Abstract: The National Question and a future Palestinian-Israeli state and society: Comparisons with South Africa
by Salim Vally & Na'eem Jeenah
Presented at "Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace" Conference, Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto
While the one-state vs two-state debate with regard to Palestine and Israel has waged in earnest since the partitioning of British Mandate Palestine into two entities by UN General Assembly Resolution 181, only recently have protagonists of the debate been adding substance to what both options might practically mean. This paper aims to enhance the discussion on the substance. In particular, it will focus on the challenges to both options that will be posed by the national question.
The 'national question' has been debated for decades. While, initially, it was framed as a European question of national self-determination / independence, it later also focussed on national unity / cohesion in Third World liberation struggles. In the context of the post-apartheid South African state and future Palestinian-Israeli statehood, the National Question focuses on issues such as: how the notion of 'nation' is constructed, who is regarded as part of the 'nation', what role ethnicity, class, language and religion play in defining the nation, the kind of recognition or protection different groups within the new 'nation' might seek, and the possibility – in each context – of a unified or cohesive 'nation'.
The South African struggle against colonialism and apartheid aimed – even across ideologically divergent organisations – to create a new post-apartheid state that would be (using the term used in the Palestinian-Israeli debate) a "one-state solution", which would incorporate all the "homelands" and allow no autonomous or self-governing territory (in any configuration) for any group. That objective was achieved within the framework of a democratic state with equal rights for all citizens and a constitution with a strong bill of rights based on individual rights.
Despite this success, and 14 years after South Africa's first democratic election, a most critical issue around which the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles were waged – the national question – has yet to be resolved. The South African constitution ignores the issue. It has also been ignored politically and socio-economically. The results of this non-resolution are increasingly being witnessed and experienced by South Africans – in their daily lives as an ongoing struggle against racism and impoverishment, and as occasional flare-ups that cause the country to take notice before it is again relegated to the backburner in favour of unifying rhetoric. The most recent of these flare-ups was xenophobic violence that consumed parts of the country early in 2008, and which forced many South Africans to ask deep questions about the nature of their state and the notion of a South African nation.
The national question, for South Africa, should have been addressed during the negotiation process preceding its first democratic election. An attempt at resolution at that stage would have placed the problem squarely on the agenda of all political parties and the nation. The euphoria following the election gave a false sense of unity that pushed the question into the far recesses of the nation's consciousness.
Following the South African example, we argue that in the Palestinian-Israeli case, for both models of statehood, a critical issue that will determine success or failure will be the national question. It can be the one question whose non-resolution might spell disaster for either model. This question must be addressed during any "negotiations" for a resolution of the conflict and not left for later. If delayed, the disastrous consequences for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis could plunge the region into a deep and long-lasting morass. The one-state model, we argue, allows greater possibilities for the resolution of the National Question. This paper explores some ways in which the issue might be addressed and resolved – from constitutional options to political solutions.