For Israelis and Palestinians, Confederation Is a Disastrous Fantasy
All of a sudden, the idea of an Israel-Palestine confederation is everywhere, not least among progressive Zionists. It’s not a new idea – but it’s a terrible one.
All of a sudden, the idea of an Israel-Palestine confederation is everywhere.
It is not a new idea. But in the last year, a multitude of organizations and individuals – almost all progressive Zionists – have come forward to advocate some type of confederation plan.
Confederation, they say, can break the deadlock. It is an alternative to the moribund two-state solution. It builds on the best intentions of both sides rather than surrendering to the obstructionists.
But confederation is a terrible idea, and none of these things is true.
I am not questioning the motives of confederation advocates. Many are my friends. Discouraged by years of stalemate on the peace front, they have gravitated toward what they see as more promising options.
Nonetheless, the peace camp does itself no favors when it operates on faulty, pie-in-the-sky premises.
What exactly is confederation?
The central idea is that there will be two states, Israel and Palestine, with a border that follows the Green Line. Unlike the two-state model, however, under confederation the border would be open. Israeli citizens could live and work in Palestine, and Palestinian citizens in Israel. The only requirement would be that each group would be obligated to accept the laws and sovereignty of the other while located in their territory.
Each of the confederated states would have its own government and military. Israelis living in Palestine would vote in the Israeli national elections, and Palestinians living in Israel in the Palestinian national elections. Jerusalem would be a shared city, the two states would have a single economy, and joint administrative bodies would deal with environmental, public health, and security issues.
A variety of approaches exist for dealing with potential problems. The best-known plan is called A Land for All, created in 2012 by Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport and Palestinian activist Awni Al-Mashni.
Another plan finished this year was prepared by a joint Israeli-Palestinian team headed by Palestinian peace negotiator Hiba Husseini and former Israeli Justice Minister Yossi Beilin. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have run opinion pieces with confederation proposals, as have Haaretz and the Forward.
The case for confederation in all of these plans rests on two principles.
First, confederation provides an alternative to the two-state solution, which is a “divorce model” based on separate Israeli and Palestinian states with limited contact. Confederation supporters believe that the two-state approach is no longer feasible due to ideological rigidity on both sides.
In the two-state model, Israel would be required to uproot half a million settlers from the West Bank, a step it is reluctant to take. The Palestinian Authority would need to renounce the right of return, which asserts the right of Palestinian refugees and their descendants outside of the territories to return to pre-1967 Israel a right which, if exercised, would put an end to the Jewish state.
The advantage to confederation is that it eliminates these problems. In the newly established confederation, settlers can stay in the West Bank as Israeli citizens and Palestinian refugees can take up residence in Israel as Palestinian citizens. The number of Israelis allowed in Palestine and Palestinian refugees allowed in Israel would be negotiated or set in advance.
For Jews, ending the trauma of the settlement wars is presented as a strong argument for confederation. For half a century, Israel and the Jewish world have been torn apart by battles between pro- and anti-settlement forces. Any proposal that removes the settlement nightmare from the Jewish agenda could have strong appeal.
Second, confederation proposals assert that Jewish and Palestinian nationalism are capable of pulling back from the chauvinism, exclusivity, and militarism that so frequently characterize all national movements.
The two-state solution emphasizes that culture, language, religion, and ethnicity have inflamed relations between Jews and Palestinians. And it responds by calling for substantial separation, at least until the flames of hostility have been lowered to manageable levels. But confederation assumes that the two competing nationalisms can accommodate each other, with open borders, integrated populations, and joint mechanisms for cooperation.
Advocates of confederation acknowledge it will be difficult. But, they say, moderates on both sides are searching for a better way. Given the failures of two-state negotiations, why not try a new approach?
Let’s admit it: The confederation idea sounds attractive.
