The Future of Israel/Palestine

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Jeff Halper

[Jeff Halper is Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (, an activist organization that rebuilds Palestinian families’ homes destroyed by the Israeli Occupation Forces, particularly in the East Jerusalem region. He is the author of important studies on the Occupation’s “Matrix of Control” and the new book An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Oppression, Redeeming Israel (Pluto Press).

[The following essay, written in May 2008, has been issued as a pamphlet by ICAHD and is even more relevant today in the context of the Israeli massacre in Gaza. We are publishing it here, slightly abridged for space reasons, because it not only presents the reality of “facts on the ground” but also throws light on the stark policy choices facing the incoming Obama administration. We feel it also helps to place in context the so-called “one state/two state solution” controversy, which is often discussed too abstractly among solidarity forces outside Palestine/Israel. The voices from inside, developing a framework of struggle today linked to a vision for the future, are of paramount importance.

[Jeff Halper can be contacted at For information on tax-deductible contributions to ICAHD, visit the website —David Finkel for the editors of Against the Current]

ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER Ehud Olmert’s address to both houses of the U.S. Congress in May, 2006 — which until today represents the Israeli government plan — was the clearest, most explicit presentation of Israel’s conception of where it is going vis-à-vis the Palestinians. It is perhaps the most skilled use of Newspeak since George Orwell invented the term in his novel 1984. Just as Orwell’s totalitarian propagandists proclaimed WAR IS PEACE, so Olmert declared in Washington: ISRAELI EXPANSION IS WITHDRAWAL and UNILATERAL REALIGNMENT IS PEACE. (He had help with the language. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel drafted large sections of the speech together with an American advisor who specializes in “Republican language.”)

Because of Olmert’s use of Orwellian language, we must listen carefully to what is said, what is not said and what is meant. “Convergence” in one form or another, if not this year then next, is where Israel has to go if it continues to pursue its agenda of territorial expansion at the expense of the Palestinians.

What was said in Congress sounds fine if taken at face value. Olmert, extending “my hand in peace to Mahmoud Abbas, the elected president of the Palestinian Authority,” declared Israel’s willingness to negotiate with him on condition that the Palestinians “renounce terrorism, dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, accept previous agreements and commitments, and recognize the right of Israel to exist.” If they do so, Olmert held out Israel’s commitment to a two-state solution.

What wasn’t said? While reference to a Palestinian state sounds forthcoming, two key elements set down in the Road Map defining that state were missing: an end to the Israeli Occupation and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. “A settlement,” says the text of the Road Map to which Olmert and Bush constantly declare their allegiance, “will result in the emergence of an independent, democratic, and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel. The settlement will…end the occupation that began in 1967.”

Olmert’s “convergence” (or “realignment”) plan is based on the massive “facts on the ground” — what I have called its Matrix of Control — that are intended to foreclose completely the emergence of a viable Palestinian state (although Israel needs a Palestinian Bantustan to “relieve” it of the Palestinian population). Any plan which includes the Matrix of Control cannot possibly address Palestinian needs, and in fact creates a permanent regime of apartheid.

According to Olmert’s plan, the “Separation Barrier” will become Israel’s permanent “demographic border,” with Israel annexing some 10% of the West Bank. That may not sound like much, but consider this: the settlement blocs thus incorporated into Israel (together with a half-million Israeli settlers) carve the West Bank into a number of small, disconnected, impoverished “cantons” and remove from the Palestinians their richest agricultural land and all the water. Hardly the basis for a viable state.

The convergence plan also creates a “greater” Israeli Jerusalem over the entire central portion of the West Bank, thereby cutting the economic, cultural, religious and historic heart out of any Palestinian state. It then sandwiches the Palestinians between the Barrier/border and yet another “security” border, the Jordan Valley, giving Israel two eastern borders. Palestinian freedom of movement of both people and goods is thus prevented into both Israel and Jordan but also internally, between the various cantons. Israel will also retain control of Palestinian airspace, the electro-magnetic sphere and even the right of a Palestinian state to conduct its own foreign policy.

