It has been a grim few months for those searching for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the historically widespread and enduring support for a two-state solution, a recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that only 43% of Israeli Jews believe such a settlement possible. And from Netanyahu’s extremely qualified embrace of the Arab Peace Initiative to the futile Paris Peace Conference, where neither Israeli nor Palestinian representatives were present, the current prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace are indeed rather limited.
Against this backdrop, a small group of Israelis and Palestinians, known as the Two States One Homeland movement, have been meeting for over four years to sketch out an alternative to the two-state solution. Against the stalemate in negotiations, and the inability to fully implement provisions previously agreed upon, those activists have been searching, away from the media, for an out-of-the-box approach to how states can satisfy the territorial, political, and cultural needs of disparate groups. Their project is a visionary reinvention of the current paradigm, and at the same time a return to the old idea of a confederacy between Israel and Palestine.
The leaders of the early Zionist movement had considered that both the Jews and Arabs of Palestine could fulfill their national goals, while also allowing the Jewish people to make Palestine their homeland through free immigration. With that objective in mind, they had explored a range of political configurations including federal, confederate, and binational formulas. In the early years of the Zionist Congress, an optimistic David Ben Gurion had asked whether it was “possible to reach a settlement in historical Palestine in which both Arabs and Jews proclaim ‘this land will be both ours, and theirs?’” But history took its course, and Zionist leaders unanimously supported the partition plan in 1947. Taking stock of the events of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, dubbed the Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians, Ben Gurion finally resigned himself that there was to be no peaceful settlement that would share historical Palestine between Arabs and Jews.
Today, the idea of a confederacy sounds outlandish, but those activists aim to give it substance. The movement had its official launch this past month in Tel Aviv, on a characteristically bright and sunny June morning. This wasn’t your typical Tel-Avivian leftist event; the kippas and beards stood out amongst the crowd. What makes the movement unique is the wide range of support it has garnered, including from prominent settlers such as Hadassah Froman, the wife of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman; from Palestinians hailing from refugee camps; and from prominent Israelis from the left. Both Yossi Beilin and President Ruvi Rivlin have experienced an about face; Beilin, one of the main architects of the Oslo accords, and Rivlin, a staunch supporter of a one-state solution, now endorse a confederacy as the most suitable solution to the conflict.
By challenging the traditional positions of both the left and the right, the plan has allowed for a wide-ranging conversation to take place between parties who do not usually converse. Hundreds were in attendance of the full-day conference, which consisted of panel discussions, as well as breakout working groups that discussed the core parameters of the plan, including education, security, and law related questions.
The outlines of the plan, which sees two states existing side by side within one shared homeland, were explored by the Israel-Palestine Creative Regional Initiative (IPCRI), which published an extensive report, Two States in One Space. Joint Israeli-Palestinian working groups delved deep into the details of the structures and operations of a confederacy, while exploring potential sticking points.
The main components of the plan can be summarized as follows:
- Two independent, sovereign, and democratic states will be live side by side—Israel and Palestine—with the former resting on 78 percent of the land (current-day Israel), and Palestine on 22 percent, based on the June 4th 1967 borders.
- The internal borders between the two states will remain open, with citizens of both countries being able to travel freely throughout the entirety of the territory.
- Jerusalem will remain united, and exist as a shared capital of both states.
- The two states will enter into a political and economic union, with shared economic and social institutions.
The basic formulation sees the creation of two distinct states, which would share the same territory, and would operate with separate state machineries, in charge of core state functions, while sharing an agreed-upon level of integration in the realms of security, economy, and legislation. The strength of the confederate plan is that it allows both Palestinians and Jews to express their national identity, while granting everyone free access to all of the land of pre-1948 historical Palestine—the territory which is central to their respective national, political, and cultural identities. This approach overcomes two of the central obstacles standing in the way of implementation of the two-state solution: uprooting Jewish settlers from their homes in a future Palestinian state on the West Bank, and a right of return for Palestinian refugees that would flood the Jewish state and overwhelm its ethno-national character.
Against those fears, the confederate model proposes to realize the aspirations of both people by clearly distinguishing citizenship and residency, sovereignty, and rule of law. The over 500,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are allowed to remain in their homes, holding residency status in the Palestinian state, but also remaining citizens of Israel, pledging allegiance to and voting in the Jewish state. The Palestinian refugees who wish to return to Israel would become residents, while also being citizens of the new state of Palestine. This reformulation of citizenship, allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral homes, while remaining citizens of the Palestinian state, removes what currently stands as the most frightening scenario for Israel: the Jewish state losing its national character through a flood of Palestinian refugees. And unlike the two-state model, a confederacy will provide extensive cultural, economic, and political interaction.
As promising as this sounds, there is a potentially fatal flaw to a confederal arrangement, which is feasibility. After over 60 years of ethno-religious and ethno-national conflict, Israelis and Palestinians may not be willing or able to live and work together in a confederacy when the option still exists to have separate existences. The current state structure in Israel is robust, and in the absence of major incentives, it is unlikely to show the malleability to accommodate new forms of sovereignty. Confederacy also assumes that secular democratic rule will be accepted by all, and that the new states will be able to quell the more extremist elements in their respective societies—be it Islamic Jihad, or the reemerging Jewish extremists known as the ‘hilltop youth’. The bleak track record of conflict-born confederacies does not help; it is unclear what makes the particularly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict less immune to the problem of joint institutions becoming crippling dysfunctional bureaucracies, mired such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a perpetual political crisis of ethno-national divisions.
Yet, if the two-state model is to work, it will entail a high degree of cooperation and coordination between the two sides, considering that the historical and present-day realities of two people are inexorably linked. The deep degree of interstate coordination that is necessary for two states to co-exist side-by-side necessarily embraces some of the spirit of confederalism. Integration in a confederacy would also safeguard against the potential collapse of the Palestinian state, a plausible scenario were the state left to fend for itself. Avoiding another failed state on Israel’s borders may be incentive enough for Israeli realists to seriously consider the confederate solution.
If a just solution is to be more than a pipe dream, what will it take to break the current impasse and create a space for Israelis and Palestinians to reexamine the future they envision for themselves? The early Zionists displayed a high degree of creativity, courage, and out of the box thinking—‘if you will it, it is no dream.’ Why is the same approach not applied when dealing with peace? Should we not ask what configuration is best suited for the creation of inclusive and stable political communities? Which, between two states and a confederacy, will create the best conditions for reconciliation amongst Jews and Palestinians, where both sides may live in relative peace and prosperity?
While likely too infeasible to be a realistic or implementable solution, at the very least the confederate approach may provide the impetus for fresh thinking; the thought experiment involved in conceiving such a radical reconfiguration as confederalism may spark a public debate where both constituencies, Israelis and Palestinians, are encouraged to reexamine the viability and desirability of the proposals already on the table, or possible new paths forward.