Federate, don’t separate
While the two-state solution in a variety of configurations continues to figure in the public discourse in Israel and abroad and is frequently mentioned as the only viable solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, its political implementation is becoming increasingly unlikely and after the Nov 2022 elections in Israel has become essentially impossible. As is, the deep divisions in the Israeli political system neutralize any feasibility to resolve the conflict. Neither the Right which mostly objects to the two-state solution will want to work towards it, nor will the Left be strong enough to implement the required withdrawal of about 30,000 households from the West Bank in the unlikely case it would regain power in the foreseeable future. No political actor will be willing or able to garner the required majority in the Knesset and/or whip up the necessary public support to carry out such a major national undertaking and the traumatic measures it entails.
Looking at the conduct of Israeli politicians in the recent years, one might conclude that by and large, they do not really want a resolution of the conflict since the upheaval likely to be created would scare both the public and its leaders more than do the penalties that may be incurred by maintaining the status-quo in terms of casualties, loss of international support and economic damages.
Israel, through incessant settlement activity, too much of it beyond the separation fence, has painted itself into a corner and created realities on the ground that while not irreversible physically, appear to be irreversible politically.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority (PA) continues to weaken, losing public support by the day, while the challenge posed by Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank shows no signs of abatement. Having missed several opportunities to put Israel to the test by agreeing to what could be considered reasonable territorial compromise, the PA has been relegated to pressuring Israel through the services of international bodies, notably the UN, while rallying international public support through BDS and other boycott movements.
The international community which is engaged with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and climate change, the large-scale influx of refugees and the continuing threat posed by ISIS, has lost interest in a situation where both parties to the conflict are unable or unwilling to engage to the extent necessary to move forward.
The US historically has taken the lead in trying to nudge both Israel and the Palestinians to get their act together. Since Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts in December 2015 and the tabling of the problematic Trump Plan in 2020 there has been no US peace initiative and it remains to be seen if and to what extent the Biden administration will really engage to secure the cooperation of Israel’s uncooperative government in the near future for a workable agreement. At this time there are no indications that the US would consider alternatives to the two-state solution although some EU countries or even China which appears to show interest to engage may be more daring in this respect.
Incidental outside pressure on Israel, mainly from EU countries, while annoying and possibly causing borderline economic damage, has so far been insufficient to move Israel towards a negotiated agreement and is unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. The successful conclusion of the Abraham Accords has only served to strengthen Israel’s international position and confirmed Israel’s stance that there’s no rush to resolve the conflict.
Another option raised in Israel, a unilateral withdrawal, is politically just as unlikely to materialise as is a negotiated two-state solution. After the 2005 Gaza withdrawal precedent, where Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, it is highly improbable that Israel will give up territory or remove settlers and settlements without getting anything tangible in return from the Palestinians, even if strategic thinking and common sense would call for such a move to keep the two-state solution alive. The recent influx of immigrants on the back of the war in Ukraine makes a voluntary withdrawal from precious real-estate even more implausible.
Given this rather pessimistic background, what does an alternative approach need to offer (in no particular order) in order to substantially improve on the odds for a resolution of the conflict?
- It should be politically implementable in Israel – In practical terms this means that it should be able to command a sizeable majority in the Knesset, i.e. have real support from the Right and the Left.
- While it should be implemented in consensus with the Palestinian population, if not their leadership, it should be executable unilaterally up to a point, if necessary, without causing major Palestinian resistance. This in order to prevent a drawn out negotiating process that could be imposed by opponents to the process on both sides and result in a long-term continuation of the status-quo.
- It must have substantial international support, in particular by major powers, if not openly, at least silently.
- Beyond a short transition period it must adhere to international law as accepted by the international community. This means first and foremost that it must end the occupation and provide full human and civil rights to the Palestinian population.
- It must provide the Palestinian population with immediate tangible benefits, both economic and political.
- It must ensure the security of Israel.
- It should be acceptable to the moderate Sunni nations in the region.
- As a non-permanent agreement, it should have flexibility to accommodate different future political and economical developments in the region, including a 2 State Solution if necessary.
While this is certainly a tall order, we think that the federation proposal has a reasonable chance to deal successfully with the above requirements.
THE FEDERATION PROPOSAL
Federation is a concept of governance whereby either a group of states agree to come together ( a federation of “coming together”) and delegate certain powers and responsibilities to a central authority while retaining a degree of autonomy and self governance or, like in our case (a federation of “staying together”), a state, to improve governance and to decentralize, decides to divide the territory under its control administratively into regions/provinces and give them a degree of autonomy and self governance while maintaining certain functions to be managed by a central federal government.
