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Looking at the Future: Regional Confederation


Peace has to hold out the promise of a brigher future. In 1944, visions of a united Europe seemed more like hallucinations than real possibilities, but the Euroopean Union is now a reality.

Peace activist Jeff Halper examines the options for a long term settlement of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He explains why one-state and binational solutions are not practical alternatives, and why a simple two state solution is unlikely to be economically viable. He opts for a regional confederation. This may be a long way in the future, but perhaps it is the only sane way for the Middle East. A confederation will give Middle Eastern countries the markets and freedom of movement for labor needed to develop our economies. Oil wealth of Gulf states can be used for development and investment throughout the Middle East. Sharing of knowledge will help to spread technology and bring the Middle East into the post-industrial world. A confederation will give our governments clout in international forums, and it might give us a means to regulate behaviors of governments toward their citizens without the intervention of the United States or Europeans.


A working paper

by Jeff Halper

The time has come to begin "imagining" a truly New Middle East. Bereft of a
peace process (if there ever was one), faced with an Occupation spewing
violence and suffering in all directions, the inhabitants of both Palestine
and Israel have sunk into a fatalistic hopelessness. It is precisely at
this juncture, when there seems to be no way out, that both a vision and a
practical solution are called for, if only to dispel the almost mystical
notion, held by many, that the conflict is irresolvable.

As occupation and repression deepens, previously unthinkable thoughts have
begun to percolate to the surface. What if Sharon has won? What if the
Occupation is in fact irreversible? What if the two-state solution,
clutched so fiercely by Israeli liberals, is no longer feasible, unless we
accept a truncated bantustan on pieces of the West Bank as a legitimate
Palestinian "state?" As the Occupation reaches a critical mass and the
Occupied Territories become incorporated into the very fabric of Israel's
urban areas and highway system, it is difficult to envision any force
capable of rolling Israel's presence back to a point where a viable
Palestinian state could emerge. As the two-state solution recedes, where
can we go to avoid apartheid or the transfer of Palestinians out of the
country? The PLO Negotiating Affairs Department recently circulated a
working paper suggesting that the Palestinian accept the
"fact" that the country has been made into one and demand citizenship and
equal rights - the secular democratic state arising on its creator, Sharon.
Others have suggested a bi-national state, though the chance of such a
proposal being accepted by Israel is about equal to ending the Occupation.
Alternative Visions for Peace, a Palestinian-American group based at the
University of Wisconsin, recently published a plan
based on the idea of an Israeli- Palestinian federation.

This is the time, at the darkest hour ever known to both peoples, that we
must begin searching for a way out. We must come up with our own road map
and pursue it tirelessly, because to cling to outdated "solutions" helps no
one. Pursuing old remedies that ignore current realities may be comforting,
but it is the height of irresponsibility. And why should we wait for Bush
to present a road map? Why should we allow Sharon, Peres and the rest to
dictate our reality? Activism is fine, protest is good, resistance is
necessary, but without a plan, a way out, a road map, and without a
strategy to achieve it, all our activities are meaningless.

Since we are at the stage of brainstorming, of trying to cope with the
seeming endlessness of the conflict, the downward spiral of violence,
death, suffering and repression, I thought I would toss my own thoughts
into the pot. They are meant to contribute to the emerging discussion over
future possibilities, but are not meant to be part of a merely academic
exercise. We should move quickly to consolidate our analyses into plans and
strategies of action. I envision a two-stage process incorporating an
Israel and a Palestine state into a regional confederation which
encompasses all the countries of the immediate region - Egypt, Palestine,
Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - with further future expansion possible.
It is an approach that has not been discussed much in the past, but it
seems to me to offer a promising direction of thought.

A Place To Begin

Let's begin by asking what broad needs and dynamics have to be addressed in
a process of peace-making, reconciliation, political restructuring and
development that involves not only Israelis and Palestinians but the wider
region as well. Proposed solutions have to deal with dynamic processes of
accommodation and structural problems of "fit." Any workable political
solution must take into account:

* The experiences, narratives, claims and needs of the major groups in the
region - national, ethnic, religious and political - connected in
particular to the issue of self-determination. For a sustainable political
solution to emerge in our region, no party can "win." Mutual accommodation
means creating a process of inclusion and dialogue in which the voices of
all the major groups may be heard, in which "ownership" of any peace
program is shared. This does not mean that everyone will agree on each
item, but that a process of accommodation that is transparent, inclusive
and respective of others' experiences and requirements will generate the
trust and good will upon which any political arrangement must be based.
Mutual respect, listening and accommodation are prerequisites to a just and
lasting Middle East peace. They will lay the foundations for the regional
system that must eventually emerge.

* The differential power each party wields in the proposed political
system. Any agreed-upon political solution must be sensitive to historic
experiences and the scars of past conflicts, as well as offering security
and a meaningful measure of self-determination to the various parties.

