Commentators viewing the Israel-Palestine scene seem agreed that the spotlight has settled on the word “confederation”. Despite the wraps that have been wound tightly around the Trump peace deal – “the deal of the century” – the media have come to believe that chief among its provisions is a proposal for a West Bank-Jordan “confederation”.
On September 2, 2018, a delegation from Israel’s Peace Now organization travelled to Ramallah in the West Bank. Their purpose was to discuss with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas prospects for settling the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The statements that follow such meetings rarely contain anything of substance. This was an exception.
The next morning, the Palestinian Information Center, known as Palinfo, published an account of Abbas’s conversation with the Israelis that was replete with surprising, not to say startling, details. The news website reported the exchange in a deadpan factual manner, with no comment.
“During a meeting with an Israeli delegation that visited Ramallah on Sunday,” ran the report, “Abbas said that senior US administration officials, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, asked him recently about his opinion of a ‘confederation with Jordan’. “I said yes to the offer, but I want a three-way confederation with Jordan and Israel,” Abbas said.”
Now when exactly did Abbas speak with the Trump peace plan team, Kushner and Greenblatt? It could only have been some time in 2017 while the plan – “the deal of the century” – was being built brick by painstaking brick. That the plan is virtually complete has been confirmed by Kushner on more than one occasion. Equally clear is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not been briefed on its provisions. Abbas disengaged from all dealings with Washington back in December 2017, when President Donald Trump announced the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his intention of moving the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. He has subsequently declared that the US has disqualified itself as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Leaks are always possible, despite the tightest security. It is just on the cards that the word “confederation” has somehow slipped through the intensive screen of secrecy that the three-man peace team – Kushner, Greenblatt and David Friedman – have erected around the plan. After all, back in June 2018, all three met with UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, in New York to discuss US efforts “to promote peace in the Middle East and to meet humanitarian needs in Gaza.” The outline of the long-awaited plan might well have been disclosed to Guterres, since it took place just before Kushner and Greenblatt embarked on a tour of the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and Israel. Significantly there were no plans to meet with Abbas.
If that one word “confederation” has somehow escaped the security net, it has given rise to a plethora of speculative possibilities, most failing to define what a confederation actually is, or how it differs from a federation. A federation is a political system in which individual states join together under the umbrella of a central authority; a confederation is a form of government in which constituent states maintain their independence while amalgamating certain aspects of administration, such as security, commerce, or infrastructure. In a confederation emphasis is laid on the independence of the constituent states; in a federation the stress is on the supremacy of the central government.
So to describe an amalgam of Jordan and the West Bank as a “confederation”, as some commentators have done, would be a misnomer. In any case the Jordanians immediately rejected the idea of uniting with, or taking over, the West Bank . But Abbas’s response - that he believed in a triangular confederation comprising Jordan, Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine – that is a game changer.
On this he is not wrong. Prowling round the PA stockade is Hamas, ruling over nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, and harrying Abbas for a decade. Hamas rejects the two-state solution because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all and is dedicated to destroying it. Given a new sovereign Palestine, it would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power, just as it did in Gaza. The new state would then become a Gaza-type launching pad for the indiscriminate bombardment of Israel.
This prospect in itself may not concern the PA leadership overmuch, but what does worry them is the likelihood of losing power to Hamas. Like it or not, a new sovereign Palestine would need stronger defences against “the enemy within” than their own resources could provide.
An even more fundamental issue now militates against the classic two-state solution. The PA has painted itself into a corner. Vying with Hamas on the one hand, and extremists within its own Fatah party on the other, it has glorified the so-called “armed struggle”, making heroes of those who undertake terrorist attacks inside Israel, continuously promulgating anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda in the media and in the schools, and reiterating the message that all of Mandate Palestine is Palestinian and the creation of Israel was a national disaster. The end-result of their own narrative is that no Palestinian leader dare sign a peace agreement unilaterally with Israel based on the two-state solution. The consequent backlash from within the Palestinian world, to say nothing of the personal fear of assassination, have made it impossible.
Any viable solution will need to be based on an Arab-wide consensus, within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed, or any subsequent direct action disciplined. Israel’s status within the Arab world has improved immeasurably in recent times, as moderate Arab states begin to perceive Israel as a stalwart ally against Iranian ambitions, both nuclear and political. The Arab League could prove an acceptable broker for a peace deal. Under its shield the PA could participate in hammering out a three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine – a new legal entity that could come into existence simultaneously with a new sovereign Palestine.
A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation would be dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, but also to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could make it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined and formidable defence forces of the confederation.
A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens – this is not only a configuration offering considerable potential advantages to Israel, but it is also the possible answer to achieving a peaceful and thriving Middle East.
Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 September 2018: