After 72 years of conflict, it is time for Israelis and the Palestinians to realize that while a two-state solution remains the most viable option, there are irreversible realities on the ground that can be addressed only jointly in the context of a confederation. The contours of such a confederation are dictated by these realities, the resolution of which requires both sides to fully and permanently collaborate on many levels. The question is, why must Israel and the Palestinians reconcile these realities as a prerequisite to reaching a peace agreement, and how should they go about it to maintain the integrity and independence of their respective states?
I begin with the premise that the Palestinians will never give up their right to establish an independent state of their own as was codified by the UNSC in 1947 and in several other international resolutions that followed. Furthermore, the one-state solution, which is being floated as an alternative, will never be accepted by the Israelis as that would compromise the state’s Jewish national identity and undermine its democracy.
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.”
Such a confederation would join independent Israeli and Palestinian states together on issues of common interest that cannot be addressed but in collaboration. Their previous failure to come to an agreement on these issues explains why the conflict became increasingly intractable, as both sides sought concessions to which the other could not acquiesce. A confederation would be able to jointly address and manage the following common issues along with others, such as freedom of movement for all people, the administration of Jerusalem, and national security.
The inter-dispersement of the population
The fact that the Israelis and Palestinians are interspersed and anchored in their current places of residence makes it simply impossible to separate them. There are roughly 2.5 million Palestinians and an estimated 400,000 Israelis in the West Bank, and in East Jerusalem, there are 328,000 Palestinians and 215,000 Israelis.
Although some Israelis living in small settlements can be relocated to larger ones, the vast majority of settlers will stay in place. As was agreed in previous negotiations, the Palestinians will be compensated through land swaps to make up territorially for this, especially the three large blocs of settlements in the West Bank along the 1967 border.
There will still be other settlements, such as Ariel, which will undoubtedly remain on Palestinian land. The Palestinians have no choice but to accept that many Israelis will continue to live in settlements in the West Bank, and their demand to remove all settlements outside the three blocs is a non-starter.
The interdispersement of Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem suggests three things. First, it will be impossible to erect a hard border between the two sides, as there will always be Israelis and Palestinians living in each other’s territory; hence physical separation will be impossible.
Second, since uprooting Israelis or Palestinians from their current places of residence is impossible, there will be the need for extensive collaboration in relation to security and economic development, which will render the border simply a political line.
Third, people and goods will move freely in both directions, which in any case is necessitated by their close proximity. However, this free movement does not infringe on their mutuality of independence, but allows them to fully cooperate on every level.
There will be a need to differentiate between citizenship and permanent residency. Israelis living in the West Bank can vote or be elected in Israel while maintaining permanent residency in the West Bank, provided they adhere to local laws and ordinance; the same is applicable to Palestinians living in Israel, and those living in East Jerusalem in particular. This is not applicable to Israeli Arabs, who will continue to remain Israeli citizens if they so choose and will vote and be elected in the State of Israel.
The Jerusalem reality
Jerusalem is unique in that both Israelis and Palestinians have a special affinity to the city. There are four major factors that attest to the city’s uniqueness. First, East Jerusalem houses the largest mixed Jewish-Arab community anywhere in the world, with roughly 328,000 Arabs and 215,000 Israelis. Although the majority of Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, they move freely across the city.
Second, the city’s services—roads, electrical grid, communication, and maintenance—are all fully integrated, and there is simply no way that they can be divided. In fact, neither side wants to divide the city, regardless of its final political outcome.
Third, Jerusalem is home to the Jews’ holiest shrine, the Western Wall, the third holiest Muslim shrines, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and the holiest sites in Christianity, within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Both sides do respect each other’s religious affinity. The fact that their respective holy shrines are adjacent to one another means there will always be the need to fully collaborate on security.
Fourth, the main contentious issue between the two sides is the political status of the city. Whereas Israel claims that all of Jerusalem, East and West, is the capital of Israel, the Palestinians insist that East Jerusalem must be the capital of their own state. However, given that the city will remain physically united under any circumstances, and that the majority of the population in East Jerusalem is Palestinian, it stands to reason that a collaborative administration must ensue.
Israel will have to accept that the Palestinians will establish their capital in East Jerusalem, while all Israeli Jews living on the east side will remain where they are. In fact, even Trump’s so-called “deal of the century” stipulates that the final status of Jerusalem will be negotiated between the sides.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian commission should be established to handle any problem that may arise between the two sections of the city, especially in connection with security, judicial parameters, trade, and the development of joint projects. The nationality of the chairman of the commission should alternate between an Israeli and a Palestinian on an annual or biannual basis, with a clear and well-defined mandate.
For obvious reasons, Israel’s national security and the Palestinians’ sense of vulnerability are sources of great concern to both sides. Therefore, security collaboration is central to any peace agreement. Even now, there is extensive security collaboration which must be further expanded under the umbrella of a confederation.
While Israel will insist on maintaining its own security forces along the Jordan Valley, Palestinian security forces would join Israeli forces to guard the border with full cooperation of Jordan to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and smuggled weapons. Collaboration on all security matters is essential; Israel will be hard-pressed to make any significant concession unless it is satisfied that its national security will never be compromised.
The Palestinian refugees
Although the solution to the Palestinian refugee issue is not directly related to the confederation, there will be no solution to the conflict until this nagging issue is settled. It is time for the Palestinians to disabuse themselves of the notion of the right of return as the Palestinians currently envision it. From previous negotiations, going back to 1967, Israel made it abundantly clear and the PA understood that under no circumstances will Israel allow the return of any significant number of refugees into the State of Israel other than a symbolic few thousand under family reunification, as this would obliterate the Jewish national character of the state.
Nevertheless, the problem is that Palestinian leaders have consistently and publicly been promoting the right of return, regardless of how illusory it may be. The right of return was the glue that kept all Palestinians “united,” which their leaders exploited to serve their own political agenda, even though they knew only too well that the right of return, as they described it, would never be realized.
Instead, the Palestinians must redefine the right of return—not to the exact towns and villages (and in some claims, exact homes) from which they and their ancestors fled, but to a return to the State of Palestine in general, which is in line with the international legal principle of right of return, which grants this return to “one’s own country.”
The solution to the refugee issue rests, as it always has, on compensation and/or resettlement. Saudi Arabia and Germany, as leaders of the Arab states and the EU respectively, as well as the US should embark on raising an initial $15 billion to begin the process of resettlement, mostly in the West Bank, and offer compensation for those who do not choose to relocate, be they in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, or beyond.
As for Gaza, given Hamas’ longstanding opposition to the State of Israel, it will not have any impact on this arrangement. If a confederation between Israel and the Palestinians of the West Bank is established, Gaza could eventually join as a third party if it chooses to participate, not necessarily as part of the Palestinian state located in the West Bank.
Given the fact that Israelis and Palestinians have been estranged from one another, especially since the Second Intifada in 2000, and are profoundly distrustful of one another, the creation of a confederation should evolve parallel to a process of reconciliation over a period of 8 to 10 years. During this period, the focus should be on the development of people-to-people interactions in just about every sphere of life—social, political, cultural, and economic—to foster trust, while taking every step possible to avoid provocation by either side.
Israelis and Palestinians must remember that they have been ordained to coexist in one form or another. There is nothing that either side can do to change this reality. The interdispersement of their population, the impossibility of building hard borders, the future of Jerusalem, and their national security all require them to make significant concessions and fully collaborate to realize the concept of confederation, while safeguarding the independence and the territorial integrity of their respective states.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.