* The economic viability and developmental potential of the entire region
as well as its constituent parts. The reason why a regional solution is
needed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that the problems facing the
two peoples are regional in scope - refugees, security, economic
development, water, self-determination. They cannot be resolved within the
confines of Palestine-Israel. At the same time the entire region must
develop evenly or it will remain too unstable for any localized peace to

* Dynamic processes of everyday life, both collective and individual.
Solutions cannot be mechanical. While particular issues of
self-determination, cultural space and economic viability must be
addressed, so too must the reality that the region's states cannot be
self-sufficient and self-contained. The massive displacement of
Palestinians since 1948, together with the limited size and resources of
their prospective state, has created a trans-state reality in the region.
Peoples' loci of personal life do not coincide with the loci of their
national existence. A Palestinian state will not be able to accommodate all
the refugees and Diaspora Palestinians who would seek citizenship, nor will
all Palestinians seeking self-determination be willing or able to relocate
from places in the region where they have lived for decades. A system is
required whereby citizenship in a particular state does not limit one's
ability to move, reside and work throughout the entire region. It must also
accommodate major economic developments and intra-regional labor movements.

* The possibility that envisioned political and social forms that may
evolve in ways as yet unanticipated. Any political "solution" must be
viewed as a work in progress, just as its formulation must derive from a
dynamic process of accommodation. Solutions that lock populations into
static and inadequate units, as did Barak's "generous offer," are doomed to
failure. With so much displacement, such major reconfiguration, such
dormant economic potential and the need to integrate into a rapidly
changing global reality, the ability to evolve in unexpected ways is crucial.

These are the overarching considerations that, I suggest, must be addressed
if a sustainable peace in the Middle East is to be achieved. So where does
this leave us in terms of the tragic mess we have made for ourselves?

The Various Options

Looked at in its regional context, the case of Palestine/Israel raises at
least six possible political frameworks: two states, in which the
Palestinian entity is either a truly independent state or a dependent
bantustan; a federal bi-national state, an inclusive unitary state,
apartheid or a regional confederation.

(1) Two "Real" States: Israel and Palestine

This approach reverts to the idea of partition, the "two-state solution"
traditionally favored by Israel's peace camp, affirmed by the President
Bush's June 2002 policy statement US and accepted by Israel in a meeting of
the UN on November 29, 2002. Its strength comes from recognition that the
two peoples involved consider themselves national entities. The claims of
each for self-determination require separate states. (Some proposals
envision a limited confederal arrangement between the two states for
purposes of coordinating trade, movement, fiscal affairs and the like.)

For practical rather than conceptual reasons, I would argue that the
two-stated option cannot serve as a stand-alone solution for the following

* The state of Israel comprises 78% of Mandatory Palestine, leaving the
Palestinians with only 22%. Even if the Occupation ends completely (a
dubious proposition), the viability of any Palestinian state is still
doubtful. If the occupation does not end and Israel's Matrix of Control
remains, then the "two-state solution" becomes merely a guise for
apartheid. The likelihood that Israel would cede major portions of its
territory to a Palestinian state is extremely remote.

* The major issues facing the Palestinians, Israel and the rest of region -
refugees, the Palestinian population in Israel, security, economic
development and water, to name but a few - are regional in scope, and
cannot be adequately addressed within the limited framework of

* The two-state solution leaves Israel a "Jewish state," and does not
address the status of the Palestinians living in Israel. Indeed, it does
address the tremendous intertwining and intermingling of the two peoples,
who have been described as "intimate enemies."

Despite its drawbacks, the "two-state solution" gains viability, and is
even required, as a first stage of a more comprehensive regional solution,
as we will discuss presently.

(2) Two States: Israel Over a Palestinian Bantustan

But there is another, more dangerous twist to the "two-state solution:" its
usefulness in imposing on the Palestinians a bantustan along the lines of
those South Africa tried to create during the apartheid era. Sharon's
recent endorsement of the two-state approach does not mean he now accepts
the need for Palestinian self-determination and is willing to relinquish
major parts of the Land of Israel in favor of a viable Palestinian state
that will live in harmony with Israel. Far from it. A bantustan fits well
into Sharon's "Greater Land of Israel" strategy. He would prefer outright
annexation of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, foreclosing any possible Palestinian
state. He (like the heads of all Israeli governments) rejects the notion
that Israel has an occupation at all. After all, how can you occupy your
own country? He (like the heads of all Israeli government) would never
relinquish overall control over the entire country between the
Mediterranean and the Jordan. But he and the others face two undeniable
realities. First, that Israel cannot "digest" the three and a half million
Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories. If it annexes the West
Bank and Gaza and extends citizenship to their Palestinian inhabitants,
Israel will turn into a bi-national state - the antithesis of the Zionist
program and an absolute non-starter for Israelis. If, however, Israel
annexes the Occupied territories and does not extend citizenship to their
inhabitants, it has created an outright situation of apartheid - difficult
to sustain and "sell." The trick, then, is to create a Palestinian
mini-state of truncated cantons that encompass the Palestinian population,
thus relieving Israel of responsibility, while leaving it in de facto
control of the entire country.

