Are Palestinians walking into a trap at the UN?

When the South African government tried to build non-sovereign states for its blacks they were soundly rejected by the world community. But now the Palestinians appear to be the ones seeking to legitimise their own Bantustan.

Virginia Tilley has  a very important post up on Electronic Intifada, discussing the possibility the Palestinian bid at the UN is a political suicide of sorts. She argues they are defiantly riding into the very trap the South African national movement managed to avoid: International recognition for divided, isolated, powerless cantons as a “nation state” solution for national aspirations of the oppressed.  She suggests:

…it’s no exaggeration to propose that this idea, although well-meant by some, raises the clearest danger to the Palestinian national movement in its entire history, threatening to wall Palestinian aspirations into a political cul-de-sac from which it may never emerge. The irony is indeed that, through this maneuver, the PA is seizing — even declaring as a right — precisely the same dead-end formula that the African National Congress (ANC) fought so bitterly for decades because the ANC leadership rightly saw it as disastrous. That formula can be summed up in one word: Bantustan.


The Bantustans were designed to correspond roughly to some of the historical territories associated with the various black “peoples” so that they could claim the term “Homelands.” This official term indicated their ideological purpose: to manifest as national territories and ultimately independent states for the various black African “peoples” (defined by the regime) and so secure a happy future for white supremacy in the “white” Homeland (the rest of South Africa). So the goal of forcibly transferring millions of black people into these Homelands was glossed over as progressive: 11 states living peacefully side by side (sound familiar?).

The idea was first to grant “self-government” to the Homelands as they gained institutional capacity and then reward that process by declaring/granting independent statehood… the most urgent mission of apartheid South Africa — getting the indigenous people to declare statehood in non-sovereign enclaves — finally collapsed with mass black revolt and took apartheid down with it, yet the Palestinian leadership now is not only walking right into that same trap but actually making a claim on it.

And drives it home:

It must be obvious that, if Israel had stood up in the international stage and said “as you are, you are now a state” that Palestinians and everyone else would have rejected the claim out of hand as a cruel farce. Yet getting the Palestinians to declare statehood themselves allows Israel precisely the outcome that eluded the apartheid South African regime: voluntary native acceptance of “independence” in a non-sovereign territory with no political capacity to alter its territorial boundaries or other essential terms of existence — the political death capsule that apartheid South Africa could not get the ANC to swallow.

Tilley’s warnings echo much of what I’ve felt regarding the two-state solution in any realistically attainable form, but the prospect of self-imposed international recognition for a shredded, disfigured non-entity of a state is, indeed, an especially frightening one. I strongly suggest you read the entire thing, complete with a thorough explanation of the Bantustan tactic in South Africa and its differences and similarities to the prospects in Israel-Palestine.

My main beef with her text is her assertion Israel is only raising a ruckus about September to convince the Palestinians to go for it (hence “getting” in the last quote; there’s more assertive speculation in the text itself).  Israel may well be poised to benefit a potential diplomatic development, as Tilley argues; but it could at the same time devoting every conceivable effort to undermine it. Wouldn’t be the first time.