Separate But Federal

One of my favorite bloggers, Emily Hauser, has a really good post about why the settlements remain an important issue. I say these nice things so that Emily won’t get mad at me when I disagree with her. Why? Because it is no longer accurate to just say that “the settlements are the problem.” The issue is that the settlements have succeeded in destroying a viable Palestine in the West Bank.

Making that statement is dangerous. It will upend the entire framework of the occupation, the peace process and hope for the future. But it is the reality, and it means that only a new framework and a new process can possibly bring a future Israel that is, finally, an independent state with real borders instead of a line over which Jewish colonies thrive at the expense of millions of innocent people who live without civil rights.

The reality on the ground is that the settlements are too entrenched physically, and too intertwined with the Israeli economy. Even if there were relevant Israeli politicians who wanted to abandon the settlement project, the settlements are too politically volatile an issue for any Israeli leader to seriously address it.

Nothing short of massive pressure, including sanctions (along with strong security guarantees) by both the United States and Europe would provide enough incentive for Israel to leave the West Bank, let alone share Jerusalem. No such pressure is likely any time in the foreseeable future. Fifteen years ago, it might have been possible for groups like J Street to turn the tide. Now, it’s too late.

Regular readers of mine know I have been saying this for a while. My context for these statements is that of someone who very strongly believes that one state for both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs will either escalate the violence dramatically (think Northern Ireland) or entrench and broaden the system of different laws for Jews and Arabs in the West Bank that is already in place (think South Africa.)

So what is a two-stater who no longer believes two states is a possible solution supposed to advocate for?

I don’t intend to try to write up some new peace plan. Every so often, some well-intentioned person sends me their plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and none has ever struck me as very workable. I claim no better vision.

Still, we have to start thinking in a new direction. If the one-state solutions that are out there seem unworkable, and they do to me, then what?

Some sort of federal plan, with an international presence, is the only way forward. That would mean a plan that allows both Israelis and Palestinians to develop their national existence and identity, to develop separate but connected economies, and to have governments that are separate for each people, but are bound together by a weak federal government, augmented by an international monitoring and advising body, whose role is merely to regulate relations between the two entities.

It would mean establishing routes of passage through the West Bank, administered jointly by Israel, Palestine and international observers, that allow traffic past the Israeli settlements. It would mean establishing a method to connect Palestinian citizens of Israel with Palestinians who are living nearby but are currently citizens of nothing, as well as re-establishing travel between the West Bank and Israel, as existed for decades before the Oslo Accords.

It would also mean Israel’s withdrawal of its security forces from all of the West Bank areas not covered by its settlements, and it would mean those settlements could no longer grow outward. It would mean that Israeli forces could protect the settlements and the roads connecting them, but could not interfere in the much larger areas surrounding them, which currently make up zones which fall under the control of the settlements’ “regional councils.”.

It would mean Israel would also have to abandon the Jordan Valley and allow for Palestinian use of that territory. The relatively sparse Palestinian population of that territory would be particularly useful in absorbing some Palestinian refugees.

On the Palestinian side, there would have to be acquiescence to the reality that refugees could not return to Israeli territory. The Palestinian security force would be limited in much the same manner it is now, augmented by international peacekeepers, and would continue to cooperate with Israeli security.

This arrangement would also be in force in East Jerusalem, and the Old City would be administered jointly by Israel, Palestine, the Muslim Waqf and a mutually agreed international entity.

Or something like that. This is really just a thought exercise. It’s an attempt to get us thinking about some new approach.

Clinging to the notion that a Palestinian state can be created while Israel holds far flung settlements (the so-called “major settlement blocs,” that most peace plans had Israel keeping) was always a tough sell, and now that even more settlements are being firmly established, we simply have to admit that the settlements are there to stay.

The sort of plan I outlined, where not a single Israeli or Palestinian would move from where they are now, would be very tough to sell, and even tougher to implement. But the entrenchment of the settlements makes some approach like this the only alternative to a single state.

Nothing is moving those settlements without the United States using all its leverage against Israel, and there is no political configuration of circumstances currently foreseeable to make that happen. The Obama Administration embarrassed itself just last year by vetoing a UN resolution on settlements that was an almost exact statement of official US policy. That shows just how impossible any real pressure on Israel is.

And without such pressure, why should Israel change its policies? The Israeli government sees an end to the occupation as being a major security risk for itself; a potential loss of key water and land resources; a sacrifice of territory that is historically, religiously and nationalistically more important to Jews than any other patch of land; and a political volcano that could rend the very fabric of its society.

This has always been the problem. But these days, more and more people from a wider political spectrum are standing up and saying that holding millions of people under military occupation, with the inevitable human rights violations that entails and the concomitant denial of civil liberties, is simply not tolerable, even for such reasons.

The rights-based language, however, must be accompanied by a pragmatic solution. I believe the most pragmatic one was giving the West Bank back to the Palestinians, connecting it to Gaza, and sharing Jerusalem.

But that is no longer possible, and we have to stop pretending or kidding ourselves that it is. A federal plan, or some other way to free the Palestinians and allow everyone in that region to try to build a normal life, is crucial, because noble ideas of “ending the occupation” and “freeing Palestine” or the realization that more and more Israeli and other Jews have come to that “the occupation is killing us all” cannot stand on their own without practical steps to make them reality.

Plenty of peace groups, in the US, Israel and Europe, have been saying that time is running out. And time is running out to avoid a much uglier future than what we already have. And if we don’t recognize that the two-state solution, at least as it had been envisioned, is dead, we will watch that clock run out just as we did for two states.

