The Israel-Palestine Conflict: A Global and Federalist Perspective
Director, One World: Movement for Global Democracy, Tel Aviv, Israel
The long and violent conflict between Israel and Palestine is a powerful example not only of the evils of nationalism, but also of the profound structural shortcomings of the current international system. In what follows I will share some of my thoughts about the place of this conflict in the wider system of global injustice in which we live, and about the deep relevance of the world federalist perspective for those who seek a comprehensive, effective and just solution.
As an Israeli citizen who is passionately engaged in promoting the idea of a democratic world federation, I often encounter the following challenging question: “Your country holds millions of Palestinians under military rule and oppression; shouldn’t you struggle to bring about real democracy at your local level first, and only then talk about fixing the global level?”
My reply to this question is that to the best of my understanding the lack of democracy and rule of law at the global level is actually one of the most fundamental underlying causes of the conflict, and that therefore it must be addressed with the highest priority, if we want to bring the conflict to an end.
To understand this argument, it is useful to consider the rationale of the Zionist movement, whose turn to Palestine ignited the conflict. With all due respect to the ancient longing of religious Jews to return to their biblical ‘promised land’, the main reason that so many (mostly secular) Jews turned to Zionism and immigrated to Palestine from the late 19th century onwards, was the fact that as a minority living in Europe they were too often prone to persecution and oppression, and there was no institution that held the necessary will and power to protect them. While that was not (and is not) the only and the whole truth, in the sense that in many places Jews were (and certainly are) well protected by the local rule of law, there were enough Jews that were indeed attacked or threatened to make many of them believe in the nationalist creed that a nation state ‘of their own’ was their one and only hope for survival. Had there been – in the past or today – a supranational federal government holding the democratic power and legitimacy to defend all humans in the world, Zionism and many other national movements would most likely never have become so popular.
Interestingly, in a democratic world federation the Jews of Israel would again become a minority. However, being a minority – for them as for others – would no longer be problematic, because their security and basic rights would be guaranteed by the federal government at the global level. Furthermore, all groups – whether ethnic, national or religious– would similarly turn into minorities. When we consider the entire population of 7.6 billion potential world citizens, we see that even the largest groupings that we know of – such as ‘Christians’, ‘Muslims’, ‘Chinese’ or ‘Indian’- would only be large minorities: ~31%, ~24%, ~16%, ~15% respectively. These groupings, of course, are anything but homogeneous and are hugely divided internally into far smaller minorities.
This is an important point, because unlike nation-states, which by design are obsessed with maintaining a national majority in the country (and Israel is an extreme example of that obsession), in a global federation ‘the people’ would be composed entirely of minorities. This inherent diversity of the population means that the only social contract that such a polity could be based on would be one that enshrines and protects the basic rights and freedoms of all people and their groups, through effective constitutional and institutional democratic checks and balances.
Furthermore, if some Jews would still want to live anywhere in what they believe to be the territory of the ‘Holy Land’, there would be no restrictions against that, under the framework of a global federation. The only limitation, in contrast to today, would be that they will not be able to exclude others, for example Palestinians, from coming to live next to them and becoming their neighbours. No land would belong exclusively to any group, and people would be free to live wherever they choose, as is customary within democratic federations.
For those who fear that such global freedom of movement would open up the gates for a gigantic wave of global immigration from poor to rich countries, I would say that their fears are ill-founded. Just as national borders are indeed successful today at preventing such immigration, the divisions they create between national legal systems are even more successful at preventing national tax authorities from getting their hands on the wealth of the world’s super-rich. In a world federation, in contrast, whose tax authority would span every corner of the planet, there will be a gigantic wave of redistribution of financial power from the global super-rich to the global super-poor. In such a global ‘mixed economy’ or ‘welfare state’ the global poor will suddenly be able to make a decent living in local jobs, providing necessary services and infrastructures to their own communities. Having that option, it is clear that the vast majority will remain in their homelands with their loved ones, rather than tear themselves from their families, friends and cultures, as so many are forced to do today.
The question of priority
Coming back to the narrower question of Israel and Palestine, one might challenge me further by saying: “A world federation is definitely something to aspire to in the long run, but in the meantime the Palestinians are suffering enormously from atrocious injustice, and they cannot wait for global democracy to emerge. The colonialist project of Zionism continues to deprive them of their basic human rights, in flagrant violation of international law, and it is our moral duty to help and protect them first.”
To explain the flaws in that argument, it is useful to start with a simple analogy: imagine an armed group that bursts into a conference hall and takes all the attendants as hostages. In our domestic national systems, we know it would take much less than 50 minutes before the place would be surrounded with police cars and special forces coming to liberate the captives. Yet in our anarchic international system, Palestinians can live under occupation for well over 50 years and no police force are rushing to help them.
