The two-state solution is almost dead. The one-state solution could mean the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. What does that leave?
With anticipation of the Trump Administration’s “deal of the century” building, one thing seems certain: out-of-the-box solutions are now all on the table. What we need therefore is creative thinking about what peace between Israel and the Palestinians could look like.
Trump is following Einstein’s adage and avoiding the insanity of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, which is why the two-state solution (at least in the way it has been understood until now) appears to have been dumped. The very name of the upcoming “economic peace summit” in Bahrain sends a strong message: economy comes before peace, and economic development and growth is the foundation for peace. That makes sense for Israel, for the Arab countries, and probably for rank-and-file Palestinians, but unfortunately not for their leadership.
This goes to the heart of the matter. The Palestinian leadership’s mandate has lapsed years ago (Abbas being 14 years into his 4 year term), they are fractured and corrupt, and don’t want the same things that their people want.
With this view of Palestinian leadership structure in mind, and to understand alternatives to the “traditional” solutions of Palestinian statehood, let’s first look to the history of the modern nation-state.
Europe took the long journey from tribalism, and then feudalism, from which the notion of the modern nation-state took hold in the nineteenth century. That model then spread across most of the civilised world.
However, things evolved very differently in Arab world, in which tribal identity was deeply embedded, and with the advent of Islam, religious identity became more prominent and to some extent superseded tribalism. Under Islamic rule, tribes were bound together by their particular branch of religion. The idea of nation states came from outside, and was ultimately formalised at the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, through the Sykes-Picot agreement. But these newly created countries were artificial, and evolved into countries where a minority class or ethnic group ruled over the majority, and maintained a tension between tribal, religious and national identity. Despite this, the model held firm and maintained a degree of stability for many decades. In the 1950s, Nasser attempted to bring together the entire Arab world under the banner of Arab nationalism (and Egyptian leadership), but he was unable to achieve this goal.
This, together with Zionism, sowed the seeds of Palestinian nationalism, but like other Arab groups, the Palestinians remain deeply tribal. To some extent, the movement was more about displacing or destroying the nascent Jewish state (which did have deep tied to the land) than any other aspirations.
While Arafat was able to play politics with the major Palestinian families and hold them together, his security services collapsed during the second intifada, and the tribes took over this function until the US and Israel revitalised the PA security forces. With ongoing friction between Palestinian factions, the geographic split between the West Bank and Gaza, and the ubiquitous kleptocracy (perhaps the only constant), it’s not surprise that there has been no meaningful progress.
Another key constraint on the parameters of a future Palestinian state is Israel’s security concerns, which must be addressed under UN Resolution 242, and are of course the number one priority of any sovereign state. After the withdrawal from Gaza led to it becoming a launchpad for Hamas aggression, a militarised Palestinian state is a non-starter.
What do we have so far? Self-interested leaders unable to unite their constituents around a national identity, locked in a victim mentality and living in a welfare state, and showing no desire or ability to build a sustainable country. There are no ingredients here for state-building. We need to re-imagine and start again.
So let’s now consider a model along the lines of the UAE, which I’m calling the United Palestinian Emirates (UPE, also see here). Here’s how it would work: the longstanding ruling Palestinian families in larger towns of the West Bank would establish Emirates (autonomous mini-states) to govern their regions. Israel would remain responsible for regional security, in conjunction with local security forces that reported to their ruling Emir, which is only a slight variation to the arrangement already in place with the PA. Because the Emirates are embedded within the borders of Israel (in contrast to the UAE), they would operate with dual currencies to ease barriers to trade, and subject to security concern there would be freedom of movement for UPE citizens within Israel. Some towns, depending on their composition, may choose permanent Israeli residence rather than be governed by the UPE.
What of Gaza? Since it operates as a pseudo-state effectively at war with Israel and has well-defined borders, trying to negotiate a solution that also included them would be an over-ambitious goal. Rather, first establish a functioning model within the West Bank, and then offer Gaza the opportunity to join (as one or more distinct Emirates) as long as they adopted the existing governance and security co-operation model.
It’s worth noting that this model would likely see the end of political alliances Fatah and Hamas. Although given their historic contribution to the people they purport to represent, this could only be seen as a positive. Again, back to Einstein’s adage.
This model offers Palestinians most of the benefits of statehood while respecting their historic tribal and family affiliations. It doesn’t force the square peg of Arab tribalism into the round hole of nationalism. Given the many failures to achieve peace over the last few decades, it’s time for something completely different.