By Alexander Yakobson
Submitted by Correspondent Tom Ifrach
How many binational states are there in the democratic world? Since the Arab leadership in Israel has officially adopted the demand to turn Israel into a binational state, it would be wise to examine how widespread this type of regime is and to find out how successful it is.
One can find two, perhaps three, examples of binational democracies. The most prominent of these are Canada and Belgium. These countries are characterized by constant tension and difficult relations between their two main national components, to the point of endangering their existence. French-speaking Quebec is always on the verge of seceding from Canada, with one foot out the door. In Belgium, the Flemish have stripped the central government of most of its authority and would break up the country were it not for the difficulty involved in dividing up Brussels, where the Flemish- and French-speaking populations are intertwined.
The French-speaking minority in Flanders complains of severe cultural oppression, as does the English-speaking minority in Quebec. No democratic nation-state would today dare to injure the cultural rights of a national minority in this manner. Of course, there is no need to feel sorry for the Canadians and the Belgians: After all, these are two thriving Western countries, whose national tensions do not reach the point of violence. (That said, during the 1970s, under the Liberals, Canada did experience a brief period of violence, emergency laws and administrative detentions.) Still, it is doubtful that these two examples could serve as the poster children for the binational idea.
Some categorize Switzerland as a binational state comprised of German- and French-speakers (as well as speakers of Italian and Romansh). These groups have been living together in the same country for about 800 years. During this period, they have learned how to get along, more or less, and to identify with the country they share. It is actually more accurate to call Switzerland a bilingual (or multilingual) people than a binational state. Switzerland, unlike Belgium, does not have two national sub-governments. In order not to be petty, however, we can let the proponents of binationalism keep Switzerland as a consolation prize.
There is thus one example of a successful binational state, which was established centuries before the age of modern nationalism. Canada and Belgium, in contrast, which were created in the 19th century, operate as binational states only with great difficulty.
The binational experiments of the 20th century ended in resounding failure. Cyprus, which was founded as a binational state, broke up quickly and very violently, and ultimately the island was divided in the wake of war. Czechoslovakia split into two nation-states when democracy returned. The last vestige of Yugoslav multinationalism is Bosnia, which is riven between two nations that NATO forces are attempting to hold together.
The binational idea in the West is thus far from a success story. Now there are calls to realize this idea in the Middle East, where, as we all know, the refreshing winds of binationality are blowing. It is obvious that this idea represents explicit abandonment of the principle of two states for two peoples – a principle whose application requires two separate nation-states, one Jewish-Israel and the other Palestinian-Arab.
However, when it is finally becoming clear that some of those who for decades spoke of “two states for two peoples” are not actually willing to have two states for two countries in Eretz Israel, it is difficult not to wonder whether now, when they are speaking about binationalism, their true intention is indeed a binational state.