As the prospects for an Oslo-style two-state outcome stagnate, if not grow dimmer, year after year, some of the energy around two states has migrated toward the idea of a confederation between Israel and Palestine. Different proposals for confederation have been advanced with the support of former politicians and respected analysts, and the idea was front and center this week at J Street’s virtual conference. But also front and center this week was news from Israel demonstrating some of the main obstacles to confederation, which should serve not to discredit confederation as an idea but to highlight why the elements that make confederation theoretically appealing still contain a large gap with the situation as it currently exists.
The appeal of confederation is primarily two-fold. First, it is a vision of inclusion and coexistence that is brighter and more optimistic than the vision of separation that is the foundation of two states. It recognizes that Israelis and Palestinians share the land, that both have rights in it, and that learning to live together and acknowledge the other’s narrative and claims is the best way to ensure a peaceful future for both sides. It rests on cooperation and a hopeful view of human nature, rather than the divorce metaphor so often employed when people discuss two states. It also meets the current moment in liberal and progressive circles–the same circles that have historically supported a two-state outcome–in that it frowns on an absolutist nationalism and adopts a more rights-based approach, in which nationalism is acknowledged but in a way that does not limit the freedoms that Israelis and Palestinians would have with regard to movement and residency that a traditional two-state outcome would necessarily circumscribe.
Second, confederation is a way around some of the thorniest problems that a two-state solution must face. Polling indicates that the primary reason why a majority of Palestinians believe that a Palestinian state is no longer possible is because of settlements and their expansion–in terms of the number of Israelis living beyond the Green Line, the expansion of settlements’ footprints, the increase in illegal outposts, and the campaign to retroactively legalize those outposts. The Israeli government’s push to annex part of the West Bank, with the boost from the Trump plan that envisioned Israel unilaterally annexing 30% of the territory in one fell swoop, did nothing to convince anyone that a two-state outcome remains viable despite the Trump plan’s adoption of two-state language. But where the Trump plan had the most impact in this conviction that settlements are now an insurmountable barrier to two states is in its acceptance that no existing settlement, no matter how small or isolated, would ever have to be vacated, and the corresponding repeated public insistence on this principle by Prime Minister Netanyahu. If you have come to the conclusion that we are past the point of no return on settlements being an impediment to a contiguous and viable Palestinian state, then confederation solves this problem as no settlement needs to be evacuated and no Israelis need to move, as borders are porous and allow complete freedom of movement and residency for everyone. The same logic applies to Palestinian refugees and the right of return, as Palestinians outside of the West Bank and Gaza can come back and live anywhere without becoming citizens of Israel and ending the concept and practice of a Jewish state. Confederation takes the hardest dilemmas facing a two-state outcome and erases them.
There is no mystery why confederation is becoming more popular in elite discourse, despite the fact that it comes with its own massive obstacles to being implemented as comprehensively detailed by my colleagues Shira Efron and Evan Gottesman last year. Nevertheless, events taking place on the ground in recent days as confederation has been debated far from the center of gravity provide a glimpse into how confederation is more a matter of picking your preferred obstacles to gloss over rather than eliminating them. While it is nearly impossible to imagine Israel agreeing to withdraw from any part of the West Bank given the current state of Israeli politics, imagining a level of coexistence necessary to make confederation work is just as implausible when looking at the direction in which things are moving.
In Jerusalem this week, there have been clashes between Jews and Palestinians that began with East Jerusalem Palestinians attacking Haredi Jews, filming the attacks, and then posting them to TikTok. This led to Jews attacking Palestinians, chanting “Death to Arabs,” and uploading their own video of the reprisals. In Jaffa, there have been days of fighting that were set off by Arab residents beating the rabbi who is the head of the Shirat Moshe yeshiva in the neighborhood as he was looking to buy a building to accommodate the yeshiva’s expansion and the insistence by local Arab residents that “settlers” are not welcome. This week has also had a spate of attacks by Jews on Palestinians in the West Bank involving stone throwing and destruction of property and olive groves, which is not remotely unusual; there were 210 documented incidents of settler attacks on Palestinians in the first three months of this year, which is an uptick from 2020’s rate when there were 771 incidents in total. What is notable about the Jerusalem and Jaffa incidents is that they involve attacks on visibly religious Israeli Jews despite the fact that much of the confederation dialogue is driven by religious groups on both sides who want to use shared religious heritage as a firm basis for greater coexistence, and they are taking place in neighborhoods that are mixed and where the two populations are already used to encountering each other. This is not the equivalent of Palestinians making their way into a settlement or Israelis getting lost in Jenin.
This is not to suggest that coexistence is futile or that it should not be attempted at all costs, or that Israelis and Palestinians are fated to be locked in bloody conflict until the end of time. It is to point out that confederation rests on the idea of two populations being intertwined so as not to have to uproot settlements or restrict the return of refugees, and the evidence that the two populations are prepared for this rather than separating is abidingly slim. While promising examples of coexistence and mutual acceptance exist, far more examples of the opposite abound. Much as supporters of the traditional two-state model have to answer hard questions about how the settlements problem can be overcome, supporters of confederation have to do the same with questions about how two peoples that have been straining against each other for decades can suddenly learn to live together in peace and harmony absent some earth-shattering changes in power structure and mindset.
Anyone pushing the U.S. to move toward supporting confederation also has to guard against the likeliest turn of events, which is that the Israeli government would view this as a green light to exponentially expand Israeli communities inside the West Bank–as after all, settlements in a confederal model would no longer be settlements–without actually ceding ground to a Palestinian government or loosening restrictions for Palestinians inside the territory it controls. How moving toward confederation looks in theory is inevitably going to be different than it looks in practice. There is no question that there are already elements of confederation taking place and that will have to take place even in a traditional two-state model; as Ilan Goldenberg, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and I pointed out in the report issued by the Center for a New American Security, security arrangements are already subject to a confederation model and any solution for Jerusalem will likely involve the same. But much of the discussion around confederation has until now punted on many of the inconvenient facts that make it more complicated in practice, and if confederation becomes a more popular policy option, that will have to change.