An Israeli-Palestinian Confederation Can Work
The two-state solution is dead. Most one-state solutions are unacceptable to the other side. There is, however, a viable peace plan that appeals to both.
An Israeli-Palestinian confederation, by contrast, would start with the building blocks of two separate and territorially defined independent states. Promoted largely by the civil society group A Land for All, among others, the idea is that there would be two governments, two heads of state, and a border on or near the pre-1967 division, known as the Green Line. Each state would be sovereign and free to define its national character. But a confederation would diverge from the traditional two-state model by creating an agreement to share certain aspects of their sovereignty. The border would be porous, designed to facilitate rather than limit crossings. Freedom of movement — to tour, work, or study — would be the default, restricted only for individuals who pose a specific security threat.
Today, the reverse is the norm. All people are restricted from crossing boundaries; everyone theoretically needs a permit to go somewhere. In practice, Palestinians are severely constrained in their daily life. West Bank residents need a permit to travel anywhere inside Israel, including the settlements and Jerusalem, or between Gaza and the West Bank; an airport permit is almost unobtainable. The permit allowances are byzantine by design and are commonly denied, and checkpoints and the security wall make short distances into lengthy, tortuous trips for all Palestinians. Gazans are almost entirely trapped inside Gaza. Porous borders would release Palestinians from this suffocating constraint on their physical movement.
Israeli Jews face few movement restrictions today. Theoretically, they need a permit to visit the small, Palestinian-run Area A, where most Jews have little desire to be. In fact, there is no real barrier other than a warning sign — and they can glide through settler-designated checkpoints on the return. But full freedom of movement offers Israeli Jews, especially religious ones, something they may not have in a traditional two-state plan: access to the many holy sites inside the West Bank, such as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem, and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus — the last is almost inaccessible to Jews today. In a traditional two-state solution, these sites would be well inside Palestine, and the latter could close its border; this is one of numerous reasons Israelis, especially if they are religious, have little interest in reaching such a solution. The confederation model is predicated on open access.
Instead of carving up Jerusalem, the city would remain united under shared sovereignty as the capital of two states. Holy places would be governed by a special regime, possibly with international support, just like in earlier two-state plans. But the delicate urban fabric of Jerusalem would remain intact, with an added Palestinian capital in the east. The border between the two states could run widely around the city, rather than through it. An umbrella municipality of Israelis and Palestinians could run east and west boroughs.
Free movement and a united Jerusalem would require advanced security measures. Such measures could be grounded in the principle of strong security cooperation, based on the system set up by the Oslo Accords still in place today. At present, Israeli security figures commonly cite the ongoing cooperation with Palestinian Authority forces as the main reason there has not been more violence over the last decade. Living under occupation, Palestinians today deeply resent what they consider collaboration, or the “outsourcing” of Israel’s rule to their own security forces. But if Palestine were free under its own civilian government, coordinated security would protect the arrangement itself, serving people rather than controlling them.
The centerpiece of the confederation approach is allowing citizens of one side to live as permanent residents on the other while voting in national elections only in their country of citizenship. Israeli settlers who absolutely must live on holy ground could stay so long as they are law-abiding residents under Palestinian sovereignty; they could participate in local elections but would only vote for national representation in Israel. This will alienate settlers who insist on Jewish sovereignty — but it extends a hand to more moderate settlers who have long resented the left-wing expectation that they must all automatically uproot their homes.
The same provision is a creative concession to Palestinians, since it allows some refugees from 1948 back into Israel under the same terms: permanent residency, provided they are law-abiding and perhaps after Israeli security vetting. The numbers could be determined through mutual agreement. Those residents would vote in national elections only in Palestine and, like settlers, could vote in local Israeli elections. This concept responds to one of the most intractable problems in the conflict: Palestinians insist on recognition of their right to ancestral lands, while Israelis live in mortal fear of returning Palestinians demographically destroying the Jewish state by voting the Jewish government out of office.
In previous rounds of negotiations, the refugee issue has been among the greatest points of contention and remains so in public opinion surveys. Under the confederation proposal, neither side can dominate the national politics of the other, since they may only vote in the state of their national identity.
Other forms of infrastructural cooperation are less emotional but highly pragmatic. Today, the two sides already use the same currency and buy each other’s goods: In 2012, the Bank of Israel found that 81 percent of Palestinian exported goods were sold to Israel while the country sold about $4.5 billion worth of goods to the Palestinian Authority. These numbers have only grown since.
Israeli tech companies have begun hiring Palestinian programmers, quietly but successfully, providing an opportunity for Palestinians who are well-educated but unemployed. Deepening these ties through easier physical mobility and professional associations can only benefit both economies. All this can continue — again, minus Israel’s Oslo-era controls over Palestinian economic life through tax collection and controls over imports and exports. A professional economic council could help manage the difficulties of integrating a weaker economy with a much stronger one. This is a serious challenge. But the alternative of a separated Palestinian state with a hard border, and little access and mobility to Israel, could also lead to economic isolation — which could exacerbate rather than de-escalate the conflict.
Similarly, it hardly seems possible to manage natural resources and infrastructure separately; already, Gaza’s waste floats onto Israel’s nearby beaches, pollutes aquifers, and has forced desalination plants to shut down at times — all while Israel is now reviving its water-saving campaigns due to shortages. The traditional two-state solution would require coordination on essential environmental issues too, but the confederation model favors it in spirit and structure, facilitating both civil society and government coordination instead of making such cooperation the exception.
The liaison is ultimately voluntary. In a federation, secession can lead to war. A confederation approach allows each side the legal right to leave. Legal secession can be peaceful, such as the referendum-based separation of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006 or Brexit (if it is ever implemented).
The attempt to combine policies from the two-state solution, while drawing on one-state ideas both for pragmatic and symbolic needs, makes this approach appealing for a small but eclectic group from Israel’s left and right, as well as some Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. Yossi Beilin, a former stalwart supporter and negotiator for a two-state solution, openly favors it, and President Rivlin has endorsed the idea, albeit without elaborating just what he means.
Only the future will tell whether Israelis and Palestinians choose to live closer together or further apart. But they are unlikely to reach a peace agreement that is only one or the other.