The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is long dead and buried! It died at Camp David in July 2000 when Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chairman of the PLO, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak failed to reach an agreement. Whom to blame for the debacle is subject to endless debate, even among those who were present and involved in the minutest details of the negotiations. One thing was for sure, however; the United States did not show leadership befitting of the sole superpower.
After arduous negotiations between the parties concerned that lasted for decades, Israelis and Palestinians are stuck in interminable confrontations. Two experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, who had been partisans of a two-state solution, now argue that a two-state solution is a will-o'-the-wisp. In his book Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality, University of Pennsylvania Prof. Ian S. Lustick argues that despite the twostate solution being “dead, its ghost remains, not as an inspiring blueprint for action but as distracting dogma.” More emphatically, Prof. Avi Shlaim asserted in a recent piece that it is hardly an exaggeration to say the twostate solution is dead. However, he goes further to claim “that the two-state solution was never born.” No Israeli Government since the occupation in 1967 has been willing to relinquish the territories or, according to Shlaim, to countenance “an independent Palestinian state over the whole of Gaza and the West Bank with a capital city in East Jerusalem.” This point is also shared by former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Today, hope for relaunching a peace process is dim. The Biden administration has bigger fish to fry, domestically and internationally. The new Israeli government with its composition is not in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize but is definitely up for squeezing the Palestinians even more. The Palestinians are as weak and divided as ever and cannot present a strong partner to negotiate a final settlement of the conflict. And if all this is not enough, the political geography of the conflict precludes another state in the Holy Land. Successive Israeli governments on the left and the right allowed settlements to flourish in the purported areas for the Palestinian state. In addition, a web of highways connecting settlements to Israel proper
dissect the occupied territories, making it impossible to have a contiguous state. Israeli critics sardonically call the future Palestinian state “Swiss cheese” with the cheese for the Israelis and the holes for the Palestinians.
The Abraham Accords
The recent agreements signed by some Arab states and Israel, known as the Abraham Accords, offer the potential to jumpstart a regional peace that will include a solution to the crux of the conflict — namely, the Palestinian issue. How can that happen after everything said about the impossibility of a two-state solution? I argue that the solution lies in these recent Abraham Accords.
Israelis and their supporters have shown great enthusiasm for these accords. Jared Kushner, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were among their biggest advocates. Palestinians, on the other hand, rejected the accords, as they did not include them in any prospective solution.
The hurdles to a solution have been the so-called “final status” issues. Three issues hamper the final status: first, settlements and geographic boundaries for the proposed Palestinian state: second, the status of Jerusalem; and third, the Palestinian refugees. Settlements are an issue because they encroach on the Palestinian territories; hence, the demarcation of the would-be Palestinian state becomes problematic. Jerusalem is claimed by Israel as the unified and eternal capital of the Jewish state. Finally, the return of the refugees to their erstwhile homes is anathema, as most Israelis fear that their numbers together with the current Palestinian population in the occupied territories and inside Israel would overwhelm the Jewish population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Israelis are in fact demanding that the Palestinian leadership recognize Israel as the exclusive nation-state of the Jewish people.
The History of Tolerance in the Middle East
An exclusivist state is not a Middle Eastern tradition, the international media’s protestation notwithstanding. The region has always been home to multitudes of ethnic, religious, and sectarian groups. Even Arabia, the birthplace of Arabs and Islam, had many individuals of Abyssinian, Roman, and Jewish descent. Diversity did not mean equality but there was a level of tolerance.
In such a milieu, Islam was born. Historian Juan Cole has argued in a recent book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires, that Prophet Muhammad came with the message of peace and tolerance at a time of war and conflict. The fact that Jews and Christians, warts and all, thrived under Islamic rule lends credence to Cole’s thesis.
Admiration should be reserved for the Muslims in Andalusia in particular. Muslims were veritable conquerors of the Iberian Peninsula, believing they were doing God’s work and carrying his message. Nevertheless, the Muslims established a civilization that was the epitome of tolerance and peaceful coexistence, in contrast to other parts of the world at that time. The late Cuban American professor, María Rosa Menocal, described that experience in her title as The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. What Christopher Hitchens, no fan of Islam, wrote about Menocal’s book is worth quoting: “It is no exaggeration that what we presumptuously call ‘Western’ culture is owed in large measure to the Andalusian enlightenment...This book partly restores to us a world we have lost.”
