Israel’s strategic problem in historical terms is, ultimately, how to win a war
well. The Palestinian problem is to avoid losing this war in the most drawn-out,
worst possible way.
Palestinians (including any realistic Hamas leaders),
know approximately what they will have to accept. Finding the least bad solution
consonant with defeat is their unenviable task. Yet neither is Israel completely
free, because victory can be dangerous. Israel needs a strategy that isn’t in
the end self-defeating.
Realistically, the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma is
this: In what circumstances could the strong safely show magnanimity and the
weak believe they are getting an acceptable result? Intractable conflicts can
sometimes be unblocked by enlarging the problem, by increasing the number of
players, stakes and potential rewards.
All the “one-state” solutions –
whether bi-national or a federation – are non-starters because Israeli Jews
rightly refuse to sacrifice their own interest in a grand gesture of
Majorities in Israeli and Palestinian public opinion would
doubtless accept a simple two-state solution if leaders agreed on it. Israel’s
current government, however, seems not really interested whatever lip-service it
is given from time to time. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “economic peace”
formula in effect replaces the creation of a Palestinian state with
Israeli-sponsored economic development in the West Bank combined with an
oppressive, volatile political status quo.
A way forward is to find a
larger formula that increases the rewards and reduces costs for Israelis and
Palestinians, and involves outside states as guarantors. Complexity and
flexibility in this case are advantages. What is necessary is an institutional
structure that limits to a minimum the binding links for Israel and at the same
time provides time and space for Palestinian self-government and proof of
competence to evolve, including stopping the violence on both sides.
minimal, complex and flexible Israeli-Palestinian confederation, here meaning a
two-state solution within the confines of a larger confederation, is a promising
Two sovereign states wrapped in a semi-state, a
Confederation – political and economic – could provide
what Israelis and Palestinians, and outside powers, want most: guaranteed mutual
security of the two states, reliable peace in the region, diminished capacity
for Islamist terrorist groups to use the conflict as a pretext, and economic and
What is a confederation, how does it differ from a
one-state solution, and what would be its international legal basis? A
confederation differs from a binational single state and also from a federation
of two states.
Some states are unitary, ruled entirely from the national
capital (France). Others are federations in which power is shared in some
balance between a national government and the states that compose it (the US,
Germany). A few are confederations (Switzerland is a modern
Unique in world political development, the European Union is
extremely complex: a hybrid combination of historical nation-states and national
capitals with European-level institutions located in Brussels and
EU institutions are in part confederal (EU summit meetings in
various cities), part federal (the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, the
European Central Bank in Frankfurt) and part strict national sovereignty (major
foreign policy decisions, above all decisions for war or peace in Afghanistan,
In the EU, complexity is often a curse but it does provide
benefits as well, for example deflecting conflict into ambiguity and permitting
the whole to survive even as one part falls into crisis (cf. the current
Eurozone debt mess).
The EU is of particular relevance here because,
although not wellknown, in international legal terms the entire EU is still a
treaty organization (Maastricht) because a proposed constitution for it didn’t
achieve ratification in 2005.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because
it is also unique, requires a particularly imaginative legal and institutional
Why not one state or two states? In the Holy Land a unitary
state called Israel-Palestine makes no historical or political sense. A
federation called The United States of Israel and Palestine is not much
What of a confederation? Normally a confederation means a
constitution, weak but nonetheless more than a treaty. Sovereignty rests with
the composing states.
(The American Articles of Confederation before 1789
are an example.) But if a Holy Land confederation is based on a treaty rather
than a constitution, Israel’s national constitution and sovereignty are always
superior (as would be true also for a Palestinian state). A treaty in this case
would be more durable than a constitution.
A treaty is usually made for a
specified period of years and renewed (NATO is an example). A constitution,
however, is implicitly permanent.
If the situation on the ground goes
sufficiently bad, a treaty can perfectly well be renounced (cf. current concerns
about Egyptian repudiation of the peace treaty with Israel.) What would happen
in practice as politics in the confederation? For example, there would be no
common elections or governments.
Israeli and Palestinian parliaments
might meet jointly once or twice a year for a few days, to get to know each
other and create common culture more than to legislate. Existing
Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation could be given formal legal status in
the treaty. Once or twice yearly summit meetings of top national leaders could
be mandated along with more frequent councils of ministers in a particular
policy area, say agriculture (as in the EU).
In short, a treaty-based
confederation sidesteps the entire zero-sum one-state two-state
For Israel, in particular, confederation deals with intractable
issues of Palestinian political sovereignty.
Creating a Palestinian state
within a confederation would not increase but actually diminish threats to
Israel’s security. Having their own state, Palestinian obsession with Israel,
the ideological passion about sovereignty, borders and revenge, would shift to
ambitions for more prosperous lives with individual dignity. Gaza, now such a
special case, could join the Palestinian state immediately combined with the
West Bank. If, however, Palestinian unity were impossible, Gaza could evolve
over time one way or another.
For Palestinians, entrepreneurial energy
and private sector business development would stimulate the growth of a more
complex civil society connected to the wider world. A Palestinian state that
issues internationally recognized passports permitting its citizens to freely
visit the world would change the mind-set of young and old generations
Speculating even further ahead, the confederation could encompass
not just Israel and Palestine but, sooner or later, Jordan as well. Stimulating
Jordanian economic and social development is a good in itself. Security across
the entire confederation could be guaranteed by a combination of sovereign
Israeli military and police forces, a Palestinian internal police force, a
Jordanian participation, and overlapping security guarantees in the form of
international boots on the ground: the US, UN and NATO (including Turkey).
Jordanian domestic political reform would be de-dramatized.
cosmopolitan Israel can afford to deal differently with the Palestinians, who
have by now suffered and been punished enough for disastrous policies of the
Israel would win its war well if a Palestinian state were created
not against Israel’s will but sponsored and even mentored by
Inevitably, new international esteem would follow. The high cards
are in Israeli hands.
The writer is the Eastman Professor of Political
Science at Amherst College.