If Israel can "sell" the bantustan as a legitimate Palestinian state, then
it has met the second reality: the insistence of the international
community that some kind of Palestinian state be established, if only to
get this eternal issue off the agenda. Israeli political leaders believe
that the public - Israeli as well as international - is so fed up by this
interminable conflict that it will welcome any resolution, even if it is
not ideal. For that reason Israel believes that it can get away with
creating a bantustan even where South Africa could not. This is the
position of both major Israeli parties, Labor and Likud, and formed the
basis of the "National Unity" government under Sharon, the most harmonious
coalition Israel ever enjoyed. The only disagreement between the two is
over how large the Palestinian bantustan should be. Labor, concerned about
the economic viability of a Palestinian "state" and its potential drag on
the Israeli economy, favors a larger bantustan on up to 85% of the
territories, thus leaving the major settlement blocs - and overall Israeli
control - intact. The Likud, loathe to concede any part of the Land of
Israel, reluctantly agrees to a Palestinian mini-state on 42% of the West
Bank and (perhaps) all of Gaza. This represents Sharon's "painful

The same "two-state solution" can cut either way, then. It can be a
constructive step towards true Palestinian self-determination within a
viable regional framework, or it can represent a permanent state of
apartheid. The difference between the two is not only territorial. Leaving
only a strategic 10-15% of the West Bank under Israeli control would spell
the difference between a viable Palestinian state with the potential to
develop, and a bantustan. Israel is banking on the anxiousness of the
international community to remove this conflict from the agenda, and thus
on its reluctance to "quibble" about a few percentages of land. This is why
"viability" must be part of the equation, not merely Palestinian statehood.

(3) A Federal Bi-national State

This is a variation on the two-state idea, favored by many Palestinians
because it offers them self-determination and access to the entire country.
Rather than two states, a single "bi-national" state would arise consisting
of two discrete "Palestinian" and "Jewish" areas, or a connected series of
cantons, that are granted a kind of autonomy (something like an American
state). The bi-national state would provide a common citizenship and,
presumably, the freedom to live anywhere within the state (although how the
autonomous character of each canton would be preserved is unclear). Israeli
settlers could remain in Israeli enclaves in the West Bank, East Jerusalem
and Gaza, while Palestinians could resettle areas such as the Galilee,
Jaffa, Lydda, Ramle and perhaps the northern Negev. It also offers greater
economic viability to the Palestinians who would not be confined to a
resource-poor min-state.

Still, a bi-national approach contains probably fatal drawbacks:

* Palestinians and Israeli Jews constitute national entities, not ethnic
groups. Their fundamental and competing claims of self-determination rule
out a common state framework. A bi-national rather than unitary state
assumes a certain incompatibility, a competition for hegemony, even
simmering hostility, and as such is a kind of halfway measure that does not
promise long-term stability. It falls short of both self-determination and
full equality as citizens in a shared state

* The two populations are so intertwined that the creation of discrete
population blocs is impossible. Any system of cantons relies on artificial
and transient population clusters that stand in opposition to dynamic
processes on the ground. Demographics create majorities and minorities that
do not always coincide with political claims and counter-claims over
territory, especially where large numbers of refugees must be accommodated.
Populations also move in response to economic opportunities. Land
ownership, transportation systems, sites of religious or historical
significance often cross-cut neat territorial units. A bi-national scheme
also locks members of dynamic societies into predetermined categories they
may or may not accept. It assumes, for example, that Palestinian citizens
of Israel would choose to live in Palestinian cantons, an assumption that
remains to be seen.

* The problem of hegemony. The entry of the Palestinians into any common
state framework with Israelis at too early a stage, without a semblance of
economic, institutional or political parity, carries the risk of turning
the Palestinians into a permanent underclass.

* Such a truncated state does not give the Palestinians the space to
address the return of the refugees.

(4) An Inclusive Unitary State

Before adopting a two-state approach, the PLO favored a "secular
democratic" state that would encompass both the Palestinian and Jewish
populations of the country. The PLO Negotiating Support Team recently
circulated a paper suggesting that the "facts on the ground," the massive
presence of Israel's Occupation combined with its virtual incorporation of
the Occupied Territories into Israel proper, may be creating a situation
where the two-state solution is no longer viable. It raises the question,
suggested by Sari Nusseibeh and other Palestinian intellectuals, whether
the Palestinians should not claim equal rights in a unitary state covering
the entire country, thus neutralizing the exclusivity and control inherent
in the Occupation. If we can't end the Occupation, this line of reasoning
goes, let's work around it. Israel has created one integral country by its
own hand. Israeli refusal would expose the naked apartheid towards which
its occupation policies are inexorably leading.

