Middle East: a Belgian solution?

By Khaled Diab

offers one model for Israeli-Palestinian peace. But a dose of Belgian pragmatism wouldn't go amiss either.

16 October 2009

George Mitchell's reappearance on the Middle Eastern scene earlier this year has reignited speculation as to whether he'll be able, with President 's more hands-on approach, to repeat his success in Northern Ireland and help mediate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Given the parallels between the two conflicts, the Northern Irish has been held up as an example of how Israelis and Palestinians can proceed on the road to resolution.

While I have expressed scepticism vis-à-vis Mitchell's chances of success – because the shift in US foreign policy has been mainly rhetorical, the Israeli position has hardened and the Palestinians are in disarray – there are certainly lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland. These include the need to involve all the parties in a conflict, even if they are viewed as ‘terrorists' by the other side, and for the self-appointed peace broker to pursue a relatively even-handed approach when dealing with the antagonists.

Another country that can point the way forward in for Israelis and Palestinians is . In fact, Israelis and Palestinians could well use a dose of Belgian pragmatism.

Uninformed outsiders may be excused for thinking that nothing much happens in Belgium, a quaint land of mild-mannered and polite chocolate connoisseurs, beer aficionados and comic-strip lovers. As one Israeli friend asked me incredulously when I drew an analogy between Belgium and -: “What have Belgians got to fight over except for chocolate?”

But Belgium has been gripped by a nonviolent conflict which has its roots, like the , in the late 19th century. And the similarities don't end there: both Belgium and Israel-Palestine are about the same size geographically, have a similar population density, and are made up of two main communities.

While there is no raging conflict between Belgium's two language groups, there are major tensions which could have prove a recipe for disaster, and still can, if the wrong dynamics were ever to be set in motion to prise open the country's fault lines. I was especially struck by these undercurrents when I returned from Israel and Palestine.

So, how have the Flemings and Walloons avoided coming to blows for all this time?

The answer partly lies in their pragmatic penchant for negotiation – marathon, all-night talks are an integral part of the political culture here – and finding the kind of middle ground where, although neither side may be entirely satisfied, they are not disgruntled enough to take up arms.

In addition, there is such a commitment to consensus that ‘Belgian compromise' has become a term recognised internationally, despite recent frictions and the growing intensity of Flemish nationalism and Walloon inflexibility, which led to premature reports of Belgium's imminent demise. But even if Belgium does break up one day, it is unlikely to collapse into bloodshed in the Balkan manner, but will continue to be dismantled one brick at a time.

Interestingly, Jerusalem and Brussels are quite similar in surprising ways. Both cities are disputed territories which are hotly contested as capitals by the two communities. Brussels has undergone gradual Frenchification and Jerusalem rapid Hebrewisation. However, while Jerusalem currently divides Israelis and Palestinians and is one of the major stumbling blocks on the path to peace, Brussels cements the Belgians together, and the power-sharing compromise reached in Belgium's capital could be useful for Jerusalem. Perhaps declaring the Holy City the capital of the two peoples would carry enormous symbolic significance and have a benign bonding effect for Palestinians and Israelis.

While Belgium highlights the critical importance of pragmatism, negotiation and compromise, Palestinians and Israelis will need a much higher measure of it than Walloons and Flemings, if they are to find peace and, one day, live peacefully side by side. After all, Belgium is a prosperous European state whose two communities are of similar power, have been established there for centuries and who became a single country voluntarily. And though they may carry historical baggage and political grievances, there is little in the way of actual bad blood between them.

In contrast, Israelis and Palestinians carry the burden of decades of bloodshed and violence, dispossession, insecurity, economic inequality, and the balance of power is so skewed that it makes compromise difficult. But even if Mitchell's efforts fail, as they probably will, I agree wholeheartedly with his view that:

“There is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created by human beings, and can be ended by human beings. It may take a long time. But with committed, active and strong leadership, it can happen here in the Middle East.”

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 11 October 2009. Read the related discussion.

Author

  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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8 thoughts on “Middle East: a Belgian solution?

  • Ed Nemeth

    Very interesting and supportive Commentary. And, given your life in Brussels, you can have every right to disagree with my below comment.
    But, as an American, I do not see the Peaceful success of the Belgians.
    Having done business there, and then choosing to open an office for my corporation in Amsterdam, after seeing reality in Brussels, my conclusions differ.

    8 years ago, while having a business dinner in Brussels, my harmless Dutch business guest mistakenly spoke in Dutch, causing a near violent response from our bow tied professional waiter. I was utterly shocked.

    I never understood the Dutch-French issues, nor have I invested time into exploring them, having experienced much French hatred in Montreal, the home of my Canadian French Grandparents, whenever I spoke my only native tongue, English.

    But, I do want to close on a positive and supportive point on your article: You do have a valid point: if Anglophobes can control their anger and hatred without war, then others should do so, as well.

    Keep up the great work with your Commentaries.

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  • KhaledDiab

    Ahmed, yes, I must’ve missed the lecture – – must’ve been in your Beetle, in Meshmesha or some other hole :-)!

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  • Ahmed Mansour

    Wouldn’t work ya Khaled, we all know that Belgium is not in the middle East, guess you missed that lecture 🙂 Why does Palestine need to follow a peace model of another country anyway? can’t they just kiss and make up?

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  • Stef Craps

    Really? Wow: that’s almost as bizarre as his uncle laying claim to the Congo!

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  • KhaledDiab

    Yep, Stef, who would’ve thunk it, especially during the Leterme period!

    No, I didn’t know that Palestine was referred to as the Belgium of the East, but didn’t Albert I want Palestine to become a Belgian protectorate, with Godfried cited as a precedent?

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  • Stef Craps

    A model state after all: who would have thought? :-)Btw, did you know that Palestine has historically been referred to as “the Belgium of the East”?

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  • KhaledDiab

    Vicky, great Brel quote: must remember that one. It is kind of confounding that so many people in one of the most prosperous regions of the world feel so repressed, even persecuted – old memories die hard!

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  • Vicky Corbeels

    I like your mild description of my beloved country… as for Brussels, we’ll see where it leads – more and more Dutch-speaking citizens emigrate from the capital, which is located entirely on Flemish territory (but has an separated status). Also, northern parties are pretty confused about how it sees Brussels’ future. And here I live, as part of a minority – but as Jacques Brel already stated: “The Flemish are the only majority who act as a minority” 🙂
    Keep up the good work, Khaled.

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