An Israeli-Palestinian Confederation Is the Best Path to Peace

Israeli security forces keep watch as Palestinians cross a checkpoint to reach Jerusalem to attend the last Friday prayers of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, on Apr. 29, 2022 in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images
Israeli security forces keep watch as Palestinians cross a checkpoint to reach Jerusalem to attend the last Friday prayers of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa mosque compound, on Apr. 29, 2022 in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

For several decades, Palestinians and Israelis have been involved in a peace process from opposite sides of the divide. The two parties made efforts—some honest and some superficial—to find solutions to the main issues of the dispute: the delineation of the border between the two states, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Israeli settlements, the return of Palestinian refugees, and the structure of cooperative security arrangements.

Over the years, constructive proposals for addressing all of these issues have been offered—both by third parties (such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s parameters from December 2000 and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposals from 2014) and by Palestinians and Israelis in their official and unofficial capacities (such as the understandings between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and one of us in 1995; the Geneva Initiative of 2003; and the short Ami Ayalon-Sari Nusseibeh agreement, also in 2003).

The broad principles of a permanent solution are now agreed upon by many, and they were implicitly endorsed in 2016 in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which called for a return to the pre-1967 border with equal land swaps and cessation of settlement activity and encouraged final-status negotiations. More Israelis and Palestinians embrace this package of solutions than any other, although, among both peoples, support has dropped from an absolute majority to a plurality.

The weakness or intransigence of leaders on both sides is the common explanation for why the Oslo agreements (which began with the Declaration of Principles, signed on Sept. 13, 1993, and were followed by the Interim Agreement, signed two years later), were implemented only in part and did not lead, within six years, to a permanent agreement—so that for nearly 30 years we have been stuck with an interim agreement, and the occupation has continued (and so has the violence). But it is unreasonable to place all the blame on the leaders. We believe that new ideas can also positively shake this long stalemate and place negotiations back on track toward a permanent peace agreement.

It will be easier for the two sides to agree on a two-state solution if we apply the notion of reciprocity so that Israeli leaders are released from the need to evacuate settlers from their homes in the West Bank and Palestinian leaders are empowered through a framework in which a similar number of Palestinians can establish homes inside Israel (in addition to an agreed-upon number of Palestinian refugees who will settle in Israel as full citizens).

In principle, these proposals could be implemented even without confederal arrangements. But we are convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian confederation we propose, inspired by the European Union model, will allow enhanced economic and security cooperation to develop and facilitate a range of initiatives that will bolster mutual understanding and reduce mutual rejection and hostility.

The confederal framework that a group of Palestinians and Israelis have suggested is called the “Holy Land Confederation”. It would allow tens of thousands of citizens of each state to live on the other side of the border as permanent residents. The Israeli settlers whose settlements will remain in the territory of the future Palestinian state will be offered the option to decide between moving to the state of Israel and receiving compensation and staying in the state of Palestine and respecting its laws and rules. A similar number of Palestinian citizens will be given the option to live in Israel as permanent residents.

As in the EU, both groups of permanent residents, Israeli and Palestinian, would vote in their respective national elections (the country of citizenship), rather than their country of residence. They would, however, be entitled to participate in municipal elections in their place of residence and would enjoy the same civil rights and social benefits as citizens.

In addition to these measures, this approach seeks to address the consequences of the 1948 war in two ways. First, like the 2003 Geneva Initiative, it provides Palestinian refugees with an array of choices (including a limited path to citizenship in Israel that is distinct from the framework for permanent residence set out above). Second, the confederation proposal strives to develop a common historical narrative. Over the long years of the conflict, many assumed it was impossible for the parties to agree on a common narrative and that the most that could be hoped for was a grudging recognition of separate narratives.

But we took another step forward by reaching agreement about the past—available here. The fruit of this effort offers additional evidence of what can be accomplished when we privilege cooperation over division.

The confederal arrangements we envisage need not be perpetual to have value. Over time, Israelis and Palestinians may opt to deepen or reduce cooperation between their public institutions. What would not change, however, is the boundary between the two states. (Our map provides for Israeli annexation of 2.25 percent of the West Bank in exchange for full territorial compensation for lands currently under Israeli sovereignty.)

What we expect to change, with the consent of both parties, is the border regime and the extent of freedom of movement of people and goods. According to our proposal, every four years (at a minimum) the two governments will meet to explore further liberalization of the border regime and related issues. If the situation allows it, the border will become more permeable in the future, and both peoples will be able to feel that the other country is not “foreign” to them and that they have easy access to places to which they feel a historical, religious, cultural, or familial connection. The security arrangements include multinational forces, early warning stations, and a joint Palestinian-Israeli situation room.

