Dec 21st 2010

A Confederal Solution for Palestine

by Robert Skidelsky

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

LONDON- Last month, while in New York City, I happened to be staying in the same hotel as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. To accommodate his security needs, the hotel had been converted into a fortress, much like Israel itself.

Netanyahu was in the United States for yet another round of Middle East peace talks. The US offered various sweeteners to induce Israel to freeze its West Bank settlement construction for another 90 days. The Israelis refused; another impasse was reached.

What, then, might be the prospects of a negotiated peace between two peoples with claims to the same land?

The answer is: very poor. All peace efforts since the Oslo accords of 1993 have been based on the "two-state solution," according to which Israel is supposed to turn over the occupied territories to a Palestinian state, the Palestinians are supposed to renounce any claims on the Jewish state, and everyone is supposed to live happily ever after.

A negotiated "land for peace" solution still remains official Western doctrine. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in a recent speech, "a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace" has to be based on "two states for two peoples."

Meanwhile, the two main parties to the dispute, Palestine and Israel, are searching for unilateral alternatives to the stymied "peace process." The Palestinians are pushing for international recognition of their statehood, while the Israelis are using their settlement policy to preempt a Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that, if the latest peace talks collapse, he will press for UN recognition of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. This month, Brazil and Argentina recognized "Palestine," and a cascade of Latin American countries is expected to follow.

Abbas is now setting his sights on Europe, and would ask Turkey to serve as a go-between. The game is to use international recognition of an independent Palestinian state to pressure the US to retreat from its almost unconditional support for Israeli policy.

Israel's main concern continues to be security. The official Western doctrine is that Israel's long-term security depends on the success of the "peace process." In practice, Israel has been taking other measures to secure its future. Media attention has been focused on the "security wall," which has certainly succeeded in reducing the level of violence.

But, to the hawks who now control Israeli politics, the key to Israel's security depends on depth of defense, for which expansion of the settlements is indispensable. The hawks' recipe for survival is threefold: continued military and economic support from the US, defensible frontiers through a strategic settlement program, and the carve-up of the Palestinian West Bank into disconnected bantustans, or subordinate authorities, incapable of concerted opposition to Israeli policy.

Thus, while Abbas seeks to create a new "fact on the ground" by drumming up international support for a Palestinian state, Israel aims to trump him by making such a state unviable.

The ideal alternative to both strategies is a peace process that aims not to create two states, but rather to establish the political and economic basis for a single confederal state. Indeed, the two-state solution was always an illusion. There was never enough land to satisfy the passionate possessiveness of all those with claims to it. And, over time, Israeli settler disengagement from the West Bank and East Jerusalem has become just as impossible as any attempt by Israel to expel its remaining Arabs.

Israeli Jews are bound to stay in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Israeli Arabs are bound to stay in Israel proper. These are the "facts on the ground" that doom Palestinian hopes for a sovereign Palestinian state no less than Israeli hopes for a wholly Jewish state.

Moreover, land for peace never made sense from an economic point of view. If compensation for wrongs to the Palestinians was to be the guiding principle, there were always better ways of going about it than to found a rickety, poverty-ridden new country dependent on foreign aid.

Most people have forgotten that the Paris Protocols of April 1994 established a customs union between Israel and the occupied territories, with a joint Economic Council to adjudicate trade disputes. The free movement of goods, labor, and capital between the two parts could have given a tremendous economic boost to Palestinian GDP.

It could also have been the basis of a confederal state, whose Palestinian part would have benefited from the West Bank settlers' productivity and taxes. But this benign prospect was undermined by the violence needed to maintain the Jewish state and enable the emergence of a Palestinian one.

The official view remains that only an internationally guaranteed two-state settlement will bring about the security needed for the economic revival of the Palestinian territories. But it is just possible that unilateral Israeli policy, implicitly backed by the US, will create interim conditions of peace that are sufficient for economic growth to cool Palestinian nationalism.

The Palestinian cause is not the overriding preoccupation of even the Arab states, so Netanyahu's strategy of defense in depth stands a better chance of success than Abbas's pursuit of statehood through international recognition. Netanyahu's project is not moral. But that doesn't mean that it won't work, at least for a time.


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