MIDDLE EAST MALESTROM - The following is the third installment in a series of three articles. The first addressed how Israel lost its way, the second dealt with how the Palestinians lost their way. This article offers a way out of their 75-year-old bloody and perilous conflict.
It is time for Israel and the Palestinians to face the bittersweet truth and accept certain realities on the ground that neither side can change short of a calamity. These inescapable realities will frame the contours of a peace agreement in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation
Righting the Wrong
During the 55 years of occupation, Israeli and Palestinian leaders subjected four generations of youth to the same horrifyingly misguided fate as their fathers and even grandfathers. Neither side can significantly change the fundamentals to even remotely justify more sacrifices borne by the next generation. It is time for both sides to recognize that a solution to their conflict rests on accepting that the conflict has transformed and that irreversible facts on the ground have developed, which are not subject to dramatic change in any significant way short of a catastrophic event.
The following will demonstrate why coexistence based on a two-state solution is a must and why I maintain that the Palestinian state must be established in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. Finally, I will demonstrate why such a confederation may ultimately prove to be the only enduring, viable solution.
Confederations are defined as “voluntary associations of independent states that, to secure some common purpose, agree to certain limitations on their freedom of action and establish some joint machinery of consultation or deliberation.” [emphasis added] In an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation, independent states would join together on issues of common interest that cannot be addressed except under full collaboration under a confederative framework, such as interspersed populations, Palestinian refugees, national security, and Jerusalem.
The establishment of a Palestinian state
The Palestinians’ determination to establish a state of their own will not change under any circumstances. I challenge every Israeli to show me how, when, and why the Palestinians would ever abandon their aspirations for statehood. However oppressive the Israeli occupation becomes, the greater the Palestinians’ violent resistance will be as the continuing flareup in violence and the ever-rising death toll clearly demonstrates. Moreover, every regional and global power has and will continue to support the Palestinian cause.
Although Israel has thus far successfully defied the international consensus, it can never maintain the status quo of the occupation and enjoy a day of peace. The current Israeli government led by Netanyahu—who openly calls for annexing much of the West Bank, expanding and building new settlements, and legalizing illegal ones—must answer the public as to where Israel will be in 10-15 years if it continues to pursue its ambition of creeping annexation and how the Palestinians will react during this increasingly brutal occupation. It does not take a prophet to augur that the violence will escalate to a boiling point and a massive Palestinian uprising with untold death and destruction will become only a question of when, rather than if.
Israel will risk the unwavering support of the US, and push the EU to fully side with the Palestinians and potentially sanction Israel. Furthermore, Israel will fail not only to normalize relations with other Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, but seriously risk previously normalized relations with some Arab countries under the Abraham Accords. World Jewry will be divided, which is already happening, many Israelis will emigrate from Israel, capital in billions will flow out of the country, and foreign investments will slowly dry up. To be sure, Israel will shamelessly become a certified apartheid state that betrayed the vision of its founders as a Jewish and democratic state that holds human rights, the rule of law, and democratic values supreme.
Given that the Palestinians will never give up their right to statehood, the dangerously deteriorating relations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the utter lack of trust between them, a Palestinian state is inevitable. A one-state solution will categorically be rejected by Israel as it would threaten the Jewish majority of the state; thus, two states is the only option, which will also lay the foundation for a confederation. Israel will not agree on a bilateral confederation with the Palestinians.
A solution to the conflict will be found in my view only in the context of an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation. Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and fully collaborates with it on multiple fronts, has intrinsic long-term security concerns tied to the conflict, and for its part will not agree to form a confederation with the Palestinians unless a Palestinian state is established first. Jordanian officials with whom I spoke made their position on this issue categorically clear: if Amman were at one point to join an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, this prerequisite must first be met.
The Israeli and Palestinian populations are interspersed in the West Bank, where there are approximately 2.3 million Palestinians and about 432,000 Israelis. In East Jerusalem there are roughly 361,000 Palestinians and 233,000 Israelis, and in Israel proper there are 1.8 million Israeli Arab citizens and about 6.6 million Israeli Jews. In Jordan, the population is estimated to be somewhere between 55 to 70 percent of Palestinian origin, which translates to roughly 6 to 8.2 million people. And while the nearly 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are separated from Israel proper, they maintain deep ties with their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank with whom they interact regularly.
