By Gerard Boyce
Barely a week into the new year and the faint hopes that optimists might have harboured for meaningful progress to be made towards a peaceful settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict this year are bound to have already been extinguished by the latest round of illegal Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories and the renewal of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, such is the extent of settlement building and the plight of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip that only the most credulous optimist, naïve daresay, is likely to believe that a resolution to this conflict based on a two-state solution is possible even if not imminent.
As the squeeze caused by what Israel euphemistically calls ‘facts on the ground’ has gradually rendered the two-state solution infeasible, calls have mounted, in progressive circles especially, for a one-state solution. Speculatively, this alternative to the proposed two-state solution that has long been the basis for negotiations is unlikely to be workable in practice for several reasons. For one, Jewish fears of becoming a minority in a single state due to higher Palestinian fertility rates and (less likely) the return of Palestinian refugees from neighbouring countries is certain to nix Jewish support for this proposal. Secondly, Palestinians, observing the relatively inferior status of Israeli Arabs and the steady erosion of their rights in contemporary Israel, are likely to be reluctant to accept citizenship in a state in which they fear they would be treated as second class citizens.
There may, however, be another option based on the premise of a two-state solution available to break the impasse: international recognition of the state of Palestine and its entry into a union of sorts with Jordan, the country from which Israel seized the West Bank in 1967. In terms of this arrangement, Palestine could agree to cede sovereignty over its external affairs (e.g. foreign policy, defence, border security etc.) to Jordan in return for international recognition of their independence and support for reconstruction efforts. Before dismissing this proposal, consider its merits and the room to manoeuvre it affords all the parties involved compared to the one or two-state solutions politicians and commentators believe are the only options currently available to resolve this conflict.
For the Palestinians, entering into an arrangement of sorts with Jordan is likely to provide a firmer guarantee that it will be able to exercise full sovereignty over a greater area of the territory on which a future Palestinian state would eventually be established than any final settlement with Israel would, determined as Israeli policymakers seem to be to reduce any future independent Palestinian state to a patchwork of enclaves more akin to a Bantustan than a contiguous viable country. If, that is, Israeli politicians are able to grant Palestine anything remotely resembling independence at all in future given the pace and scale of illegal Israeli settlement building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and how central the question of the settlements has become within Israeli politics and society proper since 1993.
Crucially, entering into an arrangement with Jordan would enable a future Palestinian state to reduce its dependence on Israel for access to external markets. Reducing this dependence would improve its economic prospects and enable it to address youth unemployment, the single biggest challenge to the stability of any future Palestinian state. Floating this proposal could also strengthen Palestinians’ diplomatic hand. Showing Israel and its allies that there are other options available to them might provide the impetus for these countries to begin implementing all the principles of the Oslo Accords in earnest lest this Palestinian and Jordanian initiative become the catalyst for greater Pan-Arab unity and cooperation, a prospect that has struck fear in Western policy circles for well over a century.
At a popular level, touting the possibility of entering into a closer union with Jordan may serve to buoy ordinary Palestinians’ hopes and dispel the sentiment that they have been abandoned as a people. In so doing, it may bolster popular support for the Palestinian Authority at a time when ordinary Palestinians’ belief in their leaders is waning and frustration with the stalled peace process and doubt about the ability of never-ending negotiations to deliver dividends is growing.
Involving Jordan, a neighbouring Arab country which signed a peace deal with Israel and with which Israel has established diplomatic relations, in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process also affords a number of benefits for Israel. Most obviously, it gives Israeli leaders who are genuinely committed to negotiating with the Palestinians the ‘credible partner’ in negotiations which insincere Israeli politicians are quick to bemoan the lack of. In so doing, it would nullify one of the main obstacles perceived to prevent Israel engaging in constructive talks with the Palestinians.