There are almost 30 federations worldwide and more than 40% of the world’s population lives in federations. Well known federations are the US, Germany, Canada, Austria, Australia, India, Switzerland Argentina and Brazil.
This proposal is based on the recognition that the concept of separating the population into two sovreign states living side by side in the Land of Israel, which has been the guiding principle of the two-state solution ever since the report of the Peel Commission in 1937, is not realistic and that a more likely approach, one that will be able to garner the political support necessary, should be based on the regional integration of the two populations within the framework of a federation. This concept would enable the economic integration of the Land of Israel, as it is prescribed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence (and in the 1947 UN Partition Plan) and would require execution of the following steps:
- Extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, to incorporate that area into the State of Israel and granting full Israeli citizenship to all Palestinian residents who are interested. This would result in a demographic balance of between 60 and 65 per cent to 35 and 40 per cent) in favour of the Jewish population assuming all Palestinians would opt in.
- Recognising Gaza as an independent (Palestinian) city-state with limited arms. This is necessary to assure political acceptability and maintain a Jewish majority state. Gaza would get a port and an airport and suitable border passage arrangements with the federation and could join the political construct at a later stage, in a confederate agreement or even as a canton in the federation should that become agreeable.
- Writing, with the Palestinians, a joint federal constitution securing the system of government and protecting the civil rights of all citizens and creating a joint Israeli-Palestinian administration to structure a federal republic of approximately 11-12 million citizens.
- Preparing and implementing a far-reaching governance reform in Israel including the establishment of regional administrations in 30 largely autonomous regions, 20 with a solid Jewish majority and 10 with a solid Palestinian/Druze majority (five of them in the West Bank) reflecting the demographic balance and a federal government based roughly on the cantonal structure of Switzerland with necessary local adaptations.
- Establishing an upper house in the Knesset where in addition to the Knesset members sent by the public to the lower house, each canton would be represented by two representatives, independent of size and population of the canton. A double majority clause would prevent a change in the system of government unless there would be both a majority in the federation and a majority of cantons in favour.
An underlying assumption of this proposal is the real pursuit of Jewish-Palestinian equality in a federation, political, social and economic and a concerted effort to minimise regional income differentials. Achieving this aim requires the establishment of regional democratic administrations representing regional communities – cantons – which will pursue social-economic development at the regional level and enable maximum cultural and religious cantonal autonomy within the bounds of a liberal federal constitution.
The Israel body politic has already taken a (tepid) step towards federation – the Min. of Interior has recently (2021) published the recommendations of the Cohen Commission tasked to deal with the dispersal of the immense (and unhealthy) concentration of political and economic power of Israel’s central government. The commission recommended dividing Israel administratively into provinces (within the Green Line). While federation is not mentioned specifically, regional government with large scale autonomy in 20 separate regions/provinces is.
The status-quo in Eretz-Israel/Palestine today is that of a quasi-federation where the whole area is under Israel’s control (“the Federal Government”) with certain areas controlled by settlers, the PA, Hamas or the IDF (the regional governments) so that a formalization and reorganization of this situation would almost come natural and could be accomplished over a period of several years.
The federal state of our federation proposal would be a state of all citizens, a civil state and thus create an Israeli nationality (which doesn’t legally exist at this time). This would correct the present anomaly whereby the nationality of citizens of Israel is ethno-religious (Jewish or Arab) while their citizenship is Israeli. The existing ethno-religious nationalities, primarily Jewish and Arab/Palestinian, would find full expression in the regional cantonal governments where each of those national groups have clear majorities and write their regional constitutions (subject to the federal constitution). The federal state of Israel would maintain the symbols, flag and national anthem of Israel today (agreed upon adaptations are possible).
Immigration policy could be normalized over time permitting anyone with roots in the region to apply for citizenship. Actual immigration would be regulated by quotas initially geared to maintain the demographic balance as long as this would be relevant.
The concept could include an ’exit option’ for the Palestinian cantons in the West Bank whose population would be entitled to vote at some time after creation of the federal republic, (not less than 5 years) if they would like the canton to remain part of the federation or they would prefer to become part of sovereign Gaza. This approach would create a positive incentive for the federal republic to boost the local economy in the West Bank (in order to convince the Palestinian cantons not to vote for separation) and a similar incentive to the Gaza city-state to become attractive enough for West Bank Palestinians to want to join and be its citizens. Regardless of the outcome, should separation become desirable for the Palestinians it would then occur at a vastly improved economic level and will likely not require the large-scale transfer of the Jewish population out of separating Palestinian cantons.