This reality of interspersed Israeli-Palestinian and Palestinian-Jordanian populations is not and will not be subject to change in any substantial way, other than perhaps relocating 70,000 – 80,000 Israeli settlers to other larger settlements under land swaps, which both sides have agreed to in the past in principle. Thus, the coexistence of Israeli and Palestinian populations under any conditions of peace or hostility is permanent. Neither side can ever dislodge the other from the territories they currently occupy, nor do they have any other choice but to accept this fact on the ground regardless of the intensity of the violence between them and however long it might take.
I challenge every right-wing extremist Israeli to show me how and under what circumstances they can alter the demographic composition in the occupied territories. Those Israelis who entertain the illusion that they can pressure many Palestinians to leave their homes and villages through the brutal occupation and intimidation are hallucinating. The Palestinians will never leave their land in any significant number now or at any time in the future. Israeli-Palestinian coexistence under any condition is and will remain the only option and regardless how hard any right-wing Israeli government might attempt to change this fact on the ground, it will fail.
Furthermore, it is clear that the rise of an extreme right-wing religious government in Israel has contributed dramatically to the escalation of violence, especially between the settlers and the Palestinians. The fuse of this powder keg can easily be lit by those such as National Security Minister Ben-Gvir, who called on settlers to crush the Palestinians “one by one.” The tragedy is that while most settlers will have to coexist with their Palestinian neighbors, an extremist minority is now indiscriminately attacking Palestinians, which is bound to explode into a much wider violent conflict involving thousands from both sides.
And while Palestinians also have attacked and killed Israeli settlers, the rampage that the settlers have gone on—burning down dozens of homes and cars out of simple revenge—is only furthering a continuing back-and-forth of revenge and retribution. Where is this going to lead to? When will both sides finally face the bitter truth and accept the reality that they are stuck and have no place to go, and that spilling each other’s blood is not the answer?
It should also be noted that other than interspersed populations, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories’ geographic contiguity, shared national security, and interactions on many other fronts only heightens the need for greater collaboration between all three parties. This is where confederation becomes central, as it will meet the collective and individual requirements of all three entities without compromising their sovereignty and independence.
From the time Israel was created in 1948, which precipitated the Palestinian refugee problem, the Palestinians with the support of the Arab states have insisted on the “right of return.” Since then, the number of refugees has swelled from about 750,000 that were uprooted from Palestine to nearly 6 million. Israel has rejected off-hand the return of any substantial number of refugees. The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza continue to insist on the right of return as sine qua non to reaching an agreement with Israel, knowing full well that there is zero prospect that their demands will ever be met.
Sadly, if not tragically, Palestinian leaders use the refugees as a political tool to justify their refusal to reach any negotiated agreement while abandoning them to languish in refugee camps for more than seven decades. Just imagine, four generations of Palestinians representing over 95 percent of all living Palestinians today were born under the occupation. They have been misled to believe that their day of redemption was near when in fact that day never came and will not come. Moreover, the Palestinian refugees have been used and abused all these years, serving their corrupt and power-hungry leaders who used them as scapegoats to justify their tragically misguided policy.
Indeed, other than the possible return of 15,000 – 20,000 refugees to Israel in the context of family reunification, there will be no right of return to Israel proper, albeit they can “resettle” in their home country of Palestine in the West Bank or Gaza as the majority are de facto internally displaced. This is not a question of moral right or wrong, it is a fact of life that no power from inside or outside the region can force Israel to change its position under any circumstances. Indeed for Israel, the admission of a significant number of Palestinians to the country will erase the national Jewish identity of the state, which is simply a non-starter for the vast majority of Israeli Jews.
Current and future Palestinian leaders should for once be truthful with their public and start talking about compensation and/or resettlement, and put an end to the refugees’ misery and hopelessness. It should be noted that the establishment of a confederation will allow for the refugee problem to be settled—Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians with financial support from the US, the EU, and wealthy Arab states in particular would fully participate in the process of either resettlement or compensation, or both. There are still two Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, and they too should be a part of the overall resolution to the refugee problem under the confederation framework.
Israel’s national security
Israel’s national security concerns are heightened by three factors: the Jews’ persecution for centuries throughout the diaspora, the existential threat emanating from regional powers such as Iran, and the threat by Palestinian extremists such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Although Israel can prevail militarily over any security threat regardless of its source, its national security concerns still loom high. Needless to say, the occupation exacerbates Israel’s security concerns, albeit it is self-manufactured and only Israel can mitigate it by ending the occupation and putting in place a new security apparatus that will include Israel, the Palestinians, and Jordan.
The sad thing, however, is that Palestinian militants who are sworn to liquidate Israel know only too well that they cannot now or at any time in the future realize their illusionary goal, but they still maintain their bellicose public narrative against Israel. Indeed, for any enemy that poses an existential threat against Israel, expressing any threat in real time will be tantamount to committing suicide.