The Road Map, like international law regarding the end of occupations in general, also insists on a negotiated solution between the parties. Olmert made a great issue of Palestinian terrorism (playing on American sensibilities to this buzz-word), placing pre-conditions on negotiations. Israel is willing to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, he said, if it renounces terrorism, dismantles the terrorist infrastructure, accepts previous agreements and recognizes the right of Israel to exist (a right Israel has not recognized for the Palestinians).

What is not mentioned is Israel’s Occupation which, regardless of an end to terror and negotiations, is being institutionalized and made permanent. For neither security nor terrorism are really the issue; Israel’s policies of annexation are based on a pro-active claim to the entire country. Virtually no element of the Occupation — the establishment of some 300 settlements, expropriation of most West Bank land, the demolition of 12,000 Palestinian homes, the uprooting of a million olive and fruit trees, the construction of a massive system of highways to link the settlements into Israel proper or the tortuous route of the Barrier deep in Palestinian territory — can be explained by security.

Terrorism on all sides is wrong (let it be noted that Israel has killed four times more civilians than the Palestinians have), but to demand that resistance cease while an occupation is being made permanent is unconscionable.

Finally, what was meant? In a word: apartheid. The “A” word was missing from Olmert’s speech, of course, but the bottom line of his convergence plan is clear: the establishment of a permanent, institutionalized regime of Israeli domination over Palestinians based on separation between Jews and Arabs. The “convergence plan” also eliminates any possibility for negotiations — not because of Palestinian intransigence, but because Israel has nothing of meaning to negotiate.

So how do we adapt this unilateral plan to Europe’s insistence on preserving the moribund Road Map? Simple. Just switch from “convergence” to “realignment.” In Olmert’s new formulation, Israel is merely “realigning” its borders in an “interim” manner that conforms to Phase Two of the Road Map. The Palestinians get their state, albeit with “provisional borders.” And that’s where we stay forever. De facto convergence in Road Map clothing.

This, of course, is the Palestinians’ greatest fear, that the Road Map gets “stuck” in Phase Two and never gets to Phase Three, an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state.” De facto for Israel means permanent. Once it has turned the Separation Barrier into a border, annexed the settlement blocs and “greater” Jerusalem and created the semblance of a two-state solution, no further pressures to advance to Phase Three will be forthcoming.

And where are the Palestinians in all this? Irrelevant, in Israel’s view, and manipulated as usual. “Should we realize that the bilateral track with the Palestinians is of no consequence,” said Olmert to Congress, “should the Palestinians ignore our outstretched hand for peace, Israel will seek other alternatives to promote our future and the prospects of hope in the Middle East. At that juncture, the time for realignment will occur. Realignment would be a process to allow Israel to build its future without being held hostage to Palestinian terrorist activities.”

Talk about an Orwellian formulation!  The truth is that Israel has nothing to negotiate — and no will to negotiate. “Greater” Jerusalem is ours, the settlement blocs are ours, the borders are ours, the water is ours, even the sky is ours. What’s left to negotiate?

The U.S.-Israeli Road Map to Apartheid

Make no mistake about it: Apartheid is at our door in Israel/Palestine. All that remains is to finesse a minor hitch. The Road Map, which provides the façade for the Israeli-American plan of apartheid, requires negotiations between the sides. This is a fig leaf without which the other members of the Quartet (Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — ed.), generally compliant with Washington’s (and Jerusalem’s) wishes as evidenced by their blanket boycott of the Hamas government, feel they would have trouble “selling” the Convergence scheme.

American mismanagement of the Middle East, guided by Israel, has also weakened what had been an American monopoly over the peace process. Iran, the “insurgents” in Iraq, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas are now players who cannot be ignored, especially in light of the debacle of the second Lebanon war. Olmert has therefore been told that he must help strengthen Abbas and the other “moderates” of the region. That means he must downplay his loud, in-your-face unilateralism and make at least a pretense of negotiations.

On January 9, 2007, when in China (many suspect to pave the way for a nuclear attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities), Olmert told the news agency Xinhua that “A year ago, I believed that we would be able to do [Convergence] unilaterally. However, it should be said that our experience in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip is not encouraging. We pulled out of Lebanon unilaterally, and see what happened. We pulled out of the Gaza Strip completely, to the international border, and every day they are firing Qassam rockets at Israelis.”

