A Federation in Mideast?

By Uri Avnery – Israel

25 November 2009 I recall my last conversation with Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound a few weeks before his death. It was he who brought up the idea of a threefold federation — Israel, Palestine and Jordan. “And perhaps Lebanon, too. Why not?” Lately, the term “federation” has come into fashion again.

Some people believe that it can serve as a kind of compromise between the “two-state solution”, now a worldwide consensus, and the “one-state solution” that is popular in some circles. “Federation” sounds like a miracle: There will be both “two states for two peoples” and a single entity. Two in one, one in two.

The word “federation” does not frighten me. On the contrary, I was already using it in this context 52 years ago. On June 2, 1957, my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, published the first detailed plan for an independent Palestinian state that would come into being next to Israel. The West Bank was then under Jordanian and the Gaza Strip under Egyptian occupation. I proposed helping the Palestinians to get rid of the occupiers. According to the plan, the two states, the Israeli and the Palestinian, would then establish a federation. I thought that its proper name should be “the Jordan Union”.

A year later, on September 1, 1958, there appeared a document called “the Hebrew Manifesto”. I am proud of my part in its composition. It was a comprehensive plan for a fundamental change of the State of Israel in all its aspects — a kind of complete overhaul. Among its authors were Nathan Yellin-Mor, the ex-chief of the Stern Group, Boaz Evron, Amos Kenan and several others. I was responsible for the chapter on Israeli-Arab peace. It proposed that a sovereign Palestinian state would be set up next to Israel, and that the two states would establish a federation, which would gradually assume more and more jurisdiction. On the morrow of the Six-Day War, after which the entire country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan was under the control of the Israeli Army, a new political movement called “Israel-Palestine Federation” called for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. The founders were, more or less, the same people who had composed the “Hebrew Manifesto”.

When this historic opportunity was missed and with the occupation becoming gradually more and more oppressive, I abandoned the use of the term federation. I sensed that it frightened both parties.

It should be remembered that the original partition plan adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, did envision a kind of federation, without using the term. It provided for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state, and a separate entity of Jerusalem, administered by the UN. All these entities were to be parts of an economic union that would cover customs, the currency, railways, post, ports, airports and more. This would have, in practice, amounted to a federation.

It is generally supposed that a “federation” is a tighter association, while a “confederacy” is a looser one. But in reality, these differences are very blurred. It seems that Americans and Russians, Germans and Swiss, identify themselves first of all with their united state, not with their own particular province.

The new Europe is for all practical purposes a confederacy, but its founders did not name it thus. They chose the less definite “European Union”. Why? Perhaps they thought that terms like “federation” and “confederacy” were outdated. Perhaps they considered such terms too binding. It makes no sense, therefore, to discuss the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian “federation” in general terms, without defining right from the beginning what is meant by this. I recently saw a plan for a federation here in which every person would have the right to settle anywhere in either state while holding the citizenship of one of them. I can hardly imagine that many Israelis or Palestinians would embrace that. The Israelis would be afraid that the Arabs would soon constitute the majority within Israel, and the Palestinians would worry that Israeli settlers would take possession of every hilltop between the sea and the Jordan.

In any discussion of federation, the matter of immigration looms large as an ominous bone of contention. Would millions of Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israeli territory? Would millions of Jewish immigrants be allowed to submerge the State of Palestine? The same is true for the matter of residence. Could a citizen of Palestine settle in Haifa? Each one of us who considers the idea of federation must decide what he or she wants. In practice, a federation can come about only on the basis of a free agreement between the two parties. This means that it can be realized only if both — Israelis and Palestinians — consider it as advantageous to themselves and compatible with their national aspirations. In my opinion, a practical way to realise the idea could look like this:

Stage 1: A sovereign Palestinian state must come into being. The occupation must end and Israel must withdraw to the Green Line (with possible mutually agreed swaps of territory.) That goes for Jerusalem, too.

Stage 2: The two states establish a pattern of fair relations between them and get used to living side by side. There will be a need for real steps toward reconciliation and the healing of the wounds of the past.

Stage 3: The two states start negotiations for the establishment of joint institutions. For example: the opening of the border between them for the free movement of people and goods, an economic union, a joint currency, a customs envelope, the use of ports and airports, coordination of foreign relations, and so on. There will be no automatic right for citizens of one state to settle in the other. Each state will decide for itself on its immigration policy. The two parties can jointly decide whether to invite Jordan as a third partner to the 
proposed treaty.

Such a negotiation can succeed only if the population in each of the partner states is convinced that the partnership will bring it positive benefits. Since Israel is the stronger economically and technologically, it must be ready to make generous proposals.

Stage 4: The more trust between the parties develops, the easier it will be to deepen the partnership and to widen the powers of the joint institutions.

Perhaps, at this stage, conditions may be ripe for the founding of a wider association of the entire region, on the lines of the European Union. Such an association may include the Arab states, Israel, Turkey and Iran. This is a vision for the future, and it can be realised. To paraphrase Barack Obama’s slogan, even if it has lost some of its luster: Yes, we can!

– Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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