Demanding equal rights means creating, de facto, a secular democratic
state. Whether or not the Occupation is reversible is a question well worth
examining. But the unitary state approach, in my opinion, suffers from
several fatal shortcomings:

* As mentioned, the attempt to place two national entities - and entities
with a history of opposing claims and bitter conflict no less -- in one
political framework has little chance of success since each demands
self-determination and cannot be subsumed to another civil identity, as can
ethnic groups.

* As a political and economic entity Israel is much stronger than the
Palestinian polity (Israel's economy is currently more than 40 times larger
than the Palestinians'), and the Israeli Jewish population enjoys far
greater education, access to employment and income than does the
Palestinian. Any attempt to rush the integration of the two peoples might
result in the Palestinians being consigned permanently to an underclass,
much like the black African population of contemporary South Africa. The
issue of Israeli hegemony, present even in two-state and regional
approaches, must be confronted.

* The notion of a unitary state contradicts completely the principle of
Jewish self-determination as embodied in the Zionist movement and the
Israeli state, a claim that Israel will not relinquish. If the Palestinians
speak of a democratic state of all its citizens, what Israeli Jews hear is
a state with a Palestinian majority in the entire country, realization of
the refugees' Right of Return and the subordination of the Jewish
population to a hostile Palestinian population.

Some Palestinians, realizing this, have suggested a two-stage approach
whereby an admittedly non-viable Palestinian state is created in as much of
the Occupied territories as possible, with the understanding that after a
period of trust-building and joint economic development, the two states
would merge into a single unit, bi-national or unitary. The cogency of this
approach stems from the fact that the geographies, economies and lives of
both peoples are so intertwined, and that the Occupation will not be
significantly rolled back. But it is a non-starter from an Israeli point of
view, and separate nation-states almost never merge. This approach can
easily be deflected by Israel. It will offer a two-state-cum-bantustan
solution, as Sharon has done - perhaps even a "generous" bantustan as Barak
had in mind -- thus effectively warding off demands for a single state that
would imperil Israel's existence as a Jewish state.

(5) A Unitary State: Apartheid

Although a unitary state is advanced by those who favor an absolute end to
occupation and the exclusivity of a Jewish state, it is also an approach
advocated by the far right-wing of Israel, led by Netanyahu and proponents
of "transfer." Fearful that any Palestinian state would compromise Jewish
claims over the land, they envision an Israeli state extending from the
Mediterranean to the Jordan River. In this version of "maximalist Zionism,"
the "Arabs" (this camp would seldom use the term "Palestinians") would be
"transferred" to other Arab states. There they would be "happier," and if
the Palestinians want to establish a state in Jordan (Sharon's old plan),
that would be fine. Arabs who wish to remain in the Land/State of Israel
could do so, but only if they recognize Jewish sovereignty and accept a
limited form of citizenship.

Since the international community demands a Palestinian state (in whatever
form), and since a Palestinian mini-state is more "sellable" than outright
apartheid and accomplishes the same thing, this option will be held in
abeyance as long a bantustan is achievable. Continued Palestinian
resistance or other forms of threat to Israeli control (demographic, for
example) could easily trigger demands for transfer and the extension of
Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan.

(6) A Regional Confederation

This appears to me the most elegant and workable solution. It incorporates
many of the positive elements of the other approaches (Palestinian
self-determination alongside a secure Israel, the possibility of genuine
peace-making and reconciliation) while providing the space necessary for
wider accommodative processes to work (regional integration, relocation of
displaced peoples, economic development, resource management). It offers
the scope to handle complex, conflictual problems, issues and processes
that cannot be adequately resolved within the narrow confines of

Regional confederations can take many forms. Here I offer my "two-stage
solution" involving the establishment of a Palestinian state followed by a
Middle Eastern regional confederation.

A Middle East Union (MEU)

The notion of a regional confederation rests on several principles:

* "Greater Syria" is the geographical, historical and economic unit of the
Levant. Combined with Egypt (which once entered into a federation with
Syria and which has a long-standing peace agreement with Israel), the
outlines of a Middle Eastern federation become apparent. Such a
confederation could be extended to include other states in the future.

* The problems facing the various peoples of the region are regional in
scope and cannot be solved in a piece-meal fashion within the artificial
borders of each colonial-designed state. This is true of the Palestinian
refugee issue, of course, but also of other fundamental problems in the
region. Overall economic development, the development of each state's
economy, sustainable management of the region's scarce resources, water
first among them, all require a regional approach. So, too, do issues of
security, both inter-state and intra-state. Not only must conflicts among
the different states be resolved, but also those that affect the region's
many peoples. Artificial political borders imposed by colonial powers do
not conform to national, religious or ethnic boundaries, leading to endemic
tensions. And both development and security rest on the need to democratize
every regime in the area. All this requires a free flow of peoples and
economic activities that only a regional association can provide.