No one should be lulled into thinking that either Convergence/Realignment or unilateralism have been abandoned. The tone has been adjusted, but the conception is the same; indeed, Convergence/Apartheid is the only place Israel can go if it insists on retaining its settlements and control. The “Annapolis Process,” initiated with great fanfare (but “lowered expectations”) in late November, 2007, dropped the term “convergence” but reiterated Israel’s intention to declare the Separation Barrier a “provisional” border — in effect, freezing the Road Map in its second phase.

By calling its “facts” on the ground “provisional,” Israel is able to maintain the status quo indefinitely. In a recent meeting with President Abbas, (Israeli Foreign Minister) Livni rejected outright the notion of Israel ever returning to the 1967 borders. “In 1967,” she informed him, “there was no Palestinian state, or any connection between Gaza and the West Bank; something new is being created.” She then returned to the post-unilateral refrain: “While a Palestinian state is also an Israeli interest, the borders must be the result of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that “Annapolis is a landmark on the path to negotiations and of the genuine effort to achieve the realization of the vision of two nations: the State of Israel — the nation of the Jewish people; and the Palestinian state — the nation of the Palestinian people,” the parameters Israel erected made its failure a foregone conclusion. Just look at the pre-conditions, narrow parameters and extra-negotiation mechanisms of control Israel has imposed on the Annapolis process:

* Limiting the negotiating space of the Road Map. In Israel’s perception, the Road Map exists only in tandem with its own 14 appended “reservations.” Reservation #1, for example, requires the maintenance of “calm” as a condition for the commencement and continuation of the process. The Palestinians must disarm and dismantle the existing security organizations and “terrorist organizations” (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, and the al-Aqsa Brigades). Israel, for its part, is not required to cease violence or end incitement against Palestinians. Reservation #2 required “the emergence of a new leadership in the Palestinian Authority” (meaning the removal of Arafat), but when the Palestinians elected a new Hamas leadership, Israel rejected their choice.

* Excluding the “settlement blocs” subverts any viable two-state solution, a factor in Israel’s strategic considerations mentioned occasionally by Olmert himself. That is a letter sent by President Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in April, 2004.  This little-noticed document fundamentally changed the parameters of what is to be discussed in any “peace process” and what Israel’s obligations are under the Road Map. It is considered by the Israeli government as perhaps the most crucial element in its effort to retain its major settlement blocs and in that way foreclosing the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

The essence of the Bush letter, which was subsequently ratified by the House of Representatives by a vote of 407-9 and by the Senate by 95-1, is the following passage: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” In one seemingly innocuous sentence, President Bush fatally but knowingly undermined UN Resolution 242, the very basis of the two-state solution since 1967 and of his own Road Map initiative, by nullifying the requirement that Israel return to the “Green Line” (with agreed-upon adjustments) so that a viable Palestinian state might emerge.

Israel takes the American position — although rejected by the other three members of the Road Map Quartet — as agreement to its retaining its major settlement blocs. They are six or seven in number: the Jordan Valley, the Ariel bloc, the Modi’in bloc, the three blocs that make up “Greater Jerusalem” (Givat Ze’ev, Ma’aleh Adumim and the Etzion Bloc/Efrat), and perhaps a salient into the Hebron.

When, then, Olmert speaks of “conforming to the Road Map,” he speaks of withdrawal from all the occupied territory outside those settlement blocs, since the Bush letter de facto annexes them to Israel. The massive building of settlements and highways within these settlement blocs do not, therefore, constitute a breach in Israel’s responsibility to end settlement construction in the first phase of the Road Map, since they are no longer parts of the Occupied Territory.

* Redefining Phase 1 of the Road Map. The first phase of the Road Map, the very basis of negotiations, calls for Israel to freeze its settlement construction. That is something Israel will obviously not do. So, on the basis of a letter former Premier Ariel Sharon received from President Bush in 2004 — a fundamental change in American policy that nevertheless does not commit the other members of the Road Map Quartet — Israel announced that it defines the areas considered “occupied” by the Quartet as only those areas falling outside its major settlement blocs and “greater” Jerusalem. Thus, unilaterally, Israel (and the United States apparently) reduced the territory to be negotiated with the Palestinians from 22% to a mere 15%, and that truncated into fragmented cantons.

