Following a whirlwind tour of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace team, headed by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, arrived in Israel on 23 August 2017. A three-hour meeting with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was followed by a journey to Ramallah and a discussion with Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas. Not once, throughout their time in the region, did Kushner or any of his team, mention the words “two-state solution.”
Hard-liners on each side see a solution only in the utter defeat of the other. Hard-line Israeli opinion favours annexing the West Bank and incorporating it into Israel proper; the Palestinian hard-line objective is to eliminate Israel altogether, converting the whole of what was once Mandate Palestine into a new sovereign state of Palestine. This is not the view held by most Israelis or Palestinians. A joint Palestinian-Israeli poll conducted during June and July 2017 revealed that 53 percent of Israelis and 52 percent of Palestinians favour a two-state solution.
The idea of partition traces its origins back to the Balfour Declaration, the statement by the British government supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the region then known as Palestine, issued exactly one hundred years ago, in 1917. Britain was subsequently mandated by the League of Nations to realize the project, but reconciling Jewish and Arab interests proved impossible and civil disturbance proliferated. The Arab revolt of 1936 finally goaded Britain into establishing a Commission under Lord Peel charged with reaching a workable solution. After much deliberation, Peel proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one Jewish, the other Arab.
The rationale? “An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities … Their national aspirations are incompatible. The Arabs desire to revive the traditions of the Arab golden age. The Jews desire to show what they can achieve when restored to the land in which the Jewish nation was born. Neither of the two national ideals permits of combination in the service of a single State.”
What was true then remains true today, but the situation has become ever more complicated with the passage of time. “Any proposals to bring the two parties back to the negotiating table,” declared Hamas leader Yahya Moussa in June 2016, “aim at slaying the Palestinian cause.” Hamas’s solution to end the conflict, he declared, is based “on the Israeli withdrawal from the entire Palestinian territories occupied since 1948. Hamas will always opt for armed resistance until the restoration of Palestinian rights.”
The world supports the two-state concept, but the question rarely asked is how peaceful co-existence can be achieved when Hamas, representing a substantial proportion, if not the majority, of Palestinians is opposed tooth and nail to any accommodation with Israel.
Can Kushner and his peace team square the circle?
During his meeting in Ramallah, Kushner is reported to have told Abbas that Trump would present a plan in the next three to four months in exchange for the Palestinian leader abandoning efforts to pursue statehood in international bodies. Abbas is said to have agreed to Kushner’s proposal, but demanded that Trump personally commit to the US peace plan, and asked for a meeting between the two leaders during the UN General Assembly in September 2017.
According to the official PA news outlet Wafa, Abbas came away from his discussion with Kushner pleased with Trump’s commitment to the peace process. “We know that this issue is difficult and complex, but nothing is impossible in the face of good efforts,” he said during his meeting with Kushner. “We affirm that this delegation is working toward peace, and we are working with it to achieve soon what Trump called the ‘peace deal.’”
Prior to his meeting with Abbas, Kushner met with Netanyahu. “The president is very committed to achieving a solution here,” said Kushner, “that will be able to bring prosperity and peace to all people in this area. We really appreciate the commitment of the prime minister and his team to engaging very thoughtfully and respectfully in the way that the president has asked him to do.”
Netanyahu told Kushner he believed peace was “within our reach.”
The “regional umbrella” concept envisages a pro-peace grouping of Arab states under whose aegis the Palestinian leadership might be emboldened to come to a final status agreement with Israel. It seems, from Kushner’s latest itinerary, that Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt might provide this umbrella. What sort of deal, satisfactory to both Israel and the Palestinians, might be hammered out under its cover?
An Arab-Israeli peace conference could be convened with the aim of establishing a sovereign state of Palestine – but only within the context of a new three-state Confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The two new legal entities, Palestine and the Confederation, would be established simultaneously. The Confederation would be dedicated primarily to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian forces acting in concert. It would also foster economic development and infrastructure across the confederate states. Such a solution, based on an Arab-wide consensus, could absorb Palestinian extremist objections, making it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source including Hamas, would be disciplined from within, and crushed by the combined defence forces of the Confederation.
A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security and future growth and prosperity for all its citizens – here’s where an answer might lie.