25 Years since Oslo: the Search for a Solution
by Hamza Ali Shah
Historical Search for a Solution:
Since the Nakba in 1948, the Palestinian narrative has been based on the themes of destruction, invasion, justice and injustice, the democratic state and independence on the land of historic Palestine, and the return of refugees. The discourse evolved with the end of the fifties in the last century, and the focus shifted to the mechanisms to achieve these slogans and the need for power and armed struggle in the long-term popular quest – the liberation and the end of Zionist colonialism.
With the beginning of the seventies, there was a tangible shift in the Palestinian discourse, from focusing on the concept of the homeland with its literary and cultural expressions to a political concept that embodies the idea of a possible state. The liberation in Asia and Africa based on the Cold War and the global division into two camps influenced such a movement. However, the 1967 war was central to this transformation.
The Palestinians realized that the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel was the decisive factor in the Israeli military superiority over the Arab armies in this period. However, another dimension that dug in the consciousness of the Palestinian elite after the defeat was the realisation that the concept of Arab unity as a prelude to the liberation of their country was not realistic. Indeed, the regimes that claimed revolutionary change and raised the slogans of the liberation of Palestine were a fundamental part of the problem.
Thus, there was a monumental shift in the perception of Israel from an “artificial state” to an “occupied state,” meaning recognition of its real legitimacy, marked by a change in rhetoric from decolonization to liberation from occupation.
This change meant that instead of seeking to liberate the entire nation, the search was centred on establishing self-rule over parts of Palestine. These territories were occupied after 1967, and this gave birth to the concept of a two-state solution and its conclusion to stop settlements and temporary solutions before reaching the final solution and the establishment of an independent state.
The Role of Oslo:
The Oslo accords were supposed to augment the establishment of a Palestinian state. Twenty-five years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton presided over a famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman, Yasser Arafat in the White House as they signed the Oslo Accords. Those accords set an agenda and a five-year timetable for a full peace deal that would allow limited Palestinian self-governance in parts of the occupied territories and entailed mutual recognition between Israel and the PLO.
Soon after the Oslo Accords were signed, on September 13, 1993, and for many years after that, Palestinian support for a two-state solution was very high, peaking at 80 percent. The agreement, and the peace process it set in motion, changed the psychological environment in Palestine. Along with confidence in diplomacy, it generated public optimism and reduced the appeal of violence and militancy, all the while providing legitimacy and public support to the newly created Palestinian Authority (PA), its leader, Arafat, and the leading party, Fatah.
Mutual rejection was replaced by mutual recognition. Gaza and the West Bank city of Jericho were placed under the control of the PLO as a first step in a gradual process that was intended to lead to the resolution of all the outstanding issues between the two sides. Palestinians saw it, as a foothold for what they trusted would become their own new state.
Twenty-five years later, all that has come undone. It started with Netanyahu’s narrow victory over Shimon Peres in the May 1996 elections, which kick-started the process of nullifying and undermining the peace legacy of his Labour predecessors. Netanyahu started by accusing Rabin of being a worse leader than Neville Chamberlain, because Chamberlain put another nation in danger, whereas Rabin did it to his own nation.
Furthermore, he gave an inflammatory speech from the grandstand of a mass rally in Jerusalem in which demonstrators displayed an effigy of Rabin in SS uniform. He then continued to play an active part in a campaign of incitement against the Labour government.
Since then, Israel has displayed a clear rejectionist approach towards the Palestinians and explicitly dismissed the Palestinian quest for statehood. This was detectable from the second intifada in 2000. In this period, Israel reoccupied the West Bank, imposed and maintained a system of severe restrictions on Palestinian movement, and divided territories into a patchwork of zones ranging from total Israeli control to partial Palestinian oversight. In the process, the economic plight for the Palestinians has worsened significantly.
Central to Israel’s physical control of the majority of land is their settlement expansion. In 1990, the settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem was just under 200,000, whereas today it is in excess of 700,000, according to some Israeli governmental sources.
Israel’s dominant right wing faction has ensured that the peace process has been sidelined, as evinced by statistics suggesting there have been more than 10,000 Palestinians deaths at the hands of the Israeli military since Oslo.
The nail in the coffin was Trump’s championing of the Israeli narrative, when he boasted to have ‘taken Jerusalem off the table’ when he declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in what converted de facto annexation into de jure annexation. In the process, such a bold move eradicated decade’s worth of peace efforts, rendered the two-state solution impossible and neglected the Palestinian political goals.
Hence, the potential rewards of Oslo are fading daily, as reinforced by the fact that the centrality of the Palestinian cause in its Arab and Islamic dimension is diminishing day by day, with the Arab states being overly fragmented in more than one geographical area, and the issue of the war on cross-border terrorism becoming a priority on the global agenda.
