As we enter 2021, it’s time to face reality. The world is fed up with the Israel-Palestine conflict, and time is not on anyone’s side. Israelis and Palestinians can tread down any of three well-worn paths, all of which lead to nowhere at best, or they can opt for confederation, the only remaining hope for a scenario in which both sides live together in peace and dignity.
Let us dispense with the first three: There’s the do-nothing status quo, which means letting things slide toward a single bi-national state ruled by Israel as an apartheid regime. There’s the much-heralded one-state solution with equal rights for all, which is an unattainable fantasy given that it negates Israel’s raison d’etre as a Jewish state. And finally, the two-state solution, which falls into the category of a successful operation in which the patient died: It was skillfully planned in Oslo, but after 22 years, an assassinated Israeli prime minister, a second Intifada, and 350,000 additional West Bank Jewish settlers, it’s operationally and practically dead.
After extensive research and soul searching, I believe that a confederation between the sovereign State of Palestine and the sovereign State of Israel will be the most practical, implementable, and least taxing solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here is why.
A confederation is a loose association between two sovereign states whereby each state agrees to give up some of its sovereign powers to a joint authority to advance the well-being of their citizens and avoid the implementation of costly or impossible alternatives.
Under a confederation, Israel will not have to remove the large settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem provided Israel commits to cease the expansion of those settlements. Israeli settlers (citizens) would be provided with residency rights in Palestine while maintaining their citizenship rights with Israel. Israelis who reside in Palestine would be subject to the local rules and regulations while in Palestine. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian residents would have extraterritorial rights exempting them from following local laws. They may, however, be allowed to vote in local elections where they reside with the right to vote in national elections in their country of citizenship.
If this idea sounds attractive, then apply the same idea to the Palestinians, who are not Israeli citizens, and who wish to live in Israel. This alternative could resolve the issue of settlements without having to evict or transplant people from where they have been living for decades, albeit illegally according to international law.
Given that the border is porous between Israel and Palestine, there will be a political border between the two states but, in reality, there will be freedom of movement in both directions for people and goods. Only those who are on security lists would be prevented from traveling freely between the countries.
Security cooperation between the two sides would be paramount to enable this type of free movement. In fact, such a security arrangement exists right now between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and it has worked well, with few exceptions.
The two sides would be tasked with maintaining border security through joint patrols and intelligence sharing. Joint patrols could monitor Palestine’s borders with Jordan and the Sinai. This would eliminate Israel’s need to annex the Jordan Valley under the pretext that it wants to ensure that the West Bank’s borders with Jordan would be secure.
Jerusalem: shared, not divided
A confederation would meet the legitimate political aspirations and self-determination of both Israel and Palestine. Israel stays as a sovereign Jewish state in nationality and character, while Palestine becomes an independent and democratic sovereign state.
With regard to Palestinian refugees, these will be repatriated mostly to the newly created Palestinian state with a pre-approved number returning to Israel proper under an agreed upon family reunification program. In a survey conducted in 2020 by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research based in Ramallah, Palestinians were asked: “Regardless of what is right,” how many would strongly or somewhat agree that “most Israeli settlers will probably stay where they are, and most Palestinian refugees will not return to the 1948 lands?” A 71 percent majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and 52 percent in Gaza, agreed with that statement.
In plain terms, Palestinians are not oblivious to the realities around them and are more honest with themselves than are their political leaders. When asked in the same poll whether they agreed or strongly agreed that “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders,” 68 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 50 percent in Gaza agreed with that statement.
With regard to the compensation and repatriation costs of Palestinian refugees, an international fund would be created, as has been proposed numerous times in the past, to compensate the refugees who opt not to return to the State of Palestine as well those who choose to repatriate to the sovereign state of Palestine. Under these arrangements, returning Palestinian refugees will not alter the nature and Jewish character of Israel nor will they pose a security threat.
To those who reject the idea of a Jewish state, let me be frank. Wake up and stop being delusional. Palestine is defined in its Basic Law as a Muslim state. Why can’t Israel define itself as a Jewish state? (Though, it should be noted that even though Israel has maintained that its Israeli Arab citizens, who now number about two million, have equal rights, they don’t. Israel uses military service in its army as a filter system to legally discriminate between Jewish and Arab citizens.)
Finally, on the thorny issue of Jerusalem, it should a “shared” rather than a “divided” city with full access to the holy sites to all and freedom of movement between the Israeli and Palestinian sections of the city. Israel could presumably become the sovereign over the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestine would be the sovereign over the rest of the Old City and the eastern part of the city that was occupied in 1967. Nevertheless, Palestinians living in East Jerusalem would be given the choice of whether to maintain their Israeli residency or become Israeli citizens, as is the case now. Israelis living in East Jerusalem would be given the right of residency in the State of Palestine while maintaining their Israeli citizenship. And the city would become the capital of both Israel and Palestine.
There is no doubt that further studies are needed to plan the minute details of such a confederation. Nonetheless, confederation between the two sovereign states seems logical and would avert the majority of objections raised by the other alternative proposals.
Professor Bahbah taught at Harvard University, where he was the associate director of its Middle East Institute. He was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based al-Fajr newspaper, and served as a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.