A Three-story Approach to Ending the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Imagining an Israeli-Palestinian federation as a three-level home, with a shared roof, separate living quarters for each tenant and a firm foundation of shared values.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

Nearly all the discussions on the peace process focus on one thing —a state. Everyone asks whether there is still a chance for the two-state solution, or whether the time has come to consider a single state of all of its citizens, a binational state. Or perhaps we need to think about preserving the status quo of a single state with inherent, and problematic, discrimination. The responses point to a sad, stuck reality. One person’s tempting carrot is another’s painful stick, and versa.

In essence this is a one-level discussion, the national level: a national home for the Jewish people, a national home for the Palestinian collective, and that's all. Anything below the state - its identity, character, citizens and communities - is scarcely mentioned. And anything above, beyond the state framework, also gets scant attention. As a result many people, from every camp, feel that it doesn’t matter what kind of agreement is eventually reached, because it won't solve the real problems.

Even were a Palestinian state to arise alongside Israel tomorrow morning, at best it would only be the expression of an unsatisfactory interim agreement. Those who want the entire territory, on our side or on theirs - will never settle for half, and will continue to undermine the foundations of the partition agreement. On the other hand, those among us who today support partition in effect seek to push across the border all the core issues we have been living with since Israel's establishment, and particularly since 1967: the traumas, the refugees, the dominion and the occupation. Their counterparts on the Palestinian side want separation in order not to "dialog" with the Israeli challenge that is so present in their lives.

It's not only words that are missing from this enterprise, its melody is also adversarial in tone If the talks do result in a peace agreement, it will be a peace tinged with suspicion and hostility. Many Palestinians are convinced that every Israeli is either a West Bank settler or a soldier, because since the Oslo Accords these are the only Israelis they know. And many Israelis are certain that “they,” all Palestinians, hate Israel. The sourness of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers, as well as the suspiciousness of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues, are an obstacle to concrete change.

Is it still possible to shape all these materials into a different future? Can a building be erected with more rooms, a greater range of topics - from the Israeli or Palestinian individual to the organizing superstructure above us all? An affirmative answer to this question requires us to abandon the one-dimensional, one-level perspective that comes down to "yes" or "no" to a Palestinian state, and to add depth and height. The time has come for three-level thought, starting from the assumption that our fates, Israeli and Palestinian, are intertwined and that it is useless to ignore reality. Cancers left untreated on one side send secondary growths to the other, and there isn’t a wall in the world that can stop them.

The first story of the new building will be the foundation, containing the principles upon which the entire future state will be built. Every person between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is entitled to the same equal rights - personal, political, economic and social. They include the right to protection and security, equal treatment, freedom of movement, property, judicial recourse and the right to vote and to be elected to public office. Regardless of your citizenship, Israeli or Palestinian, you will be bound by the same constitutional framework and principles and entitled to the same fundamental liberties, without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, faith or national affiliation.

The middle level will be divided between both tenants: an agreed-upon, logical division and separation between the two collective groups in the form of two sovereign states. Each state will express the respective aspirations and values of the Israelis and the Palestinians, each in its own space and as it sees fit in accordance with its own traditions. Each state will conduct its own foreign and defense policy and its domestic and economic policy from this middle level.

But it can't end there. Because the hostilities and violent frictions of the past could return at any time, constant coordination between the tenants is essential. A third story will be created for this purpose, a common superstructure joining both states in a federation. The federation of Israel and Palestine will direct its attention both inward and outward. Using the powers accorded to it by the two independent partners, Israel and Palestine, the government of the central federation will be responsible for the constitutional system in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, among other matters. After all, there will never be quiet and reconciliation here unless a language of common values can be created. A murderer in one state must be considered a murderer in the other. We have had enough of the intolerable situation in which the same act is considered a heinous crime on one side and an supreme expression of patriotism on the other.

While each state will collect taxes from its own citizens and maintain its own educational and cultural institutions, each according to its own lights, their infrastructure will be coordinated. The federal administration will ensure that water sources from the mountains are shared with the lowlands, that rivers are kept clean for their entire length and that road signs use the languages of all the region's drivers; the same in both Netanya and Nablus, just as, for all their differences, in this no distinction exists between New York and California, or between Austria and Italy.

It is on the federal level that all the positive, essential cooperation will take place with regard to joint constitutional enforcement, the regulation of legal and civil affairs and the coordination of asylum and immigration policy, including the rights of return for both Jews and Palestinians. Vis-à-vis the outside world, beyond the historical region between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, the Israeli-Palestinian federation will be a framework that other political entities can join, in a new regional union. As a condition, they must accept the obligations deriving from the democratic and constitutional principles of the building’s foundation floor.

The proposed building attempts to solve most of the issues on the agenda, but not all. Those who want a single state will find only partial satisfaction in the federal structure. Advocates of a two-state solution will find their wishes addressed in the middle level, while those dedicated to individual rights will get partial satisfaction as reflected in the binding constitutional infrastructure.

That's all fine, the cynics will say, but what about security? I would respond to the cynics with cynicism: "Do you agree with everything else? When we accomplish everything else, it will be a lot easier to deal with security issues." And to those delving more deeply, I would pose a question of my own. Did anyone ever think possible open borders between Germany and France? Peace between Spain and the Netherlands, or reconciliation between Russia and Germany? When the environment changes, so do the threats, and so does one's perspective on security.

To everyone else I will say this: We are so strong that we can afford to abandon the strategy of fears and trauma and move to a perspective of trust. If I’m wrong, we won’t be be worse off than before. And if I’m right, then the current obsession with security will change so much as to be unrecognizable. As it changed in response to Iraq’s disappearance, Syria’s fragmentation and Egypt’s decline, so it will change dramatically in the face of a Palestinian-Israeli partnership that will be completely different from anything we have ever known.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, left, and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat in Washington. Credit: AP

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