One Way To Square The Two-State Circle – OpEd


Christmas and the New Year celebrations had come and gone, and still the phone lines between US President Joe Biden and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, remained ominously  silent.  Very nearly a full month without contact had elapsed when, on January 19, Biden picked up the White House phone and asked to speak with the Israeli prime minister.

The call was occasioned by remarks made by Netanyahu the day before, in which he stated, perhaps more clearly than ever before, his rooted opposition to the US’s vision of the post-war future for Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied territories.  Ever since the Israel-Hamas war started Washington had made it clear that it wished to see a post-war Gaza returned to the governance of a reformed and strengthened Palestinian Authority, as a first step toward establishing a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian dispute. This vision was subsequently reiterated time and again by US officials from Secretary of State Anthony Blinken down. 

After speaking with the president, Netanyahu gave a televised news conference and said that he had made it clear that Israel “must have security control over all the territory west of the Jordan…This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of [Palestinian] sovereignty.” 

For his part Biden, in discussing the conversation later that day at a conference of US mayors in Washington, demonstrated how easy it is for two people to carry away entirely different understandings of a conversation between them.  Biden told reporters he believed that Netanyahu would support Palestinian statehood, particularly if that state was a demilitarized one.  “I think we will be able to work something out,” he told reporters. 

In its formal report of the discussion, the White House said, “The president also discussed his vision for a more durable peace and security for Israel fully integrated within the region, and a two-state solution with Israel’s security guaranteed.”

Netanyahu was swift to disabuse him.  On the day following their phone conversation, he posted on X, formerly Twitter: ““I will not compromise on full Israeli security control over all the territory west of the Jordan – and this runs contrary to a Palestinian state.”

A riposte to that last assertion is available.  It is to be found in the one message from Biden that got lost in the welter of claim and counter-claim – a quiet throwaway remark, reported in the media but not picked up: “There are a number of types of two-state solutions.”

What can Biden have meant by that remark?

Perhaps he had in mind the suggestion of Israel’s then President, Reuven Rivlin, in a newspaper interview on August 7, 2015.  An Israeli-Palestinian confederation, said Rivlin, might be the best means of settling the perennial Middle East conflict.  According to a recording of the interview, Rivlin also said that a future confederation could feature two parliaments and two constitutions, but only one army — the Israel Defense Forces.

Rivlin might have been referring back to an article by Israeli elder statesman, Yossi Beilin, in the New York Times three months earlier, titled: “Confederation is the Key to Mideast Peace.”

“This idea isn’t new,” wrote Beilin. “For a brief time in the 1990s, it animated some of my earliest discussions about peace with a spokesman whom Palestinians revered, Faisal al-Husseini. But that was before the Oslo Accords of 1993…In hindsight, it is clear that we should have been looking all along at confederation – cohabitation, not divorce.”

What is a confederation?  It is a form of government in which constituent sovereign states maintain their independence while merging certain aspects of administration, such as security, defense, economic or administrative matters.  A good example is the confederation formed by the seceding states during the American Civil War.  In a federation on the other hand, such as the modern United States, the constituent parts may be fiercely independent, but they are not sovereign, and the emphasis is on the supremacy of the central government.  

The vision of achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians through the mechanism of a confederation has its passionate supporters. Some conceive it as including Jordan which, after all, was originally within the British Mandate.  In 2018, when the Trump peace proposals were being drawn up, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas was asked his views on the idea. He is on record as favoring a three-way confederation of Jordan, Israel and a sovereign Palestine.  The idea of a three-state confederation covering the whole of what was originally Mandate Palestine might open a hitherto unexplored path leading away from unending Israel-Palestinian discord.

A fundamental issue militates against the classic two-state solution.  Hamas is massively popular among the Palestinian population, and its central message – that the whole of what had been Mandate Palestine is rightfully the property of Palestinian Arabs – leaves little room for compromise. In the most recent poll of Palestinian opinion, no less that 64% of those questioned were opposed to a two-state solution. It would mean abandoning any hope of gaining control of the area occupied by Israel.

It will require an Arab consensus – perhaps the Arab League, perhaps an alliance of the Abraham Accord states – to bring the Palestinian leadership to discuss an accommodation which recognizes Israel’s legitimate place in the Middle East.  Given Jordan’s collaboration, a post-war conference could be dedicated to establishing a sovereign state of Palestine, but only within the framework of a new three-state confederation of Jordan, Israel and Palestine.  This new legal entity – the Jordan, Israel and Palestine Confederation – could be established simultaneously with the state of Palestine. 

 Dedicated to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, it would undertake to cooperate in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. There would be no need for a sovereign Palestine to be a militarized state.  Defense of the confederation would be undertaken by the IDF in collaboration with Jordan’s military.

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, would be crushed by the combined defense forces of the confederation.  

A confederation could set as its objective the transformation of the region within, say, ten years, into a thriving financial, commercial and industrial hub to the benefit of all its citizens – Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian alike.  

Neville Teller

Neville Teller's latest book is ""Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020". He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years, has published five books on the subject, and blogs at "A Mid-East Journal". Born in London and a graduate of Oxford University, he is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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