The Jewish point of view
The proposal, while potentially appealing to both the political Left in Israel (because of the end to the occupation, an adherence to universal values, international law and the call for a liberal constitution) and the political Right (because of its incorporation of the West Bank within the borders of Israel obviating the need for a withdrawal of settlers, maintenance of a solid Jewish majority in Israel and keeping Israel’s borders secure along the Jordan river) will nevertheless not easily be accepted by the Israeli public. The latent fear of diluting the Jewish nature of the state and losing Jewish identity may well be eased by the autonomous nature of the cantons with each canton reflecting the cultural and religious preferences of the dominant population, balanced by a liberal constitution to maintain civil liberties and freedom of religion.
The creation of a state of all its citizens, a constitution and a diminished if solid demographic majority are however drawbacks that will have to be made palatable to the public by politicians facing strong opposition. Even so, when looking at the alternatives, a continuation of the status-quo with occupation or an apartheid state, our approach does have advantages, the biggest one being that political (and practical) implementation appears easier: we are basically in a federal set-up already (rather disorganized) where different groups control different areas of the country, there is no need for a formal agreement, there is no need for a large scale withdrawal of Jewish settlements and the economic well-being of the whole area will improve substantially after a period of adaptation. Existing political groupings on the Palestinian side could integrate into the leadership of the Palestinian cantons provided they would adhere to the constitution of the federacy and be elected.
The Palestinian point of view
The proposal does not completely answer the Palestinian need for political independence and self-determination and the political separation of Gaza from the West Bank is a drawback. On the other hand, the considerable political differences that remain between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank even after recent reconciliation attempts make such an arrangement, if it is not structured and declared to be permanent, not only possible but perhaps even desirable. Gaza as a Palestinian city-state and regional autonomy in the Palestinian cantons with full citizenship in the federation should go far enough to alleviate Palestinian concerns. The economic union with the rest of Israel is a huge bonus for the Palestinians and assures the growth of their economy (and that of the federation) and the continued well-being of the Palestinian population in the future.
The refugee issue remains a central concern of the Palestinian National Movement (and of the Israeli public). It must be addressed meaningfully, especially if the federation is implemented unilaterally. The approach could include the following:
- A complete resettling (in the federation) of the (local) Palestinian refugees in the camps in the West Bank and Jerusalem in suitable housing, courtesy of the federal government.
- An international effort inspired by Israel to settle Palestinian refugees as citizens in third countries (as envisaged in the two-state solution).
- A partial, limited and mutually agreed upon return of refugees into the Palestinian cantons of the new federal state based primarily on economic considerations and long-term, a normalization of immigration policies permitting anyone with roots in the area to apply for immigration. Acceptance would be based on quotas geared to maintain the demographic balance as long as this is considered relevant.
There is no doubt that the proposal falls short of offering a real equitable solution to the Palestinians – nevertheless it would be a huge improvement over the status-quo and the fact that it would not be a permanent agreement would leave future options for further improvement open, while providing a serious measure of incentive for peaceful coexistence.
The resolution of the conflict even if not permanent, will remain elusive unless there is a major shift in strategic thinking. There is little doubt that the founding fathers of the State of Israel, possibly a majority among them, thought more along the lines of building a liberal democracy for the Jews, rather than the ethnocentric nation state with limited freedom from and of religion that has actively been pursued by several of Israel’s governments in recent years and appears to be the aim of the present government as well. The present public concern for the democratic future of the country as expressed in numerous large demonstrations needs to extend to a resolution of the conflict as well since multiple manifestations of the occupation are a central source of threats to Israel’s democracy.
The economic integration of the Land of Israel was already called for in the UN partition resolution in 1947 and in the Declaration of Independence of Israel in 1948. Moral imperatives, political realities and regional developments in particular demand that the population in the Land of Israel, all of it, be treated as equals, politically and economically. The quicker that goal is attained, the sooner the threats of internal uprisings and subversion from the outside (ISIS, Iran) will subside or become irrelevant. The fastest way to obtain the goal of an equitable distribution both of resources and political rights is through the establishment of a federal republic with regional governments in the Land of Israel, for the Jewish and the Arab population of Palestine, next to an independent Palestinian state in Gaza. This would be completely within the format of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and very likely to be closer to the original plan envisaged by many if not most of the signatories. It would be the most promising move Israel could make to really integrate into the Middle East and become part of it and not remain an extension of Europe. While the political echelon in Israel is unlikely to suggest such an approach at this time, allied governments and the public may be more open to discuss it and possibly embrace it in view of the rather stark alternatives.
This is an updated version of an article published by the author in Fathom Journal in 2017.