By Yossi Beilin
14 May, 2015
The new Israeli government, right-wing and fragile, holds no immediate hope for progress toward peace. But peacemakers should not give up. Precisely because of its vulnerability — in Israeli politics, and in the opinions of the wider world — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government may feel pressured to show a commitment to peace. Israel’s more moderate parties might even join a unity government, if they were promised a freeze on settlement construction and a reopening of serious talks with the Palestinians.
So we who know that a peace settlement is essential for Israel’s future should now rethink the ultimate goal. When I do that, I keep returning to the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, rather than a classic two-state solution. By acknowledging that our two peoples live too close together to ever be completely separate, we might finally persuade both sides to make historic concessions to each other.
This idea isn’t new. For a brief time in the 1990s, it animated some of my earliest discussions about peace with a spokesman whom Palestinians revered, Faisal al-Husseini. But that was before the Oslo Accords of 1993. Once they were signed, political leaders on both sides adopted the popular assumption that a final peace settlement must resemble a divorce — each side ridding itself of the other. Ehud Barak coined a campaign slogan: “We are here and they are there.” And after a hurricane of violence began in 2000, too few of us in the Israeli peace camp opposed building a separation wall. In that way, even we contributed to fear and separation.
In hindsight, it is clear that we should have been looking all along at confederation — cohabitation, not divorce.
My thinking dates from comments Mr. Husseini made to me in 1993, when I was the deputy foreign minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet, seeking talks with the Palestinians. Yasir Arafat was still exiled in Tunisia. That left Mr. Husseini as the most influential Palestinian in the occupied territories. Though he had once taken extreme anti-Israeli positions, he had come to see the need for peace. Indeed, many Israelis would have preferred him over Arafat as our partner in negotiations.
But he could not play that role; he told me he had to obey orders from the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Israel could not bypass Arafat. So it was on those terms, of talking directly to the P.L.O., that I helped initiate the secret back channel in Oslo.
Nevertheless, I continued meeting with Mr. Husseini. And on that day in 1993, I asked whether he envisaged a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. He laughed: “Confederation, yes. Jordan, no.” Palestinians, he said, had to address their poverty, not just nationalism. His argument went roughly like this:
It’s against your interest and ours to artificially divide the land. We should draw a border, but not a Chinese wall. Israel and Palestine would be independent states in a confederation, each with its parliament and government, but also with joint institutions for mutual issues like water, infrastructure, the environment, the police and emergency services.
He didn’t get into security issues, but it seemed logical that each state’s foreign policies would be distinct, while security would be tightly coordinated. He said that while he saw himself as Israel’s enemy, a peace compact could nevertheless let Palestinians benefit from cohabiting with a developed state with which it shared interests. He even said that Israeli settlers who wished to stay in Palestine might do so, as long as they respected Palestinian laws.
I discussed the idea with my colleagues, but all rejected it. Public opinion, they said, wasn’t ready for cohabitation; it preferred divorce. But now it is clear that was a mistake: Seeking total separation has only added to the general atmosphere of hatred.
The Palestinian side hasn’t promoted cohabitation either. Many Palestinians dismissed it as sleeping with the enemy. So it didn’t figure in understandings I reached in 1995 with Mahmoud Abbas, then a negotiator and today the Palestinian president. Nor did it influence the attempt to revive peace talks that culminated in a Geneva ceremony in 2003.
Today, it seems clear that no permanent agreement for complete separation is possible while profound disagreements over security and the presence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank remain unresolved. But confederation — however counterintuitive it may sound — seems to me a very relevant idea.
One of the greatest threats to Israeli-Palestinian trust is the argument that Israeli settlement expansion has become irreversible. On both sides, zealots argue that this makes a two-state solution no longer possible, leaving one unified state the only alternative. But Mr. Husseini’s vision of confederation belies that. It would let both peoples fulfill national aspirations while each benefited from the other’s energy and skills.
If drawn with care for political sensibilities, this vision could even mesh with some assumptions of what a two-state peace must look like. Law-abiding Jewish settlers could be allowed to stay in Palestinian territory — so long as comparable numbers of Palestinian citizens who are now outside Israel could live within Israel’s borders. The borders could closely replicate the 1967 lines — if the settlement blocs came under Palestinian jurisdiction. Jerusalem could include a Palestinian capital in the east, the Israeli capital in the west — and a special area for joint institutions. Security in Palestine could be guaranteed by a multinational force, jointly supervised by the confederation.
Much more would have to be negotiated. But what alternative is better? Too many Israelis fear that a one-state marriage would destroy either our identity as a Jewish state or our claim to democracy. And a two-state divorce is unlikely to produce a prosperous and stable Palestine. Difficult though it may be to achieve, confederation seems to me the most realistic and practical option, as it did to a wise Palestinian 22 years ago.
Yossi Beilin has served as Israel’s deputy foreign minister and minister of justice.