Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q: Yossi Beilin and Hiba Husseini, veteran Israeli and Palestinian peace activists, together with a team of experts, have devised an Israeli-Palestinian confederation plan. Is it viable? A breakthrough? A significant contribution to peacemaking?
A: Let’s first describe the plan, known by the initials HLC (Holy Land Confederation), then note where it is innovative and where there are drawbacks, then assess its relevancy in both the short and long terms.
Q: Perhaps you can start by explaining how this confederation plan differs from the by-now familiar two-state solution plans laid out in the Geneva accords and the Clinton plan.
A: According to the guiding concept of HLC, Israel and the PLO will first agree on the creation of a Palestinian state, based on the Geneva Accords plan for minimal territorial swaps across the pre-1967 green line armistice line. Israel will annex settlements just across the green line in the West Bank and will transfer to the Palestinian state equivalent territory from the Israeli side of the green line. A corridor will attach the West Bank to Gaza. Jerusalem will redivide into two capitals, with an inter-religious council governing the Old City.
Once this relatively minimal two-state formula has been agreed, the two countries will enter into a confederation whose main purpose is to ease and facilitate agreement on all other issues. First and foremost, the two countries will agree that Israeli settlers in those parts of the West Bank not annexed to Israel--a number estimated by the plan at about 200,000--can if they desire remain in place, as Israeli citizens in Palestinian territory. Israel will in return absorb an equivalent number of Palestinians as expatriates on its territory. This scheme, it is hoped, will defuse the potential of the settlers to derail the two-state solution. The Palestinian state will be free to absorb any number of Palestinian refugees.
The plan provides for additional confederal arrangements, reminiscent of those agreed in abortive past two-state negotiations concerning joint economic development, security and the like. The all-important joint security regime provides for an international force that includes Israeli units deployed along Palestine’s borders with Jordan and Egypt, closed internal borders, a mutual veto regarding alliances, and early-warning facilities on West Bank hilltops.
After four years of confederal coexistence, either party will be able to initiate the dissolution of the HLC, leaving the original two separate states. What will remain of the confederal arrangements, including security and the West Bank settlements, would have to be mutually agreed.
To sum up, the main difference between the HLC and the ‘classic’ two-state solution along the lines of Geneva and the similar Clinton parameters is the introduction of a confederative framework which, it is argued, will facilitate resolution of difficult issues like settlements and security. But in order to form a confederation of two states, first they have to come into existence through at least a bare-bones two-state solution.
Q: Yet, nearly 30 years after the Oslo Accords, the sides have proven incapable of reaching any sort of two-state solution.
A: Indeed, and this positions the HLC very much in the realm of aspirational long-term planning. Note that the current government of Israel, its predecessor and any likely successor all reflect the political dominance in Israel of a right-religious mainstream that by-and-large rejects a two-state solution, not to mention a confederation.
In parallel, on the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority and PLO, both under the leadership of the aging and unpopular Mahmoud Abbas, in principle support a negotiated two-state solution. But the PA/PLO do not control the Gaza Strip (where Hamas opposes a two-state solution) and do not appear to have a popular mandate. In the eyes of even moderate Israelis, Palestinian governance as constituted currently under Abbas can hardly support genuine two-state negotiations.
Q: Could the advent of this plan, which is currently being presented to the international community, perhaps inspire more confidence in a two-state solution?
A: Yossi Beilin and Hiba Husseini are highly credible veterans of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. They should be listened to.
Perhaps, if the Biden administration and the European Union decide to take a pro-active role regarding the Palestinian issue, the HLC could prove useful by radically simplifying the agenda for two-state negotiations as a short-term measure. Unfortunately, the HLC has arrived at a time when the US and EU are preoccupied with the fate of Ukraine and, beyond Ukraine, the fate of Europe and the post-Cold War international system.
So Russia for the time being may not be available to collaborate on an international effort to pressure Israel to renew Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Then too, after Ukraine the Biden administration intends to concentrate on China. Heavy Middle East involvement will probably be confined to the Iran nuclear issue (where the US, Russia and China do collaborate, which is encouraging) and to shepherding an Israel-Lebanon deal to delineate maritime gas drilling boundaries in order to rescue the Lebanese economy.