The Palestinians need to understand that if they want to establish a state of their own, they must first cease and desist any public threat against Israel. Hamas’ constant existential threat in particular plays directly into hawkish Israeli hands, which are using it as an excuse to hold onto the territories and “justifiably” make the argument that ‘no one should expect us to end the occupation when we are being constantly existentially threatened.’
Security collaboration between Israel and the Palestinians is a must. Indeed, even under the current adversarial conditions, Israel and the PA still collaborate on many aspects of their security. Given that Jordan’s national security is very much intwined with both Israel and the Palestinians, continued and further expansion of collaboration on all security matters between them will remain essential to the three entities. For Israel and Jordan in particular, their security cooperation has regional security implications as well and neither Israel nor Jordan would want to weaken their security ties, especially given the regional instability.
The status of Jerusalem
In reality very little, if anything can change in the current status of Jerusalem which served in the 1970s and 1980s as a microcosm of peaceful Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Jerusalem houses the Jews’ holiest shrines (the Wailing Wall and Temple Mount) as well as Islam’s third holiest shrines (the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock at Haram al-Sharif, the same Temple Mount). Moreover, given that Jordan is the custodian of the Muslim shrines in Jerusalem, there is absolutely no way to separate the structural religious component of the city for both Muslims and Jews alike.
Although Israel annexed East Jerusalem immediately after it occupied the city in 1967, and a vast majority of Israelis insist that Jerusalem east and west must remain the eternal capital of Israel, the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem cannot be categorically ruled out. Indeed, since both Israel and the Palestinians want Jerusalem to remain an open city and neither side seeks to build any barriers between its east and west sides, under conditions of peace the Palestinians residing in the east side will have every right to govern themselves.
That is, as long as the current status continues where the city remains united and open for both Israelis and Palestinians to traverse freely from east to west and vice versa, and where the people differ only in their citizenship, the establishment of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem remains a viable option. This should not change in any way the status of the holy shrines. Both sides must respect each other’s religious convictions because neither can alter in the slightest way the reality of Temple Mount—Haram al-Sharif short of an unthinkable religious war.
Validity of confederation
People who are versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may find definitive merits or demerits in the confederation plan, but I challenge anyone to show me how the facts established above will change in any substantial way to render this proposal inoperable. Yes, the current Israeli government is determined to change these realities and prevent the Palestinians from establishing a state of their own, but it will not succeed.
Israel will fail because the Palestinians will never give up their right to statehood and the bloodshed will continue as long as they are blocked from realizing their aspirations. It will fail because the Palestinians enjoy unwavering and near-unanimous international support, including from the Arab states. It will fail because a majority of Israelis understand the pitfalls of the continuing occupation and its long-term dire consequences. And finally, it will fail because of the destabilizing nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict throughout the region and its adverse effect on geostrategic interests, especially those of the US, EU, and the Arab states.
Lastly, given the intractability and the intricacies of the conflict and the depth of distrust, hatred, and animosity between Israel and the Palestinians, it will be naïve to assume that such a resolution can simply be negotiated and an agreement be reached. It will take at least a decade of a process of reconciliations, both people-to-people and government-to-government, to mitigate the deeply hostile and distrustful atmosphere before a final agreement can be realized, as long as the principle of establishing an independent Palestinian state is agreed upon from the onset.
In the interim, both sides ought to reflect on one thing: their coexistence is inevitable and indefinite. The question is whether they want to live in peace, and grow and prosper together, or continue to spill each other’s blood for the next 75 years without any ability to change the essence of the conflict in any meaningful way.
Israelis and Palestinians paid dearly for the tragically misguided policies pursued by their extremist leaders who missed many opportunities to make peace at various stages of their conflict and deprived four generations of living in peace and enjoying a friendly, collaborative, and prosperous neighborly relationship. However unlikely it seems that an Israeli-Palestinian peace can be achieved, all Israelis and Palestinians ought to think if there is any other viable alternative, as coexistence remains the only option. And if not now, when? How many more generations will have to pass before both sides come to their senses?
The next generations of Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace and must not pay with blood for the sins of their misguided and shortsighted leaders, many of whom still wallow in past illusions, while Israeli and Palestinian youth continue to pay the price.
A vastly expanded version of this article was published in World Affairs in Spring 2022; a special issue of the journal dedicated entirely to this proposal was published in Winter 2022.
(Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.).
[email protected] Web: www.alonben-meir.com