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Palestine, the Arab World and the Emerging International System: Values, Culture and Politics

Jul 5, 1993, Speech held at the Joint International Conference “Palestine, the Arab World and the Emerging International System: Values, Cultures and Politics”. Birzeit - Jerusalem - Nablus, 5-9 July 1993
1. Unresolved ethnic questions generate crisis areas in the emerging new international system

The collapse of the former existing international order, based on the East-West-confrontation of two opposite comprehensive block-systems, produces troubles throughout the world. Whatever were the expectations, ambitions, interests, tensions, conflicts people expressed previously had to be placed within the context of the block-system, which controlled and limited their activities. Now these interests and ambitions are free to explode and to seek the best momentum for seizing their opportunities. Ethno-nationalism plays a very powerful role in these circumstances.
Around the South-Eastern Mediterranean there are three major conflict areas, where ethno-national crisis are causing vaste problems: 1) The Balkans (not only the former Yugoslavia), 2) The Middle East (not only the Palestinian and the Kurdish question), 3) The Caucasus region.
There are, in this area, several major unresolved ethno-national questions, which become even more acute in an historical period when demands for national subjectivity, collecitve self-fulfilment, cultural and political self-determination and self-government are growing and ethnic rights are claimed. Relations between and among ethno-national communities are affected, provoking also many complicated disputes on borders: it means, on how and where to define the extension in the space of this or that ethno-national subject.
This may be quite understandable, because of the need of identity and self-affirmation through own values and own aspirations, especially after the loss of any comprehensive universal approach which might have provided in the past the frame for a larger identification. It is not only for material or strategic interests or hegemonial tendencies that the “process of Balkanization and Lebanization” - so accurately analyzed by prof. Roger Heacock - takes place. Evidence is provided by various ethnic or self-determination movements - which emerge also as a reaction to centralization, imposed modernization, oppression and the eradication of diversity - and which can even lead to racism and violence. It should however be made clear that there is a very broad and varied spectrum of ethno-nationalistic trends and movements which cannot all be measured by the same yardstick and must be viewed and approached individually. Some more geographically or socio-economically peripheral regions can mantain a much greater diversity and thereby perhaps a greater potential for conflict than have the bastions of industry, technology, mass communications and highly-organized and thoroughly-managed modernity. Tension and conflict, however, must not be viewed in a purely negative light, they are bound up with vitality and authenticity.

Ethno-national states: the simple answer, but...

