Discussions of a Middle-east settlement between Israel and two enclaves of refugees exiled from Israel and resident in the West Bank and Gaza are, after all these years, as unimaginative as they are interminable. They may be interminable because they are unimaginative. So I want to suggest a new idea for resolving the political problem of statehood for the refugees. I do not call these refugees Palestinians, not out of any disrespect, but out of regard that the term implies a people, a nation, or a state.
The conventional idea about a settlement between these parties—Israelis on the one hand, refugees on the other—involves a two-state solution: Israel and a refugee state combining two enclaves geographically separated. A few radicals in the refugee enclaves or elsewhere (Libya’s Muammar al-Gaddafi, for one) advocate a one-state solution amalgamating both populations and lands. Since this proposal amounts to, and is recognized by Israelis as leading to, eventual demographic destruction of a Jewish State of Israel, it has no chance of acceptance by Israelis. Outside the Middle East, it appeals only to those who hate Israel or Jews or both, or to those with a naïve belief that all peoples can live together in peace.
This conventional idea originates in historical circumstances. In 1948, the British ended their mandate to govern Palestine, a British Protectorate after the First World War, and the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to create out of it, and to recognize, a State of Israel as a refuge and home for Jews. It did not include the West Bank, soon to become a part of Jordan, or Gaza, soon to become a part of Egypt. Adjoining Arab Muslim states rejected the UN action and attacked the new state. Most Arab Muslims living in the lands of the Protectorate opposed the creation of the State of Israel, and, at the urging of the invading armies, fled Israel in the expectation of returning after its defeat. When the Arab-Israeli war ended with Israel’s victory, the Muslim Arabs who had fled Israel found themselves in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. For reasons various and variable, neither Jordan nor Egypt made any effort to naturalize these Muslim Arabs and to assimilate them into their economies or societies. In turn, the refugees rejected naturalization and assimilation because they had hopes, partly encouraged by their hosts, of returning to their former homes and lands by conquering Israel. Thus, refugee camps in these areas, as well as those in Lebanon and Syria, became centers of anti-Israeli efforts.
By the mid 1960s, Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had become both militarily and politically powerful in the refugee camps. As a result of the 1967 Six Day War, Israel occupied western Jordon and northeast Egypt, known as the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. For essentially the same reason—the desire to rid themselves from unruly and potentially seditious populations—Jordan and Egypt ceded the West Bank and Gaza to the PLO, to become a new state for the refugees, who were then beginning to call themselves, and to be called, Palestinians. Except for the 1973 Yom Kippur War initiated by surrounding Muslim Arab states, international purposes for the resolution of the continuing conflicts have been to end Israeli occupation of these areas; negotiate boundaries, relationships, and peace with Israel; and create a unified Palestinian state from these two enclaves.
These purposes have never been realized. Israel has remained ambiguous about, or opposed to, these purposes by pursuing a “Greater Israel” policy of settlements in the West Bank, imposing a harsh occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and opposing or undermining the leadership of the PLO, Fatah, and, since its dismantling of settlements in and withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, Hamas. As Israeli military supremacy ended the likelihood of conventional threats from surrounding Arab-Muslim states, so the PLO resorted to asymmetric, terrorist warfare undertaken by refugee terrorist groups aided and abetted by Iran and Syria. For decades, all three parties have, in one way, or to one degree, or another failed to discourage or control, incited, or supported terrorists who have persisted in attacking Israel for the purpose of overthrowing it through a war of attrition. Because its withdrawal from Gaza did not end terrorist and rocket attacks from that enclave, Israel is probably convinced that the traditional land-for-peace formula is unrealistic and perhaps considers peace on any terms not much more realistic.
The present conundrum is a simple one. On the one hand, many in the West believe that, as long as the refugees live without control of their lives in an independent state and with a viable economy, so long they will continue in conditions of belligerency toward Israel and destitution. On the other hand, many in Israel now suspect, given six decades of conflict in the area, that political independence and economic sufficiency for the refugees are unlikely to ensure even the tolerance of co-existence.
Ever since the PLO under Arafat emerged as the recognized voice of the refugees nearly 40 years ago, American policy has sought to resolve the festering conflict in the area by establishing a second state for them. Israel, a state created by the United Nations some 20 years earlier, would join with other interested parties to create a second state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, with Israeli settlements and Jerusalem in the mix of territorial issues to be resolved beforehand.
After 40 years of alternating hostilities and negotiations, no one has anything to show for this imagined two-state solution. The likely futility of continued efforts to achieve such a solution should be evident in the failure of Clinton’s Camp David efforts in 2000. By the conclusion of three-way negotiations, Arafat had received almost everything which he had wanted but unexpectedly insisted on the right of return by refugees. The talks collapsed without any agreement when Arafat refused to retract this last-minute, non-negotiable demand.
