The struggle for peace in the Middle East has been long and
tortuous. After five decades of Arab-Israeli conflict and five
wars, the 1993 Oslo Accords were a hopeful breakthrough. That one
of the architects of this agreement, Yitzhak Rabin, was soon the
victim of an Israeli assassin's bullet dramatizes the perplexing
nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
With few notable exceptions, leaders of the Middle East countries
have not approached the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with a
determined problem-solving orientation, let alone with a vision.1
For this reason, the electoral victory of Prime Minister Ehud
Barak, following soon after the ascension of King Abdullah II to
the Hashemite Kingdom, may represent a major turning point in the
Turning Point in the Middle East Conflict
Pledging to pursue peace, Barak should be able to revive the
dormant peace process, provided he succeeds in grappling with two
fundamental problems: the Jewish settlements on the West Bank and
Gaza Strip, and the political aspirations of the Palestinians to
establish a Palestinian state.
Under Binyamin Netanyahu's government, Jewish settlements expanded
- the total population grew from 130,000 to approximately 200,000.
Apart from granting settlers various tax advantages, a
road-construction program was undertaken to link the settlements in
order to foster economic growth - which, in the process, fragmented
and constricted the growth of Palestinian communities.
A continuation of these policies will clearly be a major stumbling
block in future negotiations with the Palestinians. However, in his
coalition-building efforts to form a government with a broad
political spectrum, Barak has included the National Religious
Party, which represents the interests of West Bank settlers. This
decision does not bode well for Barak's taking an innovative
approach to the settlement issue.
Unless Barak formulates bold policies to stop the construction of
new settlements, to dismantle some settlements, to consolidate
others, and to provide financial incentives for settlers to
transfer their homes to Israel proper, the settlement issue will
continue to be a major impediment to concluding a land-for-peace
agreement with the Palestinians. Ideally, all settlements should
eventually be dismantled. There is surely no compelling reason why
200,000 Jewish settlers should hold hostage the peace process of
about 5.8 million Israelis and about 2.3 million Palestinians. To
induce the settlers to leave peacefully, Barak's government should
provide them with ample financial incentives to resettle in Israel.
Such inducements, however, may not be sufficient to persuade
fundamentalists among the settlers to depart peacefully from what
they call Judea and Samaria.
Significant progress on the settlement problem would facilitate
negotiations of the terms for establishing a Palestine state.
According to the 1993 Oslo agreement between the Palestine
Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, a five-year interim phase
of Palestinian self-government on the West Bank and Gaza was to
ensue. This five-year phase ended on May 4, , which prompted
officials of the PLO to debate the question of establishing a
Palestine state. In the absence of a final-status agreement between
the PLO and Israel - stipulated by the Oslo agreement - Binyamin
Netanyahu threatened Yasser Arafat with retaliation if he proceeded
with his plan for statehood. As a consequence, the PLO decided to
postpone this historic decision.
But, regardless of the gestation period, Palestinian statehood is a
foregone conclusion. Some rudimentary building blocks of statehood
are already in existence: a legislature (the Palestinian
Legislative Council); an executive branch (a revered leader,
Arafat, who still commands the grudging respect of most, if not
all, of his fellow Palestinians, and a Palestinian cabinet); a law
enforcement system of thousands of police officers; an airport;
national symbols (flag and anthem); and, last but not least, an
To be sure, there are many seemingly intractable problems requiring
negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, including an
equitable distribution of water resources, control of borders, the
refugee problem, the percentage of West Bank land to be ceded to
Palestinians, the status of East Jerusalem, and so on. These and
other problems would lend themselves to mutually acceptable
solutions if Barak were to explore a confederation proposal,
advanced in 1991 by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.2
The purpose of this essay is to provide a rationale for a
confederation of Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
Concept of a Confederation
In a confederation, "constituent states retain... their political
independence but band together in perpetual union under a common
constitution to form a joint government for quite specific and
limited purposes... The appeal of a confederation is in its
provision of greater autonomy for the constituent units...."3
In his 1991 book, Daniel Elazar, a well-known scholar on
federalism, set forth 11 possible federal proposals for the
Arab-Israeli conflict.4 However, writing as he did, before the Oslo
Accords and before the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and
Jordan, Elazar did not entertain the option of a confederation of
Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Another reason is that Elazar did not
believe that a Palestine state on the West Bank and Gaza would be a
prudent risk, either politically or militarily. Like some other
Israelis, Elazar evidently subscribed to the idea that Jordan is,
in effect, a Palestine state, since the majority of its inhabitants
are ethnically Palestinians.