In the late 19th to the early 20th century, the Middle East experienced a level of intercommunal coexistence as a result of Ottoman reforms. Ussama Makdisi, in his Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World, showed the intellectual project of the Tanzimat “reforms.” The Tanzimat “sought to reconcile a new principle of secular
political equality with the reality of an Ottoman imperial system that had privileged Muslim over non-Muslim, but that was also attempting to integrate non-Muslims as citizens.”
A New Andalusia in the Middle East
If all these illustrious authors are right, then sectarianism is the exception rather than the rule. The signing of the Abraham Accords was intended to usher the region into a new age of peace, prosperity, and coexistence. Can Israel assume the moral leadership shown by Muslims in earlier times to establish a new Andalusia in the contemporary Middle East? An entity that will preserve its identity as a Jewish polity but where Palestinians, of all stripes, will prosper culturally, spiritually, intellectually, economically, politically, and scientifically? Would a Muslim Maimonides be born out of such an Abrahamic admixture?
Former Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a Likudnik no less, believes in such a possibility − an Israeli-Palestinian confederation where both sides will live in harmony. “When you have two political entities, the Palestinian entity and the Hebrew Zionist one,” the president averred, “we may well have to live in a confederation, with each side running its affairs in one way or another, and global issues managed by the system as a whole.”
A Swiss Model for the Abrahamic State
An appropriate model exists in the multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-confessional Swiss Confederation. The new Abrahamic Confederation will consist of several autonomous cantons that include communes or municipalities. Admittedly, there is more than one way to skin a cat; however, one approach is to divide the confederation into four communes. The largest will be the Israeli canton that will include all of today’s Israel minus the Arab region of the north that will form a separate canton. The West Bank will become an autonomous canton; so will the Gaza Strip.
The four cantons will form a higher council of the confederation with legislative power only for the confederation. It will consist of equal numbers of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. The
higher council will elect an executive council of equal numbers that will represent the confederation’s interests externally and domestically. Each canton will run its own affairs, with minimal intervention from the confederation, and will be represented by a council at the canton level based on the number of communes it includes.
The Israeli military forces will act as a provider of defense for the Israeli canton and the confederation. Each canton will provide for its domestic security; however, a supreme council of defense will be appointed by the confederal authority to coordinate the defense and security arrangements for all of the confederation. For the first decade at least, UN defense observers should be in place to monitor the security of the confederation and the cantons. If a crisis breaks out, the supreme council of defense in coordination with the UN observers will address the situation.
All final-status issues will be tackled under such a confederation. Jerusalem will be the capital of the confederation, the 1852 status quo of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem will be respected, and all faiths will have free access to their holy sites. No settlements will be dismantled in the Palestinian canton, and they can form communes of their own to manage their affairs while being represented at the canton level. Likewise, the Arab population in the Israeli canton can form communes to manage its affairs. The refugees, a tough nut to crack, will be dealt with within the confederation. Palestinians born in Palestine will be granted the right of return to their homes immediately throughout the confederation. The descendants of the original refugees will choose between compensation or the right of return to the Palestinian canton. Those Palestinians with family connections will be reunited with their kin anywhere in the confederation.
Some might dismiss this as unrealistic, given the bad blood between the two nations. First, for any project to succeed, it needs imagination, a vision before it can be realized. A Jewish state smack in the heart of the Arab world was an idea in the late 19th century. Half a century later, the Zionist Jews realized this impossible dream. The Israelis could show ingenuity and magnanimity to realize this idea of a new Abrahamic state. After all, Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe in the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, so conceiving and achieving an Abrahamic state is infinitely more realistic. A wise Jew (Albert Einstein) once observed that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the ultimate insanity.
It is the ultimate irony that a medieval state in Andalusia gave more rights to Christian and Jewish minorities than a state with some democratic credentials and backed (to the hilt) by Western democracies. Redressing the century-long Palestinian grievances will not only be good for the Palestinians and Israelis but also will keep Israel from sliding into rightwing authoritarianism.