We also envisage a series of measures that will promote reconciliation between the parties, including the requirement to study Hebrew and Arabic in all schools in the Confederation, the mutual opening of archives, and required bilingual signage in all places of historical value.

Critics may wonder how such a proposal can reinvigorate the peace process in the current political context—at a time when Israel’s prime minister declares on every stage that he strongly opposes a two-state solution and refuses to meet with the Palestinian president, the Gaza Strip is controlled by Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority lacks authority over the vast majority of the West Bank.

The answer is that statements made today do not necessarily indicate tomorrow’s actions. Visionary leaders change their minds. In 1977, Menachem Begin vehemently opposed a complete withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula yet consented to withdraw from it in full a few years later. Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1991 had strongly opposed lifting the ban on negotiations with the PLO, shook Yasser Arafat’s hand in 1993. Ariel Sharon, who had pledged never to give up a single settlement in the Gaza Strip, opted to evacuate all of them.

As for the Palestinian side, Abbas has been committed to a two-state solution for many years, and when asked in September 2018 whether he supported the establishment of a Palestinian confederation with Jordan, he replied that he would join it only if Israel was part of it. In our paper, we do not offer a tripartite confederation, but it could very well be a future option. As for Abbas’s political weakness—it cannot be denied, but it is clear that as one of the founding fathers of Fatah, and later of the PLO, he has enough legitimacy to sign a peace agreement with Israel, even if it is implemented by his successors.

The peace agreement would have to be signed by the Israeli government and the PLO. It would necessarily include the Gaza Strip and provide a territorial link between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Hamas movement and the PLO have the joint responsibility to make this possible by reaching a reconciliation agreement. Indeed, we believe that by facilitating access by both peoples to sites sacred to them, a confederal framework could make it easier for factions opposed to partition of the land to embrace a two-state solution.

This proposal offers a novel approach to both Israeli and Palestinian decision-makers, with incentives for reaching a pragmatic two-state solution. The approach is not zero-sum for either side—but could serve as a facilitator for realizing long-stated desired outcomes for separation without detracting from either side’s historic attachment to the land.

Israeli center-right leaders, who are worried about a situation in which a Jewish minority dominates a Palestinian majority to the west of the Jordan River but are hesitant about an Israeli withdrawal from geographic areas that have historical significance for Jews, may see the confederation as a desirable solution for their dilemma.

The option of having an accessible West Bank, where thousands of Jews continue to live, with a border that permits easier access and movement will ensure that Israel remains a democratic state for Jews and for all its citizens; having an agreed-upon eastern border for the first time in Israel’s history may be very attractive to pragmatic Israeli leaders.

For pragmatic Palestinian leaders, the Holy Land Confederation will be a serious chance to achieve statehood, with a delineated border, while having a greater opportunity to enjoy economic cooperation, realize more economic growth (following the examples of some of the poorer members of the EU that have prospered since joining), and reach enhanced mutual cooperation on security matters in an efficient and cost-effective manner. This plan would lead to the Israeli military’s withdrawal from the West Bank and recognition of a Palestinian state and facilitate the fulfillment of Palestinian self-determination.

Some critics claim that there are no confederations in the world today, pointing out that even countries that call themselves confederations (such as Canada and Switzerland) have, in fact, become federations. There are two answers to that claim. The first is that one of the largest and most effective political groupings in the world today—the EU—is effectively a confederation, though it does not call itself that.

The second is that even if the Holy Land Confederation doesn’t last or security and economic arrangements change, some of its features are designed to live on: the border between the two states, the legal status of citizens of one state who are residents in the other, the division of Jerusalem into two capitals, and, of course, the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue.

Israelis and Palestinians must make every effort to put an end to this conflict because we are all paying the price of its continuation. The violence this spring and last May in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jenin, Gaza, and elsewhere showed again that without a horizon of a peaceful solution, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to endanger the fragile stability of the Middle East.

We believe that the only way to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is through addressing the root cause of this protracted conflict by reaching a permanent peace agreement. We cannot keep placing Band-Aids on a festering wound and hope that it will self-heal. A confederation would address the deeply rooted causes of the conflict and bring about a fair and genuine resolution. It will place us on a path that ensures the desired security and prosperity for both peoples.

Hiba Husseini is the head of Husseini & Husseini, a law firm in Ramallah. She has been a legal advisor to Palestinian delegations in negotiations with Israel. Yossi Beilin is a former Israeli politician. He served as Israel’s justice minister from 1999 to 2001 and was the initiator of the Oslo Process, the Beilin-Abu Mazen understandings, and the Geneva Initiative.

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