In terms of its domestic politics, the task of reassuring a wary Israeli public that their safety and security will be assured should Palestine be granted independence will likely be made much easier if citizens were told their borders were going to be secured by a country with which Israel has a longstanding peace treaty. Speculatively, this could translate into greater popular support for an independent neighbouring Palestinian state. Moreover, by fortunate albeit crude coincidence, since this proposal accords with the views of the most bigoted sectors of Israeli society, according to whom Palestinians’ homeland is in Jordan, this policy may even appeal to the more bigoted sections of the Israeli electorate which have hitherto been an obstacle to reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Admittedly, persuading Jordan, a stable monarchy in the Middle East which enjoys civil although certainly not cordial relations with Israel at present and has experienced its fair share of problems with the Palestinians in the past, to agree to entering into an arrangement with Palestine is likely to prove extremely difficult. Indeed, the notion that the Jordanian government would countenance a scheme under which it would accept a role in safeguarding an impoverished region whose land is coveted by a powerful neighbour by taking responsibility for its foreign affairs might seem ludicrous at first glance. In addition to the prospect of being credited with resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the degree to which it would enhance the Jordanian government’s stature, both domestically and abroad, there are practical reasons to believe the Jordanian government could be enticed into considering this proposal. Foremost of these, consider that making Jordan a key part of the solution to the conflict that has long flummoxed statesmen and diplomats and hindered the normalisation of relations between countries in the region would afford the Jordanian government a measure of protection against being overthrown in a volatile and rapidly changing part of the world.
On the one hand, the public goodwill garnered by this act might serve to protect it (the Jordanian government) from threats from within whilst global fears that it would be impossible to maintain the peace without Jordan on the other might protect it from threats from outside. As a result, this deal would effectively insure it remains in power for the foreseeable future, or so the astute Jordanian strategist might surmise. Should Jordanian policymakers still harbour reservations about this proposal, it might be worth pointing out that conditions could be set to reduce some of the major risks posed to their country under this proposal, chief of these being jeopardising the peace treaty with Israel and increasing the risk of conflict between these two neighbours.
For instance, reasonable demands could be made for an international peacekeeping force to be permanently posted on Palestine’s borders with Israel. In a rich irony that will not be lost on Palestinians, the wall Israel is constructing would serve perfectly to keep Israeli settlers that are bent on confrontation with Palestinians out. Furthermore, to reduce conflict with Palestinians and thwart any provocateurs from Palestine or the near abroad who might wish to foment conflict with Israel, stipulations could be put in place that the West Bank be permanently demilitarised, just like how it is envisioned it would be in the final settlement under the current peace plan. To limit the economic burden that the cost of reconstruction of Palestine could impose on Jordan, Jordanian assent to this proposal could be made contingent upon the US, Israel and their wealthier Arab allies in the region agreeing to provide aid or, more correctly, compensation in the case of Israel, to the Palestinians. Given how keen these nations are to forge closer ties with each other in their regional rivalry with Iran without offending Arab countries’ domestic pro-Palestinian sensibilities, it is plausible to assume they would be willing to agree to this condition.
Perhaps most importantly for the purpose of allaying Jordanian and other parties’ lingering concerns, this proposal is unlikely to inflame tensions with the US, Israel’s principal backer and the main power-broker in the region. One goes so far as to hazard that it might even gain support in some ruling Democratic Party circles, aware as politicians are of shifting voter demographics and changing voter attitudes towards Israel and mindful of the growing political cost which the US’s policy of unequivocal support of Israel incurs domestically and globally. Seen from this perspective, it is not entirely ridiculous to think that US policymakers would be prepared to entertain, or at least not object to, a proposal which, in fairness, entails only a slight variation of the two-state solution they have long professed to be working towards.
Yes, there are critically important details about this proposal that need to be worked out. For example, would Palestine be a protectorate of Jordan or would it be a sovereign state that merely defers to Jordan in its foreign affairs, much the same way Bhutan or Nepal does to India in these matters? Alternatively, would it be integrated into Jordan as an autonomous region, much the same way the Kurdish region lies within Iraq? Turning to the nature of relations between Palestinians and Jordanians under this arrangement, would Jordan need to extend any special rights to Palestinians within Jordan proper? What about Palestinians’ ‘Right of Return’ and the subsequent fears ordinary Jordanians might have that their country will be swamped by Palestinian refugees should they exercise this right in large numbers? Turning to Israel, would any arrangement between Jordan and Palestine void Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan and thence destabilise the region or would it be separate thereto? What of the distribution of water rights? Would Jordan, for instance, be given a mandate to negotiate these on behalf of a newly independent Palestine under this proposal?
Seemingly irreconcilable disagreements when it comes to any of these thorny issues could easily squash any prospect of diplomats, Palestinians especially, seriously considering this proposal. It would thus not only be prudent but essential for proponents of this idea to proceed very cautiously. At a time of increasing political and military tensions, however, when violence between Israel and Hamas has erupted once again and threatens to engulf the wider region, is now not the time to act boldly? If so, now is the perfect time to revisit moribund proposals and explore seemingly far-fetched proposals which may hold the potential to finally secure the lasting peace in this region that all civilians there crave.
* Gerard Boyce is an economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.