Sharing Land for Peace: Revisiting Israel-Palestine’s Confederate Future

By Shai Har-El

Although the two-state solution is increasingly losing support among Israelis and Palestinians, it still remains the basic approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The struggle over the historical British Mandate of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael, now divided between Israel, Jordan, and the territories in between, can possibly be resolved by confederative arrangements. It can be politically transformed into a trilateral confederation—a system that combines self-rule with shared rule. It will be comprised of three distinct, independent, sovereign states: the Jewish State of Israel, the Arab State of Palestine, and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and run by a Jerusalem-based confederal authority. Such a political arrangement may be the best form of government for the resolution of the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the key for a full normalization of the relations between Israel and all Arab states.

This concept was first presented in 1937 by Britain’s Peel Commission and subsequently proposed by the United Nations in the 1947 Partition Plan. Since 1993, this solution has been accepted not only by the international community, but also by Israel and the Palestinians themselves. In 2002, it was proffered by President George W. Bush as a new vision for the Middle East, and supported by the Arab League. Since President Barack Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009, he too has been promoting this vision. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his famous speech at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, spoke of a Palestinian state, albeit one with very strict limits and certain conditions.

At the basis of this confederation solution is the recognition that despite the moral and historical rights of the Jews to the Land of Israel, or Eretz Yisrael, we cannot ignore the realty on the ground: Palestinians will fight tooth and nail for national self-determination. The Israelis and Palestinians have had their destiny interconnected by virtue of the common land they live in, so they must accept that the constraints of Middle Eastern geography and demography engage in cooperation and compromise. Their historical aspirations and dreams of maximizing their territory must be compromised so that the two peoples can share the disputed land of historical Palestine/Eretz Yisrael.

However, the collapse of the ill-designed Oslo process (1993-2000) and the violence on the northern and southern borders of Israel, despite the withdrawal by Israel of its military forces from Lebanon in 2000 and its unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, show that the old mutually agreed upon principle of “land for peace” is not a sufficient basis for a political settlement. This compromising concept has not been convincing enough because the two sides are driven by conflicting national interests shaped by different historical narratives.

The concept of “sharing land for peace” requires  reframing the conflict in terms of sharing the land rather than dividing it. The key for the Israelis and the Palestinians is to recognize each other on the basis of their mutual interests and the assets they share, despite their religious, national, and cultural differences. They must acknowledge their interdependence, even when they have already gained or still seek independence.

But this recognition can only be brought about by a pre-negotiation phase, during which a massive peace building initiative will be launched in Israel, the Palestinian territories (starting with West Bank), and Jordan, and facilitated by an international team of professional conflict-resolution and peace building experts, in coordination with the three governments. This initiative will use unconventional methods that “vaccinate” the environment and engage in a peace building process on multiple fronts—all designed to mobilize Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian societies to empower their own governments to go to the negotiating table and finalize a genuine peace agreement. Such efforts and interactions across the great divide are indispensable and necessary conditions for creating a climate of interconnectedness and interdependence.

A successful model to follow is the Benelux union in Western Europe that comprises three neighboring countries, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and is run by a Secretary-General located in Brussels. Although Benelux represents only a cultural, economic, financial, and geographic grouping, its structure—an economic union with an Interparliamentary Consultative Council and a Committee of Ministers—demonstrates what’s possible for an Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederation.

Within this new context, a Palestinian state could safely emerge west of the Jordan River, which might resolve the fundamental issue of viable economic well-being for the Palestinians and all other thorny core issues (including security, final borders, Jewish settlements, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, holy sites, and water problems) may have a more acceptable solution.

This scenario does not mean more supranationalism and less nation-state, or that it is a model of transnational organization that may reduce the sovereignty of its member-states, ultimately subjugating them to a central power and turning them into a single polity. All stakeholders must accept that historic Palestine is a community of peoples, not only of states, and that the glue that binds them together is a shared destiny. Their sense of belonging to a regional group is not based on who they are, but of what they accomplish together for the common good. They have to recognize the need for a community of projects with shared objectives that will use the vast human and natural resources of the region to the pursuit of peace. 

With the success of this multi-state confederation, the focus could shift altogether to a shared infrastructure of peace that enthusiastically harnesses the resources, talents, and imaginations of the peoples in the entire region and effectively involves the international community in a new economic Marshall Plan-like recovery program. The Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian confederative infrastructure could also expand its partnership to neighboring countries and together create a larger regional open market space that is connected to the Mediterranean and Europe with multiple economic cooperative agreements and a concrete program of international financial support.

But for this vision of peace to work, one critical condition must be met: visionary leaders must be in power. These leaders must be willing to sacrifice old modes of thinking for new ideas that make the possibility of peace a reality. This will in no way be easy. Completely different kind of leaders are needed to establish a new order in the Israeli-Palestinian relations—leaders who understand the risk and do it anyway, even at the price of losing their political seat. Such leaders are currently absent from the political arena.

The current paradigm cannot generate the visionary leaders we need, as proven by the recent Israeli election results. But they are expected to rise up to power during, or as a result of, the pre-negotiation, peace building phase, when Israelis and Palestinians both share a powerful vision of peace, experience a new paradigm that enliven the interrelatedness between them, and  ultimately believe in the possibility of achieving a final settlement of their age-old conflict.

Dominated by a culture of fear and violence, what Israelis and Palestinians really need now is an alternative vision of a possible future for the Middle East, a new culture, a new paradigm that bridges the wide gap separating their historical narratives, shifts the Israeli-Palestinian bilateral track into a multilateral regional engagement, and generates new conversations about peace and new ways to create a peace system to replace the dominant war system that has been operating in this region since the beginning of recorded history.

By creating such a powerful vision, Israelis and Palestinians will all look into the future of their relations with anticipation rather than nervous apprehension and agree to step into a new era of reconciliation. Maybe the vision of “sharing land for peace” can inspire them to do it. 



Dr. Shai Har-El is founder and president of the Middle East Peace Network (MEPN). He is a published author whose essays on Middle East affairs are published on www.mepnetwork.org

[Photo courtesy of frecklebaum.]

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