Could a confederate solution break the Israeli-Palestinian deadlock?

The European Union is strongly in favour of the two-state solution to the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. “A negotiated two-state solution,” said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini in October 2015, “is the only way to bring the lasting peace and security that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve.”

The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is not so sure. “Peace in the Middle East is possible,” said Schulz in the same month, “only if the …conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is resolved, and both peoples live together in two states or a confederation.”

A confederation? Where did Schulz get this idea as a possible alternative to the near-total commitment of world opinion to the two-state solution? Possibly from none other than the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin. On August 7, 2015, President Rivlin in a newspaper interview suggested that an Israeli-Palestinian confederation would be the best means of settling the perennial Middle East conflict.

Or possibly Schulz had read the article by Israeli elder statesman, Yossi Beilin, published in the New York Times in May 2015: “Confederation Is the Key to Mideast Peace.”

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“This idea isn’t new,” wrote Beilin. “For a brief time in the 1990s, it animated some of my earliest discussions about peace with a spokesman whom Palestinians revered, Faisal al-Husseini. But that was before the Oslo Accords of 1993…In hindsight, it is clear that we should have been looking all along at confederation – cohabitation, not divorce.”

What is a confederation? It is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states, as opposed to a federation, in which the stress is on the supremacy of the central government.

The vision of achieving peace in what was British Mandate Palestine through the mechanism of a confederation has its passionate supporters. Some, like the US-based Israel-Palestine Confederation, think solely in terms of a two nation association; others, like the Israel-Palestine-Jordan Confederation, broaden the concept to include Jordan which, after all, was originally within the British Mandate.

The classic two-state solution developed in the period when Britain, under the mandate granted by the League of Nations in 1923, administered that chunk of the old Ottoman empire known as Palestine. The mandate tasked the British government to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people, but Britain signally failed to reconcile Arab political leaders to this commitment. Civil unrest led Britain to set up a Royal Commission under Lord Robert Peel, and in 1937 the commission recommended partitioning the country between Jews and Arabs – a two-state solution.

The proposals were not implemented, but partition surfaced again ten years later when UNSCOP (the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine), proposed dividing the territory then designated Palestine (much reduced from its original 1920s extent) into an Arab and a Jewish state.

Fast forward to 2016, and the Middle East has developed a range of new imperatives that render the classic two-state solution almost otiose.

Prowling round the Palestinian Authority (PA) stockade is Hamas, the extreme Islamist organization that seized power in Gaza, rules over nearly two million Palestinians, and has been harrying PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it. It would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power in a new sovereign Palestine, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel – and now, within easy range, would lie Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport, and Israel’s main north-south road network.

This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas, either by way of a military coup or via democratic elections (for a Hamas victory at the polls is a probable outcome). Like it or not, they would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.

Just as haunting an outlook for an independent Palestine is provided by the mushrooming influence of Islamic State (IS) which, despite recent territorial reverses in Syria, has spread its tentacles into Libya and Yemen, and seeks to embrace within its self-declared caliphate first the Middle East as a whole, and then the world. It would pounce on a new sovereign Palestine, entirely dependent on its own weak military for its defense, like a cat on a mouse.

IS is already harrying both Israel and Jordan on their northern borders with Syria. On 5 April 2016, IS was reported to have overrun several Jordanian border crossings south of the Yarmouk river. Defending Jordan, Israel, and a new sovereign Palestine against the incursions of IS would be of paramount importance in any final settlement. A three-state confederation could be a most effective means of coordinating the defense capabilities of all three to ensure the security of the region.

An even more fundamental issue now militates against the classic two-state solution. The PA has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of their own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement with Israel based on the two-state solution. The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.

If a solution is ever to be found, it will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political, and the encroachments of IS. The League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. Indeed. it is only at the instigation, and under the shield, of the Arab League that the PA might participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity (JIP?), dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, and to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.

By Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “"Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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