Professor Mnookin Explores The Ethnic Conflicts Between Israelis and Palestinians and Flemings and Walloons

By — on / Middle East Negotiation Initiatives

Professor Robert Mnookin’s research on the internal conflicts among ethnic groups and their effect on broader negotiations with external powers are examined in the January, 2007 Edition of Daedalus.


“It had never occurred to me that the conflict between the Flemish and the Walloons, and Belgium’s governmental structure, would be thought relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. But on two different occasions, after learning that I was temporarily residing in Belgium, Palestinian intellectuals stated that the resolution of the conflict should involve the creation of a single secular state modeled after Belgium’s–with language communities and largely autonomous regions that would give both Jews and Palestinians substantially independent control over their own destinies within the framework of a single binational, federal state.

I have since discovered some surprising similarities between these obviously very different ethnic conflicts. As it turns out, the size of Israel and the Palestinian territories combined is almost exactly the same as Belgium, both in terms of square miles and population. Both can be seen as conflicts between two peoples–with roughly equal numbers–where the issue can be framed as whether the appropriate resolution should involve two states or only one. Finally, in both disputes, if there is to be a two-state solution, a contentious and complicated issue is the fate of the capital–Brussels or Jerusalem.

Yet what makes the comparison fascinating is not these similarities but a conspicuous difference. Belgium presents a remarkable example of an ethnic conflict without a single death or any mass violence over a thirty-year period. During that time, a Belgian political elite on opposing sides of the language divide stitched a series of compromises into a complex federal system. This new federal regime may not be sufficient to hold the Belgian state together, but no one believes the conflict between the Flemings and Walloons will become violent. This stands in striking contrast to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where during the same period negotiations have repeatedly failed and thousands have died.”

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