The idea of building an Israeli-Palestinian confederation as a framework for resolving the conflict has a natural appeal today, even among the traditional two-state camp on both sides of the Atlantic. It should therefore come as no surprise that J Street, the prominent pro-two-state lobby, spotlighted such proposals at its annual conference this past month.
Confederation represents an attempt to reconcile the contradictory impulses that inform support for both two-state and democratic one-state proposals, and shows an earnest effort to introduce new ideas in a policy arena too often characterized by stale thinking.
That, however, does not necessarily make it the best option to follow.
It is certainly easy to view the two-state solution as passé. The possibility of formal annexation of the occupied West Bank, the Israeli government’s ongoing process of creeping annexation through settlement expansion and other policy means, combined with a divided, opaque, and authoritarian Palestinian leadership, all coincide to make the idea of partition appear ever more distant.
There are several permutations of the confederation idea, but generally speaking, confederal models envisage two states, Israel and Palestine, sharing supranational governing institutions and enabling freedom of movement along the lines of the European Union and the Schengen Area. Permeable borders and a liberal residency regime would mean West Bank settlements remain in place while Palestinians would be able to live as non-citizen residents inside Israel proper.
Confederation is posited as a response to the status quo, one that obviates the need to address many of the key problems with conventional two-state frameworks: settlements and settlers seemingly too numerous to evacuate, the division of Jerusalem, and the rights of Palestinian refugees.
Yet in sidestepping these problems, confederation proponents must also acknowledge the new and serious complications that would arise from this model.
Little awareness, little incentive
The first issue is awareness and acceptance. While the two-state solution does not enjoy the same popularity today that it did 10 years ago, Israelis and Palestinians generally understand the concept even though their vision for precise parameters may vary. For all the fanfare from policy wonks in Washington and Tel Aviv, the same cannot be said for confederation.
A 2021 RAND Corporation study, which surveyed focus groups from Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, reported relatively low rates of acceptance of this formula coupled with high rates of uncertainty. If confederation is to have any kind of success, then it cannot simply be an idea that exists in academic circles or in the West. This is also to say nothing of the difficulties that might arise when it comes to implementation.
The second issue is buy-in. On the Israeli side, the biggest obstacle stems from security. For a country consumed by concerns over physical safety, confederation, with its porous borders, seems like a poor fit. Israel currently maintains a network of barriers and checkpoints in and around the West Bank, as well as a barrier enveloping the Gaza Strip. While a two-state outcome would mean removing many of the most intrusive elements of Israel’s presence and withdrawing to the other side of the fence, Israelis would still retain firm control over what and who comes in and out of the country. This is in keeping with the manner in which Israel protects its frontiers with Egypt and Jordan, decades after signing peace treaties with those countries.
Given Israeli reluctance to even accept an American or international force in the West Bank under previous peace plans, it seems highly unlikely that it would share control over its external borders with the Palestinians, as some confederation proposals recommend.
Likewise, there is arguably little incentive for Palestinians to accept such a framework either, especially when Palestine is liable to wind up as the junior partner in a confederal arrangement. This unequal power dynamic that already exists may be brought into sharper relief under confederation in the realms of economics, security, and politics. Keeping Israeli settlers inside an independent Palestine — many of whom are ideologically opposed to Palestinian statehood, and some who have pursued violence to this end — poses a clear problem. The settlers’ continued presence could cause many Palestinians to fear for their own physical safety, and it remains unlikely that the settlements’ legitimacy would be accepted by the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the sharing of a security apparatus means that while some aspects of the occupation may be lifted, Palestinians will not feel as though they are truly sovereign. As we outlined in our 2020 study for Israel Policy Forum on potential outcomes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sharp income disparity between Israel and Palestine would present a challenge for a confederal model, with the potential for poorer Palestinian areas to decline following confederation.
As a comparative example, the former East Germany experienced economic neglect and a human exodus following reunification with the more affluent West in 1990 (in Germany’s case, the income gap was only a few thousand dollars, as opposed to the roughly thirty-fold difference separating Israelis and Palestinians). As one Palestinian respondent from East Jerusalem told RAND: “Under the confederacy Israel will keep all its power. We will continue being the weak side.”
The third issue is the institutional challenges. Some of the most prominent confederation proposals, such as A Land for All, call for shared governing structures in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian assembly or a joint human rights court. For all of the justified concern over authoritarian backsliding, Israel’s system within the Green Line is considerably more democratic than the Palestinian Authority’s single-party dictatorship. Barring regime change that unseats Fatah — not to mention a resolution to the West Bank-Gaza split — it is hard to see how a democratic state and a non-democratic state would exist together in this kind of supranational framework.
This adds another hurdle to peacemaking as Israelis and Palestinians must now be concerned with the other’s system of government, something that was never relevant in agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, or even the PLO.
Even more ambitious
For all these pitfalls, Israelis and Palestinians living in such close proximity will always need to find ways to live together, even if they are citizens of two independent states. While confederation has come to the fore in recent years, joint institutions figured prominently in UN Resolution 181 of 1947, which expounded a plan for an economic union between Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. Previous proposals have also called for cooperation in areas ranging from public health and even security.
Some proponents of confederation are explicit in their contention that their proposal is a way to reenergize the drive toward two states. There is potential here, as it is important that supporters of Israeli-Palestinian peace in Washington and a marginalized peace camp in Israel not fracture while the right-wing remains united behind the goal of entrenching a Greater Israel. That also means prioritizing what can be done now, both in Washington and on the ground in the Middle East, to improve livelihoods and protect the rights of Palestinians and Israelis.
There are others who see confederation as something more distinct, a foil to the crude separation that is commonly associated with a two-state solution. If the standard for policymaking is realism, then it is fair to critique the present viability of two states, as well as more utopian one-state designs. But confederation, in many respects, is even more ambitious than both of these ideas, and absent more clear-eyed assessment, it risks failing along the same standard.