Photograph courtesy of sillydog. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. I am disappointed, Mitchell. Yes, you are right: there is Apartheid and yes, the two state solution is dead, but what you are proposing is perhaps worse. First, because it will open a can or worms of 20 years of negotiations over the structure of the confederation and who will control what (while Palestinians are languishing behind walls and barbed wire), which road, what settlements, etc. thus making it a resurrection of the failed “peace process”. Most importantly, because what you are describing is a mess that is bound to collapse like a house of cards at the slightest hostility.

    Why is it so hard for you to utter the simple phrase “one law for all and equal rights”? There’s no need for creative solutions. It can be done tomorrow by simply removing the military rule over the West Bank and annexing it de jure (it is already annexed de facto) much like was done in 1966 with Israeli Arabs. There’s no need for negotiations or an artificial system of separation and control.

    Trying to preserve the exclusivist Jewish state by creating an intricate system of controls and governance is like trying to separate the US into a White and Black Country and call it a Federation.

  2. The “impossibility” of 2SS is a “fact” only in the context of a fully-self-determining Israel (burdened, as you note, with an impossible pro-settlement internal-Israeli political reality),

    The answer is not 1SS in any form, because this doesn’t meet the problem of the very same internal-Iraaeli political reality which happens to be quite happy and content (thank you very much indeed) with the non-democratic apartheid 1SS which has prevailed since (at least) Oslo.

    No, the answer (if there is one) is for proponents of peace-and-justice-and human-rights to work hard to encourage each and every member of the UN, but especially powerful ones and those less under the thumb of the USA and Israel, to demand an end of occupation and removal of settlers and wall and siege and to back that demand up with the imposition — severally or collectively — of BDS-like sanctions and boycotts on Israel (presumably trade, sport, culture, travel, diplomatic sanctions and boycotts) and hope that the number of nations doing so will grow. Right now the number is ZERO.

    This was what happened with an earlier apartheid regime. Such regimes do not — cannot — heal themselves. They have a fatal illness whose cure requires doctors, help, call it what you will, intervention — from outside. The EU is feeling its way toward doing something, or so it seems to me. It moves with glacial slowness — sorry, bad metaphor in these days of global warming. But Turkey and the Latin Americans and perhaps any sufficiently independent Arab state (maybe Egypt in years to come) could help. Maybe non-Arab Muslim countries could help.

    Not easy getting doctors without medical insurance, but no other way.

  3. I do hate to disappoint you Mitchell, but I cannot imagine getting mad at you about this! Aside from anything else, I’m not even all that sure that I disagree.

    I’m currently in a state where for me, personally, I have two choices: Continue to work for the two-state solution, no matter how benighted, or despair utterly. Because what you outline above is no less likely to lead to disaster than anything else, because it’s no more likely to happen. If Israelis and Palestinians could agree to that, they could agree to a lot of other things that they aren’t going to agree to anytime soon.

    So: Unable to choose despair, I stick with what might ultimately prove to be delusion. It’s all I can do.

    And just to clarify just how much we don’t really disagree, here’s the end of the post to which the words “the problem” linked:

    “[My by-marriage settler family’s] homes are the problem. Their decision, and the decisions made by half a million other Jewish Israelis to live on Palestinian land and slowly but surely turn the entire Jewish State into the Settlers’ Auxiliary and Bugle Corps, their decision to build and keep building and keep building and keep building — this is why, when history looks back on the Jewish State, it will see a sea of blood followed by the ultimate dismantling of the state.

    “When our blood is in the ground, when the Palestinians and Israelis have reached the point that the killing has utterly destroyed both societies and The State of Israel is but one more disaster on the long, long list of Jewish disasters, when, finally, this long, horrific tale is done — our blood will mingle, and no one will know which drop belonged to whom.

    “And the anemones will cover our graves, grow up and down the hills, heedless of battlelines or borders. Because that’s what anemones do.”

  4. Mitchell: It seems from all you say that you would agree it’s Israeli intransigence and continuing apartheid colonialism (and US continuing support in spite of this) that is the main problem. Why don’t you stop spinning scenarios (more of which you say we already have enough of) which don’t have a chance in the shadow of US support for Israel. Please remember that ultimately it’s the Israelis and Palestinians which must be amenable to a solution. Without the sanctions (BDS), that you yourself seem to say are the only things which at this point might deflate Israeli haughtiness, bad will likely only get worse. Such sanctions sufficiently broadly applied are not currently likely but with more advocacy, public education, and popular support situations inevitably change. The current level of demand for divestment just from entities which benefit directly from the occupation would have been thought impossible 10 or 12 years ago. Why can’t you bring yourself to advocate the type of economic sanctions on Israel (yes – including cultural and academic) which you yourself seem to state are the only things that might actually change the current totally pessimistic mix and movement down a vortex with no promise? Or have I missed such endorsement of sanctions statements from you?

  5. I agree with Emily Hauser that the best option is to continue to fight for peace and that means some sort of TSS. What Plitnik proposes is a type of TSS where each side gets to epress its national identity in a separate state.

    I also agre with Mitchell that we have to start to think outside the box. The clasic TSS is likely impossible. So is a one-person, one-vote, democratic OSS. We have to think about possible bi-national or federalist political structures. Manystates in the world have some sort of defined minorities or regions that have special rights, responsibilities, and/or autonomy. Among such states are the United States and many others.

  6. We who are only invested morally and intellectually can only pontificate. It is up to those on the ground, the Israelis and the Palestinians to decide, ultimately.
    But we can have an opinion. My opinion is that indeed 2ss is dead. The only way out is complete and real equality and civil rights for all.
    The world’s conscience, expressed in BDS can help them come to a rational solution, just as it did in South Africa.
    BDS! We can do nothing more.

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