AS A young man, there was little about the Israel-Palestinian conflict that was unclear to Eliaz Cohen. Growing up in Elkana, a strongly ideological Jewish community located on the western edge of Samaria, some three kilometers from the Green Line, Cohen was raised on a steady diet of national- religious philosophy: the People of Israel, living in the Land of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel.The focus worked, at least to some degree. As a teenager, he read widely on a variety of religious and secular subjects, with a particular focus on Zionist poets. At the same time, the education he received at Kfar Haroeh, the flagship yeshiva high school of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva youth group, put a strong emphasis on exploring the Land of Israel, including Judea and Samaria. On school trips and informal hikes with friends throughout the biblical heartland, the visions of the ancient Hebrew prophets and the modern Zionist thinkers were blossoming before his eyes, in places like Shilo, Beit El, Hebron and farther afield.
But unlike many of his classmates, Cohen found the tone of the public discourse vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria troubling. It was a tone defined by Gush Emmunim ‒ the “bloc of the faithful” – that had established the settlement movement two decades earlier, following the Six Day War, and was now gaining a controlling voice in religious Zionist institutions and schools.“When I was in 10th grade [right-wing politician] Elyakim Haetzni spoke to us in Hebron about ‘land for peace,’” Cohen recalls. “He told us that sharing the Land of Israel ‒ our homeland, the national inheritance we received from Avraham Avinu (the biblical patriarch, Abraham) ‒ would be akin to ‘sharing’ his wife with another man. Even as a teenager, I found the comparison outrageous, and it put me on a path to a different tenor of religious Zionism ‒ one that celebrates everything about Zionism and the Land of Israel, including the fact that there is another nation that understands the beauty and sanctity of the land no less than we do.”Close to 30 years later, Cohen ‒ still a committed settler and religious Zionist, now as a member of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion ‒ has teamed up with a group of Israeli and Palestinian professors, journalists, lawyers and politicians to reconsider the two-state solution in a way that would give expression to each nation’s historic and religious connection to the land, and to draft an agreement that would allow both groups to move past a century of conflict and suspicion toward a joint future.Although the initiative, known as Two States One Homeland, calls for a Palestinian state to be established on the pre-1967 war border, with Jerusalem serving as the capital of both countries, the plan is a departure from the classic two-states-for-two-peoples formula. Most importantly, it declares Palestine/Israel to be a “historical and geographical unity from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean” and does not call for the expulsion of Israeli Jews from the future Palestinian state. In contrast to previous two-state proposals, which called for Israelis and Palestinians to separate, the Two States One Homeland draft calls for a European-style confederation between the countries, with open borders, freedom of movement and cross-border residency and citizenship rights for all. Israeli settlers would be permitted to remain in Palestine, either as Israeli citizens living abroad or as Palestinian citizens.Notably, the draft agreement leaves two traditional sticking points unanswered and vague. Regarding security, the document says “both states will commit to solving all conflicts between them in peaceful ways and will act against any manifestation of violence and terror,” but it leaves out details of that security cooperation other than a clause banning “armed militias and unauthorized organizations” and assigning to each state the responsibility to ensure “public order in its territory and the personal security of its inhabitants ‒ i.e. police.”Similarly, details surrounding reparations for refugees from the 1948 War of Independence are unclear, though the plan does call for a “joint mechanism” to deal with restoration of lost property or compensation where that is impossible. Notably, Jews who lost property in Arab countries following the establishment of Israel will be eligible for compensation, and the guideline promises that “past injustices will not be resolved by causing new injustices,” a reference to evicting Israelis from their homes, either in settlements or in homes previously owned by Arabs but expropriated by Israel via the 1950 Absentee Property Law.Predictably, the proposal has yet to make headway in the settlement community where distrust of the Palestinians is trumped only by a religious commitment to the Whole Land of Israel. Cohen’s notwithstanding, most of the Israeli names on the list of signatories to the plan are an entirely predictable who’s who of the secular left: journalist Meron Rappaport, civil rights lawyer Michael Sfard, Ben-Gurion University professor Oren Yiftachel and former Peace Now director Moriah Shlomot and others.At the same time, however, Cohen’s is far from a lone voice emanating from Judea and Samaria in support of the plan. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the founder and chief rabbi of Efrat, has expressed support, at the behest of his 18-year-old grandson, Eden, also a resident of Efrat who has taken a leading role in drumming up support among teenagers and young adults (or, in Cohen’s words, “infecting them with the sense of hope that is expressed by this proposal).Other rabbinic and lay voices of support have come from Alon Shvut and Tekoa, considered to be two of the most politically moderate Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as others, such as Otniel and Shilo, which are considered to be more “hard core” and Jerusalem, and there was more than a smattering of crocheted kippot at the group’s annual conference on June 2, held at the Tel Aviv Convention Center. They say their participation is a sign of changing winds inside the community ‒ not in terms of their commitment to the Whole Land of Israel, but rather to the politics that arise from that devotion.“I think that any political arrangement must be based on some form of confederation,” says Rabbi Yakov Nagen, a resident of Otniel, in the South Hebron Hills region, who made headlines earlier this year by traveling to al-Azhar University in Cairo for discussions about religion and peace with leading Islamic scholars. “This will allow each nation to maintain its own national identity without consideration for which one is on top. It is critical to move beyond the zero-sum game that has defined this conflict for far too many years.