Recent events at the UN Security Council and UNESCO have brought the situation into our public discourse as it really is, thus thwarting the Israeli government’s considerable efforts to prevent a serious discussion on where Israel is headed. The problem is of course not that the government continuously tries to dilute, derail or squash any substantial open debate. The real problem is that it becomes ever more clear that it does not have the faintest idea where Israel should be heading or indeed, has no interest in developing a long term alternative, finding the status-quo, apparently, quite adequate.
Let’s face it, Israel has two main choices other than just maintaining the status-quo. The first choice, ostensibly the obvious one, is to progress ever so slowly towards a two-state solution, negotiating agreed upon borders, a withdrawal of, at a minimum about 30,000 settler households from the West Bank and implementing, over time, a separation from the Palestinians in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. While this is technically and logistically certainly within the capabilities of the Jewish state, its political feasibility after almost 50 years of progressively deeper engagement in the territories can by no means be assured anymore, nor do demographic developments of the Israeli electorate bode well for the future in this regard.
The two-state approach, which nevertheless is apparently still favored by a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, if by ever shrinking margins, will put us on a very tough road ahead if implemented. The major trauma of the displacement of over 100,000 Jews, no less, will stress Israeli democracy to the limits. That’s at least if we judge it by what happened with a much more limited effort, the displacement of 9,000 Jews during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. That undertaking, after more than 10 years still hasn’t been completed in all its components, left lasting scars and it is by no means certain that our political system is up to the much larger task ahead.
If however we assume that this effort could get the political support necessary, it would involve a huge expense, the resettling and compensating of the displaced Jewish population. There would be a considerabe additional expense in providing the new arrangements to assure the security of Israel in a smaller geographic area with multiple border control issues. An additional economic burden, at least short to mid-term, would be imposed by the reduction in trade with the Palestinian state caused by the erection of borders, walls and fences and other obstacles. This without even mentioning the impact of the influx of the returning settlers on the Israeli housing market which is already stressed to its limits. No wonder then that the government of Israel is not really keen on embarking on this path which certainly will hold no particular electoral benefits for whichever political coalition that would pursue it.
And what will we end up with after long, arduous, tremendously expensive and extremely divisive measures if we actually reach the finish line, the much acclaimed 2-State Solution? We will have a divided (Jewish) population that underwent the major trauma of the displacement of more than 100,000 citizens, an Arab Israeli population now separated from their brethren in the West Bank/Judea and Samaria, confronted 24/7 with issues of dual-loyalty and a fledgling Palestinian state that doesn’t have the economic capabilities to be self-sustaining without substantial foreign aid. It will be open to political subversion from extremists of all kinds and quite possibly require periodic Israeli intervention even more diminishing the limited sovereignty Israel is willing to appropriate to the Palestinians. Terrorist groups that are fighting Israel will have plenty of support in such a weakend Palestinian state where governance is unlikely to be any better than what the Palestinian Authority (PA) has projected so far nor is the economy likely to be much better than it is now. All this is hardly a recipe for stability in the region and it is certainly not something to look forward to.
Let’s face it, even if the way I describe it appears pessimistic to proponents of the 2-State Solution, the problem is that it will be very difficult, if not impossible to convince the Israeli public who by no means is keen on a withdrawal, that it is. Fear is a central factor, the settlers and their supporters will harp on it no end to prevent any kind of withdrawal and without wide support of the public the 2 State Solution is dead in the water.
As I suggested above, there is another approach. The approach I propose means coming to terms with the fact that Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, is destined to remain a single economic unit (as incidentally, called for both in the UN Partition Resolution, UNGA 181, and Israel’s Declaration of Independence). Facts on the ground as they are today, more than anything else appear to be irreversible, need to be acknowledged and any relevant political solution must reflect this reality. A separation of populations that has been at the root of all politically pertinent proposals since the 1947 Partition Resolution and even before has become nigh impossible. That’s because the political will to see it through is not apparent in Israel nor has the international community shown any willingness to exert the pressure necessary to force Israel into action. And the Palestinian Leadership ? Palestinian leaders are stewing in their own misery unable to effect the changes necessary, lashing out at Israel in international forums with no horizon in sight and continuously losing the support of their own population.
Once we have come to terms with the fact that Jewish and Palestinian populations will remain intermingled, how can we now assure both, a high degree of self-determination for the Palestinians, security for the Jews, a comfortable measure of separation by choice and an acceptable form of government that assures democracy and equal and well protected rights for all?
The approach we chose is not new, as a matter of fact the founding fathers of the Jewish state, Ben Gurion, Berl Katzenelson, Chaim Weizmann, Jabotinsky and others at one time or another seriously considered our approach when a Jewish majority in Eretz Israel was not assured. It is based on the recognition that federal states appear to provide the best of both worlds to populations with high ethnic and religious variance: Cultural and religious autonomy (and moderate separation by choice) within regional units (cantons) that are part of a strong federal state with a liberal constitution. There are more than 27 successful countries presently functioning as federations, including the US, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, Austria, Brazil, and Canada, governing more than 40% of the world’s population.
It is more than reasonable to think that a federation between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, not including the Gaza Strip could gain considerable Israeli and Palestinian support and in its wake, international backing as well. It would stabilize the area, provide equal rights for all the population and end the disputed status of the territories.
While adopting the federation approach would mean that the Palestinians give up independent statehood, they would be able to realize their right to self-determination holding equal rights in a state of all its citizens where cultural and religious autonomy in their cantons is protected by the framework of a common liberal constitution they participated in framing. Israelis too would benefit from the economic advantages of a much calmer and secure political environment and the added advantages of a liberal constitution which would assure the separation of religion and state and equality of all religious groups, Jewish or not. In short, this would be Israel’s opportunity to restart the state and at last implement our declaration of independence in earnest once and for all, certainly a worthy task for a political movement. Is there a political party in Israel that will dare to put this program on its agenda ?
The author is the co-chairman of the Federation Movement.