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Israel and Palestine: Two states and the extra step

It is time to consider the benefits of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation.

Last updated: 14 May 2014 08:41
John Bell

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government during the Iraq crisis in 2002-03.
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Palestinian refugees can have the right of return to the Israeli-Palestinian confederation while residing in the Palestinian state, writes Bell [AFP]

The search for new directions for Israel and Palestine is on. Apartheid? One state? Israeli unilateral withdrawal? Tortuous negotiations? The reality is that it may be time to look at things in a new way in Israel and Palestine: two states, and one (necessary) extra step.

The lessons for the future may come from an unusual place:  current reality. The "facts on the ground" in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (over half a million settlers), the impossible Israeli political system, the deep demands of the Palestinians, and the unravelling of the Arab world may all have something to tell us.

Putting it simply, matters are much more "mixed up" today in the Middle East than was originally intended by the nation-state arrangements of the early 20th century. Dysfunctions plague the whole Levant: minority/majority group conflicts, the rush for central power and control, and oppression of one ethnicity by another.

"Carving up the land" through borders, and the consequent ardent defence of those borders, has been the answer of choice until now. But, in all these invented states we see ethnic conflict, oppression, and state systems that are "bipolar": either too weak, or too strong - all symptoms that something is fundamentally wrong with the inherited structures.

In the case of Mandate Palestine, the division into two states was never completed and, instead, the matter settled into chronic conflict. However, this political geography suffers from similar afflictions as its neighbours, as do the negotiations to settle the matter once and for all.

Brain-numbing puzzles

Many are coming to the realisation that dismantling Jewish settlements is too gigantesque a task; fantasies of transferring the Palestinians, an impossibility; Jerusalem, practically, if not politically, indivisible; and the refugees - well, no one quite knows what to do with the refugees. Yet, despite these brain-numbing puzzles, the two sides are, ultimately and against all wishes, going to have to find a way to live together.

Imagine if Israelis and Palestinians don't aim only for the very difficult two states, or the turmoil of one state, but for a confederation of some kind, where the two peoples live in different rooms, but under one roof.

One idea that one hears increasingly about is the "one-state" solution based on equal rights for all. Except for the rights, the current condition is already that problem (not solution) for all to see. Israel is the effective sovereign from the sea to the river and the Palestinian Authority is highly circumscribed. It takes little more than a sleight of hand to provide a minimum of control for Palestinians, and rationalise and mitigate the occupation.

The idea of one state also ignores the reality that Israeli Jews will be the most powerful in this state for a long time to come, and the fight for Palestinian rights, long and weary. Furthermore, many Israelis want nothing to do with an answer that ultimately threatens Jewish demography.

As a result, both polities are still mostly contemplating the elusive two-state solution. Palestinians need independence, and Israelis, security and a Jewish state. Therefore, the separation that two states provide seems necessary. However, achieving two states may need one further step from the start.

Imagine if Israelis and Palestinians don't aim only for the very difficult two states, or the turmoil of one state, but for a confederation of some kind, where the two peoples live in different rooms, but under one roof. This is not a new idea, forms of federation or confederation have been advocated before, including in the excellent article by Chibli Mallat, where none other than David Ben Gurion is quoted as saying in 1930, "The regime [Palestine] must foster the rapprochement, accord and cooperation of the Jewish people and the Arabs in Palestine… [in] a federal state, comprising an alliance of cantons [autonomous districts], some with Jews in the majority, and some with Arabs."

It may be time to begin to take this idea more seriously.

Gaddafi's proposal?

A confederation would involve the two states, Israel and Palestine, living under one agreed-upon common political structure: Israel-Palestine (not the one-state Israetine that the late Muammar Gaddafi once proposed in The New York Times). This idea would involve a shared economic zone, and require an open border to work properly. But, it also provides each people with key needs met, independence for the Palestinians, and preservation of a Jewish state for Israelis. Some may reflexively balk at this "extra step", but there is another silver lining: It also helps resolve some of the toughest issues in the two-state negotiations.

Palestinian refugees can have the right of return to the Israeli-Palestinian confederation while residing in the Palestinian state. Jewish settlers in the West Bank would have the option of being resident in the Palestinian side of the confederation, given they are already there. Political franchise would be separate: Israelis vote in Israel and Palestinians in Palestine, but there would be free movement between the two sides of the entity. This would encourage economic links, but also free refugees to visit their ancestral homes, settlers to go to Israel fluidly, and Palestinians today blocked by the wall to go to the beach that is only 40km away.

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Jerusalem can be an open undivided city, with the unique status of belonging to both the Israeli and the Palestinian portions of the confederation, and the capital of both. All the security arrangements being mooted today for the city under a two state solution, such as a hard border between the highly intertwined Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods, or a ring of checkpoints around the whole city, would be unnecessary. The division of powers between the states and the confederal structure will be complex, but maybe not as difficult as today's endless arguments over territorial sovereignty.

Given current political fixations, the two sides can phase the process and build trust: a) agree on the borders of two states, or even a partial solution to calm the situation, meet immediate needs and demonstrate progress, b) proceed to the confederative dimensions. Why not stop at two states in that case?

Ultimate goal of confederation

The two-state deal may not be agreed to properly and fully without the ultimate goal of confederation. Without the overarching vision, the agreement on the toughest issues, Jerusalem, the refugees and settlements, will remain partial and problematic. If this idea were ever to occur, it may also be that Jordan would be keen to join this potential economic and cultural powerhouse with Jerusalem as its common centre.

The time is right so start to think forward along these lines because it may be the only sustainable answer for the 70-year-old quandary. Those who shirk at the notion should compare it with the other available options: apartheid state, conflict, opprobrium, occupation and even war.

Palestinians would likely be more open to the idea, and Israelis less so, fearing for their security and dissolution in a lake of local Arabs. But, the confederation will permit Israelis to preserve their state through a separate political franchise and control over residency, while Palestinians' political and economic needs will be met, which will mean the end of conflict.

The vestiges of Sykes-Picot are withering in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The classic two state negotiations are as stale as dry bread, and new arrangements will have to be found. Instead of being the problem par excellence, the Israelis and Palestinians can transform themselves into a paragon for others, using what is now their terrible problem for common benefit. The idea may even spur Lebanese, Syrians and Iraqis to seek innovative solutions of their own.

In the future, Israel and Palestine will most likely drift into this space of "living together" anyway. The only question is whether they will do so half asleep and resistant to the idea, botching the moves and violently bumping into each other along the way, or through a conscious and bold move into their inevitable future. It is time to consider the benefits of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation.

John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former United Nations and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian Government during the Iraq crisis in 2002-03.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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