However, peace itself has not been rendered unattainable. The challenge is to create again the conditions for a breakthrough by rediscovering the ingredients that led, a quarter century ago, to Israeli and Palestinian leaders genuinely seeking common ground.
Therefore, the last option is not subject to deliberation, research and dialogue on both sides of the conflict, it is a choice between federalism within two independent states and the Confederacy in a binational state. The debate has been confined to Israeli and Palestinian academics and intellectuals, which will be the focal point of our paper.
The “binational” state is generally defined as a political system consisting of two national groups that share the same territory and coexist in the historical land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Its general principles include:
- Arabs and Jews coexisting as separate communities. Each party shall administer its own affairs independently and shall ensure its legal right to use its own language, religious practices and traditions, thereby preserving the national identities of both communities.
- Each of them is involved in one government and one parliament. Their task is the central administration of shared resources, defense, economy, central bank and single currency. However, there will be two regions with elected local governments and a separate representative parliament, in accordance with the structure of the cantons, which is similar to the structure of Switzerland and Belgium.
The Confederacy Model:
This model is based on two separate sovereign states that have commonly agreed on a permanent institutional political framework. Such a structure would include Jerusalem as the shared capital, with special governing arrangements whilst retaining the option of the right of secession and adopting a clear geographical division of the June 4, 1967 borders. Importantly, there will be open borders and facilities for the free movement of individuals and groups within both confederal states.
Because both countries have ethnic minorities living in the West Bank and Palestinians in Israel, such a proposal stipulates that the two sides should be subject to a form of cultural autonomy but within the framework of the law and sovereignty of both states, with the right to Palestinian and Israeli citizenship.
The inhabitants of the two countries are treated equally according to laws that regulate the issues of mobility, labour, education, health, systems of procedure and litigation before the courts of both ethnic groups. As in the EU formula, the countries of the Union have the right to choose their place of residence as citizens of the Union without becoming citizens of that State.
If the Confederation of Benelux between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg constitutes an economic union with an established frontier, the Palestinian-Israeli Confederation and the historical sensitivities include a confederation of administration in the security, defence, economic and financial spheres with equal representation and powers. Thus, there would be functional authorities established by the constituent entities to handle specific tasks. Since the proposed formula is not unprecedented, the creation of a legal framework that ensures cooperation and coordination in all areas, especially the joint administration, without domination or threat is the task of academics and politicians of both parties to address.
Just as the question of borders is a salient issue in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, addressing the issue of Palestinian refugees is also crucial. Hence, in a confederal approach, Palestinian refugees who wish to return can live in Israel as residents, but not as citizens, therefore no Palestinian refugee will be a demographic threat to the Jewish majority in Israel. This simultaneously mitigates the Palestinian right of return, whilst keeping political franchise separate, as Israelis would vote in Israel and Palestinians in Palestine, but there would be free movement between the two sides of the entity. Additionally, such a process would also ease the reconciliation process between the two groups because it would be a step in the right direction regarding integration.
The distinction between citizenship and residency can also help solve another problem – the issue of Jewish settlers and Palestinians who wish to live and work in Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. All current citizens of Israel and Palestine will maintain legal status as citizens and this would enable Israeli settlers to maintain residency in Palestine, and operate under Palestinian jurisdiction.
The principle advantage of a confederal arrangement, in particular for cases of multi-ethnic and multi-racial situations, as the Israel-Palestinian issue is, is that the constituent polities have relative autonomy, but are associated on matters of common interest. Therefore, political rights and complications that have an effect on primary relations between the sovereign states within the confederation are dealt with in a unified manner via institutions.
Accordingly, cooperation is an integral part of any confederation, and institutional frameworks are pivotal to embellish cooperation and ensure the functioning of such a system. For example, this system proposes joint institutions that manage common natural assets, such as the water, environment and protection, and civic spheres of common interests such as labour, customs and criminal justice.
Thus, the two states will enter a political and economic union, with common economic and social institutions, and a High Court for Human Rights. In fact, with a unified economic union there can be strategic economic complementarities that preserve and assist both economies.
Moreover, both states will be drilling into the same water table in Judean Hills, using the same desalination plants to preserve the Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea Basin, and managing sewage treatment from Jerusalem into the Jordan Valley. Likewise, they would be sharing much of the same electrical grid and the distribution of limited telecommunications frequencies necessary for mobile data.
In addition, environmental regulations such as dealing with air quality and management of public health risks, as well as coordination of the extension of roads, bridges and train systems would require collaboration and political integration. This is where shared institutions come into practise in a confederation.