The simplest answer to these demands would be the “Nation State”, if not the “Ethnic State”. “Let’s give all of them their own Nation State...”, or “Self-determination should lead everybody to their own Nation State, within which each Nation can rule itself: if it’s correct for French or British or German or Italian or Polish or Swedish people, why not for Croats, Serbs, Georgians, Armenians, Palestinians, Jews, Kurds...?”.
Maybe it is historically unavoidable that Nation States are demanded by many of those who never enjoyed this achievement of modern history. They have equal rights to seek the same developments, to cultivate the same aspirations and to make the same mistakes as others did before. In this case we will once again come to accept that peoples (and possibly ethnic groups) will consider the formation of a Nation State, or incorporation into a Nation State, as the best, or only possible, way to fulfil their aspirations, with its borders defined as clearly as possible.
But the Nation State, especially if based on imposed ethnic or religious homogeneity, perhaps is not the most adequate answer. It could be a kind of historically “obsolete technology”, inappropriate for providing the best framework for individual and collective self-fulfilment and peaceful relations among different individuals and communities.
There may be some practical obstacles, and some more fundamental - maybe theoretical - objections to the Nation-State solution. First of all: There are today about one hundred and eighty sovereign states, but certainly more than five thousand languages. Do we need some five thousand Nation States in order to enjoy full self-affirmation? Maybe the present system of statehood, with its concept and practice of national sovereignity, including the right to have and to use an army, is not the best way to assure to everybody the achievement of individual or collective emancipation and development.
There is also another very practical obstacle. The ‘peoples’ of the world, and specifically of Europe, are very rarely settled in the kind of undiluted concentrations which would enable clear boundaries to be drawn, and hence the imposition of a system of Nation States in the present circumstances implies a large degree of conflict - at international level as well.
There are many more peoples, ethnic groups , tribes, etc. than it is possible to accomodate within separate Nation States; practically nowhere is there a people, all of whom actually live in one and only one state, and practically no state can with complete justification be regarded as a mono-ethnic.
The absence of clear borders between ethno-national communities and the gap between the number of claims to nationhood by many communities and the realistic possibility to put this into reality - as long as States are defined as they are actually - may lead certain efforts to built up Nation States to promote war, to impose dramatic ethnic cleansing, to force national or ethnic or religious homogeneization. Not only the present Balkan war proves evidence: the history of the State of Israel, founded by a nation which for nearly two millenniums was able to preserve and develop itself without any Nation State, witnesses the tremendous modification provoked by the obsession of building up a Nation State.
The history of almost all Nation States proves further, that forced inclusion through imposed assimilation and forced exclusion - from marginalization and segregation in ghettoes up to expulsion and extermination - are alternating tools for the same purpose: the achievement of identification and homogeneity, such as it is required by the “true” Nation State.
There are also some more theoretical objections to the apparently triumphant idea of Nation State. The dominance of the aim of ethnic (or religious, or tribal, or racial...) homogeneity - especially if it’s imposed via statehood - leads easily to exclusivism and fundamentalism. It is clear that any state-based fundamentalism or exclusivism is much more dangerous and powerful than any other. A policy of cooperation which favours multi-ethnic coexistence cannot aim primarily at nationhood, but requires institutional measures to safeguard linguistic, ethnic, cultural and religious pluralism, substantial equal rights and, above all, grants real recognition to the value of diversity and promotes it.
Furthermore most of the current existing so-called Nation States are simultaneously too big and too small - too big to effectively ensure democracy and participation; too small to effectively solve problems having a supranational dimension (such as environmental protection, disarmament or security policy).
But it is important to note that there are at the same time also many creative and constructive aspects to ethno-nationalist movements, for example the increased value attached to linguistic and cultural characteristics, traditions and specific ways of living, without regard to mere economic or political ‘status’.
Compulsory ‘development’ along the lines of the modern industrial society and of a single form of economy - the money and profit-oriented one, which is dominated by the world market - enforced by economic, political or even military means, understandably provokes resistance.
It must indeed be understood as a challenge, to preserve and defend economies, cultures, social systems and ways of living which go against the stream and are keen to maintain and develop their ‘uneconomic’ and to some extend disturbing “diversity”, despite the amount of energy this requires.

Can federalism provide elements for better solutions, in view of a post-nation-state development?

Perhaps the return of the Nation States - even as reaction to denied rights and longlasting oppression - may be historically unavoidable in the short term, at least until it leads into a total catastrophe. But in the long term one should look further, and there are two developments which seem to deserve closer attention:

a) The tendency towards supra-national integration, at least on a regional level (e.g. like European Community, and many other bodies with similar purposes: Organization for African Unity, MERCOSUR in Southern America, etc.);

b) The tendency towards decentralization of state, i.e. towards regionalisation, at an administrative and legislative level so that power can be decentralized in favour of more local units, based on sharing the same territory, not necessarily the same ethnic belonging.
True federalism means transferring power and competencies, decision-making and participation from the national level both to the supra-national and to the infra-national (local, regional) level. Some of the inconvenients met by Nation States may be corrected by federalism, included the lack of real democracy and participation. Even ethnic conflicts are easier to manage if the local community, based on the common territory and on the common every-day-life, is the most decisive level of policy-making, and if the strict national, ethnic or confessional dimension of the state is integrated within a wider supra-national framework. This is why minorities and ethnic groups in Europe today are stressing European integration and federalism much more than other citizens belonging to the national majorities.
Such a perspective based on supra-national integration and regional decentralization may provide a more attractive political vision than the simple struggle for the Nation State which very frequently leads to tragic and dramatic confrontations where military power and political interests, not justice and national self-reliance, finally become decisive in achieving results.
Maybe a major attention to federalism could give useful suggestions also in such conflict areas as mentioned before, like the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus region.

