Analyze This: How to break up a country

Why Europe's 'heart' moves toward a two-state solution.

rice abbas smile 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
rice abbas smile 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Political negotiations are deadlocked in a small country in which two peoples have long shared one land but are divided by language, religion and ethnic heritage. Increasingly, the only viable answer appears to be a painful, yet necessary, two-state solution. It's not Israel - it's a country that, in so many ways, couldn't appear to be more different. And if you haven't heard much about this political upheaval, it's because the nation in question is Belgium - the very name of which is liable to induce yawns, or at least eyes-glazing-over boredom from readers who have made it this far. Hold on, though, because the problems of Belgium are no joke, even if the country has frequently been the butt of them. When a state in official existence for 177 years - and one widely considered the "heart" of Europe because of the many pan-European institutions located in its capital city, Brussels - is in real danger of dissolving, the matter deserves some serious attention. What's more, the situation there offers some lessons for Israel, a nation with which, despite the obvious dissimilarities, it shares some interesting parallels. We don't think very much about Belgium here - and when we do, it's usually in the negative. Like elsewhere in Europe, it has produced more than its fair share of reports about violent attacks by the country's growing Muslim community against the local Jewish population. But Belgium really last made headlines here in 2003, when its Supreme Court ruled that Israeli military commanders who took part in the Lebanon War, including Ariel Sharon, could be prosecuted for involvement in the Sabra and Shatilla massacres. Although Brussels later overturned the decision, the ruling sparked outrage here, with then-foreign minister Binyamin Netanyahu calling it a "blood libel" and then-justice minister Meir Sheetrit calling Belgium "a small and insignificant country." Actually, it's far from insignificant, at least to this nation - Belgium is one of Israel's biggest trade partners (over $5 billion in imports/exports), because of the traditional diamond industry traffic between the two. Nor, relatively speaking, is it so small; it's bigger than Israel by about a third, in both area and population. That population is divided roughly 60-40 percent into two distinct nationalities: the Flemish-speaking people of the northern province of Flanders, linked linguistically and culturally to The Netherlands in the north; and the French-speaking residents of Walloon, whose ties extend south to France. The two provinces were yoked together for various historical reasons in the Belgian revolution of 1830 and united under one monarchy and central government, yet have failed to integrate in any significant manner since then. Tensions between the two peoples have only increased in recent years, fueled by long-simmering resentment among the more prolific and prosperous Flemish-speakers over their long political domination by the French-speakers. The situation between them has gotten so bad that the various political parties representing their interests have been unable to form a new government since the last elections were held last June. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the man tipped as the new prime minister, Flemish Christian Democratic leader Yves Leterme, has himself described Belgium as "a historical accident" held together largely by "the king, the national football team and a few beers." On Saturday, Leterme announced to Belgian King Albert II that he was giving up his half-year effort to form a new government, leading to widespread speculation that long-advocated policies to separate Flanders and Walloon into two separate states might finally get under way. "Rancor is ever-present and the country has become a freak of nature, a state in which power is so devolved the government is an abhorred vacuum," opined The Economist a few months ago. "In short, Belgium has served its purpose. A praline divorce is in order. Belgians need not feel sad. Countries come and go. And perhaps a way can be found to keep the king, if he is still wanted." Not everyone outside Belgium's increasingly shaky borders, though, is so pleased about the prospect of its dissolution - and the reasons are of some relevance to us here in Israel. The very fact that for so long, one country was able to so peacefully contain within it two distinct peoples, meant it was often held up as an exemplar, a living repudiation of a more fundamental nationalism based on religion, ethnicity or culture. Belgium was seen as an embodiment of a more sophisticated political culture, a sort of pan-national mini-European Union before its time, whose capital was thus the logical base for EU institutions. So it's hardly surprising to find Jon Henly writing in The Guardian of Belgium's imminent crack-up: "Should we feel remotely concerned by this? If you dislike unfeasibly potent beer, naff statues of permanently peeing boys, mayonnaise with your chips, and Tintin, maybe you will not. If, on the other hand, you feel a vague sentimental attachment to the idea of a country whose very existence, in the absence of anything resembling a national language, a national culture or much more than a century-and-a-half of national history, depends on the virtues of goodwill, understanding and compromise, then you should." Those who sincerely believe those latter qualities are enough to provide a sufficient foundation to maintain a nation containing two different peoples, are often among those who are also ready to condemn Israel's seeking a "divorce" from the Palestinians, and still hold on to the dream of an Arab-Jewish bi-national state - in which, naturally, the latter would be the minority. Alas, if a bi-national state isn't working out in Belgium, one shudders to think how things would have turned out here if those who still believe the partition of this land decided by the United Nations 60 years ago was a mistake that even today can be rectified, had had their way. If Belgium does choose national divorce and a two-state solution, at least Flanders and Walloon will find their neighbors much more willing to grant them the national recognition that the Jewish State is still fighting for.