* Requiring recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state.” The Palestinians are required to formally recognize the state of Israel. They did so already in 1988 when they accepted the two-state solution, at the outset of the Oslo process and repeatedly over the past two decades. Now comes a fresh demand: that before any negotiations they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Not only does that introduce an entirely new element that Israel knows the Palestinians will not accept, but it prejudices the equal status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, a full 20% of the Israeli population. This leads the way to transfer, to ethnic cleansing. Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Foreign Minister, recently told a press conference that the future of Israel’s Arab citizens is in a future Palestinian state, not in Israel itself.

* Creating insurmountable political obstacles. Coalition politics in Israel foreclose any meaningful pursuit of a genuine peace with the Palestinians. Two weeks before Annapolis was to convene, for example, the Israeli Parliament passed a law that a majority of two-thirds would be required to approve any change in the status of Jerusalem, an impossible threshold. Shas (an Orthodox Jewish religious party — ed.), a crucial coalition partner, announced that if the subject of Jerusalem is even raised in negotiations it will leave the government, precipitating its fall. Given the lack of any political leader of stature and vision in any of Israel’s major parties, the possibility of meaningful Israeli participation in a political process with any chance of achieving a workable peace is negligible.

* “Delayed implementation.” OK, the Israeli government says, we’ll negotiate. But the implementation of any agreement will wait on the complete cessation of any resistance on the part of the Palestinians. “Security before peace” is the way the Israeli government frames it. Since, however, there has never been any indication that Israel would agree to a viable Palestinian state, and since Israel views any resistance, armed or non-violent, as a form of terrorism, “security before peace” actually means “stop all resistance and you may get a state.”

The catch here is that if Palestinians do stop their resistance they are lost. Without Palestinian pressure, Israel and the international community would lack any motivation for making the concessions necessary for a genuine solution. And even if an agreement is reached, “security before peace” means that it will not be implemented until Israel unilaterally decides the conditions are ripe. This so-called “shelf agreement” erects yet another insurmountable obstacle before any peace process.

* Declaring a “transitional” Palestinian state. If all else fails — actually negotiating with the Palestinians or relinquishing the Occupation not being an option — the United States, at Israel’s behest, can manage to skip Phase 1 of the Road Map and go directly to Phase 2, which calls for a “transitional” Palestinian state before, in Phase 3, its actual borders, territory and sovereignty are agreed upon. This is the Palestinians’ nightmare: being locked indefinitely in the limbo of a “transitional” state. For Israel it is ideal, since it offers the possibility of imposing borders and expanding into the Palestinian areas unilaterally yet, since its fait accompli is only “transitional,” seeming to conform to the Road Map’s requirement to decide the final issues through negotiations.

The end result, towards which Israel has been progressing deliberately and systematically since 1967, can only be called apartheid, which means “separation” in Afrikaans, precisely the term Israel uses to describe its policy (hafrada in Hebrew).  And it is apartheid in the strict sense of the term: one population separating itself from the rest, then dominating them permanently and institutionally through a political regime like an expanded Israel locking the Palestinians into dependent and impoverished cantons.

Israel will expand to about 85% of the country, take all its resources and elements of sovereignty (such as control of movement and borders), and leave the Palestinian majority to live in a truncated Bantustan-state with no meaningful sovereignty, no freedom and no economy. Whether separation-with-domination is based on race as in Apartheid South Africa, or on religion and nationalism as in Israel/Palestine, is irrelevant.

The overriding question for the Israeli government, then, is not how to reach peace. If peace and security were truly the issue, Israel could have had that 20 years ago had it been willing to conceed 22% of the country required for a viable Palestinian state.

Today, when Israel’s control is infinitely stronger, why, ask the Israeli Jewish public and the government it elects, should we concede anything significant? We enjoy peace with Egypt and Jordan, and Syria is dying to negotiate. We have relations with most Arab and Muslim states. We enjoy the absolute and uncritical support of the world’s only superpower, supported by a compliant Europe. Terrorism is under control, the conflict has been made manageable, Israel’s economy is booming. What, ask Israelis, is wrong with this picture?

