Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Spain clamors for a ‘two-state solution’ — but not in Catalonia

In an Oct. 1 referendum, the people of Catalonia voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Spain, the nation that has occupied their homeland for generations. Madrid did everything it could to prevent Catalonia from legitimizing its quest for independence by ballot, including sending thousands of troops to block polling places. In the ensuing violence, voters were beaten with clubs, dragged by their hair, and shot with rubber bullets. Nearly 900 civilians were treated for injuries.

Since the election-day assault, the Spanish government has doubled down on its opposition to Catalan self-determination. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, is claiming the right to remove Catalonia’s elected officials from office and assume direct control from Madrid. A senior cabinet minister warned Monday that Spain will use force, if necessary, to compel Catalonia to submit.

Why such hostility to the Catalan yearning for self-determination? The people of Catalonia are a distinctive population, with their own culture, language, and customs. Shouldn’t their sovereignty be peacefully conferred, rather than brutally resisted?

Advertisement

In other words, shouldn’t Spain accept a two-state solution?

Get Arguable with Jeff Jacoby in your inbox:
From the Globe's must-read columnist, an extra offering each week of opinion and ideas.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

After all, the Spanish government unhesitatingly proclaims support for Palestinian sovereignty. Spain’s leaders, such as former foreign minister Trinidad Jimenez, insist that the key to Middle East peace “depends on the coexistence of two states.” In 2014 Spanish lawmakers adopted a resolution recognizing Palestine as a state and urging the European Union to do the same.

How can Spain, so ready to endorse a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, aggressively oppose one for its conflict with Catalonia?

The phenomenon isn’t limited to Spain.

Iraq also backs statehood and full UN membership for the Palestinians — but not for the Iraqi Kurds who decisively voted for independence last month. Baghdad’s opposition to the Kurdish plebiscite was implacable, and it responded ruthlessly: It deployed tanks and troops to seize the crucial city of Kirkuk and its oil fields, thereby crippling the Kurdish regional government.

Advertisement

Likewise China. As recently as July, Chinese president Xi Jinping hosted Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing and endorsed a “settlement of the Palestinian issue on the basis of the two-state solution.” But under no circumstances will China contemplate a “two-state solution” for Tibetans, an ancient people with a unique linguistic, cultural, and religious identity.

What is true for Spain, Iraq, and China is true for numerous countries worldwide. Many populations hunger for sovereignty in their traditional homelands. There are movements for independence in Scotland and Corsica and Taiwan, for example, and among the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Quebecois in Canada, and the Flemish in Belgium. In none of those cases do world powers and international organizations appeal for a “two-state solution.” On the contrary: International pressure is usually brought to bear against independence movements, however worthy.

Only when it comes to Palestinians does the international community obsess over a “two-state solution.” That isn’t because Palestinians are uniquely qualified for sovereignty. The dysfunctional, violent, and corrupt Palestinian Authority is about as ill-suited to statehood as any entity can be. Rather, the unending agitation to create a Palestinian state is a reflection of the world’s restless preoccupation with Jews — and, since 1948, with the Jewish state. If the Palestinians lived in Spain, Iraq, or China, they would enjoy no more international support than do the Catalans, Kurds, or Tibetans. Likely far less.

Nations win independence by various means. There are formal legal criteria for achieving independence, but international law plays a far smaller role in the birth of new nations than do power politics and military force. Statehood isn’t acquired through the mindless repetition of “Two-State Solution!” but through grit, passion, patience, diplomacy, and exceptional good fortune.

Even then, there are no guarantees. The Jews waited 2,000 years for a state of their own. The Catalans, Kurds, and Tibetans wait still.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.