The lesson of this analogy is that while our natural reaction to Israel’s occupation is to condemn Israel and Zionism, the more basic problem is with the international system, that has no real mechanisms for protecting victims and restoring justice. For this reason anyone who really cares for humans in general, and the Palestinians in particular, cannot ignore this aspect of the problem, or postpone it until after the conflict has been resolved. This systemic problem can be addressed and must be addressed as a precondition, or at least alongside any effort to find a local or particular solution. Yet today it is mostly ignored.
Whether one thinks that the conflict should end by dividing the land into two nation-states, or by turning it into one democratic state, one must recognize the necessity of an external authority equipped with sufficient force – and democratic legitimacy – to intervene when necessary to enforce such a solution, and sustain it. Under the current world order, such authority does not exist, and it will surely not just ‘emerge’ by itself if we continue to postpone the discussion about it.
The United Nations clearly does not possess the necessary power for such intervention. The budget of Israel’s army alone is several times bigger than that of all the UN agencies combined. More importantly, the UN does not possess the democratic legitimacy to intervene, as rather than being an organization of ‘Nations’ it is an organization of the governments who come to rule over those nations, regardless of whether these governments are democratically elected or self-imposed.
It is this characteristic of the UN, maybe more than anything else, which shows the greatest weakness of the movement for Palestinian independence: in today’s world there is nothing really unique about the fact that they are oppressed by a government that does not represent them. Openly oppressive governments are perfectly standard, both legally and normatively, in the current world order. One does not need to look far beyond Israel-Palestine to see this plague extending over most countries in the Middle East, and across much of Africa and much of Asia. In fact, two of the five governments holding a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, namely Russia and China, match this definition.
Powers that could actually do something to help the Palestinians, namely the USA, Russia and the EU, have no real interest in ending the conflict, and they act accordingly. If the USA wanted to press Israel, it could cut, for example, the $4 billion worth of military aid that it sends to Israel every year. Yet, if peace in the Middle East suddenly ‘broke out’, the American arms industry would lose dozens or even hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of arms sales to the whole region. While the local workers in the American arms industries have power in American politics by their vote, and while the global investors in those industries have an even greater power by funding American politicians, the victims of the conflict have no way to take part in these decisions that impact their lives so heavily.
With similar ease, the USA could also just refrain from using its veto power on almost every UN resolution against Israel, but chooses not to. The real problem, of course, is not the particular policies of the USA government, but rather the Charter of the UN, that endows that government with such tyrannical powers over the lives of non-citizens in Palestine and other places around the world. The problem is not with the special interests that determine those policies behind closed doors, but with the fact that their power is not checked and balanced by an overarching global federal system that holds sovereignty above the US government: a government of humanity, by humanity and for humanity.
Russia is clearly not a beacon of democracy and justice on this planet, but the EU is similarly not really interested in the plight of the Palestinians. If it wanted, it could easily press Israel by putting some trade sanctions on it, but then if you buy natural gas from Putin and textiles and electronics from Xi-Jinping, you might as well also buy some stuff from Netanyahu. And like in the American case, the European arms industries are also making a significant share of their great sales in the Middle East, and would dread the breakout of peace and unity.
Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has much more to it than Israel and Palestine alone. When we think of it from the broader global perspective, it is also worth reminding ourselves that deep in the cultural history of Europe is the romantic memory of the holy crusades: the long and epic medieval war between Christians and Muslims that centred symbolically on Jerusalem. Being the two greatest monotheistic religions, their fundamental competition was (and to some extent still is) ultimately for dominance over a much bigger territory, the whole of God’s creation - Earth. Against the backdrop of that old rivalry, the 1917 Balfour Declaration that sent the Jews straight to the heart of the Muslim world, to Palestine, was convenient both as a way to clear European soil of the Jewish presence, and as a recipe for igniting a holy war between Jews and Muslims. In this Machiavellian sense, every possible outcome of the scenario seemed beneficial – either, like Oedipus, the war would bring the death to Christianity’s parent religion, Judaism, or – like Cain – the war would weaken Christianity’s younger and annoyingly successful sibling, Islam. Either way, this conflict became a powerful tool for dividing and ruling Christianity’s global competitors.
There are many more examples that show the global nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that are beyond the scope of this short article. But even the few that I have highlighted here should make us understand that solving it requires a systemic and holistic solution. It is too easy to try to blame this or that player in the conflict for following his own narrow interests, but it is far more important to point to the lack of a global justice system that belongs to us all and protects us all. Our basic choice, in other words, is not between a one-state or a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine, but between one federal state of the world or two-hundred sovereign governments that will continue to divide us.
For me, the Earth is our Holy Land, our homeland, our home.