No, the issue for Israel is rather how to transform its occupation from what the world considers a temporary situation to a permanent political fact accepted by the international community, de facto if need be or, if apartheid can be finessed in the form of a two-state solution, then formally. As long as the Israeli public enjoys peace-and-quiet and a good economy, and as long as it remains convinced that security requires Israel to retain control of the Territories, no pressure will come from the home-front for any meaningful change of policy. Given this political landscape in Israel, in the Territories and abroad, it’s hard for Israeli leaders to conceal their ebullient feeling that, whether formally or not, “we’ve won.”

The point is that Israel, like South Africa in the dark days of apartheid, is establishing a permanent regime whose principles and effects are precisely those ascribed to apartheid. This is exactly the formulation that Jimmy Carter offers in his recent book Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. This cannot be permitted. “If apartheid ended, so can the occupation,” said Bishop Desmond Tutu, adding: “but the moral force and international pressure will have to be just as determined.”

It is incumbent upon all of us — civil society, faith-based communities and governments alike — to take urgent actions to ensure that, less than two decades after the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa, another such system does not arise before our eyes.

A Way Out: A Middle East Confederation

The task of defeating apartheid is a difficult one because Israel has created massive “facts on the ground” that make it impossible to detach a viable Palestinian state — and we cannot accept Israel’s offer of a Palestinian Bantustan as a genuine “two-state” solution. But while Israel has foreclosed the two-state option and has created de facto one state in Israel/Palestine, the one-state solution is a political non-starter.

Even though Israel itself considers the Land of Israel a single unit between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River and has worked assiduously for the past four decades to ensure Jewish control over the entire territory, few governments, and certainly none in Europe and North America, are willing to see Israel transformed from a Jewish state into a democratic one of all the country’s inhabitants.

So where does that leave us? If both the one-state and two-state options have been eliminated, how can the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be resolved and a just and stable peace be achieved?  I set out here a third possibility, a regional approach that I call a “Two-State-Plus” solution or a “Two-Stage” solution based on the notion of a Middle East Confederation. Before we consider this and other proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we must identify those elements essential for any just and sustainable peace. I would suggest five:

(1) National expression for the two peoples. The Israel-Palestine conflict concerns two peoples, two nations, each of which claims the collective right of self-determination. This is what gives such compelling logic to the two-state solution, but it is an essential element in the formulation of any other approach, including a bi-national one-state solution. Within this both the collective and individual rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine/Israel must be defined and guaranteed.

(2) Viability. Whatever form a Palestinian state takes, it must be viable as well as sovereign. It must control its borders and its basic resources (such as water). It must possess territorial contiguity and, above all, the ability to develop a viable economy.

(3) Two fundamental elements that cannot be dismissed or minimized. First, besides normal processes of development, the small Palestinian state will have to accept and integrate its refugees, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands, mainly unskilled, impoverished and completely unfamiliar with democratic institutions. Second, more than 60% of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories and in the refugee camps is under the age of 25, a young generation that has been brutalized, traumatized, impoverished, left with little education and few skills.

The Palestinians’ demand for a viable state stems not from intractability but from a sober evaluation of the enormity of the national challenge facing them. The Rand Corporation recently issued a 500-page study of how a viable Palestinian state might look, but it assumes a far greater withdrawal of Israel from the Occupied Territories than appears likely. More than the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state, then, it is the concern for viability that has rendered the two-state option irrelevant.

(4) Refugees. Eighty percent of the Palestinians are refugees. A sustainable peace cannot emerge from technical arrangements alone. Beyond self-determination and viability lies the issue of justice. Any sustainable peace is dependent upon the just resolution of the refugee issue, which does not seem especially difficult to resolve, as even the refugees in the camps have indicated. It depends on a “package” of three elements: Israeli acknowledgement of the refugees’ right of return; Israeli acknowledgement of its responsibility in creating the refugee issue; and only then, technical solutions involving a mutually agreed-upon combination of repatriation, resettlement elsewhere and compensation.

