Will an independent Scotland be a boost for Palestinian nationalism?
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Will an independent Scotland be a boost for Palestinian nationalism?

A yes vote in Thursday’s referendum could mean another critical voice in the EU and embolden separatists in the Middle East, say some Israeli officials. Others are unfazed

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A child plays with a pro-independence 'Yes' flag on the streets of Aberdeen in Scotland, on September 15, 2014, ahead of the referendum on Scotland's independence. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BEN STANSALL)
A child plays with a pro-independence 'Yes' flag on the streets of Aberdeen in Scotland, on September 15, 2014, ahead of the referendum on Scotland's independence. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/BEN STANSALL)

More people live in Israel than in Scotland, and yet many Israelis are among those anxiously awaiting the results of Thursday’s referendum, which will decide whether Scotland will remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent state.

If the 5.3 million Scots were indeed to split from the UK, the repercussions would be felt around the globe, possibly invigorating separatist movements everywhere — including, perhaps, the Middle East. For this and other reasons, some of the eight million Israelis fear a yes vote could spell more trouble for this already unstable region and for the Jewish state in particular. Others shrug off the referendum as largely meaningless beyond the British Isles.

“I don’t think that in the grand scheme of things, an independent Scotland’s attitude toward Israel would have any significance whatsoever on the world stage,” said Ziv Dotan, an Israeli-born IT professional originally from Ramat Gan, who moved to Glasgow in 1998. “Let’s face it: you’re talking about a newly formed country, if it does vote yes on Thursday, with its own problems to deal with. At least in the first few years, they will have quite a few teething problems to go through. From an Israeli point of view, there is nothing really to worry about as far as diplomacy is concerned.”

Still, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has deeply penetrated the political discourse in Scotland on a local level, acknowledged Dotan, who is married to a Scot. “There is quite a lot of pro-Palestinian sentiment,” he said. During this summer’s Operation Protective Edge, the government in Edinburgh released more than half a dozen statements critical of Israel and reportedly called for an arms embargo against the Jewish state. Several local councils flew the Palestinian flag in solidarity with Gazan victims of the Israeli operation.

Hence, being the first Israeli ambassador to Scotland would be a “very challenging” job, involving confronting vocal critics of Israel, boycotts and protests, Dotan surmised. “Should there be an Israeli embassy in Edinburgh, it would be probably subjected to a lot of demonstrations outside its premises.”

‘From our perspective, a united kingdom is better than a split kingdom’

Officials in Jerusalem declined to comment on the record about the Scottish referendum. Both Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St James’s, Daniel Taub, and Israel’s honorary consul in Scotland, Stanley Lovatt, declined to be interviewed for this article. (Lovatt, a prominent Glasgow businessman, was appointed to be the London embassy’s “very own flying Scotsman” in 2011, to “offer assistance where required to Israelis living in Scotland and to foster links between the countries,” according to the embassy.)

From private conversations with Israeli officials, however, it emerged that no one is particularly enthusiastic about an independent Scotland, though some are more worried than others.

“We have very good and close relations with the United Kingdom. From our perspective, a united kingdom is better than a split kingdom,” a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Yes, the Scottish are traditionally more left-wing than the English, and thus perhaps more prone to criticize Israel, but that’s not the main concern, the official said. Rather, “a successful yes vote on Thursday will encourage separatist movements in other places, and that can’t be good for us.”

If the Scottish get their own state, the Welsh, Catalonians, the Basques, the Quebecois and many other nationalist movements across the globe will feel emboldened to push for independence as well, a spirit which could also impact not only the Palestinians, but also, some in Jerusalem fear, Israeli Arabs. There is no such mass movement yet, but Israeli authorities have long feared that the country’s approximately 22% non-Jewish minority, especially in the Galilee, will one day demand independence, especially in the wake of the establishment of a Palestinian state east of the Green Line.

Scotland splitting from the United Kingdom cannot be compared to Czechoslovakia being dissolved into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, as both parties agreed to part in peace. But in this case the rest of the UK wants to prevent the split, meaning that a possible victory for Scottish nationalism could be seen as a proof that unilateral breakaways are possible. “Suddenly everybody will come and demand independence,” the Israeli official said.

Other Israeli officials dismissed this concern. The establishment of an independent Scotland would have very little influence on the Middle East, and would neither help the Palestinians in their quest for statehood nor inspire Israeli Arabs in the Galilee to launch their own separatist movement, a senior diplomatic official argued.

No government will change its position on territorial questions in the Middle East based on the results of Thursday’s referendum

“It won’t change anything in this region in any way. Yes, if the Scots separate from England, some will say that if they deserve independence, so do the Palestinians. But there’s already an international consensus that recognizes the need for a Palestinian state,” the official said, adding that even Israel’s hawkish prime minister is publicly committed in principle to a two-state solution. Israel/Palestine cannot be compared to England/Scotland, furthermore, “because everybody knows where the border between England and Scotland is. The problem with the Palestinians is not the question of whether they should have a state or not, but how to resolve the final-status issues such as borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.”

No government in Europe will change its position on territorial questions in the Middle East based on the results of Thursday’s referendum, the official insisted. There are many advocates for an independent Kurdistan, but a yes vote in Scotland won’t bring the Kurds any closer to statehood, he said. If they haven’t yet succeed in convincing the world that they deserve a state, especially after Syria and Iraq imploded, a peaceful referendum in far-flung Europe will not do the trick either, the official said.

A possible breakaway by Israeli Arabs is also unlikely, the official said, adding that such a move would not only be opposed by Israel, Jordan and Egypt, but also has absolutely no support from the international community. For one thing, no one would know where the borders of such a state would be, he argued. More broadly, Scotland was always a country with clearly delineated borders, with its own flag, capital and parliament, and even if it parted ways with the UK, this could hardly be seen as a blueprint for a similar moves by Israeli Arabs.

If the establishment of Kosovo — which became a sovereign state in 2012 — didn’t boost separatist movements in the region, little else will, the official added, referring to the fact that until the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, the struggle for an independent Kosovo had no support in the international community. If anything, the Kosovars’ success in achieving statehood could have served separatists in the Middle East as an inspiration. But an independent Scotland would be unlikely to galvanize such movements, the official assessed.

Could an independent Scotland become a headache for Jerusalem on the diplomatic stage, voting against Israeli interests at the European Union and the United Nations? After all, it is no secret that many Scottish policymakers have been critical of Israeli policies, especially vis-à-vis the Palestinians. “They are somewhere between the Irish and the English,” an Israeli diplomatic official said. Ireland is known to be among the European countries most hostile toward Israel, while the UK is generally supportive.

“So there will be one more voice against Israel, but it will not tip the scale,” the official said. If Scotland enters the EU it will be considered a small country that will have little if any impact on the union’s Middle East policies, he added. “It wouldn’t be pleasant to have another critical voice, but it’s also wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

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