Commentary Magazine

The Federation Plan

Although the world and the new Obama administration continue to pin their hopes on it, a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would involve the removal of all Jewish settlements from a Palestine established along Israel’s 1967 borders with Jordan has no chance of coming to pass. If it was not achievable in the fifteen years since the signing of the 1993 Oslo Agreement, it is not achievable now. The facts speak for themselves:
Fact. In 1993, excluding Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, there were some 100,000 Jewish inhabitants, or “settlers” as they are called, in the West Bank. In 2009 there are 300,000 (plus 200,000 more Jews living across the pre-1967 line in Jerusalem) and their numbers are increasing by close to 5 percent a year, faster than anywhere else in Israel.
Fact. From 1993 to 2004, the Palestinian Authority was headed by Yasser Arafat and his Fatah, which exercised relatively firm control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and was formally obligated, despite its tactical resort to terror, to a political settlement based on recognition of Israel. In 2009 Gaza is in the hands of Hamas, which is ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction and threatens Fatah’s shaky rule in the West Bank, too.
Fact. Although for more than half of the post-Oslo period (1992-96, 98-00, and 06-09) Israel had Left or Center-Left governments that were prepared to make great concessions in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, thousands of hours of negotiations were unable to resolve a single one of the major issues—Israeli-Palestinian borders, the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements—that separated the two sides. Now, Israel’s February elections have brought to power a Right-leaning government that has no faith in such an agreement and will concede less for it.


There will be no negotiated two-state settlement in the years ahead.
And yet neither can Israel cut the Gordian knot by withdrawing to a unilaterally determined border such as the West Bank security fence it has built. The dress rehearsal for such a withdrawal, conducted in the Gaza Strip in 2005 by the government of Ariel Sharon, has proved to be a failure. The forcible evacuation of Gaza’s 8,000 settlers proved to be for Israel so emotionally traumatic, let alone financially costly, that a similar transfer of the ten times as many Jews currently living beyond the security fence has been made unthinkable—all the more so because Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip soon afterward and began shelling Israeli towns and villages from it. Not even unilateral disengagement’s greatest partisans are willing to contemplate a like scenario in the West Bank.

Of course, Barack Obama believes in principle in negotiating conflicts in a way that George W. Bush never did. Consequently, we can expect to look forward during his years in the presidency to an expenditure of diplomatic effort in the Middle East matched only by the paucity of its results. The usual emissaries will come and go; policy speeches will be delivered; international conferences will be convened; diplomatic pressures will be applied—and still no Israeli-Palestinian agreement will be reached. For this, Israel and the Palestinians will both be blamed, although the real onus will lie more with the international community for continuing to back the wrong solution. Meanwhile, Hamas will like as not grow stronger; its principal backer, Iran, will probably acquire nuclear weapons; and the number of settlers in the West Bank will swell by another 50,000 to 100,000, many on the far side of the security fence. In an uncertain world, this is about as certain as one can get.


Vis-à-vis the Palestinians, Israel will have to maneuver through the coming years as skillfully as possible, negotiating limited agreements when it can, resisting pressures when it must, and combating terror while cooperating with Palestinian leaders and institutions that renounce it. This will not be easy. Israel cannot work with a Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that forms a partnership, in the name of Palestinian unity, with Hamas—yet in the absence of a Palestinian state or significant progress toward one, Fatah will either have to harden its line and draw closer to Hamas or run the risk of being overthrown by it. In either case, Israel will face the prospect of another wave of Palestinian terror aimed at extracting by force what could not be gained by negotiations.

Israel can win the next round against terror just as it won the last one that began with the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. But the price for such a victory will be similar, too: lost Israeli lives, harsh repressive measures against the Palestinian population, renewed restrictions on its freedoms, a further deterioration in Israel’s already tarnished image, and the threat of international isolation. Nor can one rest assured that, this time, the United States will stand by Israel’s side. Whatever President Obama’s Middle East policies turn out to be, the Bush years will not come again. Israel will have to fight harder than ever to maintain its position in Washington and in American public opinion.

It will also have to contend with the demand, so far limited to extreme anti-Israel circles, that if it cannot relinquish the occupied territories, it transform itself into a “one-man-one-vote” state à la post-apartheid South Africa. As long as the illusion of an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty has been sustainable, this demand has gained little traction: experience has shown, after all, that bitterly conflicted populations do not become less so when forced to live together under one roof. Yet an indefinite prolongation of the status quo is hardly an acceptable alternative in the eyes of the world. Nor should it be for Israel—unless, that is, there is some merit in gradually turning into a pariah state within whose unrecognized borders lives a large, hostile minority deprived of equal rights. Since the 1967 war, Israel has been able to live with itself and the international community only by insisting that its rule over the Palestinians was impermanent. Over forty years of impermanence, however, are pushing things to the limit.

