Can South Tyrol be a model for the West Bank?

The region of South Tyrol in northern Italy suffered from bitter disputes between Austria and Italy regarding its sovereignty, until finally it gained its own autonomous status. The example that South Tyrol sets is unique but can it repeated in the West Bank?

South Tyrol (photo credit: Courtesy)
South Tyrol
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Italian province of South Tyrol, autonomous since 1971, can provide an optimistic but realistic model for a possible solution regarding the West Bank.
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South Tyrol, a culturally eclectic province surrounded by Italy and Austria,  was originally part of the Austro-Hungarian County of Tyrol before being annexed by Italy after World War I. The province finally gained autonomy in 1971 when a Austro-Italian treaty was signed. 
A similar autonomy (as opposed to full statehood) could prove to be a safe and practical solution for Palestinians living in the West Bank today.
Historically, it has been aggressor nations that lose wars that are the ones forced to cede territory to surrounding nations. Israel however, did not lose its defensive war of 1967, so the call for Israel to surrender its occupied territories is an unfair double standard set by a biased international community.
Since 1967, Israel has been overly generous in giving up conquered land, as demonstrated with the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, Israel’s generosity was often met with increased violence and acts of terror.
In this context, Israel's reluctance to “release” the West Bank so that a Palestinian state can be established is more than understandable. The train-wreck sequel is prewritten: Hamas could come to power in what might be the first and last democratic elections of the new state. And not long after that, Israel can expect to be barraged with rockets and missiles.
Under these circumstances Israel would be crazy to give the West Bank its independence and to allow for a Palestinian army. Hamas and its supporters in Gaza are not the only ones that openly call for the destruction of the State of Israel; many of their Palestinian brothers in the West Bank join in the battle cry. Given this, the founding of their own state based on 1967 lines could in no conceivable way insure peace in the region.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that prior to 1948, there was no Palestinian claim to the land. It has always been a region populated by Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and never was there a Palestinian dominion. Therefore the international community’s indignation to ”restore” Palestinian sovereignty is as nonsensical as it is ill-advised.
Let us now return to the comparison of the West Bank with South Tyrol. The latter is home to both German-speaking and Italian populations that live side by side in peace. This wasn’t always the case. Austria and Italy butted heads over the disputed region for decades before finally coming to an autonomy agreement in the early nineties. Since then, South Tyrol has flourished and prospered and is now one of the wealthiest regions in Italy.
Let’s suppose for a minute that control of the West Bank could be reorganized in accordance with the model of South Tyrol: the region would become autonomous (and therefore have its own parliament), but Israeli settlers would be allowed to remain in their homes. The economy of the West Bank would be integrated into that of Israel – which would only serve Palestinian interests.
The Palestinians would be given the opportunity to shape their own culture and religion. And since it is essential that both Jews and Arabs have an equal say in the country’s future, a transitional period of about 20 to 30 years (here’s hoping it would take less time) will lapse before Palestinian parties would also be established. The central government would remain in the Knesset but would eventually include representation from parties in the autonomous West Bank.
At an even later stage, say after 40 to 50 years, both West Bank Palestinians and Jewish Israelis should be permitted to reside anywhere they want in Israel. However, this will not change the issue of the Palestinian right of return, which in reality is another non-sequitur. Since they are not Israeli citizens and there never existed a legitimate Palestinian nationality, Palestinians from areas outside of Israel, including those in Jordan and Lebanon, cannot be allowed to return.
Once the autonomous region is secure and in place, it will of course be necessary to dismantle the security fence. The IDF would remain responsible for the security of the entire area, but eventually, the ideal would be that Palestinian soldiers would also be drafted.
The annexation of an autonomous and democratic West Bank could mean Israel will follow in South Tyrol’s footsteps, in which a peaceful reconciliation will lead to a burst of economic growth. And unless they agree in joining Israel for a real “uniting for peace” resolution, Hamas cannot be allowed to partake in the new plan.
Skeptics will no doubt reject this proposal, but nonetheless, the current situation in the Middle East calls for this kind of action. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu keeps repeating, there can be no viably independent Palestine with the way things stand at the moment.
Ahead of his speech in Congress later this month it would be worthwhile for the Prime Minister to explore alternative solutions such as the one proposed here. South Tyrol’s model of autonomy presents a more reasonable and peaceful solution for both sides. And should it succeed, it would become a paradigmatic example of what philosopher Karl Popper dubbed “piecemeal social engineering,” whereby a society accomplishes more by fighting against an urgent evil than fighting for an ultimate but unattainable good. The end result will witness the Middle East in a process of evolution as opposed to revolution.
The writer is a Dutch historian and has a doctorate in philosophy.