* Palestinian self-determination is a prerequisite for a solution to the
Palestinian- Israeli conflict as well as any regional peace. A Palestinian
state must be established to provide the Palestinians with a national
political space and parity with the other nations of the region, even if
that state is less than viable and does not encompass the entire
Palestinian population.

* The civil identities of each state in the region must be respected
together with particular national, religious and ethnic identities. A
distinct Israeli civil society has developed (both cross-cutting
Jewish-Arab communities and distinctly for each), as has a Jordanian civil
society that can no longer be defined merely along Hashemite Bedouin lines.
A state of Lebanon may continue to exist, or its constituent communities
may choose to realign with other configurations that might arise in the
region when each state becomes incorporated into a free-flowing regional
confederation. Only a regional arrangement that can be "sold" to the states
of the region has a chance of being accepted.

A regional framework that accommodates processes of demographic,
institutional and economic reconfiguration that will take place among and
within the member states suggests a "two-stage" process.

Stage 1: A Palestinian state alongside Israel. The first stage would
require an essential parity among the peoples of the region. The
establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel (self-rule),
preferably on all the lands conquered in 1967, is a necessary first step in
that direction. No progress can be made towards either a just peace or a
political arrangement able to cope with the complex issues of national,
religious and ethnic self-determination and security until the greatest
destabilizing element is addressed: giving the Palestinians the political
space they require. All political schemes of the past century to resolve
the issue of Palestine have attempted to by-pass the Palestinians
themselves, and all have failed.

Although the creation of a political space in their own state is a
prerequisite for any Middle East peace, the major problems confronting the
Palestinians cannot be addressed in the mini-state that would emerge. Even
if the entire Occupation were removed, a Palestinian state on only 22% of
the country has little chance of economic development, let alone addressing
the refugee issue. By shifting both the issues of viability and of the
refugees to the region as a whole, a greater degree of latitude is
available than confining them to the particular size, resources and
characteristics of the Palestinian state.

Stage 2: A regional confederation comprised of the states of the region,
but with an overarching coordinating structure. The key to the
confederation approach, and its greatest advantage, is its ability to
disassociate residence (and employment) from citizenship. This follows the
European model, which was preceded by the Nordic alliance in Scandinavia
and the Benelux arrangement. Once the Palestinians receive their political
space in the form of an independent state, a parity would be created that
would allow them to address the actual needs of their people.

Since 1948 the Palestinians have become a people of diaspora and exile.
Only half the Palestinians live in Palestine (three and a half million in
the Occupied Territories, one million in Israel). The key to resolving the
issue of living in the Palestinian homeland versus the diaspora ("diaspora"
indicating a voluntary decision to live abroad, versus involuntary exile)
is choice. Palestinian refugees would be citizens of the Palestinian state,
but, like all the other residents of the region, would have the option of
living and working anywhere in the Middle Eastern Union. (Because of
overlaps between civil and national identities, Palestinians throughout the
confederation would have the option of deciding whether they would retain
the citizenship of the country in which they are living or adopting
Palestinian citizenship.) Some Palestinians may prefer to live within their
own state, others to remain where they are, still others to "go home" to
areas inside Israel (yet others may prefer emigration to other countries).
In the present system of states, each protective of its sovereignty, the
Right of Return is considered by Israel to be a fundamental threat to its
existence - as a sovereign national entity, as well as a Jewish one. Under
a confederation, however, even a major influx of Palestinian refugees into
Israel would not endanger Israel's sovereignty, since the refugees would
come as citizens of Palestine and would not vote in Israeli elections.
Their status would be like that of citizens of one member state of the
European Union who choose to live and work in another. Simply the fact of
living in a country is not the problem; 350,000 foreign workers reside
today in Israel without threatening its integrity as a country. The problem
is citizenship. Having their political space in the state of Palestine,
refugees could find substantive individual justice by living in any part of
Palestine they choose, including parts within Israel, but would only enjoy
the status of non-voting permanent residents. By the same token, Israeli
Jews wishing to live in the settlements could continue to do so under
Palestinian sovereignty (which would permit the settlements to be
integrated, of course), but would lose their role as extensions of Israeli
control by remaining Israeli citizens.

Such a system would encourage the even development of the region as a
whole. Initially labor migrations would move heavily into Israel and
Palestine, where their combined economies (the latter boosted significantly
by tourism and heavy investment by Diaspora Palestinians) would attract
workers from the less developed areas of the confederation. In this case
the disassociation of citizenship from residency would protect both
countries. Eventually, however, the resources of the other states in the
confederation, including their extremely attractive tourist sites, would
encourage a more even development, especially given stability, peace and an
attractive investment environment. Needless to say, the countries of the
region would have to pass through a thorough democratization process. A
commission similar to the European Commission would administer the
Confederation, with the help of appropriate inter-state agencies. In time,
the MEU might develop political institutions of its own in line with the
European Parliament, which would lend it the structure of a regional union.

