It is now clear that Israel entered into its fierce Gaza campaign, including the near total destruction of Gaza city, without a plan for what comes afterwards. It did so in response to the horrific events of October 7, reacting with rightful horror, but combined with vengeful rage and the need to show that it was indeed the stronger party. The sad debates among members of the awful current government of Israel about whether to reoccupy and or recolonize Gaza are pathetic. It is clear, as President Joe Biden has said numerous times, that this would be a tragic and stupid mistake. In any case, the United States, whose support is vital to Israel’s future, will not allow it to happen.
What, then? Is there any real possibility of an international Arab force they would help supervise and perhaps help to pay for the rebuilding of the city, so that its more than million inhabitants will have a place to live? Or will they be left once again in refugee camps, a place where more and more hate will only fester? Are the Saudis invested enough in their relationship with United States and Israel to take a leading role in such an effort? It certainly cannot happen without them. Can Sisi’s Egypt, remarkably quiescent through this whole period, be convinced to go along? All of them, the traditional kingdoms and the military regime, know how deep the support for Hamas is on “the Arab street” throughout their countries. Participation in working toward a solution would be an act of courage on their part. Hope for any decent resolution seems dim.
The most remarkable figure on the diplomatic front over the course of this month has been President Biden. His moral clarity and consistency have been a pillar of support for Israelis, whose own government they had ceased to trust. But Biden has made it very clear that there is no end to the struggle against Hamas other than one that leads directly to a “Two State Solution.” Here he is both right and wrong.
The Palestinian support for violence clearly comes out of despair. All other roads to independence, statehood, and any sense of national pride have been closed off. This does not justify the horror of October 7, but does help to explain it. This despair is partly due to the intransigence and folly of their own leaders, but the major part of the responsibility lies with Israel. The carving up and massive settlement of the West Bank territory that was supposed to be the Palestinian state is a daily slap in the face for every Palestinian. This settlement project, supported by every Israeli government since 1967, but expanded and accelerated under the current regime, has been designed intentionally to prevent any possibility of a second state in the area between the river and the sea. With several hundred thousand Israelis now living, many of them quite comfortably, in that territory, it is inconceivable that any Israeli government could force them to leave. If we remember the horrors of the Gaza evacuation of 2005, and its repercussions in Israel’s political life through this year, it will be clear that we could not do ten times the same on the West Bank. With great sadness, I agree with the many who say that the time for a two-state solution has passed, largely due to the success of the settlement project. It has done Israel immeasurable harm, both politically and morally.
What, then, remains as a possibility? The only alternative left is that of an Israel-Palestine Confederation. This is an idea that has been long talked about in small circles (See the website of A Land for All.org), but is now gaining wider currency. The confederation is the notion of two separate but linked states, with open borders and rights of residence between them. This means that the Palestinians would have a state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and borders somewhere close to (but not necessarily identical with) the old Green Line. In exchange for some territory around Jerusalem and in central Israel, the Palestinians would be given a portion of the western Negev, expanding the Gaza area and allowing for new building and settlement there.
Such a confederation would mean that Israeli settlers who are truly committed to living in Judea and Samaria could remain in their homes as Israeli citizens living in the Palestinian state. A parallel number of Palestinians to those settlers who decide to stay should be allowed to settle within Israel. This might be a token fulfillment of the “right of return” that is so important to the Palestinian side. Of course, Palestinian citizens of Israel would have every right to retain their citizenship and live as equals within their country. They could, however, choose to live on the other side of the line, while retaining that citizenship, if they wanted. In any case, hopefully those Israeli Palestinians will serve as a model and bridge toward their brethren in establishing responsible and peaceful statehood.
There is no doubt that a large portion of the settler population would choose to uproot themselves and voluntarily leave the areas that will be within the Palestinian state. They should be encouraged to do so, compensated for their homes, and be given places to live within some of the less populated areas of Israel, including both the Galilee and the Negev.
Details of the relationship between these two states, including a joint overall appeals court, the conduct of foreign policy, and defense, would be complicated but can be worked out. There is no doubt that defense would have to remain in Israeli hands for a significant period of time until peace is firmly established and trust can be built up. All of this would have to be decided by the process of negotiation between the two sides, but with the active participation of both United States (and perhaps other allies) and some grouping of supportive Arab governments.
The real question is how we get from here to there. Because of the horrific events of October 7 as well as the massive Israeli destruction of Gaza, we are at a moment of deep suspicion and distrust on both sides, perhaps greater than ever. The idea of living side-by-side in harmony feels like nothing more than a distant pipe dream. But here we go back to Biden’s premise: there is no concluding this war against Hamas without a plan for living together. Two peoples occupy this land and neither is going anywhere. We therefore need a process by which the two sides will begin the long and difficult journey from this abyss of despair and distrust toward making such a confederation a reality. The process will need firm guidance from the outside partners on both sides – the Americans and the supportive Arab states. They will need to push, sometimes against loud voices from within. They should create an international commission that has significant carrot and stick, or incentive and disincentive, powers. Any step by either side that leads closer to the goal of living together in peace should be rewarded and any contrary move somehow punished.
To get from where we stand now to such a goal, which truly cannot be realized overnight, will engender much kicking and screaming from significant parts of the population on both sides. It must be made clear both to the Israeli government and to the Palestinian Authority and people that there is no alternative to living together and that any giving in to forces opposed would result in a drastic withdrawal of support. Bad actors like Iran and Russia would have to be kept at bay by this coalition of forces, under US leadership.
It is important that this effort see itself as future-oriented, rather than as an attempt to right all the wrongs of the past or to adjudicate them. Two peoples inhabit this land and they must find a way to live together. That will mean a measure of getting beyond past grievances and looking forward toward a peaceful and mutually prosperous future.
Yes, such a plan does impinge to a degree on Israeli and Palestinian sovereignty for a certain period of time. This is unfortunate, but will have to be accepted. The resolution of this intractable conflict cannot be left only in the hands of voters on both sides, who are currently driven by both fear and hatred. Doing so will only give birth to further and further cycles of mutual destruction. This is something that neither they nor the wider world can accept. Regrettably, therefore, a degree of outside management is required. It should be undertaken by a process of respectful negotiation with both sides, but it should not lose sight of its intended goal. In the end, they will need to vote on it, but that should be delayed until the project is well in motion.
I offer these suggestions not as a political science professional, but as an American Jew who loves Israel, lives there several months each year, and is much concerned for its future. I write also as a rabbi, currently living with the Torah narrative of the Book of Genesis. The essential theme of that book, as I heard from my revered teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel, is “How do I learn to live with my brother?”