In short, right now nobody is listening. Both the Middle Eastern and the international stars are not likely to align in the near future in any way that might put the HLC on the agenda.
Q: Where else do you see problems and drawbacks specific to the HLC proposal?
A: First, the HLC is a confederation. As the plan itself acknowledges in a brief historical review, throughout recent centuries confederations have never lasted long. Wisely, then, Beilin and Husseini recognize that this confederation, too, should be prepared to go out of business once, hopefully, it has made a contribution to a more lasting resolution. Yet they do not address the question of what would happen to relations between the two states following the dissolution of the HLC, which could be acrimonious. Nor, for that matter, do they convincingly explain why a confederation will be more efficient at solving problems like settlements and security.
But there is a more dangerous drawback to the HLC. There may be no alternative, in terms of Israeli politics, to leaving 200,000 settlers inside a Palestinian state. But this feature of the HLC is a near certain time-bomb threatening the viability of any two-state solution.
These settlers, deep in the West Bank heartland, are the most extreme messianic-fanatic Israelis around. Backed by many on the Israeli messianic right, they will do anything to sabotage a solution that does not include within sovereign Israel the land their settlements lie on. They will attack Palestinians provocatively. Further, Palestinians who have long suffered from the settlers could conceivably attack them unprovoked, harass them, settle masses of refugees from Lebanon next to settlements, etc. The beleaguered settlers will call for the IDF to reenter the new Palestinian state to rescue them from a new ‘Holocaust’, thereby risking armed Israeli-Palestinian clashes that could bring down the entire fragile two-state structure.
Then, too, the 200,000 Palestinians admitted into Israel in order to ‘balance’ the settlers are likely to view this act as Israeli acceptance of Palestinian refugee ‘return’. Since under confederation the Israel-Palestine border will have to be soft and flexible enough to allow for joint economic and other ventures, more Palestinians may see this as an opportunity to try to ‘return’ to villages and towns their forefathers abandoned in 1948. Ventures of this nature could provoke a lot of strife and violence between Palestinians and Israelis inside Israel. The power of the ‘right of return’ narrative is, I fear, underestimated in the HLC plan.
Q: You were involved in Israeli-Palestinian peace and dialogue initiatives for decades. What is your bottom-line assessment on this one?
A: About 15 years ago, I launched an initiative under which Israel and the PLO would negotiate a two-state solution based solely on agreed borders and the removal of all settlers not included within Israel’s post-agreement borders. By at least partially ‘leveling the playing field’, security, Jerusalem, and refugees could then be negotiated between two sovereign states rather than between one established state, Israel, and a national liberation movement, the PLO, and chances of success would improve. Even if these negotiations were to fail or drag out, we still would have the rudiments of a two-state solution.
I found little sympathy for the idea in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In the halls of power in London, Paris, Berlin and Oslo, I found encouragement. A senior Russian policy-maker claimed that Moscow long ago proposed the idea. All the high officials I talked to ended up by saying, “you have to convince the Americans”. But in Washington, policymakers remained loyal to the all-or-nothing concept--nothing is agreed until everything is agreed--that has informed (and sabotaged) every American peace plan.
So I am sympathetic to the Beilin-Husseini idea of an HLC, which is somewhat similar. Its insistence on leaving 200,000 fanatic settlers inside Palestine, however potentially disastrous, is understandable in view of political realities. Its provision to redivide Jerusalem into two separate capitals in the initial, two-state stage, seems to me an unnecessary complication; best to leave Jerusalem for resolution in the confederation stage.
The HLC’s recognition of the place of confederation in the greater scheme of things--following creation of a Palestinian state yet conceivably dispensable after serving to solve weighty issues--is very smart.
Q: Bottom-bottom line?
A: Meanwhile, back in the Holy Land, the Holy Land Confederation is being broadly ignored by the local media. In Shaykh Jarrah, in the settlement outposts and in the Knesset, we are still slipping down the slippery slope toward a violent, conflicted one-state reality.