Like the European Union, the MEU would establish a cooperative relationship
with the other states of the Middle East. Like the Gulf States, it could
provide a model for parallel regional confederations, among the North
African countries, for example. And the MEU could expand to include other
states in the region, Iraq and even Iran being logical candidates.

In this promising Middle Eastern Union, the Palestinians play a key role.
After decades of bitter struggle, it is they who must signify the end of
the conflict with the Israelis. (This will require, in addition to the
complete end of the Occupation and the establishment of a viable
Palestinian state, a process of reconciliation that must involve
acknowledgement by Israel of its part in the tragic events since 1948,
especially as they relate to the refugees.) If the Palestinians are
expected to compromise on the extent to which their state occupies historic
Palestine (Israel within the 1967 borders occupies 78% of the country),
they must be assured that their interests will not be by-passed yet again.
They must be assured that a regional confederation in fact comes into
being. Palestinian readiness to broker Israel's integration into the Middle
East must be dependent upon the transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2.

The Palestinians will also play a key role in the process of regional
democratization. Despite their struggle with the autocratic Palestinian
Authority (sometimes called the other Occupation) and a lack of democratic
experience in the refugee's experience, Palestinian civil society both
within the country and without has strong democratic, secular and educated
elements. Ironically, this is feared by the autocratic Arab regimes that,
despite lip service, have often stood in the way of the Palestinian
struggle. It is worth keeping in mind that Israel is not the only obstacle
to full Palestinian participation in the region.

From Ethnocracy To A Democratic Israel

Of all the states in the region, Israel is being asked to take the greatest
risks - indeed, to make the painful transition from an ethnocracy in which
Jews have a privileged position to a country of all its citizens, most of
whom in a few years will not be Jewish. It is becoming evident that a
Jewish state is untenable, especially if it aspires to be democratic as
well. There are several reasons for this:

* The vast majority of Jews chose never to come to Israel, preferring an
ethnic existence in the Diaspora to a national life in Israel. The Jewish
population of Israel accounts for less than one-third of the Jewish people,
and that is counting the approximately 400,000 Israeli Jews who have

* The Jewish majority is Israel is declining. Recent studies place the
Jewish majority at only about 72%, taking into account emigration, an Arab
minority of almost 20%, the 300,000 non-Jewish Russians who arrived at
immigrants in the 1990s and significant numbers of foreign workers who are
likely to stay permanently. These two developments mean that the
discriminatory measures Israel must employ to artificially enforce its
"Jewish character" will eventually destroy the moral basis of the society,
transforming it into a Spartan fortress at war with its significant portion
of its own citizens.

* In a region in which all the member states will be required to undergo a
process of democratization, Israel too will be required to forego its
exclusivist character and become a "normal" state of all its citizens. All
forms of institutionalized discrimination (such as "state lands" reserved
for Jewish use only) will have to be dismantled. A globalized world based
on equal rights, together with the need to establish a democratic
confederation, render ethnocracy unacceptable.

A key to a just peace and the emergence of a regional confederation,
however, is a good faith acceptance of all the peoples of the region,
despite the history of conflict (extending far beyond Palestinians and
Israelis) and, if anything, because of the massive dislocations regional
reconfiguration will involve. An Israeli readiness (or at least
acquiescence) to undergo a democratization process and to allow significant
numbers of refugees to reside in the country (albeit not as citizens) must
be met by a respect for the Zionist narrative and a tolerance of
Israeli/Jewish national culture. Only a genuine policy and enactment of
inclusion and parity will ensure regional stability, peace and development.

Thus Israel will go through a double transformation: into a state of all
its citizens, and into a member state of a regional confederation, with far
lower barriers and far more interaction with the peoples of the region than
it has experienced (or welcomed) so far. Does the MEU pose a threat to
Israel? Is it simply a means of destroying the Jewish state by more subtle
ways? I would argue not. On the contrary, I would advocate to my fellow
Israeli Jews that we welcome, embrace and facilitate the process of

The untenability of a Jewish state derives from the realities mentioned
above, which have nothing to do with hostile external forces. The Jewish
nation (again, representing a small minority of world Jewry) will have to
find other ways of expressing its self-determination. To put a positive
spin on the transformations required of Israel, relinquishing "ownership"
of a state fraught with irresolvable tensions in favor of inclusion in a
regional confederation offers them, for the first time, peace, security,
acceptance and freedom of movement and economic activity. But in a more
fundamental way, "Jewish" Israel as an expression of Jewish nationalism
will continue to exist and flourish. The crowning achievement of Zionism
has been the creation of a vibrant national culture and polity supported by
strong traditions and institutions. Israeli culture - its symbols,
expressions and institutions -- will continue to exist even if the state is
transformed. The European community of South Africa did not "disappear"
with the coming of majority rule; in fact, it remained the governing force
in the economic and civil life of the country, successfully maintaining its
cultural expressions. The Israeli Jewish society, culture, economy and
polity will also continue as a major force in Israeli life even after
democratization. Indeed, as in the case of the Europeans in South Africa,
Israeli Jewish hegemony will become an issue.