Middle East: challenge for the European Community; support peace negotiations, support the weaker part in negotiations

Unresolved ethnic conflicts and increasing influence of unsatisfied national aspirations in the Mediterranean area (like the Palestinian question, Cyprus, the Balkan conflicts, Kurds, etc.) are an outstanding challenge for the European Community. First of all because of the risks of instability and threats for security they are causing. Secondly it is unthinkable that in one part of Europe peaceful and democratic integration can further progress if in other parts of the same geographic, cultural and economic area tensions and conflicts are provoking disintegration, oppression, hostility and war.
Fundamental impulses for democratic integration cannot grow in a context where important parts of the same family are falling apart or feel denied in their identity, oppressed, deprived from their rights or from enjoying the same quality of civic development. Furthermore a convergent integration of interests of different European countries is much more difficult to achieve if ethnic conflicts are spreading, leading allied countries to take different sides: examples are provided by the tremendous Yugoslav war, but also by the eternal Greek-Turkish and by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and so on.
So it is in the interest of the European Community to contribute to a just and lasting peace in Middle East. And even if the credibility of any E.C. foreign policy maybe extremely reduced after its very poor performance in the Gulf war and, worse, in the Yugoslav crisis, there is no alternative. The European Community can hardly develop its further integration and a major role in foreign and security policy if it does not succeed in supporting the peace process in the Middle East, and especially between Israelis and Palestinians. It is shameful enough that the European Community actually is just a cheque-payer, with a very modest political profile and a very limited influence concerning the Middle East peace process. So it was not surprising that after the recent Copenhagen Summit of the Twelve just a few lines in the final press release were devoted to the Middle East question.
But despite many well grounded criticisms of the E.C., there are at least two imperatives which should link the European Community and the peace process in the Middle East:
a) A regional integration perspective, like EC is experiencing, may provide some important alternatives for a future peace settlement in the Middle East;
b) A major EC committment in the peace process could help to bring a new dynamism to peace negotiations.

a) Even if the development of the European Community is in many regards not really satisfying, it remains comparatively the most successful contemporary example of supra-national democratic integration. The large fascination exercised by the EC worldwide proves it.
“The European Community was at its beginning based on common interests concerning coal and steel. Why should it not be possible to see a Middle East Community based, at its beginning, on common interests concerning oil and water?” This question, asked recently by a prominent politician of this region (Shimon Peres), should be carefully discussed and possibly answered.

b) The call for a major committment of the European Community in the Middle East peace process is not only due to a sense of solidarity or justice, it is also a question of political survival for the Community itself. How could this Community become a wordlwide protagonist of a peaceful new order, if it is not able to promote peace and justice in its immediate surroundings - the Mediterranean region is of the utmost highest interest for the European Community! - and in a conflict which derives to a large extent from a negative European heritage?
Actually it’s the first time that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are welcoming - even with a different understanding and with a certain degree of different expectations - the fact that the European Community could play a more active role in the process. This opportunity should be seized, especially because ot the deep change in the Madrid process after the dissolution of the former Soviet Union.
The committment of the European Community should support the negotiation process, and within this process show a particular understanding for the weaker part, i.e. the Palestinian side (obviously without any prejudice to the Israeli position). This would also balance a certain more pro-Israel attitude of the USA.

A Larger regional framework: a Mediterranean Helsinki process?