Shimon Peres is now a strong advocate of a Palestinian state, but
when he wrote about it in 1993,5 he advocated a confederation quite
different from the tri-state proposal advanced in this essay: "The
political structure best suited to the limitations and
possibilities of the area is a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation
for political matters, and a Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli
'Benelux'arrangement for economic affairs..."6 by which Peres means
a customs union.
There are a number of confederations in existence, of which Canada
and Switzerland are two noteworthy examples. Canada's confederation
consists of 10 provinces, one of which is Quebec. For many years, a
secessionist movement has been active in Quebec, a French-speaking
province that seeks to free itself from the domination of the
English-speaking provinces. In a recent referendum in Quebec, a
secessionist proposal was narrowly defeated. The Canadian
government has sought to counter the Quebecois secessionist
movement by revising its constitution to further protect the
economic and cultural interests of the population of Quebec.
In 1991, Switzerland celebrated the 700th anniversary of the
founding of its confederation. Surmounting political, religious,
linguistic and other divisions - not to mention recurrent military
incursions - 26 cantons were established, providing for cantonal
autonomy and democracy. Under the 1874 constitution, the cantons
hold all power not specifically delegated to the federal
authorities. The durability and success of the Swiss confederation
are remarkable considering that it integrates diverse cultural
populations: Italian, French and German.
Unlike some of the confederations that have foundered, Canada and
Switzerland have succeeded in meeting the expectations of its
citizens of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds by
safeguarding two fundamental institutions: democratic governance
and constitutionalism. These appear to be two prerequisites for a
successful confederation. As Elazar put it, "...No federation or
confederation could work unless all its constituent units were
governed democratically...."7 The fact that only one of the three
states, namely Israel, presently claims to fulfill these two
prerequisites, is a problem that would have to be addressed in the
process of developing a confederation.
Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, is introducing some limited
democratic forms by virtue of the fact that the royal family has
granted the people the right to organize parties and hold
democratic elections "even if their platforms do not match the
The political situation in Palestine has not yet progressed in the
direction of full democratization, for though Arafat was elected in
legitimate elections, there is much to criticize, especially as
regards human rights. The transition of Jordan and Palestine to
full-fledged democratic polities is essential not only for the
success of the confederation, but also for peace and security in
the Middle East. For, as Russett and other political scientists
have observed, democracies do not, as a rule, wage war against one
While creating a new political authority, the proposed
confederation would preserve the integrity of the three constituent
states. Whatever joint confederal functions are consensually agreed
upon would be incorporated in a constitution to govern the
Each of the three constituent states would benefit from joining
such a confederation. By identifying areas of commonality,
significant economic and political developments could be achieved.
Several examples of joint efforts will be outlined to make the
Some Benefits of Confederation
A Common Labor Pool. Eliminating barriers to the free
movement of labor would activate market forces to the mutual
benefit of the three states. Large reserves of unemployed
Palestinians would seek jobs in Israel; similarly, substantial
numbers of unemployed Jordanians would freely move across the
Jordan River in search of jobs. The flow of labor, however, would
not be in one direction only. Israel has a surfeit of
Soviet-trained engineers and scientists who are presently
underemployed. If they could cross the borders of Palestine and
Jordan, they could perform an entrepreneurial function in
developing small and medium-size enterprises.
Israeli Entrepreneurship and Capital. New economic
opportunities in Palestine and Jordan would beckon Israeli
entrepreneurs who have innovative ideas as well as access to
capital markets. This would introduce a new element of dynamism in
the economies of Jordan and Palestine. Jordanian and Palestinian
entrepreneurs would be able to tap into Israeli experience in
accessing global financial sources of capital. Joint ventures by
Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian entrepreneurs would flourish in
the course of time.
Developing Ports of Commerce. Each of the three states has
ports that are presently underdeveloped. Expanding and modernizing
them would have a catalytic effect on exports and imports from
around the world. Large infrastructure projects, such as ports,
have to enjoy a certain minimum level of usage for economies of
scale to kick in. If each country insists on building and operating
individual ports, none of these facilities would achieve the
threshold of usage necessary for cost savings to materialize. Such
large infrastructure projects as ports are ideally suited for joint
ventures to avoid duplication of facilities. For example, the port
project in Aqaba, Jordan, if it were undertaken jointly with
Israel, would greatly expand commerce for both countries.
