Sometimes it may only be possible to solve an impossible problem by proposing an impossible solution.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is a question that by definition appears to have no answer: two peoples, each wanting their own state, on the same small land, which – after some 70 years of diplomatic stalemate – it seems they are not willing to share.

Since moving to Israel some six months ago I’ve made my way through a number of tomes analysing the dispute (there are only a few hundred remaining on my list), read hundreds of commentaries, news reports and blog posts, and been fortunate to be able to hear quite a few viewpoints firsthand, from both Israelis and Palestinians.

Sadly, the voices I tend to find most persuasive are also the most pessimistic: those with a sure grasp of the conflict’s tortured history, capable of imaginative sympathy for each side’s narrative, and unsentimental about their mutual capacity trust and compromise. The best of what I’ve read and heard recognises and presents fairly the issues of existential importance to both sides, issues that any conceivable solution must acknowledge and seek to navigate.

Red lines

The Israelis will quite simply not accept any peace plan they believe may compromise the security or the Jewish character of the State of Israel. Any proposals that might do so would negate the essential objective of the Zionist enterprise, which was to establish a state with a clear Jewish majority providing a secure space in which Jewish identity and culture could be maintained and developed free of the fear of persecution.

And that state must located here, in their historic homelands, the territory between the Mediterrenean Sea and the Jordan River (which for the purposes of neutrality I shall refer to in the course of this post as ‘the land’ or ‘Mandate Palestine’.)

There is a ferocious and ongoing debate within Israel about the possibility of dividing the land in exchange for the prospect of a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Indeed the establishment of the State of Israel was made possible by a pragmatic willingness to settle for only part of it. But there has always been a strong current within Israeli society that has wanted all of it, a current that has gained ascendancy since Israel unexpectedly found itself in possession of the West Bank after the 1967 Six Day War. The half-completed settlement of what conservative Israeli nationalists refer to as ‘Judea and Samaria’ testifies to a strong desire for access to the whole of the land.

Security is also fundamental for the Palestinians, for whom the multiple disasters that have beset them over the past century have left them with an existential dread that their identity is being eroded.

The world’s 11 million Palestinians are dispersed precariously across the occupied territories of the West Bank, the claustrophobic and impoverished Gaza strip, a series of semi-transitional refugee camps, and a thinly spread diaspora. Like the Israelis they also want statehood as an ultimate guarantee of their ability to protect and develop their own culture and modes of government, and to begin the long process of building up the ramshackle Palestinian economy.

And they too want their state to be located here, on this land, the ancestral home of the Palestinian people. Though in recent decades the Palestinians have moved towards the compromise of accepting a partition of the land, it seems just as difficult for them as for the Israelis to give up a desire for access to all of it. The demand for the ‘right of return’ of millions of refugees to villages, towns and cities now within Israeli borders that were lost during the 1948 war, a demand which Israel will never accept on demographic grounds, might be understood as a Palestinian analogue to Israel’s partial settlement of the West Bank: a concrete expression of a pyschological inability to give up the dream of one day gaining access to the whole of the land.

One state?

So, essentially, there are two peoples with two very similar desires: a pragmatic need for the security of statehood, and an aspirational wish for the right to settle anywhere on a land constitutive of their sense of identity. And the only two solutions that seem conceivable can only meet one or the other of those desires.

The more radical of the two, the one state solution, has a strong intuitive appeal, proposing to clear away the mess and reconfigure the component parts of Mandate Palestine – the State of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Gaza and (subject to international approval) the Golan Heights – as a unitary state.

The new nation of ‘Israel-Palestine’ would be a democratic, secular, multicultural state in which everyone – Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, Bedouins, agnostics, atheists, liberals, conservatives – would live side-by-side under the rule of law, content to limit the expression of religious beliefs to the private sphere and to suppress absolutist forms of nationalism.

