What is self-determination?

Last week’s decision by the International Criminal Court to accept jurisdiction over possible war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories has put the Israel/Palestine debate back in the spotlight, confronting Joe Biden with a foreign policy headache that he could well do without. I might look at the legal question at a later date, but for now I’m more interested in the underlying philosophical issue, particularly as raised in a piece by Peter Beinart the previous week.

Beinart is a prominent opponent of Israeli government policies and of the outlandish claims sometimes made in the west to justify them. In this piece he’s arguing against the unconditional adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and particularly its examples, one of which is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”

The way this works is that self-determination is supposed to be a universal right, so denying it specifically to the Jews is antisemitism. So anyone who supports, for example, converting Israel into a state of all its citizens, where Jews and Palestinians would have equal status, can be accused of being antisemitic. As Beinart puts it,

The claim that opposing Jewish statehood constitutes bigotry because it denies Jews the universal right of national self-determination has become a widely accepted axiom of American and global political discourse.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of self-determination. I’ve argued consistently for the rights of such groups as the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Chechens, the Falkland Islanders, the West Papuans and many others to decide for themselves on independence or belonging to some other country. Beinart, however, denies that this is what self-determination entails – as expressed in his title, “There Is No Right to a State.”

Beinart rightly points out the way that the United Nations has backtracked on the right of self-determination and instead endorsed the interests of its existing governments in protecting their “territorial integrity”. But I think he goes to far in inferring that self-determination doesn’t necessarily involve the option of statehood, and that therefore selectively denying it can’t amount to bigotry.

He argues that the supporters of the Israeli government have not

called Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez a bigot for refusing a vote on independence for Catalonia, nor Boris Johnson for refusing a new referendum on statehood for Scotland, nor Narendra Modi for refusing to allow a plebiscite on sovereignty for Kashmir.

– and says that to make that claim in the case of Israel is “inventing a right that does not exist.”

Well, allow me to put my hand up. Modi, at least, is a bigot in relation to the rights of the Kashmiris; Johnson, whatever his personal views, is clearly pandering to bigots in his own party, and Sánchez is doing what he thinks is politically necessary to stop his opponents from capitalising on the bigotry of the electorate.

Of course, a principled position of respect for existing boundaries at all costs would be immune to the charge of bigotry. But support for the national claims of some but not others is bound to be problematic, and whether those claims are couched in terms of national independence or some lesser status is relatively unimportant.

Beinart quotes David Miller saying that “Having a state of its own may, under certain conditions, be the preferred way for a group capable of self-determination to achieve it … but often there will be better alternatives available.” That’s perfectly true, but when such a group constitutes a clear majority on its own territory, the choice of whether statehood is the best option is a matter for it to decide, not for outside pundits.

Beinart is actually making a much broader claim than he needs. As he realises, his opponents are arguing in bad faith; they do not in fact believe in an equally-applicable right to self-determination, because they deny that right to the Palestinians. They embrace, in Beinart’s words, “the perverse argument that treating Jews and Palestinians equally constitutes bigotry but privileging Jews over Palestinians does not.”

The problem in Israel/Palestine is that there are two competing national groups with conflicting visions, neither of which commands a solid or uncontroversial majority among the whole population of the territory. The principled options therefore are either (a) partition between them, the “two-state solution”, or (b) a single state that accords equal rights and cultural recognition to both groups. The same two options apply to any territory with a similarly mixed population.

Those who are trying to weaponise the charge of antisemitism, however, are not interested in either principled option. Their preference is for Israeli imperialism, treating the Palestinians as a subject race, but that’s a preference that can’t be explicitly avowed. Hence their notable failure to articulate just what future shape for the region they have in mind.

Beinart’s view is that in present circumstances, the single-state solution is the way to go. For what it’s worth I agree with him about that, although I take rather less rosy a view of Palestinian intentions than he does. But it doesn’t follow that self-determination has nothing to do with national independence, only that not every case will meet the appropriate conditions for it.

I don’t dispute that there are some problems with the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, and certainly with the use that some groups have made of it. (Ben White had a good account of them a couple of years back.) But to respond by weakening our understanding of self-determination is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

4 thoughts on “What is self-determination?

