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A Middle East Union: A Two-Stage Solution To The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Since the 1980s the Palestinian leadership, most Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, the Israeli peace movement and a growing majority of Israelis have advocated a two-state solution to their interminable conflict. That solution envisioned a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel. While it was not a wholly just solution – Israel retains 78% of the country, the Palestinians only 22%, even though, with the return of only some of the refugees, they would constitute a clear majority of the population – it gave the Palestinians meaningful territory, a political identity and a viable state.

As Israel continues to strengthen its grip over the Occupied Territories (the “Separation Barrier” being only the latest development), the two-state solution appears to be slipping away before our eyes. Hesitancy to declare it dead, shared by the Palestinians, the Israeli peace camp and the international community, may be finally resolved in the coming months when the US and, by acquiescence, Europe, approve Sharon’s unilateral “disengagement plan.” This version of the two-state solution imposes on the Palestinians a non-viable state comprised of a series of truncated cantons (Sharon’s term), all surrounded and separated by Israeli settlement blocs, infrastructure and border controls – a “solution” as untenable as it is unjust. When that happens, the Palestinians may opt for what appears to be the only other alternative: a single democratic state encompassing all of Palestine/Israel. In many ways this is an attractive solution. Acknowledging that Israel itself has created a single state through its “facts on the ground,” it merely goes the next step in claim equal rights, including the vote. Such a shift would put Israel and the entire “democratic” world in a bind: How could they refuse both a viable and truly sovereign Palestinian state and a democratic state incorporating both peoples? Since it opens the entire country for residency to all Israelis and Palestinians (including the refugees), the single state solution neutralizes the Occupation, making it unnecessary to actually dismantle any settlements or infrastructure.

The advantage of both the “one-state” and “two-state” solutions is that they are both elegant, simple to understand, easy to present, almost self-evident options. Their great disadvantage, of course, is their unattainability, at least at this time. Israel’s success in imposing irreversible “facts,” I would argue, have rendered the two-state solution irrelevant (the difficulty being the lack of will on the part of the Israeli and foreign governments, not any logistical difficulty on the ground). As for the one-state solution, it requires both the dismantling of Israel as a “Jewish” state and a Palestinian readiness to relinquish their aspirations for self-determination – both tall orders. This does not mean that the Palestinians might not yet opt for the one-state approach; a campaign such as the one that brought down the apartheid regime in South Africa could conceivably succeed. But as of today advocates for a just and lasting peace seem caught between two impossibilities: rolling Israel back to the 1967 lines so that a viable Palestinian state might emerge, or creating in Israel/Palestine a single democratic state. It is the seeming impossibility of the second option, plus its failure to give adequate expression to Palestinian national aspirations, that restrains the Palestinians from pursuing it at this time.

Working Around the Occupation: The Two-Stage Approach

There exists yet another option, far less elegant, much more difficult to present in a sound-byte. That is an evolutionary “two-stage” conception in which two states, Palestine and Israel, eventually join in a bi-national federation that in time will include Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and ultimately Egypt and other countries of the Middle East – a Middle East Union. A win-win approach, it rests on the balance between national sovereignty and the freedom to live and work regionally that underpins the European Union. In terms of the Occupation, it works around a permanent Israeli presence in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza – and eventually neutralizes it as a controlling presence — by compensating the Palestinians’ readiness to compromise on territory with the economic, social and geographic depth afforded by a regional confederation.

Stage 1: A Palestinian State Alongside Israel

Recognizing that Palestinian demands for self-determination represent a fundamental element of the conflict, the first stage of the confederational approach provides for the establishment of a Palestinian state. This meets the Palestinians’ requirements for national sovereignty, political identity and membership in the international community. Statehood, however, does not address the crucial issue of viability. If it were only a state the Palestinians needed, they could have one tomorrow – the mini-state “offered” by Barak and Sharon. The capabilities and responsibilities of such a state must also be taken into account. Refugees, for example, must be accommodated, as do the needs of future generations (at least half the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories and in the refugee camps is under the age of 25). Indeed, the main issues facing the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, are regional in scope: refugees, security, water, economic development, democratization and more.

The Palestinians can have their state. Even Sharon backs the “”two-state solution,” since he realizes that Israel cannot control the entire country and remain a Jewish state unless the four million Palestinians of the Occupied Territories are shunted into a mini-state of their own. But if a strategic Israeli presence in the Occupied Territories neutralizes sovereignty and renders the state non-viable in a geographic, social and economic sense, then that state cannot possibly serve its people’s basic needs. A (barely) viable two-state solution requires, at a minimum, Palestinian sovereignty over all the territories conquered by Israel in 1967. Anything less locks the Palestinians into a Bantustan. This is especially relevant since Israel considers whatever agreement the Palestinians sign on the end of the process, a final status solution ending all further Palestinian claims. If, in fact, “”what you sign is what you get, period,” then the Palestinians must be certain that any agreement addresses their fundamental concerns, now and in the future. The fatal flaw in Israel’s version of the two-state solution is two-fold: it provides only for a non-viable, semi-sovereign Palestinian state that cannot fulfill its responsibilities toward its people; and it formally excludes any future evolution. Given the fact that the population of a future Palestinian state will be larger than Israel’s, a permanent situation in which that state is limited to a truncated 10-20% of the country is simply unacceptable.

