Israel, Palestine, and the prospects for denationalization

Nadav G. Shelef, University of Wisconsin, Madison


While much has transpired over the last 150 years, the fundamental problem facing Jews and Palestinians in the area of Mandatory Palestine remains the same: two nationalist movements claiming to represent a distinct nation and demanding control over their political destiny in the same space. The idea of a two state solution is built on the assumption that dividing the territory is easier than dividing sovereignty. As the Peel Commission argued in 1937, since the “National Home cannot be half-national,” and the “national aspirations [of Jews and Arabs in Palestine] are incompatible… the only hope of a cure lies in a surgical operation” (Palestine Royal Commission, 1937).

Guided by this logic, most scholarly (and policy) attention has focused on the questions of how to divide the land and where to draw the line. To the extent that the prospects of a territorial division recede and the “surgery” of the land seems increasingly unlikely, it is perhaps time to turn our attention to the processes and politics that would be required of the other main alternative–the division of sovereignty and the reinterpretation of national aspirations. This memo takes a step in this direction by conceptually unpacking the forms that the “denationalization” required by this alternative could take and the mechanisms that could drive them. This, in turn, sets the stage for a research agenda that could more systematically, and realistically, evaluate the range of possible “cures” for the conflict in the region.

Three forms of denationalization

“Denationalization,” as I use it here, is the process by which a group that identifies as a particular nation ceases to do so. Benedict Anderson’s canonical definition of nations as “imagined political communit[ies]… [that are] imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson, 1991, 6), suggests that denationalization could take three distinct forms: 1) the substitution of the criteria for membership in the political community with the membership criteria of another nation; 2) the replacement of a political community that is imagined as inherently limited with one that is either imagined but universal or concrete and limited; 3) the downshifting of the collective goal from total control over a group’s political destiny (sovereignty) to partial forms of such control (Shelef, forthcoming).

The first form of denationalization involves a political project to substitute membership in one national community for membership in a different national community by changing the criteria used to decide national membership. Denationalization by substitution is an integral component of both the assimilationist projects undertaken by nationalizing states (Brubaker, 1996; Cederman, 1997) and the separatist projects of secessionist movements for national self-determination. The former seek to substitute the membership criteria of the assimilating nation for those of the assimilated, and the latter seek to substitute the membership criteria of the nation seeking independence for those of the nation from which they seek to separate. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, outcomes that envision all individuals currently living within the bounds of Mandatory Palestine as equal members of a single state without any special status for the groups within it (Jewish or Palestinian), tend to assume that, to succeed, these individuals would substitute a self-understanding of their relevant political community as the “Isratine” nation (to use Qaddafi’s term) for their self-understanding as primarily members of the Israeli or Palestinian nations.

The possibility of denationalization by substitution is based on the recognition that individuals can fit into the membership criteria articulated by more than one national project. This recognition extends the distinction between “nominal” and “activated” identities developed by scholars of ethnicity to national identities (Chandra, 2012; Lustick, Miodownik, and Eidelson, 2004). Nominal identities include the range of potential identities to which one may belong, while activated identities denote the identities to which one actually belongs at a particular time and place. Since an individual’s repertoire of nominal national identities may simultaneously include a number of distinct ones (e.g., French, Spanish, and Basque), denationalization by substitution occurs when a nominal national identity – i.e., a nation to which one could theoretically belong – is activated in place of the currently active one. The fierce competition between alternative nationalist projects for the loyalty of the same individual (see, e.g., Khalidi et al., 1991; Zahra, 2008; Lichtenstein, 2012; Hillis, 2013; Kladiwa, 2015) reflects their tacit acknowledgement that individuals could nominally belong to more than one nation despite the nationalist worldview, which otherwise rejects the constructivist and potentially mutable nature of national identification.

The second form of denationalization replaces the politically relevant national (and therefore both imagined and limited) community with one that is either not limited or not imagined. Whereas denationalization by substitution focuses on activating other nominal national identities, denationalization by replacement focuses on activating non-national identities. These non-national alternative can include universal ones, based on, for example, religion or notions of a “global citizenship” (Huntington, 2004; Guéhenno, 2000; Zhou, 2015), or concrete identities such as one’s locality (Fenton, 2007). Both Israeli and Palestinian societies evince political projects promoting denationalization by replacement, largely in favor of religious identities. Radicals in both nations also assume that denationalization by replacement will occur when they “permit” Palestinians or Jews, depending on who is making the argument, to remain in the state they dominate as long as the other group organizes its identity along religious or local, rather than national, lines. Ironically, a similar assumption is made by some, usually on the other side of the political spectrum, who assume that the salience of national identification as a whole will decline, thereby solving the root cause of the conflict.