“On the Jewish side, the Two States One Homeland initiative would prevent a human/social tragedy of expelling tens of thousands of Jews and severing our connection to Judea and Samaria. Don’t forget ‒ this area is more than just 22 percent of historic Palestine. It is the region where the Jewish people were born and where the events that created our national and religious identity came to pass. If we have any connection to any part of the Land of Israel, it is to Judea and Samaria,” Nagen tells The Jerusalem Report. Nagen admits that not many of his neighbors currently support any variation of the two-state solution, but he quickly adds that views are changing in the religious Zionist world, on a variety of issues.“If you look at the writings of the prophet Isaiah and the teachings of Rav [Abraham Isaac HaCohen] Kook, there is a strong emphasis on the word shalom, peace. But another aspect of the concept of shalom is connection. Now, the classic two-state, us-here-them-there model is one of separation. That will necessarily lead to all sorts of problems ‒ terrorism, immigration violations, crime ‒ but it isn’t going to bring about peace.To achieve that, Jews and Muslims must strive for a meeting place based on mutual respect for one another as cousins and People of the Book. My late teacher, Rabbi Menachem Froman, taught us that religion forms a major part of the problem in the Middle East, so it must also be part of the solution. Confederation between the two communities could be a successful platform to allow that to happen,” Nagen says.Undoubtedly, the most important part of the Two States One Homeland puzzle for the Israeli team is the relationships negotiators have forged with their Palestinian counterparts, all of whom are senior Fatah officials and all of whom served long stints in Israeli jails for murder.Both on panel discussions and in informal discussions, Israelis like Rappaport and Yiftachel chat easily with Palestinian counterparts Mohammed al-Beiruti, a former deputy mayor of Jenin, and Awni , who has lived most of his 65 years in the Dhehaisheh refugee camp ‒ with the main 10-year break having been spent in Israeli jails. The relationships are born of hundreds of hours of face-to-face time over the past four years, and they are clearly genuine.“This outline represents a real chance to make peace,” al-Mashni tells the Report, reflecting a sharp departure from the militant anti-Israel stance he took as a young man. “Israelis and Palestinians have tried everything else ‒ wars, intifadas, political agreements, walls, and nothing has brought either side to a convincing victory. We can keep going another 70 years, even another 700 years, but it won’t lead to anything. The conflict between our two peoples will not be solved at the point of a gun.”And yet, there is a discomforting element amid a good deal of positive energy.Whereas Rappaport opened the June 2 conference by noting solemnly that Israelis and Palestinians are not equal today ‒ it took one group of Palestinian representatives well over three hours to travel from Ramallah to Tel Aviv because they were detained at several IDF checkpoints along the way ‒ there does not appear to be a reciprocal feeling of guilt on the part of Palestinians who have certainly murdered Israeli civilians. Al-Beiruti, al-Mashni and others seem to have come to the negotiating table mainly out of a sense that attacking Israel has simply not served the Palestinian interest – not because of a deep, inner moral shift about murdering innocents.“The wheel of history is always turning. You are the stronger side now, but it won’t always be the case. You need a deal now because, one day, the tables will turn and we will be the stronger side,” al-Beiruti told me in Ramallah, in late May.On the road from Kalandia checkpoint into Ramallah, the main road is strewn with garbage, and walls enclosing local schools are covered with blood-curdling graffiti of Israeli soldiers murdering Palestinian children in the most horrific of ways. Closer to town, lamp posts have been fitted with posters celebrating the wave of terrorist attacks committed against Israelis since last September. “The knives intifada is the key to [the right of] return,” the posters read. It isn’t clear whether they have been hung by local authorities to stir up passions among Palestinians, or whether they are a reaction to strong emotions on the Palestinian streets. One way or the other, the posters and graffiti are certainly tolerated by the Fatah- led Palestinian Authority. In other words, they are tolerated by the party of al-Mashni, al-Beiruti, Issa Abu Ahram and every other Palestinian signatory to the Two States One Homeland framework. Taken together with official Palestinian Authority glorification of Palestinians who murder (or try to murder) Israelis, the phenomenon reeks eerily of the 1990s, when supporters of the Oslo process insisted that statements by PA Chairman Yasser Arafat in support of murderers were not a serious indication that the PA was girding for a terror offensive.When questioned about how in that context Israelis could consider trusting Palestinian policemen with providing security to Israeli citizens residing in Palestine, or even to Jewish citizens of the Palestinian state, given the charged atmosphere on the Palestinian streets, Rappaport responds only with a question of his own: “And what about we Israelis and what is going on with us?” On the other hand, it is a point that some of Rappaport’s colleagues recognize. Yiftachel says the issue is definitely one of concern, claiming that both Israel and the Palestinians worked hard to ensure the failure of the 1990s-era Oslo process. But, he adds, the growing support for the new program, especially in the settlements and among young people, are two indications that Israeli and Palestinian societies are changing in fundamental ways that could allow for the Two States One Homeland framework to yield positive results.“It’s a slow process,” Yiftachel says. But I can tell you it is working. When you speak to Palestinians, you can see that they relate to the ideas we present and they feel there is, at the very least, something here to talk about.“Same with the settlers. They may not come away as enthusiastic supporters of the plan following a lively parlor meeting, but you can tell they are listening. So society is changing and evolving, and that is a positive thing. It is our job to be here with a plan that can answer all of our needs,” he says.