Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia was up to some political mischief last week. He said that if Israel keeps building a wall around the shrinking Palestinian enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians may give up on the long-standing two-state solution, and go for a single state. That idea has been bruited by Palestinians recently, partly, it seems, as a way to spook Israelis with the thought of a single state (in which Jews would soon be outnumbered) and so pressure them back to serious negotiations for a Palestinian state.

For the record, I support any solution — two-state, one-state or none at all — agreed to democratically by the peoples of the region. But the Qureia ploy offers a chance to reconsider one of the main failed strategies for conflict resolution in modern times: partition, the original term for a two-state solution. It has been tested widely with terrible results.

India and Pakistan were partitioned, followed by Bangladesh, with continuing prospects of nuclear war. Cyprus remains partitioned and unresolved. Ditto Ireland. And the Mideast. Those are old examples, yet the model persists in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia — where ethnic cleansing was part of the process. But ethnic cleansing in the form of population transfer accompanied by violence went with all these versions of partition. Why have its effects been so grim and festering?

It came from a bad place. Most of the cases above emerged during the disintegration of the British Empire. The British had employed their trusty divide-and-conquer tactic to rule, and then adapted it to the end of their rule: divide-and-get-out. It was a simple way to limit the conflicts their policies had encouraged, while exiting fast. Partition was also a tempting route for opportunistic local leaders (that may include Gandhi) and sincere anti-colonial fighters (also including Gandhi), as a way to independence.

But none of the ethnic, religious or communal frictions (Hindus and Muslims, Jews and Arabs etc.) got resolved; the battle fronts simply shifted to the borders. The conflicts continued.

Yes, yes, I know: What’s the alternative? These are ancient hatreds, it’s part of human nature, etc. I think such responses are in the realm of cliché, fatalism and negative vibes. Take two quick counterexamples. For 700 years, Hindus, Muslims and others cohabited India, partly under Muslim rule, then under the British, with some conflict but immense cultural sharing. Seven hundred years is not a blip. It amounts to a civilization itself. During an earlier seven centuries in southern Spain, Muslims, Christians and Jews built a vibrant, harmonious society. It was not just an occupation waiting for the Catholic kings to return. Such swathes of time make recent partitions look flimsy and dubious. Even Zionism once contained a strong tradition that aimed at a homeland with cultural and physical security for Jews, but not necessarily a majority Jewish state.

Let me end with a recent example of the perversity a partition model can lead to. Benny Morris is an Israeli revisionist historian whose work shows that during the move to partition, Israel expelled or transferred many of its Palestinian inhabitants through means that included terror, massacres and rape. People tended to assume he decried such things, but last week, in a gut-wrenching interview, he said he approved of expulsion — though not rape and massacre — and even felt Israel might not have gone far enough. He said, “There are circumstances . . . that justify ethnic cleansing,” such as “annihilation of your people” by an enemy who, unlike you, has “no moral inhibitions,” and is like “a wild animal that has to be locked up.”

Let me say I do not find such thinking shocking or incomprehensible. It is not hard to follow the terrified, categorizing logic it employs.

The real question is: How can you think your way out of such a mindset and its conclusions? I would say you might begin by not defining yourself solely or mainly in terms of an ethnic, religious, national or other general identity. If you see yourself largely as a human being, or a moral agent, and then view those others, who seem threatening, in a similar way, you are less likely to move relentlessly and confidently to such stark conclusions as Benny Morris does. Partition, it seems to me, flows out of, and then reinforces, the fearful, narrow view: We cannot live with them, I can only live with my own, there is nothing in common to build on. Such ideas present themselves as conclusions based on the past, but are at least as much premises about the future and what is possible from now on.

Such a shift would not require abandoning religious, ethnic, racial or other identities, but it would mean relativizing them, if only a bit, in a (I realize this is not exactly a trendy term) humanistic frame.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.