The third form of denationalization involves shifting away from the fundamental nationalist goal of achieving collective control of the nation’s political destiny. In an extreme form of denationalization by downshifting, a group stops mobilizing for any collective control of their political destiny, effectively transforming itself into a “mere” ethnic group (for this distinction between nations and ethnic groups, see, e.g., Connor, 1978). In a more moderate (and likely) form, groups mobilized to achieve national self-determination downshift their goal from independent sovereignty to autonomy within a state controlled by a different national group. This form of de-nationalization is considerably more relevant for nations that do not yet have sovereignty, though, in principle, it could also apply to already sovereign nations. The successful emergence of a single state in the area of Mandatory Palestine based on some consociational arrangement between Jews and Palestinians assumes that at least one, if not both, of the nationalist movements in the Israeli-Palestinian space will denationalize by downshifting.

There are important historical examples of nationalist movements that have experienced such downshifting, including the Quebecois in the 1980s, the Catalan national movement under Franco, Sikhs in India, and Palestinians in Israel (Meadwell, 1993; Balcells, 1996; Chowdhury and Krebs, 2009; Smooha, 2019). Yet, comparative research suggests that it is not common. Only around 20% of movements for national-self determination that sought independence since 1945 subsequently downshifted to seek autonomy (Cunningham, 2014; Sambanis, Germann, and Schädel, 2018).[i] In a nonnegligible proportion of these cases, moreover, such downshifting was only of limited duration (as in the Catalan experience). Importantly, although successful denationalization by downshifting may enable the peaceful cohabitation of nations in a single state, it reduces the likelihood of denationalization by substitution. This is the case because power-sharing itself reinforces the returns to identifying as part of a group that shares power and therefore inhibits the elision of meaningful differences between the groups (Lustick, Miodownik, and Eidelson, 2004).

Pathways of denationalization

There are at least two complementary pathways through which these forms of denationalization could take place, each operating at different levels of analysis. The first is situated at the group level and highlights the consequences of the political contest between movements articulating different legitimating principles. The second pathway focuses on the impact of incentives for denationalization at the individual level.

The first pathway builds on the role of domestic political competition in shaping the meaning and scope of nationalism (Lustick, 1993; O’Leary, Lustick, and Callaghy, 2001; Shelef, 2020a). These studies highlight the link between the domestic political success of a movement promoting a particular political project and the resonance of this project. This scholarship implies that denationalization is more likely if its proponents are organized in a political movement that succeeds in the domestic political arena.

The process of engaging in domestic political competition can also, under some circumstances, induce movements to support denationalization if doing so is politically advantageous in the short term. For example, political movements may reframe the definition of the political community’s membership boundaries or modulate the presentation of their goals to appeal to a constituency that supports a particular project of denationalization. If politically successful, the political returns created by reliance on that base of support, because they are costly to abandon, can “trap” these movements into promoting a project of denationalization that then spreads with the movement’s success (Shelef, 2010; Goddard, 2010; Shelef, 2020b).

The focus on domestic political competition also highlights the reality that the prospects of projects of denationalization are also shaped by the myriad factors that shape the success of any political project, including power dynamics, leadership, organization, and a political environment sufficiently open to allow it to compete with the national political project. Other factors, such as the perceived economic feasibility of the alternative they offer and support by the international community could also shape the outcome (Meadwell, 1993; Ambrosio, 2001). The role of politics serves as a reminder that denationalization is thus unlikely to be an automatic or linear response to changing conditions.

The second pathway focuses on the incentives individuals face for identification with particular political projects. Here, individuals denationalize by substitution, replacement, or downshifting in response to the perceived benefits of doing so (for example, in terms of economic opportunity, status, or security) or the perceived costs (e.g., limited opportunity, insecurity) of the nationalist project (Tajfel, 1982; Laitin, 2007; Boli, 2005; Zhou, 2015; Gorman and Seguin, 2018). When enough individuals denationalize, the newly activated identity or goal can cascade to become the dominant one in their society (Laitin, 2007). Sometimes, these changes are assumed to take place over generations, if only because children born in new contexts may have a different repertoire of availability identities than their parents (Laitin, 1998).

State policies are among the most powerful shapers of these incentives. As Weber (1976) demonstrated in the paradigmatic case of a homogenizing state, the state’s control of the educational system, military, domestic political economy, and even the very categories available for social organization through the census (see also, Urla, 1993; Kertzer and Arel, 2002), can be powerfully deployed to incentivize individuals to denationalize.

States, however, are not omnipotent in this regard. The extent to which nationalism becomes a sacred value for its adherents poses one important limit on the role of material incentives in promoting denationalization. As a robust psychological literature has demonstrated, because the worth of sacred values is not measured along a materialist metric, the ability of material inducements to trigger their transgression is quite limited (Fiske and Tetlock, 1997; McGraw and Tetlock, 2005; McGraw, Tetlock, and Kristel, 2003; Tetlock, 2003; Tetlock et al., 2000; Ginges et al., 2007). As a result, material cost-benefit calculations may be less relevant in inducing denationalization among those already committed than in incentivizing the uncommitted to opt for one in the first place.