  1. ‘Beinart’s view is that in present circumstances, the single-state solution is the way to go. For what it’s worth I agree with him about that, although I take rather less rosy a view of Palestinian intentions than he does. But it doesn’t follow that self-determination has nothing to do with national independence, only that not every case will meet the appropriate conditions for it.’

    What do you consider to be the appropriate conditions, and specifically how are they not met in this case?

    A single-state solution in which that single state is not a continuation of the present State of Israel** is only possible if the present State of Israel is abolished, dissolved, absorbed, or otherwise ceases to be. There’s no practical likelihood of the Israelis agreeing to that, and it’s hard to figure any reason why they should; effort directed towards that goal would be wasted effort.

    ** I make this exception because if the State of Israel annexed the West Bank and the Gaza Strip what would result would be a single-state solution. There’s no practical likelihood of this happening (for different reasons from those applying to the other theoretical single-state scenario), it’s hard to figure it as a desirable outcome even if it were practicable, and effort directed towards it would be wasted effort, but in principle it would produce a solution with a single state, that state being the State of Israel (with an increased territory, and with whatever other changes to the law would follow–and there would have to be changes to the law, although in this purely hypothetical situation more than one hypothetical set of possible changes to the law is imaginable–but still, legally, a continuation of the present State of Israel).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks J-D. The main condition that’s relevant here is that there has to a reasonably well-defined territory that the national group is willing, perhaps with a bit of haggling, to accept as its homeland, and where it constitutes a clear majority. But Israeli policy over the last 30 years has succeeded in muddying the territorial waters so much that that no longer seems possible – no Israeli govt can abandon the settlers, and maintaining the settlements makes the Palestinian territory unviable. Israel’s leaders are set on keeping the lot for themselves, and in Israel/Palestine as a whole the Jews don’t have a clear majority.

      As to exactly how a single-state solution could be arrived and could work, yes, I agree that’s an extremely difficult question. But it seems to me that in the last decade the balance has shifted to the extent that the difficulty there, while very great, is now less than the difficulty involved in unscrambling the territorial egg. (I could of course be wrong about this.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ‘The main condition that’s relevant here is that there has to a reasonably well-defined territory that the national group is willing, perhaps with a bit of haggling, to accept as its homeland, and where it constitutes a clear majority.’

    Consider the case of the Kingdom of Italy as established in 1860. There were, in 1860, Italian nationalist irredentist claims/aspirations to territory beyond the 1860 boundary, but the existence of those aspirations was not by itself enough to make impossible the establishment of self-determination in the form of national independence within that 1860 boundary.

    The 1949 Armistice Agreements (I find on checking the point) explicitly stipulated that armistice demarcation lines were not political or territorial boundaries but they are, nonetheless, reasonably well-defined, and the existence of both Israeli and Palestinian territorial aspirations on both sides of the line–and of mixed populations on both sides of the lines–doesn’t by itself mean that the stipulation you’ve stated isn’t met for self-determation for the majority on each side of the lines.

    I don’t mean that I think that would be the best outcome or the most likely outcome. I find it difficult to imagine any plausible sequence of events over the next thirty years that would lead to a two-state solution. However, I find it equally difficult to imagine any plausible sequence of events over the next thirty years that would lead to a one-state solution. I also find equally difficult to imagine the current situation still obtaining, without significant change, thirty years from now. There’s no sequence of events I can imagine for the next thirty years that seems plausible to me; but I know that some sequence of events will unfold over the next thirty years without respect to the limitations of my imagination.

    The conclusion I draw is that as a matter of practical politics (not that either of us, I take it, will play any part in the practical politics of the issue, no matter what turn it takes), effort spent now on defining any specific long-term goal is likely to be wasted. I think anybody who has the opportunity to play a practical part in the politics of the region would do better to spend their efforts on immediate measures. For example, without downplaying the difficutles in the way of achieving it, an Israeli government policy that gives less support than now (or maybe even none) to further expansion of settlements seems to me to be at least possible, and also a goal worth pursuing independently of any conception of what longer-term resolution it might contribute to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – they’re all fair points. I certainly agree about the usefulness of short-term goals on both sides. And yes, despite the limitations of our imagination, something will definitely happen, altho I fear it won’t be anything good.

      Liked by 1 person

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