One of the most striking aspects of President Trump’s Middle East “peace plan” is the convoluted map of the future state of Palestine. It envisions a barely-contiguous state, more a series of cantons. Full of holes, it has inevitably been compared to “Swiss cheese.”
How can you make a country out of patches of lands connected by bridges and tunnels, one of which is 20 miles long?
The map alone makes the plan look unworkable. How can you make a country out of patches of lands connected by bridges and tunnels, one of which is 20 miles long? Remember that this is not an archipelago of islands separated by sea, but rather a Palestinian state surrounded mostly by Israeli territory and Israeli control.
History is littered with examples of states condemned to failure—or permanent conditions of weakness, chaos and domination by neighbors—by incongruous and complex borders. The most problematic boundaries are legacies of colonial rule, or its end. The partitions of Palestine and India resulted in intractable conflicts. Independence from colonial rule in the 1960s resulted in several border disputes in Africa, where arbitrary state boundaries bisect tribes and cultural groups. Many conflicts and cartographical curiosities are the product of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In many ways, the proposed map of Palestine resembles the enclave-states created in the post-colonial and post-Soviet periods. These include Nagorno-Karabakh and Nakhchivan—the former controlled by Armenia but claimed by Azerbaijan, and the latter an autonomous exclave of Azerbaijan. There’s also Transnistria, which runs along the Dniester river between Moldova and Ukraine. It is recognized by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, small Russian-supported statelets that were themselves carved out of Georgia. (There are even disputed exclaves within Transnistria.) In Central Asia, there are Uzbek and Tajik enclaves, separated from their parent states because of the legacies of the Soviet era.
The Palestinian patchwork on Trump’s map has also been compared to the “Bantustans” under Apartheid South Africa, and to Native-American reservations in the U.S. To me, they most resemble the most egregiously gerrymandered American electoral districts.
History shows that states without contiguous borders, like East and West Pakistan or te United Arab Republic, tend to break up.
This can happen with a bang, such as the violence that attended the birth of Bangladesh, or with a whimper, as in the quiet break-up of the United Arab Republic (UAR) into the older states of Egypt and Syria.
What fate awaits the state of Palestine? In a world that prioritizes internationally recognized borders, it could end up like South Ossetia, Bosnia, Northern Cyprus or East Timor. Palestine is already widely recognized globally, giving it a status beyond that of Transnistria, but not quite that of Bosnia. But recognition of Palestinian statehood hasn’t reduced Israeli control or empowered the Palestinian Authority, which is crippled by political divisions as well as geography.
If anything, the Palestinians are more divided today than in the past: the Palestinian Authority has spent a quarter century governing a quasi-autonomous entity in the West Bank while Hamas has ruled Gaza for 14 years. Not much is likely to change under the Trump plan, whatever the merits of its economic incentives.
Most of the world does not demand that autonomous areas like Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia in Russia’s Caucuses region become independent.
Most likely, the Palestinian enclaves will remain under Israeli state control, divided into several autonomous areas like Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia in Russia’s Caucuses region. Most of the world does not demand those areas in Russia become independent; the Chechens have apparently given up their ambitions. Given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decades of opposition to recognition for a Palestinian state, and the rise of rightwing parties in Israel that vehemently oppose such a state, Israel’s current leadership will likely hope the Palestinians can be persuaded to do the same as the Chechens and accept some kind of sub-state status.
Palestinian leaders have unanimously rejected the Trump initiative, but it is not clear what they can do to alter the status quo. There’s little appetite to return to the violence of the 1990s and early 2000s. In the West Bank, Israeli communities are so entangled with the Palestinians, there seems no way to extricate either side into a workable two-state solution. Trump’s map will not change that.
Original publication by Seth Frantzman in Bloomberg Opinion on February 3, 2020.
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Seth J. Frantzman has covered the war against Islamic State, three Gaza wars, the conflict in Ukraine, the refugee crises in Eastern Europe and also reported from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Senegal, the UAE, Ukraine and Russia. Born in Maine, he received his Ph.D from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2010. He previously served as a research associate at the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and a lecturer in American Studies at Al-Quds University. Currently he is the Executive Director of The Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Frantzman has conducted research and worked for the JDC, The Shalem Center, the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies and as a Post-Doctoral at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a Congressional intern for Congressman Jim Kolbe while studying at The University of Arizona. A contributor to Defense News, The National Interest and the Digest of Middle East Studies. His current interests include regional security, Kurdish issues, refugees, the history of the Holy Land, the Bedouin and land laws. As a features writer and commentator on current affairs and politics he attempts to provide new views on old canards, reflected in his column’s name, Terra Incognita.