BEIT JALA, West Bank – Countless proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been bandied about over the years. What sets this one apart, beyond everything else, is the unusual mix of supporters it has galvanized – among them Palestinians, settlers, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and left-wing activists.
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Out with separation, in with confederation – declare the proponents of the “Two States One Homeland” initiative that will have its official launch on Thursday at a special full-day conference in Tel Aviv.
In a nutshell, here’s the plan: two sovereign states with open borders, every house stays where it is, and all people get to live where they want. Forget about uprooting settlements, evacuating residents, building high walls, and swapping territories. The border, under this plan, will be in the exact same place it was on the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, and all those Jews living on the other side are welcome to stay where they are provided they are willing to live as Israeli citizens under Palestinian sovereignty. In other words, they get to vote in Israeli elections, but their speeding tickets will be issued by Palestinian police. The same holds true for Palestinian nationals who choose to live under Israeli sovereignty. (Yes, this initiative does accept the Palestinian demand for right of return – despite being anathema to most Israelis.)
Several days before the official launch of their peace plan, a small group of activists – some new to the cause, others engaged from the start – have convened at their usual haunt, a hotel in this small town near Bethlehem, for some last-minute preparations.
“The difference between this initiative and others,” explains Awni Elmashni, its lead Palestinian architect, as they settle down, “is that we try to work with reality rather than change it.”
Elmashni, who was born in the Dehaishe refugee camp, spent 12 years in Israeli prisons before moving up the ranks of the Fatah movement. He is in a better position than many to know that certain key elements of the plan – keeping the settlements intact, for example – will not go down well with the average Palestinian. But what better alternative at the moment is there, he asks.
“Everything else that’s been tried has failed,” he notes. “And we are right now in a situation where there is no political horizon, and the status quo is unsustainable.”
It all began in 2012 when Elmashni was introduced to Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport, whom he was told had some “original ideas” about solving the decades-old conflict. Elmashni heard him out and liked what he heard. Operating largely under the radar, the Israeli and Palestinian set out to build a movement. They organized parlor meetings, met privately with key opinion leaders, drafted position papers and reached out to communities not typically part of the peacemaking discourse.
More often than not, they were dismissed as delusional. After all, who in their right mind could believe that after years of bloodshed, Israelis and Palestinians would be able to put all the bad feelings behind and live happily among one another?
Yet, slowly but surely, they succeeded in winning over some less cynical hearts.
That would include people like Nuri Gross, a 25-year-old college student who grew up in a right-wing Orthodox family and participated in demonstrations against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. “On the one hand, I care about other people, so right-wing style solutions don’t appeal to me,” he says. “On the other hand, all those on the left who call for separating from the Palestinians – to me, there’s also a bit of racism in that.”
Gross was first introduced to the confederation idea during a parlor meeting held at the home of Hadassah Froman at the West Bank settlement of Tekoah. Following in the footsteps of her late husband, Rabbi Menachem Froman, Hadassah, a core activist in the movement today, has evolved into a rare breed of peace activist settler. “What I heard in her home really made sense to me,” says Gross.
Even newer to the movement is 37-year-old Pnina Pfeuffer, an ultra-Orthodox mother of two involved in various efforts to engage the Haredi community with the Israeli political discourse. Pfeuffer had always supported the classic two-state solution that involved building a wall to separate Israelis and Palestinians. “But as far as I’m concerned, any solution is better than no solution, and if we can get Israelis and Palestinians to support this new idea, then I’m all for it,” she says.
For the leaders of the new initiative, a recent coup was signing up Eden Riskin, the grandson of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the prominent American-born founder and spiritual leader of Efrat, one of the larger West Bank settlements. He joins two well-known Haredi activists, Shmuel Drilman and Rabbi Shmuel Pappenheim. Some notable representatives of the Israeli left are former Peace Now executive director Moriah Shlomo, Meretz activist Avi Dabush, author (and Haaretz contributor) Nir Baram, and prominent civil rights attorney Limor Yehuda.
Yehuda, formerly head of the occupied territories department at the Israel Civil Rights Association, estimates the number of core activists in the movement at “several dozen,” but says “we are growing every day.”
Israelis on the left tend to have two key reservations about the confederation plan. Like most Palestinians, they don’t like the idea of leaving the settlers where they are in what could be construed as handing them a victory. Where they differ the with Palestinians is on the issue of repatriation of refugees: Even hard-core leftists tend to draw the line there, seeing the Palestinian right of return as an existential threat to the Jewish state.
Many of the details of the plan have yet to be worked out, but according to Eran Tzidkiyahu, an Israeli activist in the movement, “the main obstacle is not deciding whether Jerusalem will have one mayor or two mayor but overcoming the lack of trust on both sides.”
At one point, he and his fellow activists debated the possibility forming a political party. They eventually concluded that growing the movement from the ground up was a preferable option. “The Israeli politicians aren’t there yet,” laments Yehuda. “Either we have to wait until we’ve gained more public support or until there are different politicians in power.’
They do take heart, though, from recent support expressed by President Reuven Rivlin for the idea of confederation (even if not exactly in the format they advocate), as well as some Knesset members on the Israeli left, whose names they prefer not to mention.
About two weeks ago, Al-Mashni organized a gathering of 70 Palestinians in Ramallah to hear about the initiative. “There was great interest,” he reports. “But what’s most important for our people is to know that there is a serious partner on the Israeli side.”