‘Reconciliation and Normalization Must Precede Confederation’
Palestine-Israel Journal: Let me ask you about the concept of a trilateral Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian confederation that is being proposed in certain circles these days. In a confederation, the constituent states are independent and retain their political independence. Israel and Jordan are already sovereign states with control over their borders; how much symmetry would Palestine enjoy within such a context? Wouldn't it be wiser for it to forge its independence before merging into a broader framework?
Ghassan Khatib: Palestinians do not see this whole issue of confederation as a priority. Irrespective of how they will feel about it in the future, most Palestinians, if not all, think that it is not feasible and is not desirable to either make arrangements, or even talk about this trilateral confederation while Palestine is still under occupation.
We all believe in investing all efforts into ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a sovereign and independent Palestinian state within the borders of June 1967, including East Jerusalem. Then the confederation could be discussed or negotiated by this Palestinian state. Otherwise, any discussion or any arrangements in that direction before ending occupation, before winning independence, will be completely at the expense of the Palestinian side and against their interests. They would be the weaker side in the negotiations and would face innumerable disadvantages as a result of the occupation and lack of sovereignty. So we first have to be a state, then we can behave like a state and negotiate such a proposal, regardless of whether it is acceptable or not.

For people who call for a confederation, it is a given that Palestine will be a state. But even as a state, will Palestine be on a par with Jordan and Israel?
It is not enough to say that the persons who raise this proposal assume or accept the establishment of the Palestinian state. It is also necessary to know where exactly the state is going to be and what will be its characteristics. Because the danger that we are facing now is that those Israelis who accept the idea of a Palestinian state have in mind something that is not really a state from a Palestinian or objective point of view. They do not include East Jerusalem in it; they do not include the totality of the territories occupied in 1967. In their mind, they reckon on maintaining the settlers and the settlements, thus leaving the Palestinian entity, to a very large extent, fragmented and disintegrated. There will be many other constraints on the viability of the state, as envisioned even by these Israelis who accept the principle of a state. With such a state, we cannot be part of any confederation because we will be so greatly disadvantaged.
That is another reason why we should insist on ending the occupation completely, and establishing a Palestinian state on the totality of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, with East Jerusalem as its capital, before being able to discuss the issue of trilateral confederation. And even after becoming independent, we need time to develop our economy before being able to start negotiating confederation on an equal footing with the two other constituent states that have been independent and developing their economy to a greater or lesser extent for 50 years or so. The Palestinians not only need independence, but also a sound level of development to prevent our being the disadvantaged party in such a confederation.

Advocates of confederation mention the advantages of solving such contentious issues as the problem of water, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements, etc. Would you comment on that?
Yes, I think this is a positive aspect of it. But, unfortunately, it neglects another difficulty that such an option will create. I invite those people to look into the kinds of issues that will surface in such a situation. If we have a confederation whereby Palestine, Israel and Jordan are living together in one confederation, the Palestinians will raise the issue of their rights whether in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or in the part of the confederation which is Israel. We cannot be part of a confederation whereby one of its components has rights and legalities and the other component is denied them and is discriminated against. The Palestinians will ask - in vain - for equal rights and unified legal standards to be applied for everybody. For example, the Palestinians will be asking for their rights in West Jerusalem as well as in East Jerusalem, in Haifa or in Jenin. The idea of an independent Palestinian state is the only solution that will prevent the parties from getting bogged down in these thorny issues, assuring a historical compromise, without which the Palestinians will keep having the right to claim what they lost in 1948.

You mean these problems are best tackled when all parties are independent and cooperating together.
Exactly. We have to settle the historical problems by a compromise which is based on the borders of 1967, guaranteeing each people the right to self-determination and independence in parts of Palestine, and then we can talk about mutual relations. Otherwise, if we talk about confederation before solving the historical aspects of the conflict - like what happened in 1948, the rights of the Palestinians in that part of Palestine, the rights of the refugees, etc. - then we will be left with these thorny issues like future time bombs. That is why, the right way to approach future relations is first to agree on a historical compromise, reconciliation, based on dividing the land into a two-state solution; later it will become much safer to talk about future relations, including the possibility of a trilateral confederation.

On the economic level, many people see advantages in such a set-up. However, the Israeli economy is infinitely stronger than the Palestinian and Jordanian ones combined. On such a basis, will it be inevitable that the stronger swallow the weaker? Will this be the position for years to come?
That depends on the terms for such a confederation, and depends on when it is going to take place and how. If we get into that subject before independence and before a certain level of development in the Palestinian economy, yes, I think it is going to be totally at the expense of the Palestinian economy, and Israel will be the dominant party. It would then use this trilateral arrangement in order to facilitate the regional Israeli-Arab relations on the economic level. This will put Israel in a more advantageous position, regionally and internationally. That's why in other examples in history, when states aim at moving towards each other in such confederations, they first take steps that would reduce the inequality among them, especially on the economic level. So we have a long road of developing the Palestinian and the Jordanian economies towards bringing them nearer to the level of the Israeli economy if this confederation is to be successful. This is one of the lessons that one can draw, for example, from the efforts in Europe towards creating the European Union. Even among the Arab states, the failure of attempts to unify or confederate, or to develop relations between neighboring Arab states, is related to the fact that the relevant countries did not tackle their inequality on the economic level before approaching political relations.

