Friday, 12 April 2019

Could a Citizen's Assembly Solve the Israel/Palestine Conflict?

The Changing Map of Israel and Palestine

What is a Citizen's Assembly?

A Citizen's assembly is a panel of selected members of the public, who deliberate on a particular subject or issue, and, with the help of evidence and objective expert testimony, arrive at an informed decision. A Citizen's assembly can vary in size (anything from a handful of people to an assembly numbering in the hundreds or even the thousands), and could be formed to deal with any kind of issue.

Often a Citizen’s Assembly is called upon as an option because a subject is regarded as "toxic". This means that elected officials would have a lot of trouble dealing with this issue effectively, as controversial decisions that will harm their chances at the next election tend to be shied away from. One example is the issue of abortion in Ireland: a Citizen's Assembly was formed to deal with this, and it eventually recommended a referendum

In Britain, the environmental pressure group Extinction Rebellion is currently campaigning for a national Citizen's Assembly to deal with the issue of Climate Change. There was even a Citizen's Assembly formed to deliberate upon Brexit, though its recommendations were ignored.

It has been theorised that a Citizen's Assembly that is called a "Multi-body Sortition" could be used to replace conventional representative democracy as we know it and run a country.

How is a Citizen's Assembly Formed?

A Citizen's Assembly is formed by means of a process called Sortition, which is a kind of random selection method. Think of it as something not dissimilar to being chosen to do jury duty; or being chosen as a lottery winner. Your name or you address, or some identifying signification will be picked out, and you're in the Assembly!

If a Citizen's Assembly runs for a considerable length of time, or has been formed to deal with more than one subject, its membership is often "refreshed". Meaning some of its members will leave and other members will join. But a whole Citizen's Assembly is never completely refreshed. That is there is never a point where every single member of the Assembly is replaced all at once - and so in this way, and through the use of facilitators and subject expert advisors - continuity can be assured.

Is this a Revolutionary New Idea?

No, not at all. There were Citizen's Assemblies used in ancient Greece, and apparently they even had a special machine which performed the function of sortition and selected the people who would form the Citizen's Assembly.

The kleroterion - Sortition machine used in Ancient Greece

What are the advantages of a Citizen's Assembly?

Well, firstly a Citizen's Assembly is truly representative. This is not the case in our modern conventional democracy, where only those people on the electoral role get to vote. This usually means that certain demographics - say those of a young age, or the homeless, or refugees (often referred to as “the 10% hard to reach”), will be under represented, while other demographics - say, white middle class males - will be over represented.

A citizen's assembly can ensure that every demographic can be represented in its proper proportions. Say 5% of your country or region's population are females of Indonesian origin aged 20 - 30. That means 5% of the Citizen's Assembly will be composed of that demographic.

Now, you may be asking yourself at this point, "Hold on a minute, if Sortition is a process of choosing participants entirely at random, then how could we guarantee a proportion like 5% of the Citizen's Assembly being composed of females of Indonesian origin aged 20 - 30?"

There is a way! Keep reading!

Secondly, it is much less likely that a member of a Citizen's Assembly will have a conflict of interest. This phenomenon is a stain on modern parliamentary politics, and often politicians are accused of having a vested interest in making sure that, say fossil fuel corporations, or certain pharmaceutical companies will not suffer penalties or even have to pay taxes. A good example of a conflict of interest is the fact that many British MP's are also landlords that rent out multiple properties, meaning that it may not be in their interests to pass laws that improve the rights of tenants. The aforementioned process of regularly "refreshing" the Assembly members also helps in this regard, as it prevents the build-up of power and vested interest.

Thirdly, the fact that decisions are evidence based is a perhaps the biggest advantage. Subject Matter Experts are used as advisers, though they do not make pronouncements ("Experts on tap - not on top"), and the findings and recommendations produced by the Citizen's Assembly are informed and objective evidence based decisions ("Public Judgement - not public opinion").

Random Stratified Sampling

The way we get a truly representative Citizen's Assembly is through the method of stratification. This "weights" the random sampling - or Sortition - procedure to ensure that the makeup of the Citizen's Assembly is truly representative (or to put it another way, this is the way you make sure that 5% of your Citizen's Assembly is composed of females of Indonesian origin aged 20 - 30, if that is appropriate).

And this is where we come to Israel/Palestine, where the stratification exercise would be a fascinating challenge.

Let's stratify! 

Citizen's Assembly Process Map

Holy Land Stratification

First, let's get 50% male, 50% female.

Next we go 50% Israeli, 50% Palestinian.

Then things start to get thorny - religious splits. Across the Holy Land we must take the correct proportions of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian citizens. Then also take the correct proportion of those of other faiths and of no faith.

Then things get even more complicated. For instance on the Palestinian side we must take the correct proportions of those who live in Gaza and those who live on the West Bank. If they are Muslim we must take the correct proportions of Sunni and Shia, Khawarij and other schools of thought. Should we stratify further? In Gaza the government is Hamas, but there are other factions present there also. Should they be represented? Same with the West Bank, where Fatah by no means enjoy blanket support.

Then we go to Israel, and we stratify by Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardic, Orthodox and other strata of the Jewish population. We must also take the correct proportion of the Palestinian-Israeli population, before we go to other groups like the Druze.

And we haven't even started on stratifying by age groups, income ranges, suburban dwellers versus country dwellers, more detailed ethnic compositions and so forth.

By now I'm sure you can see things are getting involved, and I believe we would need a fairly large Citizen's Assembly in order to get something like a correct representation of the various factions and groups that live in this land of trauma.

A Question of Experts

This poses a potential roadblock - not because there are no subject matter experts on the issue of Palestine and Israel: there are many. However what we need are objective experts. Or should I say, what we need are experts that are perceived to be objective. This is quite a challenge considering we are talking about the most polarised of subjects.

A Question of Settlers

The illegal Israeli settlers who occupy Palestine’s West Bank would be another potential stumbling block. Should they be represented and given a say in a Citizen's Assembly? This is a problematic issue, since the presence of the settlers is illegal under international law and they are widely viewed as one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of any kind of peaceful outcome. Also, there is a strong chance that the settlers would not be interested in any kind of treaty that most of the world would view as just and equitable, due to their absolutist stance.

Having said that, the point of a Citizen's Assembly is to bring together those who may have seemingly unbridgeable differences, so we should not abandon all hope at the start. And besides, solutions have been proposed that do take the presence of the settlers into account in a constructive manner.

Conclusion: The Need for a New Approach

For any of this to go ahead, we would need to have the political will to search for a peaceful, just solution to this conflict rooted in a deadly cocktail of quarrels over land, history, politics and religion. Pushing for a solution does not seem to be in Israel's interests at present, however, as it is sitting pretty with the backing of America's government, which grants it such boons as the recognition of Jerusalem as its capital while asking for nothing in return.

But ultimately - and even from the start, going right back to the Balfour Declaration - this conflict is a testament to how conventional politics has been and is still failing us. We need fresh approaches to these seemingly intractable dilemmas.

Otherwise all we can do is carry on looking the other way while our fellow human beings suffer and perish.

For more information on Citizen's Assemblies and Sortition, please visit