The one state proposal sounds like simple plain sense to western liberals (like me), applying ‘universalist’ ideals of respect for secular law, parliamentary democracy, equality, tolerance, multiculturalism and a clear separation of ‘church and state’. It takes seriously the mutual desire of Israelis and Palestinians for access to the whole land, promising a way through the interminable disputes over the settlements and the refugees. And – whatever its political merits – it makes sense from a commonsense geographical perspective, making possible a coherent use of the land’s precious natural resources. As even historian Benny Morris – an implacable opponent of the one state solution – acknowledges in One State, Two States:

The division of Palestine into three parts – Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip – … makes little sense in terms of a variety of resources and services: the country’s water resources cannot countenance such an artificial division; the hill-country aquifers in the Galilee-Samaria-Judea highlands necessarily also serve the lowlands below. Nor can a logical sewage system be defined and constructed separately for the West Bank (today, many Palestinian towns and villages, and industries, channel their sewage into the streams that flow downhill, westward, into Israel and the Mediterranean). Haifa and Ashdod are natural ports for the whole of Palestine, and the establishment of a political entity/state in the West Bank without these maritime outlets makes little sense. Indeed, the very shape and smallness of the Land of Israel/Palestine – about fifty miles from east (the Jordan) to west (the Mediterranean) – makes its division into two states a practical nightmare and well nigh unthinkable.

It is understandable, then, that as diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict through the traditional two state solution (discussed below) continue to fail, the elegant simplicity of the one state solution has grown in popularity. Unfortunately the more I learn about the conflict the more I can only regard the single state proposal as a mirage that evaporates when tested against the hard reality of the security concerns it would raise.

To be sure, the ideal of a secular multicultural state has won some support amongst Palestinian and Israeli radicals, who hope that – one day at least – a shared commitment to liberal democratic ideals might transcend nationalist forms of identity.

But that day is a very long way off. Surveys consistently show that the great majority of both Palestinians and Israelis want the ultimate security of nationhood. After a century of bloody conflict and distrust the one state ideal simply asks too much of both sides.

And even if, in despair of the possibility of securing their own state, support for the one state solution grows amongst Palestinians, the idea would be rejected out-of-hand by the Israelis, for whom a unitary state would mean the end of the State of Israel and the Zionist ideal of a secure Jewish homeland. That opposition is reinforced by demographic trends indicating that the Palestinian birth rate is higher than that of the Israelis. Many Israelis interpret nascent Palestinian support for the concept of a single state as motivated less by a desire for democratic and economic equality than by a realisation that once they had obtained a demographic advantage the way would be open to recast ‘Israel-Palestine’ as an exclusivist Islamic state.


Two states?

The one state solution’s inability to address fundamental issues of trust, security and identity would seem to leave us with the mainstream two state solution, the focus of all serious diplomatic efforts to broker an end to the conflict dating back to the report of the 1936 Peel Commission, the first plan to propose partition. Unsentimental proposals to divide the land have a hard-edged plausibility because they prioritise security, proposing two sovereign states with clearly defined borders.

And yet time and again, finely crafted plans for two states devised through years of painstaking negotiations brokered by world leaders, that pay exhaustive attention to every conceivable security concern, have run aground on the stubborn reluctance of either side to compromise on the sharing of the land.

The Peel Commission and UN Partition Plan proposals of the 1930s and 40s were rejected outright by the Palestinians and accepted only on utilitarian grounds by pragmatic Zionist leaders, many of whom – most famously Israel’s First Prime Minister David Ben Gurion – continued to harbour the hope that over time Israel would come to acquire the whole land. Sure enough, when Israel caputured the West Bank in the course of the Six Day War it wasn’t long before even the Labor governments of the early 1970s began to submit to the burning desire of religious nationalists to begin settling the occupied territories.

More recent efforts to agree the terms of partition, the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s and the Camp David summits at the turn of the Millenium, broke down over disagreements over the status of Jerusalem, Israel’s ongoing settlement of the West Bank, and Palestinian instransigence on a full right of return for refugees.