(5) A regional dimension. The almost exclusive focus on Israel/Palestine has obfuscated another crucial dimension of the conflict: its regional context. Refugees, security, water, economic development, democratization — none of these key issues can be effectively addressed within the narrow confines of Israel/Palestine. Adopting a regional approach, as we shall see, also opens new possibilities of resolving the conflict lacking in the more narrow two-state (or even one-state) approach.

(6) Security. Israel, of course, has fundamental and legitimate security needs. Unlike Israeli governments, the Israeli peace camp believes that security cannot be addressed in isolation, that Israel will not find peace and security unless it enters into a viable peace with the Palestinians and achieves a measure of integration into the Middle East region. We certainly reject the notion that security can be achieved through military means.

Israel’s assertion that the security issue be resolved before any political progress can be made is as illogical as it is self-serving. We know — and the Israeli authorities know, and the Palestinians know — that terrorism is a symptom that can only be addressed as part of a broader approach to the grievances underlying the conflict. Like the United States, Israel uses security concerns to advance a political agenda; in our case, to justify repressive force intended to force the Palestinians to submit to an Israeli-controlled Bantustan.

Israel’s security concerns have been addressed by the Arab League and by the Palestinians. It has been offered peace and regional integration in return for relinquishing the Occupation. What is left is to guarantee the Palestinians’ security, since far more Palestinian civilians have been killed by the Israeli military and settlers than Israelis who have died in terrorist attacks. The entire Palestinian society is traumatized after 20 years of intense repression and 40 years of Israeli occupation (not to mention the previous 19 years of repressive Jordanian occupation). Indeed, the peoples throughout the Middle East must enjoy security and peace if any sustainable stability in the region is to be achieved.

The time has come to step back, survey the geographic and political landscape, critically evaluate the traditional “solutions,” start to think creatively “out of the box” and come up with other solutions that are both just and workable. Given the parameters outlined above, we are left with four “solutions,” only one of which, the confederational, appears workable. The first three are:

* The traditional two-state solution in which a Palestinian state emerges on all of the Occupied Territories (with minor adjustments). This, as we have seen, is the accepted position of the Palestinian National Authority and three out of the four members of the Road Map’s “Quartet” (Europe, Russia and the UN, the United States having officially joined the “Israel Plus-Palestine Minus” option advocated by Israeli governments). It is also the option pursued by progressive Zionists within Israel, especially those associated with the Geneva Initiative, and their liberal supporters within the Diaspora Jewish communities. Yet for reasons discussed earlier, Israel’s “facts on the ground,” coupled with American recognition of its major settlement blocs, have rendered this solution irrelevant.

* An “Israel Plus-Palestine Minus” two-state solution, pursued by both Labor and Likud governments, and now advocated by the United States as well. This option envisions a semi-sovereign, semi-viable Palestinian state arising in-between Israel’s major settlement blocs, with the Palestinians compensated by minor territorial swaps. Israeli leaders believe that faced with military defeat, impoverishment, transfer, political isolation and its “Iron Wall” of settlements and barriers, a carefully groomed post-Arafat Palestinian leadership can be coaxed to agree. The critical peace movement in Israel considers this option unworkable and unsustainable, a sophisticated form of apartheid.

* A single state, either bi-national or democratic. On the surface this seems the most natural and just alternative. After all, Israel claims the entire country as one entity, the Land of Israel, and has de facto rendered it one entity through its settlement enterprise. By transforming a struggle for national independence into one for civil rights, akin to that of South Africa, the Palestinians could put Israel in a very difficult situation, highlighting the specter of apartheid.

Yet compelling as it is, even just as it is, the one-state solution falls victim to the realities of the day. The transformation of Israel from a Jewish state into a democratic one (with a Palestinian majority) would encounter total opposition from the Israeli Jewish population as well as the U.S. government and most, if not all the states of Europe. Moreover, although the one-state solution enjoys widespread popular support among Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership is loathe to shift to a new political program with such slight chance of success. Still, many Palestinians hope that a one democratic state in Israel-Palestine might eventually evolve.

