This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Back to future, once again?
Perhaps it’s time for Yossi Beilin and those of his generation on both the Jewish Israeli and Palestinian side to retire to whatever country they choose and is willing to accept them. This would allow the rest of us to get on with our lives. For when we are saddled with politicians and negotiators whose failed policies and visions only encourages them to propose more failed ideas as a possible future for Israel-Palestine, cynicism rather than hope for the future is the take-away.
Beilin’s latest New York Times missive, “Confederation is the Key to Mideast Peace”, encourages cynicism about the future by recycling the old idea of an Israeli and Palestinian confederation. Overall, Beilin’s scenario proposes that the Jewish and Palestinian populations on both sides of the 1967 borders participate in their own governing authorities. At the outset, this seems like a vision worth taking seriously. However, the devil is in the details. When Beilin’s plan is analyzed closely his confederation plan is weak, perhaps even misleading.
Beilin’s introductory paragraph sets up his argument:
The new Israeli government, right-wing and fragile, holds no immediate hope for progress toward peace. But peacemakers should not give up. Precisely because of its vulnerability — in Israeli politics, and in the opinions of the wider world — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government may feel pressured to show a commitment to peace. Israel’s more moderate parties might even join a unity government, if they were promised a freeze on settlement construction and a reopening of serious talks with the Palestinians.
Politically speaking, Beilin may know something the rest of us don’t but surveying Israel’s post-Gaza invasion political landscape, within, around and far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle, there is no Israeli appetite for such movement. By “movement,” I mean anything but symbolic steps in this direction. The symbolic steps would themselves represent a further delay and more Israeli facts on the ground. With the US presidential sweepstakes heating up, any such movement would become a major issue in the American political debate. These are major reasons, among many others, that confederation is a dead issue.
Today, it seems clear that no permanent agreement for complete separation is possible while profound disagreements over security and the presence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank remain unresolved. But confederation — however counterintuitive it may sound — seems to me a very relevant idea.
One of the greatest threats to Israeli-Palestinian trust is the argument that Israeli settlement expansion has become irreversible. On both sides, zealots argue that this makes a two-state solution no longer possible, leaving one unified state the only alternative. But Mr. Husseini’s vision of confederation belies that. It would let both peoples fulfill national aspirations while each benefited from the other’s energy and skills.
Here Beilin waxes nostalgic for his conversations with Faisal al-Husseini, the late and renowned Palestinian leader, before the Oslo Accords in 1993. Before Oslo their discussion of confederation intrigued Beilin but was unacceptable to his fellow Israeli peaceniks. In any case, Oslo emptied any such discussion of meaning. Other than nostalgia for a previously failed vision, Beilin argues that while “zealots” on both sides have pronounced the two-state solution dead on arrival, the national aspirations of Jews and Palestinians could be fulfilled in a confederation. How this would be accomplished is a question Beilin does not address. Beilin feels that each side would benefit from each other’s “energy and skills.” Cutting through the rhetoric and paying attention to the failed “equality” arguments from the Israeli side for decades, one assumes that, for Beilin, “skills” would come from Israelis and “energy” from Palestinians.
Wasn’t this the Oslo hope from the peace camp in Israel that dominated the brief post-Oslo joint partnerships for peace?
If drawn with care for political sensibilities, this vision could even mesh with some assumptions of what a two-state peace must look like. Law-abiding Jewish settlers could be allowed to stay in Palestinian territory — so long as comparable numbers of Palestinian citizens who are now outside Israel could live within Israel’s borders. The borders could closely replicate the 1967 lines — if the settlement blocs came under Palestinian jurisdiction. Jerusalem could include a Palestinian capital in the east, the Israeli capital in the west — and a special area for joint institutions. Security in Palestine could be guaranteed by a multinational force, jointly supervised by the confederation.
Beilin is way too obvious here. Though it seems like a vision of equality, with hundreds of thousands Israelis allowed to live on the Palestinian side and a “comparable” number of Palestinians outside Israel’s borders living within Israel, what settlements, comparable in size and density, would be built for Palestinians inside Israel and where? Perhaps these Palestinian settlements could be built surrounding Jerusalem to counterbalance Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and settlements in Israel’s ever-expanding definition of Jerusalem.
Note also that Palestinian security would be guaranteed by a multinational force, “jointly supervised” by the confederation. Meaning that Israel would continue its military in full and independent force while the Palestinians would remain more or less demilitarized. This is drawn from yet other failed visions of the future where Israel is armed to the teeth and Palestine is occupied by military forces that are not their own. Why not one military controlled by the confederation?
Much more would have to be negotiated. But what alternative is better? Too many Israelis fear that a one-state marriage would destroy either our identity as a Jewish state or our claim to democracy. And a two-state divorce is unlikely to produce a prosperous and stable Palestine. Difficult though it may be to achieve, confederation seems to me the most realistic and practical option, as it did to a wise Palestinian 22 years ago.
Beilin’s concluding paragraph is as weak as his truncated vision of both people’s fulfilling their national aspirations within a confederation, aspirations that Beilin does not enumerate. Cited here is Israel’s fear of the one-state solution coupled with Palestinian statehood “unlikely” to produce a “prosperous and stable Palestine.” Coming back to Beilin’s earlier comment about joining skills and energy, is the reason it is unlikely that Palestinian statehood would produce good results because Palestinians are unable to organize, manage and sustain their own affairs without Jewish Israelis to assist? Or to dominate. Which is the central issue Beilin never addresses.
Beilin may be correct that the other proposed alternatives are off the table for now. They, too, are from the failed past. What is needed is a new generation of political leaders to propose a future that has a fighting chance of bequeathing a joint future of equality for Jews and Palestinians. As we see now, however, the younger generation may be worse than those of Beilin’s generation.
Nonetheless, it is time for the passing of the guard. Or should we wash our hands with the sense that the old and new politics of Israel-Palestine is destined to fail?