It would seem that the distress a final partition of the land would cause both sides is so great that each is compelled to sabotage successive peace initiatives by persisting to act and speak in ways that make a final resolution impossible. The two state solution holds out the prospect of lasting peace through the mutual recognition of both the Israeli and Palestinian right to sovereignty, but at the expense of a compromise over ownership of the land that in the end is too painful for either to grant.

Parallel states?

If both solutions seem doomed to fail because they can only offer one half of what each side wants – access to the land or security – it might be worth asking if the impossible is indeed impossible: is it conceivable to design a solution that would offer both sides statehood and access to the whole land?

That is the question asked and given a serious answer by one of the most intriguing books I have yet read on the conflict. One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, a collection of essays by academics, diplomats, journalists and novelists edited by Mark LeVine and Mathias Mossberg, suggests that it is possible to open new windows of possibility by reimagining the concept of national sovereignty. If sovereignty can be reconceived as applying first and foremost to a people, rather than a territory, then it becomes possible to imagine that two states might be able to exist in parallel on the same land. Mathias Mossberg, in the opening chapter, summarises the essential proposition of the ‘parallel states solution’ by asking us to contemplate:

[O]ne Israeli state and on Palestinian, both states covering the whole area between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. In such a scenario, military, political, and economic barriers would be lifted, and a joint security and defence policy, a common and equitable economic policy, and joint and harmonised legislation would replace existing divisions. Such a structure would allow both for an independent Palestinian state and for Israel to be both Jewish and democratic at the same time. It would bring an end to the occupation and would permit free movement over the whole area for both peoples, as well as providing a vision for an end of conflict.

So in essence:

  • Everyone living in the territory of Mandate Palestine would be free to choose whether they wished to belong to the State of Israel or the new Palestinian state. In some cases joint citizenship could be arranged.
  • Citizens of both states would be able to live wherever they wanted anywhere on the whole land, though ‘heartlands’ would form around existing areas of Israeli and Palestinian concentration: there would be predominantly Jewish regions along the coastal plains, particularly the area around greater Tel Aviv, and Palestinian regions in the West Bank, the Galilee and Gaza.
  • Each state would have its own executive, legislature and judiciary, would retain its national symbols, would be able to decide upon its own foreign policy and diplomatic representation, and would retain its own defensive capabilities.
  • The bond of loyalty between the state and the citizen would be retained, following Israeli and Palestinian citizens across the land. But the administration of functions related to the land itself would be undertaken by shared institutions. These cooperative functions would include the monitoring of external borders, the development and maintenance of a common infrastructure (roads, communications networks, police and so on), and the development of an economic union and single labour market.

For sure, the disentanglement of the concept of sovereignty from exclusive dominion over a specified territory requires a bold imaginative leap, but several of the book’s contributors argue that the parallel states idea can be understood as a natural development of global trends working to gradually erode the traditional inviolability of the nation state.

Nations are increasingly prepared to pool sovereignty through membership of international institutions and obligations set by trade agreements, immigration treaties and climate change protocols. The European Union is only the most radical example of a powerful supranational entity to which member states have voluntarily ceded layers of sovereignty. Economic power is increasingly concentrated in financial institutions and large corporations that range across national borders. The exponential globalisation of communications networks facilitated by the internet allows like-minded collectives – from environmental activists to terrorist organisations – to form alliances beyond the reach of nation states.

And though there are as yet no contemporary instances of a parallel states structure of the kind proposed in Mossberg and LeVine’s book, there are historical examples of political and legal systems existing side-by-side on common territories. In Medieval Europe church and common law co-existed, alongside legal systems applied by trade guilds and educational institutions. During the Ottoman Era Islamic, Christian and Jewish jurisdictions followed their respective subject throughout the empire.

Indeed parallel jurisdictions still exist in today’s Middle East, including Israel, shari’a and ecclesiastical law and their respective courts working alongside secular law. And an extensive parallel states system governs a significant part of Jerusalem, defined as an open territory, without physical walls and borders, in which distinct laws and regulations apply to different citizens, thereby ensuring cultural and religious sensitivies regarding access to and guardianship of the city’s holy places are respected.