The Two-Stage Approach

If a genuine two-state solution has been rendered impossible and a one-state solution is a non-starter, and if we eliminate the “Israel Plus-Palestine Minus” apartheid option as simply unacceptable, then only one other option remains: a regional confederation. A “Two-State Plus” solution, this approach envisions a two-stage process in which self-determination is disconnected from economic viability.

Less elegant than the others, more complex, more difficult to present in a sound byte, it is also far more workable. Like the European Union, it preserves a balance between national sovereignty and the freedom to live anywhere within the region. Rather than eliminating the Occupation, it neutralizes it by compensating the Palestinians’ readiness to compromise on territory with the economic, social and geographic depth afforded by a regional confederation. Not only is a confederational approach just and sustainable, it offers a win-win solution as well.

In contrast to the two-state solution which is limited in scope, technical in conception and unable to address many of the underlying issues of the conflict, the “two-stage” approach emphasizes processes — of peace-making, trust-building, economic development, the establishment of strong civil societies, and reconciliation leading to a genuine resolution of the conflict. Its outlines are straightforward and transparent.

Stage 1: A Palestinian State Alongside Israel

Recognizing that Palestinian demands for self-determination represent a fundamental element of the conflict, the first stage of the confederational approach provides for the establishment of a Palestinian state. This meets the Palestinians’ requirements for national sovereignty, political identity and membership in the international community.

Statehood, however, does not address the crucial issue of viability. If it were only a state the Palestinians needed, they could have one tomorrow — the mini-state “offered” by Barak and Sharon. But the issue is not simply a Palestinian state. Their greatest fear is being locked into that state, into a Bantustan, into a prison-state that cannot possibly address the needs of their people, now or in the future.

The “two-stage” approach offers a way out of this trap, even if the Israeli presence is reduced but not significantly eliminated. The Palestinians might be induced to accept a semi-viable state on something less than the entire Occupied Territories (with or without some territorial swaps) on condition that the international community guarantees the emergence of a regional confederation within a reasonable period of time (five to ten years).

So while the first stage, the establishment of a Palestinian state on most of the Occupied Territories (including borders with Jordan, Syria and Egypt) addresses the issue of self-determination, the second stage, a regional confederation, would address that of viability. It would give the Palestinians a regional “depth” in which to meet their long-term social and economic needs.

Stage 2: A Regional Confederation

Following upon the emergence of a Palestinian state, the international community would broker a regional confederation, a loose economic association of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon reminiscent of the European Community before it became a Union. Over time, Egypt and other countries of the region might join as well. The key element of this approach is the ability of all members of the confederation to live and work anywhere within the confederation’s boundaries. That breaks the Palestinians out of their prison. Rather than burdening the small emergent state with responsibilities it cannot possibly fulfill, the confederational approach extends that burden across the entire region.

It also addresses the core of the refugee issue, which is individual choice. Palestinians residing within the confederation would have the choice of becoming citizens of the Palestinian state, retaining citizenship in their current countries of residence or leaving the region entirely for a new life abroad. They could choose to return “home” to what is today Israel, but they would do so as Palestinian citizens or citizens of another member state. Israel would be under no obligation to grant them citizenship, just as Israelis living in Palestine (Jews who choose to remain in Ma’aleh Adumim or Hebron, for example, former “settlers”) would retain Israeli citizenship.

This addresses Israeli concerns about the integrity of their state. In such a confederation, even a major influx of Palestinian refugees into Israel would pose no problem. It is not the presence of the refugees themselves that is threatening to Israel. After all, 350,000 foreign workers and an equal number of Russian Christians reside in Israel today.

The threat to Israeli sovereignty comes from the possibility of refugees claiming Israeli citizenship. By disconnecting the Right of Return from citizenship, the refugees would realize their political identity through citizenship in a Palestinian state while posing no challenge to Israeli sovereignty, thus enjoying substantive individual justice by living in any part of Palestine/Israel or the wider region they choose. And since a confederational solution does not require the dismantlement of settlements — although they will be integrated — it is not dependent upon “ending the Occupation,” the main obstacle to the two-state solution. It will simply neutralize it, rendering all the walls, checkpoints, by-pass roads and segregated cities irrelevant.