The “two-stage approach” I am suggesting here offers a way out of this dilemma. In order to address the issue of sovereignty while providing for social and economic viability even if the Israeli presence is reduced but not significantly eliminated, the Palestinians might be induced to accept a state on something less than the entire 22% on the condition that the international community guarantees the emergence of a regional confederation within a reasonable period of time (five years or so). So while the first stage, the establishment of a Palestinian state on most of the Occupied Territories (including borders with Jordan, Syria and Egypt), deals with the issue of self-determination, the second stage, a regional confederation, would give the Palestinians a regional “depth” in which to meet their long-term social and economic needs.

Stage 2: A Regional Confederation Leading to a Wider Middle East Union

Following upon the emergence of a Palestinian state, the international community would broker a regional confederation among Israel, Palestine and Jordan, which would likely include Syria and Lebanon as well, then perhaps Egypt and other countries of the region. Although such a Middle East Union sounds like a pipe-dream in the present context of intense conflict, it is probably the most easily done element of a Middle East peace process.

The great advantage of this approach is that it balances political sovereignty with the practicalities of having to deal with a dispersed nation requiring social services and economic development far beyond the capabilities of the small Palestinian state. The Palestinian state can address the need for national self-determination; it cannot meet the dire needs of the shattered Palestinian people, refugees and residents of the Occupied Territories alike, as well as those of future generations. Rather than loading the emergent state with responsibilities it cannot possibly meet given its size and resources, the confederational approach spreads that burden across the entire region, addressing the needs of the Palestinian people within the wider context of regional development. Since, as has been said, the fundamental problems facing all the peoples of the Middle East are regional in scope, this provides not only strategic social and economic depth to the Palestinian state, it also ensures wider processes of economic development and democratization that are of crucial importance to both Palestine and Israel.

Following the lines of the European Union, Palestinians residing within the Middle East Union (MEU) would have the choice of becoming citizens of the Palestinian state or retaining citizenship in their current countries of residence (others might choose to leave the region entirely for a new life abroad). This addresses the issue of choice, so important to the refugees. Palestinians who stay in the region could choose between living in their own state, remaining where they are or “going home” to areas inside Israel – or a mixture, since movement, residency and employment would be unrestricted throughout the Union. (MEU laws and regulations, legislated by a confederal parliament, would protect the individual rights of all MEU citizens wherever they reside in the region.) In such a confederation even a major influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel would not be problematical. It is not the presence of the refugees that is threatening to Israel. After all, 350,000 foreign workers reside in Israel today. The threat to Israeli sovereignty comes from the prospect that returning refugees would claim Israeli citizenship. By disconnecting the Right of Return from citizenship, the refugees would realize their political identity through citizenship in a Palestinian state while posing no challenge to Israeli sovereignty, thus enjoying substantive individual justice by living in any part of Palestine (or the wider MEU) they choose. By the same token, Israeli Jews wishing to live in Judea and Samaria could continue to do so as Israeli citizens living under Palestinian sovereignty. The settlements would, of course, be integrated, thereby neutralizing them as sources of Israeli control.

Such a win-win scenario promises both justice and hope for all the peoples of the Middle East. It addresses the need for Palestinian self-determination yet provides for economic development and accommodates the demographic changes that have fundamentally affected Palestinian society in the past sixty years and more. It addresses Israeli concerns of sovereignty and security, even leaving much of the Occupation’s infrastructure intact, although neutralized. And it addresses the wider need for regional cooperation, development and democratization, ensuring a viable context for the region’s peoples.

The two-stage solution will encounter opposition. Israel, perceiving itself as a kind of Singapore, has no desire to integrate into the Middle East region, to relinquish its control over the entire country or, to say the least, accommodate Palestinian refugees. But it does offer the Israeli people, willing, unlike its governments, to truly disengage from the Occupation, a way out of an untenable situation. The autocratic regimes of the region might resist such a project out of fear of the democratization it would entail, but the advantages of an end to the conflict in the region are obvious. International pressures and economic inducements, combined with a strong civil society initiative, should persuade the region’s countries to participate. And for the Palestinians there are only advantages. The two-stage approach offers them much more than the two-state solution, and is far more achievable than the prospects of one state.

A perspective of inter-communal harmony in Palestine-Israel within a context of a democratic and prosperous Middle East might sound utopian at the present moment. We must remember, though, that the Palestinians, including most of the refugee population, have recognized Israel as a fact of life, even as the vast majority of Israelis have rejected the “Greater Land of Israel” ideology. Israelis and Palestinians have a history of negotiations; Israel has formal peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, working relationships with North Africa countries (Libya now included) and the Gulf States, a close alliance with Turkey and, if the Golan issue can be resolved, prospects of peace with Syria and Lebanon. Perhaps most hopeful of all is the Saudi Initiative announced by Prince Abdullah in April 2002, supported by the Arab League, which offers Israel full regional integration into the region in return for ending its Occupation. And one should not forget the affluent, educated, skilled and progressive Palestinian Diaspora and, one hopes, the Jewish and Arab Diaspora, all of which have major roles to play as both brokers of regional peace and generators of regional economic development.

The confederational approach offers a realistic hope of a just peace. It transcends the immediate conflict and enables us to look at the broader common interests and possibilities that show us a way out. Its main disadvantage is its complexity and technical details. Once the two stages are grasped it is not difficult to formulate a process to achieve them, but the complexity of its presentation makes it difficult to mobilize public support for it. Though far less elegant than the one- or two-state solutions, the two-stage approach offers a just resolution of the conflict that is more achievable than the others. We lack only the rallying cry.


Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). He has lived in Israel since 1973. Jeff has researched and written extensively on Israeli society and is the author of the book Between Redemption and Revival: the Jewish Yishuv in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, Westview,… MORE >

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