One of the book’s Jewish contributors, Eyal Megged, notes that a de facto parallel states structure – albeit controlled by one side – already exists throughout much of the West Bank. Visiting Nablus he observed:

There were Palestinian villages, pastoral, at one with the natural ancient landscape, and there were the Israeli settlements, bringing with them the Zionist landscape from inside the pre-1967 parts of Israel, with the artificial pine ‘forests’ that surround them. Two cultures in all respects – architecture, way of life, aesthetic values – that exist side by side, sometimes entangled with each other, with no mutual recognition whatever … But this state of affairs is made possible not only by the force of the stronger, not only by the IDF, but also thanks to the goodwill and cooperation of the Palestinian security forces.

The prospect of both land and security

The singular advantage of the parallel states solution is that it is the only proposal that dares to suggest there is a way both the Israelis and the Palestinians can get what they really want if they are prepared to work together to help design a mutually acceptable framework. It holds out the prospect for both sides of the security of statehood and access to the entire land. As Megged writes:

Let’s face it, no one really wants two half-states if there is a way we can both have it all. Neither of us will be whole with half the country – and such important halves! Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, Haifa – permanently removed from our bodies.

And in the words of Palestinian contributor Hiba Husseni:

In short, it allows for a reterritorialisation of a Palestinian identity that has for so long been deterritorialised, but without deterritorialising the Jewish identity that has so long oppressed it.

A parallel states system would allow each nation to imagine a sovereign community over the land without denying the claims of the other. Israelis would have permanent access to the ancient lands of the partriachs – Judea and Samaria, the Jordan Valley, the Dead Sea – and the Palestinians to coastal cities and regions from which so many of them have been shut out for so long. Religious nationalists of both sides would be able to imagine that divine promises regarding the sovereignty of the land have been honoured: for Jews that the covenantal promises have been kept; for Muslims that Palestine is once again part of the Islamic family of nations. And both would be able to make Jerusalem their capital, with access to and guardianship of the holy places so important to their respective identities.

As well as cracking open the possibility of resolving seemingly irreconcilable political, cultural and religious desires for the same land, the shared layers of government that the parallel states solution would necessitate would allow for more efficient use of its natural resources than possible if it were carved up along political lines. Scarce water resources could be managed sensibly, and offshore gas reserves and coastal ports could work for the benefit of both peoples.

The promise of access to the whole land, while maintaining the ultimate safeguard of mutual statehood, also suggests a way forward for the lasting resolution of long standing security concerns.

The opening of access to all of Mandate Palestine would meet the core demand of militants on both sides: Jewish nationalists would have permanent access to Judea and Samaria; the Palestinians – including refugees – to those parts of Israel to which they have been excluded. Resolution of the issues of the occupation and the refugees – and the status of Jerusalem – would facilitate improved relationships with states hosting a large number of refugees – Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – and the wider Islamic world. And the intermingling of peoples integral to the parallel states solution would create a ‘mutual human shield’ that would make it harder for a force hostile to either the Palestinians or the Israelis to target soldiers or civilians of a particular nationality: an attack on the shared territory would be interpreted as a hostile act against both nations.


Design problems

If the parallel states plan has unique advantages, it also, of course, has unique difficulties. Though the notion that two states might share a single territory has historical precedents and contemporary resonances, it would be an unprecedented constitutional innovation fraught with technical complexities.

An acceptable framework would need to be calibrated so as to give each state as much freedom as possible while retaining a delicate web of shared institutions organising issues of joint concern, such as border control, the maintenance of external security, mutually agreed coordination of the movements of each side’s armies, the development of a common infrastructure, the terms of an economic union, the management of a single currency – and so on, and on.

And there is the additional complication that one of the two states is currently under-developed. Israel has a well established political system, a sophisticated public sector, and a highly developed economy powered by one of the world’s leading IT sectors. Palestine has an embryonic political and legal system and a broken, largely rural economy. The fledgling Palestinian state would soon be overwhelmed by its well established neighbour unless there was an intense and sustained commitment to strengthen Palestine’s fragile institutions and economy.