The fact of the matter is that almost no Israeli government since 1967 has been able to formulate a precise vision of what permanence west of the Jordan River should look like. Torn by conflicting views and forces in Israeli society and by the fear of aggravating them to the breaking point, Israel’s leaders have generally decided not to decide rather than adopt a clear goal and work toward it. Even the rashly miscalculated Oslo Declaration of Principles, the boldest of all Israel’s post-1967 initiatives, was left deliberately vague in its details, the shaping of which was postponed in the hope that things would meanwhile work out on the ground.

Yet when one party to a dispute has no coherent notion of what it wants while the other is perfectly clear about it, things rarely work out to the first party’s benefit. The history of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians since 1967 has been more one of seeking to thwart the strategies of others than of following a strategy of one’s own, with the result that Israel has been progressively pushed into a corner from which there is at present no way out.

Because there is none, the new Israeli government under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu will be relieved of the burden of coming up with one. This is convenient for it and will enable it to function without undue friction between its coalition partners while seeking to concentrate on the domestic aspects of the global economic crisis. Yet the more the Palestinian issue is allowed to drift, the more it will do so in the direction of the bi-nationalism that would inevitably lead to chaos, civil war, and Israel’s demise as a Jewish state, “Where there is no vision, a people becomes unruly,” says the Book of Ecclesiastes, and if Israelis are not to despair of their country today, they must be offered at least a glimpse of a less gloomy tomorrow.


Permit me to backtrack.

In the January 1975 issue of Commentary there appeared two articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One, titled “The Palestinians and the PLO,” was written by the eminent Arabist Bernard Lewis. In his concluding paragraph, he stated:

Meanwhile, with the expulsion [by the 1967 war] of the Arab states from the soil of Palestine and the decline in pan-Arab commitment, the problem has returned to where it began. Sooner or later, a solution must be found, which will provide a home for the Palestinian refugees and an outlet for the Palestinian political elite. Both are needed. They may be achieved either by the destruction of Israel, or in a state, however named, that is willing to live in peace with her. As long as there is neither the power for the one, nor the will for the other, there can be no end, and the Arab-Israel problem will continue to plague the Arabs, the Jews, and the world.

As indeed it has done.

The second article was by me. Called “Driving Toward Jerusalem,” it put forth an idiosyncratic proposal. (In those days, the plan favored by Israel’s Labor-led government was the now defunct “Jordanian option,” whereby King Hussein would cede Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank in return for getting back most of it with the added bonus of the Gaza Strip and its outlet to the Mediterranean.) This proposal was for an Israeli-Palestinian federation that would include a withdrawal by Israel to its 1967 borders; the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in which Jews would be allowed to live while remaining Israeli citizens; the extension of the same privilege on a basis of parity to Palestinian citizens in Israel; and open frontiers between the two states. All this was envisioned in a dialogue that I held with myself while on a car trip through the West Bank, toward the end of which I remarked: “So we’re back to the old bi-national state idea of the [19]30s!” And replied:

“Not at all. The idea of a bi-national state was unworkable because it was based on the utopian expectation that Jews and Arabs could share one sovereignty and one set of political institutions. Now we’re talking about two distinct sovereignties, each of which will have to make certain inviolable commitments to the citizens of the other. In other words, two peoples in two states . . . ”
“But still one land?”

I wrote these words when you could drive all the way from Jenin, at the West Bank’s northern end, to Ramallah, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, without seeing a single cluster of the red-tiled roofs that today signal the presence of Jewish settlements everywhere. At the time, there probably weren’t 5,000 Jewish settlers in the entire area. It would not have taken even the week that it took in Gaza in 2005 to round them up and bus them back across the 1967 border.

It was not, then, the difficulty of doing this that motivated me to think of a way in which Jewish settlements and a Palestinian state could be compatible. It was the wish to grant Palestinians the independence that was due them and Jews their historical right to live anywhere in the Land of Israel. The land had always been one; had been divided in 1948-49; had been joined together again in 1967; and should, so I thought (as did the Jewish nationalists who wished to annex the West Bank and Gaza to Israel and the Palestinians who sought to rebuild their dream of Palestine “from the Jordan to the sea” on Israel’s ruins), remain that way.

Since my proposal was made somewhat whimsically from behind a steering wheel, I did not overly concern myself with its defects. There were certainly many of them. The same borders that would be wide open to ordinary travel and commerce could also be crossed by terror; trading the right of Jews to live in the state of Palestine for the right of Palestinians to live in the state of Israel could lead to Israel’s being flooded by Palestinian refugees and workers looking for jobs and opportunities in an economically more advanced Jewish state; the Jewish settlers would be dependent on the ability of a Palestinian government to protect them against Palestinians unreconciled to their presence, etc., etc. The whole concept, I had to admit, seemed hardly less utopian than the bi-national state it was meant to be an improvement on.