Developing Water Resources. The Middle East has one of the
most acute water shortages in the world. Syria and Iraq are at the
mercy of Turkey for the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates.
Jordan is hostage to Syria upstream - for water of the Yarmuk - and
to Israel downstream - for water of the Jordan River. Israel's
water comes from three main sources: the Sea of Galilee, which is
fed by the Jordan River; and two aquifers, one of which is in the
occupied territories of the West Bank. This problem is on the
agenda of the ongoing negotiations. The present inequitable
allocation of water resources is evident when one compares the
annual consumption in cubic meters for all purposes (domestic,
industrial and agricultural) of Israel, Jordan and Palestine (West
Bank and Gaza).
Annual Per-Capita Consumption of Water in Cubic Meters for All
400 - 450
173 - 185
75 - 110
Sources: Peter Glick, Water in Crisis, Oxford University Press,
1993; U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Water for the Future,
1999; Thomas Naff, Amer Middle East Water Data
A confederation would highlight the need for exploring joint
efforts to develop new sources of water, instituting a program of
conservation and achieving a more equitable allocation of water
among the three states. Admittedly, because of its much higher
level of economic development than either Palestine or Jordan,
Israel requires more water resources. For this reason, Israel is
presently negotiating with Turkey to deliver several million cubic
meters of water per year to Israel by pipe or tanker or "medusa"
bag. While this strategy might solve some of Israel's water
problems, it would leave the serious water conflicts with Palestine
and Jordan unresolved. On the other hand, a confederation would, in
principle, enable the three states to cooperate in planning for the
development of new water supplies, e.g., by investing in a program
of desalination - a project that would very likely elicit financial
support from the World Bank. It is noteworthy that Israel is now
considering helping fund the development of three
multimillion-dollar desalination plants in Egypt to meet the needs
of both countries.10
Development of Infrastructure. Palestine and Jordan are both
in need of extensive development of their infrastructure - such as
roads, bridges, sewage plants, utilities, etc. - if their economic
development is to be accelerated. A confederation would facilitate
this and increase the chances that the World Bank would support
such development projects, since multilateral agencies may balk at
providing funds for facilities that are cost-efficient only if they
are used close to capacity. The laws of economics, instead of
parochial national considerations, should guide such decisions.
Infrastructure developed from the perspective of a confederation,
rather than within the framework of individual countries, is likely
to be much more cost-effective.
Development of Tourism. Tourism, one of the fastest-growing
industries in the world, would be substantially stimulated by the
establishment of a confederation of Israel, Palestine and Jordan.
According to the Yearbook of Tourism Statistics,11 Israeli tourism
revenues increased close to threefold from 1990 to 1997 (from $1.4
billion per year to $3.4 billion), whereas Jordan's tourism
revenues remained almost static ($336 million to $376 million).
With the elimination of the present relatively impenetrable borders
between the three states, tourists, especially religious pilgrims
eager to visit biblical sites, would very likely flock to all three
Progress Toward a Middle East Common Market. The proposed
tri-state confederation would enable the parties to take the first
critical steps toward implementing an idea considered for many
years, namely, the establishment of a Middle East Common Market.
When Israel finally enters into peace treaties with Syria and
Lebanon, these countries, along with Egypt, could also become
members of the Middle East Common Market. The European Common
Market experience is an inspiring model to emulate: France and
Germany, bitter enemies in the Second World War, established the
Coal and Steel Community in 1952, thus developing a program of
economic cooperation which led, decades later, to the formation of
the European Union. A similar process could well develop in the
Health Care Systems. The foregoing examples of joint
confederal efforts need not be confined to economic activities;
they could also extend to the social realm. As a highly
industrialized country, Israel has a well-developed health- care
system. And yet, like other Western countries, it suffers from a
maldistribution of physicians, clinics and hospitals. Advances in
telecommunications technology, namely, developments in
telemedicine, are seeking to overcome this problem. Israelis living
in the north and south of the country, at considerable distances
from medical centers in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv, are the
beneficiaries of advanced medical care by experts with the help of
telecommunication satellites. Telecardiology and teleradiology are
prime examples of the application of telemedicine. This technology
could readily be applied to the extensive health-care problems of
Palestine and Jordan, where the health-care facilities are
Political Multiplier Effects. The defense budgets of Israel
and Jordan could be substantially reduced as a result of joining a
confederation. Progress in turning swords into plowshares would
encourage the signing of peace treaties with Syria and Lebanon.