It’s time to look at the future of the whole region, and to consider the different crisis areas in the South Eastern Mediterranean area as a part of this region, which deserves a broader approach, looking forward to a comprehensive framework.
The European Parliament several times (and especially in the Romeos-Resolution, 9.10.1990, in the Van-den-Brink-Resolution, 17.5.1991, and in the Langer-Resolution, 27.5.1993) recommended positively an idea which was also emphasised, two years ago, by several Governments (like Spain, Italy, Greece and France): the idea to implement in the Mediterranean region a similar process took place, after 1975, between Western and Eastern Europe, the so called Helsinki process, or the CSCE process.
CSCE means Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and includes, since the first Helsinki Final Act (1975), all European States (at the time Albania was not among the signatories), and therefore also the Soviet Union, plus USA and Canada. The three “baskets” of this Conference were disarmament and arms control, economic and scientific cooperation, human rights and democracy. It was convened between quite different political systems in the hope that cooperation and confidence building measures could lead - to a certain extent - to common values and common rules. It is not by chance that a large number of “Helsinki Watch Groups” were established, especially in Eastern Europe, in order to call for real application of the Helsinki promises, and nobody ignores the force exercised by the Helsinki ideas and principles in overcoming the Cold War.
The CSCM - Conference for Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean - which the European Parliament together with some other international institutions was recommending, could provide a larger common framework (even with different political systems and different understandings of democracy, rule of law, etc.) for all the neighbouring States and entities in the Mediterranean region, and - maybe - some relevant “outsiders”. The “baskets” could be defined partially like it was in Helsinki (disarmement, arms reduction, arms control; economic and scientific cooperation; human rights), and partially on new issues (like, e.g., environment, regional development, cultural cooperation...). Such a process would surely improve the Mediterranean cooperation, and could insert specific issues (like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) in a broader framework of common principles and regulations.
Certainly it is not easy to start such a broad process, but the spreading of (not only ethnic) conflicts may force us to look for new tools to promote cooperation and regional security. What is needed, is leadership that is ready today to launch successfully the idea of a Mediterranean Helsinki process.

The role of civil society in such a perspective

These ideas - regional integration and cooperation, post-Nation-State development, etc. - need to be discussed and supported by political leaders for them to become reality.
But why not within the civil society - which is not strictly dependent on political interests and diplomatic caution - anticipate, test, support, enforce such ideas, even before political leaders are ready or willing to act in this direction?
Different forces within civil society are positively acting in many Mediterranean countries, even in the actual conflict areas. There is a “Verona Forum for Peace and Reconciliation on the territory of the Former Yugoslavia”, there is a “Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly”, there are groups like “Time for peace” and “Salaam, children of the Olive Trees”, there is a large NGO-community acting on the issues of peace, cooperation, sustainable development, environment, youth exchange, cultural cooperation, womens’ dignity and liberation, there are tolerant religious groups acting in a spirit of mutual knowledge and understanding, there are peace and dialogue groups in many conflict areas... There are civic networks already spread in many concerned countries and frequently deep-rooted in the civil society.
The civil society approach - based on the creation of social networks - can provide the environment for a better, more equal and more intensive inter-action between several conflict-counterparts, like Israeli Jews and Palestinians, in the region, and - maybe - for some courageous initiatives between the Jewish and the Palestinian diaspora, which seem highly needed. The question asked by Deborah Gerner, how the two communities - the Israeli-Jewish and the Palestinian-Arab - can be so distant, could perhaps find new and more promising answers in such a framework, based on civil society initiatives, dialogue, mutual knowledge, mutual interest for language, culture, tradition, exchange of experiences, and maybe - one day - with mixed groups, which is the highest possible form of confidence-building between hostile ethno-national communities.

Speech held at the Joint International Conference “Palestine, the Arab World and the Emerging International System: Values, Cultures and Politics”, organised by Birzeit University and The Association of Arab American University Graduates.
Birzeit - Jerusalem - Nablus, 5-9 July 1993

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