Ironically (and positively), the incorporation of a country informed by
Israeli-Jewish culture will achieve another cardinal goal of Zionism: the
complete integration of the Jewish nation as an integral part of the Middle
Eastern mosaic. Jewish life will return to the area of the world where it
originated and where Jews have lived for tens of centuries. Supported by
the Diaspora, Israeli Jews will once again contribute to the culture and
development of their wider Middle Eastern homeland.

Israeli culture and institutions are powerful but unappreciated elements of
the peace process and transition to a regional confederation. They are what
allow Israel to escape its either-or dilemma. Israeli Jews falsely believe
that either they will retain their exclusively Jewish state or will face
the destruction of Jewish national existence. If anything threatens Jewish
life in Israel today it is the conflict with the Arab and wider Muslim
worlds that threatens to turn into a religious war accompanied by weapons
of mass destruction. Israel cannot continue to exist as a besieged ghetto
facing Europe (and the US), its back (reinforced by a massive wall) to its
own Middle Eastern "neighborhood." True, it will have to undergo
fundamental adjustments, but it will have to do that anyway, sooner or
later. Its partner peoples in the region must sympathetically support a
period of transition. Better than happen in a region committed to peace and
development rather than afflicted with interminable conflict. .

Is A Regional Approach Practical?

If Israelis fear the hidden agendas of a regional confederation, Arabs are
wary of any political arrangement that may extend Israeli hegemony
throughout the region. That is why a hiatus is necessary between the first
and second stages of the confederation process; time for easing into new
political, social, economic and geographic arrangements, time for economic
development, time for reconciliation, time for democratization - all within
the framework of existing states (including a Palestinian one) that will
offer security during a period of transition. Regardless of the
hostilities, the fears, the leap from the familiar landscape of
"us-and-them" conflict, there seems to be little choice. Whether or not we
accept his prescriptions, Powell has a point: Arab economies account for
only 1 percent of the world's non-oil exports, almost 30% of the people in
the four countries surrounding Palestine/Israel live below the poverty
line, and 65 million adults in the Middle East remain illiterate, including
half the women. The Arab governments are far from democratic. If a just
peace is not defeated by the Occupation, it will never succeed in such an
environment even if a viable Palestinian state finally arises. Indeed, many
Palestinian believe that the Arab governments themselves fear and oppose a
truly independent Palestinian state because the Palestinian people
constitute an educated and progressive population who, if free, might
release fundamental social changes in the region.

What, then, are the chances that a regional confederation might actually
emerge, given the opposition that is likely to arise from almost every
direction? Needless to say, a Middle Eastern Union would be beneficial to
the people of the region as a whole and to the Palestinians in particular.
But what of the Arab governments and Israel?

The Arab Governments

If there is any common agenda between Palestinian and Israeli peace
activists, it is the call to the international community to intervene in
order to end the Occupation. But that, as I have mentioned, is only part of
the problem. A small, sovereign Palestinian state surrounded by autocratic
regimes and a stagnant regional economy, unable to accommodate its own
refugees and raise the standard of living of all its citizens to an
acceptable level, will lack viability regardless of the Occupation or
Israeli hegemony. Nor would such a region ever accept Israel, even it is
relinquished its Occupation completely and became a "normal" country of
democracy, especially if it was the only state in the region to enjoy a
European level of life. The Arab states will not willingly accept
democratization. This is a cause that our own Middle Eastern civil society
must adopt - Palestinian and Israeli together, in partnership with other
progressive, if besieged forces throughout our region, supported by the
international community. We cannot shuffle our responsibilities off on
Europeans or Americans. We need to begin immediately the "second stage,"
the democratization of our region, as a precondition for any future of
justice, peace, development and security. The time has come to put aside
obstacles to activities that serve the interests of all the progressive
forces of our region. Any "peace arrangement" will be still-born unless it
includes regional transformation. In this sense Palestinians can be said to
be living under two occupations: the Israeli and that of the autocratic
Arab regimes that prevent the emergence of a healthy civil society.
Eliminating one occupation without relating to the other represents a
struggle only half won.