Notwithstanding, the banking system would also need to be highly integrated, so that tourists credit cards will operate everywhere. Likewise, tax collection in both confederal states would have to be standardized, so that neither sides retail stores nor restaurants would race the others to the bottom, and the economy would be preserved.
Also international hotel chains, tour guide, car rental, and insurance companies would expect to contract with, and meet the standards of, a single tourism agency for both states; they would expect unimpeded access to customers seeking to move from one state to another.
Additionally, common free-trade regulations complying with European Union and American regulations currently applied to Israel alone—and common tax-free investment zones to promote direct foreign investment would be necessary. There would need to be cooperation on engineering and biopharmaceutical standards as well as a need for cooperation on immigration and labour standards, to keep the larger Israel-Palestine zone from becoming a magnet for impoverished labourers from the Nile Delta or sub-Saharan Africa.
Cooperation concerning a collective security apparatus is also pivotal. Two separate national communities living side by side has important implications for the security environment. The concept of self-determination that such a model promises may work for the majority, but there may still be a small ‘no compromise’ minority inclined towards cynical extremism.
A manifestation of such events would lead to the sovereign states being held accountable for the actions of a few, which would induce a recipe for disintegration. Hence, security cooperation in this regard would include making plain the two states reciprocal responsibility for security affairs across the entire environment. The dynamics of a collective security apparatus may include a military alliance and police cooperation on joint command and control.
Ultimately, there are several important purposes to a confederal structure. Principally, security, stability and prosperity are enhanced and the constitutional rights of both Jewish and Arabs are defined, which generates conditions that assist the comprehensive Israeli-Arab reconciliation, in the confederation, but in the wider region too. Additionally, the co-ordinated decision making mechanisms that are created will allow security, foreign relations and the economy to flourish whilst each state remains autonomous, thus providing Palestinian independence and preserving the Jewish state. Indeed, a confederation model promotes integration, as opposed to the separation that a two state solution would promote.
The Federacy Model:
Such a model would establish a new primary political entity with one general government uniting two constituent or federated states each with its own political institutions plus substantive powers reserved for them and other powers assigned to the federal government. Both states share in the federal government with Jews and Arabs having equal opportunity to reach and hold key federal office. All citizens would directly elect the central parliament. Candidates for election must demonstrate a commitment to peaceful coexistence between the two nations, and equality for all citizens. Indeed, the state parliament and government offices will be located in Jerusalem, the capital territory for both nations.
Residents of the individual states would elect their own parliament, but a central government would be responsible for issues such as health, welfare, housing, environmental, local economic development, alongside taxation powers to support these activities. However, the State parliament would decide which powers it reserves to itself: for example, it might decide that university education should be a State, not national, activity.
The arrangement in a federal model would consist of a sovereign State parliament, essentially acting as an upper revising chamber to two national parliaments. The character of each nation would automatically reflect the character of its majority population, in a democratic manner, and all residents would be treated as equals without any discrimination. Hence, such an arrangement ensures a representative government and prevents discrimination against any minority communities, which is a prospective outcome because of the multi-ethnic and multi-national scope of the predicament, hence in a federalism, it can be minimised.
Nevertheless, a defined but open border would exist between the two states. This would pave the way for Jewish and Palestinian people living outside their respective territories to have a right to migrate into Israel and Palestine respectively. However, the State government would be able to restrict the total rate of immigration to that which the economy can absorb. One dynamic of such an arrangement ensures that stateless refugees would have priority, hence addressing the right of return concept.
Regarding the border, in a federal agreement, a joint Boundary Commission may determine the border. This would pave the way to establish a border that places a substantial majority of Jews within Israel and of Arabs within Palestine, but with a significant minority population in each, and minimizes the number of Israeli Jews who would end up in Palestine, and the number of Palestinian Arabs who would end up in Israel, against their wishes. Likewise, each independent nation will however possess the power to petition the State parliament to allow it to limit inward migration if it felt this was necessary to preserve its national character.
This would include the settlements in the West Bank, which would have to agree to either remain where they are to aid the reconciliation and reconstruction process, but if no agreement were possible, they would have to return to Israel.
Furthermore, security is a major obstacle in the Israeli Palestinian conflict. A federal arrangement may pave the way for an environment to manifest that will allow those in disagreement to exploit the scene, internally and externally. Hence, each nation will have its own internal police force, but there will also be a collective security force to take and coordinate actions against trans-national or external threats. The nature and structure of a unified security apparatus is open for discussion amongst intellectuals and politicians.
Essentially, the federal structure generates an environment that allows two self-governing nations to exist and uphold their different traditions, religions, cultures and identities, whilst maintaining territories. However, the umbrella governance scheme in place aids reconciliation and minimises conflict.