Thus, a regional peace dividend could be achieved, which in turn
could contribute to a global peace dividend.
Problem of Refugees. Another highly contentious problem is
the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees dispersed in
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza since the war in
1948. Palestinians argue that they, like the Jews, are entitled to
a "right of return" to their homeland. The establishment of a
Palestinian state would enable the new state to absorb a portion of
the estimated 3.5 million refugees. A confederation would seek to
address the problem of the Palestinian Diaspora by exploring the
feasibility of resettlement as well as a program of compensation
Status of Jerusalem. Such a confederal arrangement could
provide the framework for solving the much-contested and highly
emotional problem of Jerusalem. Jewish fundamentalists, dedicated
to the building of the Third Temple, are as fervently devoted to
the eventual coming of the Messiah as are Christian fundamentalists
to the Second Coming of Jesus, and Muslim fundamentalists to the
coming of the Mahdi, the Muslim Messiah.12 Instead of dividing this
historic city, a "Solomonic" solution would be to preserve it as a
united city for all three monotheistic religions, but not
necessarily under the exclusive control of Israel. It could become
simultaneously the capital of Israel, the capital of the new
Palestine state, as well as the capital of the confederation.
Finally, the principal holy places - the Temple Mount, the Western
Wall, the Dome of the Rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Holy Sepulcher,
etc. - could come under the joint rule of the three states forming
Need for an International Commission to Develop Plans for the
The foregoing examples of joint efforts through a confederation are
intended to underscore opportunities for mutual benefits from
cooperative ventures. A commission comprised of the ministers of
economics, finance and trade of Israel, Jordan and Palestine, could
develop detailed confederation plans that could be implemented
early in the new millennium.
One of the tasks of such a compromise would be to elicit the
political and economic support for the confederation of the U.S.
and the European Union. It would also be important for the
commission to seek to overcome any opposition from Arab states,
especially from the neighboring states of Syria and Lebanon. It is
very likely that Egypt would be supportive of the confederation,
and that Saudi Arabia would, at least, not oppose it. Last, but not
least, the commission would have to secure the cooperation of
multilateral agencies, such as the International Monetary Fund and
the World Bank, to provide funding to implement the establishment
of a confederation.
From a geopolitical standpoint, a confederation of Israel,
Palestine and Jordan is an idea whose time has come. Developing a
detailed blueprint for a confederation is obviously not feasible or
necessary at this juncture. The crucial question is whether Prime
Minister Ehud Barak has the courage and vision to lead Israel
toward a new era of peace and cooperation with its neighbors. If he
does, he may discover that a confederal form of government is a
strategic political mechanism for achieving durable peace and
cooperation in the Middle East.
For admirable assistance in the preparation of this paper, I would
like to thank Fritz Dambrick. For invaluable comments on the paper,
I am indebted to Lalit Aggarwal, Robert U. Evan, Hocine Fetni,
Samuel Hughes, Samuel Z. Klausner, Andrew T. Lamas, Thomas Naff and
1. Shimon Peres, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords,
deserves recognition for his sustained and imaginative commitment
to the Mideast peace process. See Shimon Peres with Aryeh Naor, The
New Middle East, New York: Henry Holt, 1993.
2. Cf. Daniel J. Elazar, Two Peoples, One Land, New York:
University Press of America, 1991, p. viii. For a recent discussion
of a confederation proposal, see Shosh Shor, "From Sword into
Plowshare: Regional Arrangements for Israel and Palestinians?"
Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs,
No. 411, 1 August, 1999, p. 2.
3. Ibid., pp. 43, 106.
4. Ibid., p. 101.
5. Peres with Naor, op. cit, p. 175.
6. Ibid., p. 173.
7. Elazar, op. cit. p. 106.
8. Peres with Naor, op. cit, p. 177.
9. Cf. Bruce M. Russett, Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles
of a Post Cold-War World, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
10. Stephen J. Glain, "Arab Investment Stirs: With Peace or
Without," Wall Street Journal, September 20, 1999, p. 1.
11. Madrid: World Tourism Organization, 1999, Vol. 48, pp. 106,
117; Vol. 51, pp. 117, 124.
12. Jeffrey Goldberg, "Israel's Y2K Problem," The New York Times
Magazine, October 3, 1999, pp. 38-43, 52, 65, 76-77.