The likelihood that these incentives are not equally available to all people in a group imposes another constraint on their ability to induce denationalization. For example, the availability of positive benefits to denationalization by replacement with a universalist, globalized, identity may be disproportionately available to those with the education and skills to take advantage of a global marketplace (Bollen and Medrano, 1998. For an opposing view see, Gorman and Seguin, 2018). To the extent that incentives to denationalize are not widely available, the ability of a process of denationalization that relies on these incentives to spread may also be limited.

Finally, the success of denationalization depends on the extent to which individuals are fully accepted in the new arrangement (Anderson, 1991; Laitin, 1998; Hechter, 2000). Continued blocked opportunities for mobility and the persistence of invidious distinctions between groups is likely to inhibit denationalization by making it easier for advocates of nationalist political projects to argue that continued injustice is linked to nationality and that to improve their lives they require gaining or maintaining control of their political destiny. In other words, for denationalization to succeed, it must limit the ability of the currently dominant nationalist project to provide a reasonable and resonant explanation of lived reality. This is likely to be a significant challenge in any single state reality that aspires to overcome the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Denationalization of Zionists and Palestinians?

Here, I turn from the theoretical unpacking of denationalization to considering briefly the four main denationalization possibilities. This explicit consideration of denationalization shows that the even if the “surgical” option of territorial division appears increasingly less likely to be implemented, the prognosis of the alternative treatments is also not optimistic. Although theoretically possible, the denationalization of Zionists, Palestinian nationalists, or both, required by outcomes that do not engage in territorial division do not seem any more likely.

To begin with, the various denationalization projects currently active in Israel and Palestine remain minority positions. Fewer than 20% of Israeli Jews and fewer than a third of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip support one-state solutions; solutions that would, by definition, require some form of denationalization.[ii] The fact that such solutions garner a relatively small following, even among the Palestinians who have comparatively more to gain from them, suggests that denationalization projects have a steep hill to climb. While these constituencies are large enough that they may “trap” political movements into supporting a form of denationalization, the deep religious, ethnic, and ideological divides within this population makes it less likely that proponents of denationalization will be able to appeal to all of them simultaneously, reducing the likelihood of this particular pathway. In other words, in the current context, it is hard to see how movements supporting denationalization win the domestic political battle.

Second, a single state imposed from the outside could presumably use the tools available to any state in order to, over time, denationalize the population by substituting a different nationalism for Zionism and Palestinian nationalism. As noted above, to succeed, such an effort would need to both overcome the inevitable attempts of spoilers to derail such a project and to erase the economic distinctions between Jews and Palestinians in order to drain (existing) nationalist mobilization of its appeal. While not impossible, this would be a daunting task.

Other potential denationalization projects are even weaker. Attempts to replace national identification with non-national identities, for example, do not have much traction in either society. In fact, the main attempts to promote a religious identity in place of a national one experienced the triumph of nationalism over religious identification. Among Palestinians, the emergence of Hamas in the late 1980s reflected the cooptation of religious identity by Palestinian nationalism. Among Jews, the Haredim, once fiercely anti-nationalist and insulated from mainstream Israeli society, are increasingly adopting a nationalist perspective. Indeed, about half of the of the Jewish population that self-identifies as Haredi also identifies as Zionist.[iii] In other words, denationalization by replacement is unlikely to take place any time soon.

Denationalization by downshifting seems a bit more likely, though it too faces significant hurdles. Abandoning the desire for self-determination, something that has been the very raison-d’etre of Palestinian nationalism since the 1960s and something that has actually been achieved by Zionists is a steep demand to make of both. At the very least, more work needs to be done to understand the conditions under which groups that have sovereignty become willing (or resigned) to give it up. We also know relatively little about how and why movements for self-determination change their goals, and how autonomy rather than independence becomes constructed as appropriate. At a minimum, our relative ignorance about these processes should make us less sanguine about the prospects of political projects – like annexation or the formalization of the one-state reality – that assume that denationalization in such contexts would automatically occur.



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[i] Cunningham’s (2014) data shows that downshifting took place at least in one year in 13% of groups examined between 1960 and 2008. Sambanis, Germann, and Schädel’s (2018) data show that such downshifting took place in 17% of movements for self-determination between 1960 and 2005 and 21% between 1945 and 2012.

[ii] See and

[iii] See the series of surveys conducted by Sammy Smooha ( Data courtesy of the Guttman Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research at the Israel Democracy Institute