At his point in time, Israeli Jews (and their government) have no interest
whatsoever in a regional confederation. Israel faces Europe (and the US)
with its back - now fortified by a massive wall -- to the Middle East. The
alienation is almost complete, despite the fact that more than a third of
Israelis hail from Muslim countries. In fact, Israel, which has already
been accepted as part of the "European Bloc" at the UN, could well be
accepted as a member of the European Union in the not-so-distant future.
Israelis see little benefit in either political or economic ties to the
Arab world, and certainly would not trust their security to a wider
regional confederation.

Unless, however, we are prepared for cataclysmic events in our region,
Israel must be made to play its role in creating a stable, peaceful and
prosperous Middle East. Part of that process, such as ending the Occupation
and ensuring the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, must be
accomplished by means of external international pressure, since Israel will
not relinquish its Occupation willingly (this applies to withdrawal from
the Golan Heights as well, a precondition to peace with Syria). Once that
is concluded, however, and a process of regional democratization and
development is underway, Israel will be helped to "back into" the other
required changes. Though it may have close ties to Europe and the US, it
will have to come to terms with the emergence of a regional confederation,
and will have to address the regional problems that cannot be resolved
solely between it and a Palestinian state: the refugee issue, water,
regional development, security and the rest. This will be a difficult
process because of the internal changes that will simultaneously be
transforming Israeli society: the rise of a democratic state informed by
strong Jewish-Israeli elements, but not defined by them.

In order to ease the process, to ensure the Israeli public that their
integration into the region will be done in good faith, a number of
measures will have to be taken:

* The State of Israel, which will have concluded a peace agreement
acceptable to the Palestinian people, will be recognized within
internationally agreed-upon borders;

* Steps will be taken to integrate Israel into the region, politically and
practically, as well as economically, and its internal processes of
national definition and transformation will be respected;

* Like the countries of Europe, Israel will be responsible for its own
security even as regional defense forces are developed; and

* Progress towards a regional confederation will be contingent upon
processes of regional democratization.

Once these conditions are met, the thrust of developments in the Middle
East will be towards regional integration. In fact, I am of the opinion
that once the hurdle of the first stage is overcome, progress towards the
second stage will be rather rapid.

An Inclusive and Transparent Process

If Israelis fear the hidden agendas of a regional confederation, Arabs are
wary of any political arrangement that may extend Israeli hegemony
throughout the region. The process of articulating the meaning and
structures of regional peace is as important as the actual proposals. This
process, which can begin immediately by progressive sectors of the Middle
Eastern and international civil societies, must be inclusive of all the
major parties to the conflict - Palestinians of the Occupied Territories,
Palestinian citizens of Israel, refugees and members of the Palestinian
Diaspora; Israeli Jews of various persuasions; and representatives of the
major communities and political camps of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

The articulation of a regional confederation could begin with small working
groups and gradually extend to include all the many constituent communities
that will be asked to join. The process must be transparent and based upon
tolerance of conflicting narratives, views, positions and visions. It will
not arrive at a consensual position, but must aspire to a workable plan
upon which a generally agreed upon common vision can emerge. But as in the
process of consensus, parties must be ready to "stand aside" in favor of
widespread consensus over a particular issue, while the participants as a
whole must be willing to postpone decision on an issue if any of the
parties feels strongly opposed. The process must be inclusive of all
parties and views even if it becomes painstakingly slow. It should
eventually include other major parties of reference as well: Iraqis,
Iranians, Saudis and other Middle Eastern states, the "Quartet," Muslim
groups and countries, the Jewish Diaspora, development professionals and
others. Only then will it have the legitimacy to form the basis of a truly
new Middle East.

If we aspire to create a worldwide campaign for a just peace between
Palestinians and Israelis, it must include more than merely ending the
Occupation or seeing the establishment of a small Palestinian state. We
must articulate a broader vision around which we can mobilize the
international community. We have failed at doing that until now, a lack
that has left many international groups floundering for an agenda, an
effective program. We in the region must articulate what we want, where we
are going and what we want from our supporters abroad. Without that we
cannot give them a lead, and they cannot mount effective campaigns.

Indeed, even thinking beyond the horrors of our daily lives should bring us
a measure of hope and purpose. Besides resolving the conflicts that beset
us, we must define where we are going if we are to break the impasse, the
distrust, the tunnel vision induced by the grinding conflict. The vision of
an MEU should be integrated with other visions, plans and discussions in
absolute refusal to allow the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict to
defeat us.

These are the outlines of a vision that, unlike those of bi-national or
separate states, has not been clearly articulated before. It holds, I
believe, the best chance of success, even if it seems the most
"idealistic." If it simply serves to prod us to begin envisioning the
future, however, it may help us transcend the immediate obstacles. I hope
this piece contributes to a burgeoning debate.

(Jeff Halper is the Coordinator of the Israeli Committee Against House
Demolitions. He can be reached through MideastWeb (see email link below). Comments on this
paper are welcome.)

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