A peace plan based on cooperation rather than separation is a lovely idea. And if Israeli settlement and the Palestinian right of return are the heart of the problem, there is something clever about asserting that, well, maybe these two issues need not be problems after all. We’ll set up our states, mix our populations freely, cooperate on everything, thrive as nations and as individuals, and live happily ever after.
But how would we ever get to that point? And defining problems away on paper does not make them disappear.
The conflict is real and cannot be wished away. The whole point of the two-state solution is that it recognizes reality, separates the warring parties, and allows for the very gradual development of the coexistence that is necessary for peace.
Consider the following specific problems that arise from the pro-confederation position.
First, confederation advocates argue that both sides are open to the cooperative relations that confederation requires.
But in many ways relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are at a low point. Incitement by Jews and Muslims alike threatens to ignite a religious war over the Temple Mount. The Palestinian national movement is deeply divided, support for Hamas is strong, and another wave of murderous terrorism is shaking Israel’s citizens. On the Israeli side, Jewish youths marched through the Old City on Jerusalem Day, chanting vicious, racist slogans. And settler violence against Palestinians in the territories continues, egged on by Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Kahanist lunatic who will likely sit in the next Israeli government.
Yes, extremists are a minority. But with extremism growing and racism on the march, a strategy to separate seems a lot more sensible than a plan to confederate.
Second, a primary argument for confederation is that it will “solve” the settlement problem by avoiding the trauma of mass evacuations.
But the settlers who would violently oppose evacuation will not accept a confederation that leaves them in a Palestinian-controlled state. The settlers—except for a tiny minority—do not just want homes in Judea and Samaria; they want Jewish sovereignty there. They will be just as violent fighting Palestinian rule under confederation proposals as they will be fighting evacuation under two-state proposals.
Third, confederation proponents believe that Jewish Israelis will accept a plan to resettle Palestinian refugees within Israel’s 1967 borders. But will they?
The analogy used is the European Union. The EU has open borders, and German citizens are allowed to live and work in France. So why should Palestinian refugees from throughout the Arab world not be permitted to live and work in Israel? To ease the process, the total number of refugees could be limited – perhaps to 500,000 – and the rate of return could be gradual.
But it is a false analogy. France is a country of 68 million people, and only 130,000 German citizens reside there. But Israel is a small country of nine million people, only seven million of whom are Jews. If 500,000 Palestinian refugees were to take up residence in Israel, they would make up a much larger percentage of the population.
In a region beset by hostility and terror, the implications of a substantial influx of Palestinian refugees would be unsettling, and undoubtedly unacceptable to most Israelis at this time. And the fact is that there is no model anywhere in the world for the type of confederation being proposed, despite misleading references to the EU.
Finally, if the Biden administration were to support a confederation model, the likely outcome would not be an embrace of the idea by the two populations but a supercharged effort by Israel’s government to build new settlements throughout the West Bank.
After all, confederation means that settlements lose the stigma they now have and become legitimate areas of residence for Jews. Right-wingers in Israel would exploit this new definition while refusing to grant Palestinians the new rights to which they would be entitled.
There are many other questions, including: In a newly created confederation, what would happen after the first terrorist attack?
But the heart of the matter is this: The goals that confederation proponents aspire to are fine, but their ideas on how to implement them are deeply flawed. All of the various plans involve more cooperation, trust, and good will than are even remotely possible.
Israel cannot continue to rule over the Palestinian people. Ending the occupation and moving toward peace require two states – side-by-side but separate, developing independently, working together when necessary, but preserving the distance needed for suspicion to be overcome and for new ideas to gestate.
Over time, these two states will move, very slowly, toward a relationship of cooperation that perhaps will not be so very different from what the confederation advocates are suggesting.
It is true that a two-state reality will be very hard to achieve. But among the various bad options that Israel faces, two states must come first, while confederation of some sort can follow. Starting with confederation will lead to disaster, discredit the peace camp, and expose the Zionist left as fantasists.
Put confederation aside. It is not where we begin. It is, if we are lucky, where we will end up.