How realistic is it to expect reciprocity in such a set-up, especially on the part of Israel, on such issues as open borders, labor mobility, flow of goods, etc.?
I have great doubts that Israeli society, given the Israeli mentality as we know it now, will be willing to open up culturally, socially and economically toward the Arab world. Also, I have doubts if the Arab world will be willing, socially and culturally, to interact in a normal situation and on a confederation level with Israel. I think that there is a serious social and cultural gap in addition to the economic one between the two sides that will make a confederation difficult. We have a long road of reconciliation, normalization, harmonization, between the two cultures, the two societies, the two economies, which might allow us in the future to see whether a confederation is possible or not. But as it appears now, the gaps on all levels tell us that such a project would be undesirable and unrealistic.

On a broader level, one main advantage of a confederation is seen as the enhancement of Palestine's and Jordan's opportunity to "join the league of developed nations," to attain rapid economic growth and to enter global markets. Do you see that happening? Also, Israel is already there; does it stand to gain from such an arrangement?
Well, first of all Israel is not there yet. These are two different things. Israel is more advanced than the Arab states, but it is neither a part of the industrial states, nor even of the other category called the tiger states. Israel still has a long way to go on the road to development and increase per-capita income and other economic indicators to reach this situation.
Also, we have to take into consideration that the Israeli economy is based to a large extent on foreign aid and subsidy. Tens of billions of dollars have been injected into the Israeli economy by both the United States and Germany. I do not recall the exact figures, but I think Germany has injected the Israeli economy with over U.S. $80 billion, and more than that was given by the United States. This is part of the success of the Israeli economy. There are still many structural difficulties within the Israeli economy that have to be tackled before talking of confederation with anybody - with any state, whether it is Jordan or Palestine or any European country.
There are also structural problems within the Jordanian economy, as well as the fact that we do not know the characteristics the Palestinian economy is going to have. That is why, not only from the Arab perspective, but also from the Israeli perspective, talk about confederation between the three sides is premature, except if the idea behind this suggestion has to do with domination rather than confederation. You hear Israelis talking about a Palestinian state. On closer examination, you will find them talking about a quasi-state or what they call "autonomy-plus" or something like this. When they talk about equal relations between the two sides, you look into it and you find they are approaching it from a sort of discriminatory standpoint, and what they have in mind might be some kind of Israeli domination within this trilateral arrangement. A real and genuine confederation has the following requirements:
* There has to be an independent Palestinian state.
* It has to be a viable state, i.e., it has to include all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and to be fully sovereign.
* The Palestinian state and Jordan have to go a long way in developing their economies in order to somewhat bridge the economic gap with the third side.
* Steps towards harmonizing the economic systems in the three communities have to be taken and this is a long process.
* We also have a long way to go in education and normalization so as to allow the society and the culture, in addition to the economy, in the three areas to coexist in a confederation.

Actually, this is my next question. How important is the existence of commonalities between the constituents of a confederation for that confederation to work a) on the level of foreign policy, common goals, etc.; and b) on the level of cultural compatibility, harmony, and the acceptance of the other?
Cultural compatibility more than harmony. The culture on each side should be able to accept that of the other components. This is not the situation now. The Jordanians and the Palestinians are unable now, culturally, to accept Israel. I think the same goes for Israel, but this is not very transparent on the surface. In general, some of these aspects that you refer to are necessary prerequisites for a successful project like this, and others might not be. For example, the different states can have an independent foreign policy. This is possible because there is not one model of confederation; there are different models, but there are minimal requirements that are necessary in any kind of confederation: a harmonized economic system, the same pricing system, the same taxation system, the same currency, or at least the same banking system and regulations that will allow free movement of capital, goods and persons. Because these factors of production are necessary components on any level, a very complicated and long-term restructuring process will be needed in the three components of the confederation. This process should move gradually towards a certain end and it will be prolonged, but it cannot be planned for before winning independence for Palestine.

What you are saying is that, in this case, there is a danger for Palestine to dissolve itself even before having achieved independence.
That is right. This solution might be at the expense of the Palestinian component, not only economically, but also politically. This might be a way to escape the obligations of giving up occupation, of giving us rights, of removing parts of the injustice inflicted on the Palestinian people as a result of the previous stages of the conflict. The Palestinians have no interest in dealing with this issue before reaching a solution with Israel that will ensure ending the Israeli occupation and solving the refugee problem in a fair way, based on international legitimacy. One cannot avoid issues that are demanding a solution now, and a confederation can only exacerbate them.