed it as their own territory merely because the boundary between the two nations was yet another British line arbitrary drawn, this time literally, in the sand…much less because Saddam Hussein threatened war if they didn’t. European nations alone with irredentist claims on other countries’ territory include, aside from Austria and Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Servia, Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Norway, Russia. Asian nations with irredentist claims on other countries include India, Japan, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines. The list goes on. (For a full list, click here.) Indeed, as I reviewed these claims and was amazed not only at how many they are, but at how many different nations they involve, it struck me that the assumption so many of us seem to have that the mere fact of the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War implies some sort of obligation on Israel’s part to hand over land it has administered for half a century seems weak and not at all in conformity with the way the world views other similar disputes regarding territories lost in war or as a result of political adventurism abroad.

There is a counterpart to the principle of ex factis jus oritur mentioned above: it is ex injuria jus non oritur, which means that, for all law must and should rest on a foundation of reality, “unjust acts cannot create law.” That suggests a certain unsavory underside to the argument that Israel has some sort of unilateral obligation to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank when put forward by nations who themselves couldn’t be less interested in creating “two-state solutions” in response to irredentist claims on their own territorial integrity. (Just for fun, try suggesting to an Australian that Australia solve its aboriginal problem with a two-state solution…or to a New Zealander that New Zealand solve its Maori problem by divvying up the landmass so that the descendants of the nation’s colonial invaders and those of the natives they found in place can thrive in separate political entities.) Indeed, the supposition that Israel’s existence itself is a kind of unjust act perpetrated by the world on the Palestinians, an argument that has neither historical validity nor philosophical merit, would justify the assumption that Israel must cede land it won in a war foisted upon it by its enemies. But that argument—that Israel is itself an unjustifiable aberration the existence of which cannot be used as the basis to create law at all—is not only offensive, but suggestive of a deeply anti-Semitic worldview.

I am not arguing that the Palestinians should be made to pay forever for their huge error of judgment in 1947 when the world offered them an independent state and they specifically chose not to take it because taking it would have meant living in peace with the Jewish state next door. But the assumption that the facts on the ground cannot and should not create the law that governs the parties to the dispute can only be sustained by arguing the illegitimacy of the Jewish state…and that is a position that principled people possessed of an unbiased sense of history may never embrace.

A two-state solution may in the end be a good thing for all parties to the dispute. I actually think that that probably is the case. But to argue that it must be, that it is immoral and unreasonable for the Arab side to bear the consequences of their own defeat in war both in 1948 and in 1967—that is simply a principle of law that none of the nations of the world seems to apply to itself. And that point—and also that Israel has every right never to agree to any sort of agreement that could conceivably lead to the establishment of Gaza East on the West Bank—those are the points that seems regularly lost on most, including those who speak the most fervently in favor of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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