April 09, 2022
There is some sort of consensus among Israelis and Palestinians that a peace agreement based on a two-state solution belongs to the past.
According to this prevailing view, the likelihood of such a solution was eliminated by the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist in 1995 and the blood-soaked years of the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, which claimed thousands of lives and destroyed what little confidence had been built between the two communities after the Oslo Accords were signed.
There is much truth in this assertion but it is also anchored in the underlying supposition of the 1993 Oslo Accords, although not explicitly expressed in them, that the end goal was to ensure that both peoples could fulfill their respective national aspirations to live in their own sovereign state, separated by a well-demarcated border — a goal that in retrospect overemphasized peaceful coexistence through separation.
Much of the despair about the fate of the two-state solution derives from a misinformed view that every avenue for reaching it has been explored and this conflict is simply unsolvable. Moreover, nearly a century of bloodshed has bred deep-seated distrust, even hatred, that inevitably, although misguidedly, has led to the belief that peace is more about separation than reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. This despite the tiny territory of the holy land that Israelis and Arabs share.
From the very first idea for a partition plan, put forward in 1937 by Britain’s Peel Commission, to the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan and subsequent diplomatic engagements to bring about an agreement based on the notion of two states, it has been assumed that only a complete separation of the two peoples could guarantee the absence of war and conflict.
However, partition and separation, even if not desired, were more viable when the total population was much smaller — in 1947 it was one-tenth of what it is today — and the main occupations were in agriculture, trade and light industry.
Since then, wars have changed relations between the two nations, the political landscape has changed dramatically in both societies, the global economy has created new opportunities, the overall population has multiplied and its demography has altered considerably. Consequently, relations between Israelis and Palestinians are more complex, negating the idea that these two peoples could coexist only if physically separated from one another.
In recent years, therefore, a growing number of Israeli and Palestinian thinkers have turned their attention to developing a two-state solution paradigm that is not based on complete separation, but is derived from the values of both peoples and as a reflection of the facts on the ground.
An Israeli-Palestinian confederation is probably the most promising proposal on the table right now and it deserves to be widely considered and debated.
More than 13 million people live in a territory smaller than the US state of Massachusetts. In Israel proper, one-fifth of the population comprises Palestinian Arabs, and 600,000 Jews now reside in the West Bank — in breach of international law but with no feasible prospect of the vast majority of them returning to the Israeli side of the Green Line — so a more complex formula for “independently living together” is required, as an enabler and a guarantor of two sovereign states.
Therefore, the concept of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation is gaining traction, though it has also met with some suspicion and skepticism.
The proponents of a confederation imagine it as a way of fulfilling the national aspirations of both peoples without the necessity of living their lives behind physical security barriers and walls of suspicion. This vision of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence acknowledges that there can be no lasting solution unless the most crucial, and equally controversial, differences are addressed.
There is a recognition that as much as physical borders are still essential between sovereign states, efforts to ensure the well-being of citizens demand a move away from a zero-sum game approach to one that benefits all concerned by maintaining open borders and doing so without compromising security.
A confederative arrangement might be a permanent state of affairs or a facilitator for two states to live in peace while building close ties between themselves on an array of issues crucial for both states and the well-being of their citizens.
By creating an umbrella framework that allows for Jerusalem to become the capital of both Israel and Palestine, and without physically dividing the city, both sides could fulfill their national aspirations in the city but without imposing restrictions on its residents in terms of movement and employment, a scenario that could only stimulate security and prosperity.
Similarly, a confederation could substantially heal the thorny issue of evacuating Jewish settlers from the West Bank, as it would allow an agreed number of Palestinian refugees to live in Israel, although this would need much work to convince both societies of its merits.
Jews in Israel would be suspicious about changing the demographic balance, even if Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Palestinian refugees living in Israel were to be residents in Palestine and Israel respectively while remaining citizens of their home country. Palestinians, for their part, would be apprehensive of the more extreme elements among the settler community who might undermine, and violently so, such an agreement and deliberately undermine a Palestinian state.
In light of the profound distrust that exists between the two peoples, a confederative solution would require much persuasion and dealing with the psychology of the conflict as much as its practical elements. This is true regardless of how creative, rational or beneficial it might be in addressing the most difficult aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which include Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security and settlements.
Nevertheless, considering the current standoff, it would be completely absurd not to examine this option and its potential not only for ending the prevailing animosity but also for reaping the economic benefits of the free movement of people and goods, and allowing the Palestinians to enjoy the benefits of living next to a country whose gross domestic product per capita has reached $50,000.
An Israeli-Palestinian confederation might not be the “silver bullet” to fix all the ills affecting relations between the two peoples but it is definitely better than the other type of bullets commonly used in the conflict.
The task for those who can see its potential is to convince others that it is neither a path to a one-state solution nor an unstable two-state solution between two antagonistic political entities that would lead to at least one of them abandoning a future confederation.
It will require attention to the fine details and to the difficult task of overcoming mutual distrust, but it is probably the most promising proposal on the table right now and it deserves to be widely considered and debated.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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