For a long while, though, while the settlements grew by leaps and bounds, I continued to believe in it. I wasn’t alone; there were others with similar views. These did not, however, gain the slightest political currency. Once I mentioned the idea to a friend who was serving at the time on Israel’s National Security Council. Bemused, he said he would bring it up, out of sheer curiosity, at one of the council’s meetings. The next time I ran into him, he surprised me by telling me he had done so. “Loud laughter,” he answered when I asked what the reaction had been.

Which was understandable. By then the Palestinian terror offensive launched in September 2000 after the failure of the Barak-Arafat-Clinton summit at Camp David was at its height. Although as late as June 2002 I published an article in Commentary called “Why the Settlements Should Stay” (in a Palestinian state), I was beginning to wobble. Escalating Palestinian violence, the growing fury of Israel’s response to it, and the mounting rage on both sides had made maximal separation of the two peoples seem the only sensible course. It would be a sad one, however. The article ended:

One thing should be clear. A West Bank without Jews means a Palestine and Israel without a normal relationship. If this is what it comes to, Israel will have to ask many or most of the settlers to pack their bags and will then withdraw to a defensive line of its own choosing, which will not be that of 1967 and will not meet Palestinian demands. After that, the fences will go up. They will not make good neighbors.

Indeed the fences were quite literally going up already. Reluctantly, I became a convert to unilateral disengagement and argued for it, again in these pages, even after the 2005 evacuation of Gaza. In the elections of February 2006, I voted for Kadima and Ehud Olmert because of it. Today, however, it is a dead letter.


And so I find myself driving to Jerusalem again. The idea expounded in that essay is no longer so laughable, not because it has become any less utopian, but because every other idea for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become even more so.

I have never been more than cautiously optimistic about Israel’s survival. There have always been too many threats to it to justify a more perfect faith. Yet the threats I fear most today are not an Iranian bomb or Arab military might, as worrisome as these things are. They are, on the one hand, the threat of an Israel torn apart and de-legitimized by an Obama-imposed peace settlement that it cannot live up to, and on the other hand, the threat of creeping bi-nationalism.

The settlers are not going to be moved—not those on the “Israeli” side of the West Bank security fence and not those on its “Palestinian” side. The 2005 evacuation from Gaza, taken by some to be the settlement movement’s greatest defeat, has turned out to be its greatest triumph. Its trauma has ruled out any repetition of it in the West Bank. The settlers there are simply too many, and Israeli society has neither the will nor the conviction to turn large numbers of them out of their homes. It makes no difference how much international pressure is brought to bear on Israel to do this. No nation can be pressured into doing what it is incapable of.

If the two-state solution means expelling the Palestinian state’s Jewish inhabitants, it is a dead letter then, too. And yet why must it mean that? The state of Israel, within its 1967 borders, has over a million Arabs in it. Why should the state of Palestine not have hundreds of thousands of Jews? Why should not both the Jews of Palestine and the Arabs of Israel be allowed to choose which state they prefer to be citizens of?

Because neither side is at the moment remotely prepared to consider such a solution? But its needing time is one of its strengths. It would keep open the window of opportunity for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that we are constantly being warned is about to slam shut. For years now, we have been told that the growth of the West Bank settlements will soon scuttle all prospects for peace. If the settlements are not curbed, stopped, frozen—now, this minute, at once—it will be too late for a Palestinian state and all will be lost.

But it will be too late only for a Palestinian state that has no Jews in it. Why this is the only kind of Palestinian state that the Palestinians, the world, and a succession of Israeli governments have been able to imagine is a question that calls for some reflection. Certainly, the settlers’ own attitudes have had something to do with it. They, too, will have to revise their mind-set. They have repeatedly proclaimed their allegiance to the Land of Israel. If it is as great as they say it is, it can be fulfilled in the state of Palestine, too.

There is thus no need to freeze the settlements, which the new Netanyahu government does not have the political ability to do, except insofar as they threaten to expand further onto land that the Palestinians may require for their future needs. The Netanyahu government can allow settlement activity to continue and put Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the back burner, which is where they now belong, while at the same time declaring its acceptance of the principle of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with Arab Jerusalem as its capital. It can only do so in good conscience, however, if it is prepared to rethink the entire question of settlement and sovereignty west of the Jordan.

This task is urgent. Although it took half a century to establish the European Union, the public discussion of it that began when the flames of World War II were barely extinguished changed intellectual perspectives and paved the way for once unimaginable political developments. Israel is right to refuse to be rushed and Benjamin Netanyahu’s stated intention of concentrating first on the Palestinians’ economic betterment is not unreasonable; yet half a century does not stand at anyone’s disposal in the Middle East and a comprehensive vision of a decent and attractive future for Israelis and Palestinians alike must be laid out now. A bi-national state that will not work and an Israeli-Palestinian federation that might work are the only two options left.


About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.

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