Security, again

But of course the most severe obstacle the parallel states solution would face, like the other plans, is the perennial issue of security.

The opening up of the whole land to citizens of both states would necessitate the removal of all internal walls, fences, checkpoints and road restrictions. Though most people would choose to live in their nation’s respective geographical heartlands, the settlers would be joined by a good many other Israelis in the former West Bank, and many Palestinians – some of them former refugees – would want to settle in what today are predominantly Jewish areas. Despite the presence of a shared police force, and each nation’s maintenance of its own army, the intermingling of peoples a parallel states system would allow would certainly make it easier for militant factions to infiltrate and cause disruption.

There would also be difficulty reaching agreement on the relative strength of the Israeli and Palestinian armies. Given the vast disparity that currently exists between the might of the Israeli military and the weak Palestinian forces, Israel’s relative advantage would have to be at least somewhat reduced to assuage Palestinian fears that their nation would simply be overwhelmed within a parallel states structure.

Though sympathetic to the parallel states concept, two of the book’s Jewish contributors, Nimrod Hurvitz and Dror Zeevi, state flatly that anything approaching military parity between the two sides would be unacceptable to Israel:

One inescapable conclusion is that … in view of Israel’s perception of its role as a shelter for the Jewish people, in all possible configurations the Israeli side would insist on maintaining some military advantage, full potential defensive capabilities, and – should all other means fail – the ability to deploy troops in its own defence. This should be a sine qua non of any proposed Parallel States agreement.

Indeed Israel would also find it hard to accept the degree of power sharing that a parallel states framework would require, even within the context of the preservation of Jewish statehood. Hurvitz and Zeevi write:

This scenario would be viewed with deep suspicion by most Israelis, who assume that the ultimate aim of the Palestinians is to destroy all vestiges of Jewish independence … Israelis will suspect that once the numerical balance between the two peoples changes in favour of the Palestinians, they might bring up the charge of discrimination in the Parallel States structure, and this might lead to a change in the terms and conditions of the agreement and further erode Jewish sovereignty.

All things considered

The book’s chapters on the many security issues the parallel states solution would have to navigate – by some way the longest in the book – make for sobering reading, making even the most sympathetic reader despair of the plan’s credibility.

But that lack of sentimentality is one of the book’s great strengths: the issues that would confront the parallel states proposal are acknowledged and discussed at length:

  • Though it has historical and contemporary resonances there are no modern precedents for a functioning parallel states structure.
  • It would be complex to design, implement and administer.
  • It would raise quite possibly insurmountable security issues.

And yet these same challenges – in different forms – confront any conceivable solution to the conflict: one state, two state, parallel state, or some other idea yet to be proposed. Every proposal must deal with the issue of assuring some kind of access to the whole land, the problem of the settlers and the refugees, the issues of power sharing, the relative strength of each side’s military, the urgency of developing the Palestinian state and economy, an equitable mechanisms for the administration of Jerusalem.

In the final analysis, given the present climate of intense distrust between the two sides, and – in particular – the compromises a parallel states proposal would ask of an Israeli society that is moving ever rightwards it is hard to believe that the concept has much opportunity of moving from the seminar room or the pages of a book to serious consideration by diplomatic actors with the power to make things happen.

But when – one hopes not if – the sides can bear to talk to each other again, here, I think, is a proposal worth consideration because it dares to hope it might be possible to offer what both the Israelis and the Palestinians really want – in a word, the impossible: statehood and all of the historic territory of Mandate Palestine.

The parallel states solution asks both sides to think hard whether their love of the land is more important than exclusive ownership of it, a love sufficiently compelling to motivate progress, however fraught with complexitity, towards a settlement that would open it to them. To conclude, again, with Eyal Megged:

Basically, the program sprang from the clear recognition that it is impossible to divide the land of Israel and impossible to divide Palestine, either physically or mentally. Perhaps, as Solomon would have admonished us, true love would rather share than mortally divide.

Israel/Palestine, Politics, Reviews