The Western Balkans is known for nationalist grievances bubbling just below the surface, often leading to seemingly endless recriminations over control of land and borders long after violence has subsided. However, stalled talks between Serbia and Kosovo regarding the former’s recognition of the latter may finally be moving forward, albeit in a direction certain to stir up controversy. The idea of partition based along ethnic lines has been gaining currency as the only solution likely to please both sides and remove the final barriers towards European integration and UN membership for Kosovo. Yet some activists and Western European politicians have warned that such an exchange will undoubtedly open up a Pandora’s Box in other parts of the region, inviting such undesirable scenarios as Bosnia’s collapse into ethnically homogenous statelets and a push for a Greater Albania at the expense of Macedonia’s territorial integrity. Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini stated that she could not rule out a demography-based land swap if it respected European and international law and was mutually accepted — with the caveat that this solution is not preferable.
Thousands of miles away in Israel, another debate regarding the exchange of ethnically homogenous territory has once again reared its head, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman reviving his plan to cede Arab-majority areas to the PA in the wake of a number of events: the Palestinian-led nation-state law protests, an ostensibly nationalist-tinged funeral for a resident of Umm al-Fahm, and complaints lodged to the UN by members of the Joint List against the Israeli government. Long an arch-nationalist with a dim view of Palestinian Israelis, these events serve as grist for the mill that confirm the defense minister’s suspicions of the community’s tenuous loyalty to the State of Israel, and thus, the justification to demand its removal in the event of a peace deal. Never mind that Lieberman’s plan to force members of a community out of a country in which they hold citizenship and to possibly strip them of said citizenship flies in the face of international law, nor the fact the overwhelming majority of those citizens have made it clear over the course of many years that they are not interested in joining an independent Palestine in the case of a final accord; Lieberman, like the rest of the coalition, understands elections may be just around the corner and cannot help but take advantage of any situation that might improve his numbers in the polls among right-wing voters.
While each of the above situations is clearly unique with its own tortured history and set of difficulties, both invoke the notion of ethnic transfer, and ultimately ethnic purity as a means of conflict resolution. Besides the dangerous precedent created by such discussions, Lieberman’s idea should particularly disturb all those who believe that Zionism is and should strive to be a force for pluralism, and an idea that can truly reconcile the dualities of Jewish national self-determination and liberal democracy. The defense minister’s plan is unlikely to see the light of day — a fact that has clearly not stopped him from invoking it whenever he sees fit—but assuming that the perniciousness of an idea is dependent on its probability misses the point; his desire to drudge up such nakedly racist suggestions is only a symptom of the steady erosion of tolerance in Israel towards the “other,” culminating in the recent passing of the nation-state law, and continuing in increased attacks on minorities. Partition, of course, is not an illegitimate concept, to which anyone devoted to seeing a two-state solution come to fruition will obviously attest. Yet when it is considered in situations where pragmatism is used as a transparent cover for ethnic chauvinism, it harms not only its intended targets, but its perpetrators as well.
Whether one agrees with it or not, the idea of ethnic land-swaps in the context of a theoretical peace deal between two sovereign entities may have more credibility in the Balkan scenario than in Israel. This is especially true given the total alienation of Kosovo’s Serb minority that, for all intents and purposes, still considers itself a part of Serbia, or simply as the most pragmatic way of encouraging integration into the European bloc and preventing the spread of Russian influence (this should not be understood as an endorsement of such a plan by the author). It also bears mentioning that, while certainly controversial even within the Kosovar Serb community, there is no doubt a desire among large swathes of the population to see such a deal carried through. Such an outcome may even be reluctantly accepted as a lesser of two evils by those committed to the idea of multiethnic democracy and who justifiably fear the land swap’s possible ramifications. In the case of Israel, it is impossible to justify excluding Palestinian Israelis from the state’s future borders without resorting to racist canards. After all, this is a population that has resided within the state since its inception — a state that, at least nominally, promised them their equality and livelihood would not be compromised by its Jewishness — now being informed that their entire existence is to be upended through a solution supported by few in the community. To entertain Lieberman’s worldview is to embrace that form of Zionism so often held up by detractors of Israel as its true manifestation; it is to admit the State of Israel is incapable of integrating and even respecting the rights of its non-Jewish residents, and that Zionism has essentially failed in everything except in the establishment of an isolated garrison for the Jewish people.
There will likely continue to be much pushback regarding a possible land swap as a means of finding a modus vivendi between the two Balkan states, forcing Serbian and Kosovar leaders to explore less controversial solutions, or simply returning to a stalemate between the two parties. Flawed as it may be, one can genuinely argue the many pros and cons in embracing such a plan, with all the problems it entails. But what is good in one situation is not necessarily so in another. An Israel that envisions itself free of its Palestinian minority is an Israel that has shown itself to be intellectually lazy in finding creative ways to integrate its long-standing minority populations, and unworthy of calling itself a liberal democracy.