A European Project

The two-stage regional confederation plan will encounter opposition. Israel, perceiving itself as a kind of Singapore, has no desire to integrate into the Middle East region, relinquish its control over the entire country or, to say the least, accommodate Palestinian refugees. It also does not want its Jewish population to have to live in an integrated society with Arabs, as the confederation would produce. Nevertheless, a confederational approach does offer the Israeli people a way to disengage from Occupation and to enjoy peace, security and economic prosperity. It also respects the integrity of Israel as a sovereign state and a member of the Middle East Confederation.

The autocratic regimes of the region might resist such a project out of fear of the democratization it would entail, but the advantages of an end to the conflict in the region are obvious. Creating open societies with new economic potentials of development in an expansive and peaceful Middle East can only be good for the peoples of the region. For a Europe searching for its role in the Mediterranean and Middle East, mentoring a Middle East Confederation could be its most important contribution to regional and world peace and development.

As for the Palestinians, there are only advantages. The two-stage approach offers them much more than the two-state solution, and is far more achievable than a single state. Once the Palestinians signal to the wider Arab and Muslim worlds that they have resolved their differences with Israel and that the time has come for true reconciliation among people and Israeli integration into the region can begin.

The emergence of a Middle East Union thus becomes an eminently “do-able” project. Although such a confederation may sound like a pipe-dream in the present context of intense conflict, the infrastructure already exists. Peace treaties already obtain (though limited to the governmental arena) among Israel, Egypt and Jordan, not to mention formal and semi-formal ties with most of the states in the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim world. The 2002 Saudi Initiative in which the Arab League offered Israel regional integration in return for relinquishing its Occupation extends that base even further.

Governments and Peoples

We are at a critical crossroads in Middle Eastern and world history, poised between an impending apartheid regime of Israel over Palestine, and perpetual conflict between Islam and the West, or on the verge of a daring new project: the creation of a Middle East at peace, prosperous, open and making its contribution to global stability. But this is not the only crossroads we face.

If Occupation becomes permanent and an entire people is literally imprisoned behind a super-Berlin Wall, if the Palestinians’ human rights are trampled with impunity and we all stand aside and simply watch, if a new apartheid regime emerges in the light of day on the southern border of Europe, how will that impact on the efforts of all progressive peoples and governments to usher in a global reality based on human rights and international law? It would render hollow all our moral values of human dignity, inclusion, equality, care for one another, justice and peace.

This is the test. If we can replace the violence and oppression of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a model for regional cooperation and progress, we will have proven that our vision for an inclusive global society is practical, not mere pipe-dreams. Imagine what a message of hope that would be for the down-trodden of this battered world — indeed, for our own peoples everywhere.

This is the challenge to us, the international civil society. Governments do not work with us; they cooperate only with their counterparts, other governments. We, the people, are not elected and have no mandate or formal power. We cannot negotiate or sign treaties. We need governments, though they often feel they do not need us. Our task is all the harder because many of the traditional intermediaries between us and our governments — political parties, political movements, trade unions and even the influence of intellectuals — has declined in recent decades, while the power of corporations has largely replaced them.

This makes it necessary for civil society to organize and make. Fortunately we have sources of clout at our disposal: an emerging world of human rights covenants and international law, institutions like the UN, the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Criminal Court, the internet, Social Forums and more.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, in Israel/Palestine as elsewhere. Conflict, occupation, exclusivity, apartheid — out! Human rights, inclusivity, cooperation, justice, peace, prosperity and sustainability — in! That’s a worthy task for governments and peoples together.

Some Useful Websites:


Alternative Information Center:

Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem:

Arab Association for Human Rights:


Bat Shalom:


Christian Peacemaker Team:

Coalition of Women for Peace:

Combatants for Peace:

The Electronic Intifada:

Foundation for Middle East Peace:

Gush Shalom:

Ha’aretz newspaper:

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions:

Jerusalem Center for Women:

Jerusalem Media and Communication Center:

Jewish Voice For Peace:



New Profile:

Palestine Monitor:

Palestinian Center for Human Rights:

Palestinian Hydrology Group:

The Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy:



Physicians for Human Rights:

Rabbis for Human Rights:

Yesh Gvul:


ATC 139, March-April 2009