Although many accused him of being unreasonable—a dozen years earlier, Abba Eden had quipped that Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”—, Arafat was, in fact, being entirely realistic in making this demand as the leader of a divided organization. Since its founding as an umbrella organization, the PLO has been inherently unstable, united in varying degrees of hostility to the state of Israel, but divided between realists, who resignedly accept Israel’s existence as a fact of life, and rejectionists, who vehemently deny Israel’s legitimacy as a state. Arafat united them only by skillfully choreographing conflicts, skirmishes, and terrorism, and truces, stalemates, and negotiations. He secured much of what both factions wanted, but he knew that, without winning the right to return, he would lose credibility with, and authority over, the rejectionists, who would discredit in the media and destroy in the streets any agreement without it, and likely him as well.
Meanwhile, Israel entered into the Camp David negotiations in hopes of a final settlement of the conflict, if the PLO accepted terms which the United States would enforce. But, after a half century of struggle, Israel still hoped for, but had doubts about, a meaningful peace with its long-time enemy. So it has undermined leadership and abetted divisions within the PLO; so long as its factions quarreled among themselves, Israel could claim, as it has claimed and still claims, to have no reliable partner in negotiations. With Arafat’s death, the factionalism which Arafat managed, has increased, with a resulting sharp split along political and geographic lines: Fatah, the more realistic faction, dominant but shrinking, in the West Bank; and Hamas, the rejectionist faction, dominant and growing, in Gaza. Given the political differences between the two groups, recently magnified by military conflict when Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza, these two rivals are not likely to resolve their differences in a way which will satisfy Israel that it has a unified, stable, and reliable partner in any negotiations in the near future. A two-state approach, which relies on, but cannot achieve, the resolution of these factional differences and conflicts thus postpones the possibility of progress indefinitely.
The following proposal predicates itself on this apparently ineradicable divide and urges that negotiations pursue separate tracks, with Fatah in the West Bank first, with Hamas in Gaza later, if ever. The evident success of a Fatah-governed West Bank “state” would bring pressure on a Hamas-governed Gaza to succeed as a “state” or to merge with the West Bank “state.” At any point in this process, Israel can negotiate an agreement with a stand-alone or merged West Bank “state” or with separate West Bank and Gaza “states.”
Before I proceed with my specific proposals, I want to cite a historical episode of some relevance: the end of British rule in India a year earlier, in 1947. In that year, England departed India, then partitioned into two states, predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. In the course of the partition, Hindu and Muslim mobs attacked each other, and both states engaged in some hostilities. An uneven peace, with occasional hostilities across borders and in Kashmir, has endured since then. Pakistan was a country divided into eastern and western areas about 1500 miles apart, with India between them. Because of cultural and economic differences between these two areas, the eastern wing successfully revolted and seceded to become Bangladesh in 1971. From one colony, India, emerged two, then three countries, all more or less politically stable and economically viable. But all three countries in this area began with some political arrangements and economic structures in place and have since developed separately, with Bangladesh, one of the poorest, most densely populated countries in the world, improving its socio-economic condition rather dramatically. Meanwhile, owing to its proximity to other Muslim states, Pakistan is struggling to remain a viable state. One lesson of this history is that a common history and a shared religion are not sufficient conditions for a single state in the face of a geographic divide and cultural differences.
My suggestion is a modified return to the situation at the end of the 1948 Arab-Israel War. At that time, the lands of the West Bank and Gaza, originally envisioned as lands for Arab-Muslims living in the British Protectorate, had been occupied by Jordan and Egypt, respectively. Their divestment of these lands over 20 years later has left the refugees without the means to create a single state and a unified economy, even if they wanted to abandon the waste of resources in continued and unproductive conflict, sometimes with each other, almost always with Israel. Current factionalism between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza do not promise movement toward such a Palestinian entity. Indeed, they reflect somewhat different demographics, cultures, and economies. Given the divisions between these two PLO factions, Israel has no single party with which to negotiate; given continued hostilities, Israel supports neither Fatah nor Hamas, and plays off one against the other for its own safety. We have now reached a point which requires the resolution of this fraternal struggle as a pre-condition of a negotiated two-state settlement, made more difficult by the strategic and tactical vagaries of Israeli policy toward these two factions. Given this dynamic, we must regard such a resolution as too remote to be a realistic approach, not to mention the only one.
The change from the present stalemate would be a restoration of the West Bank to Jordanian hegemony and of Gaza to Egyptian hegemony, areas which they controlled by the end of 1948 and for over 20 more years. The renewed hegemony would take the form of protectorates of semi-autonomous provinces under United Nations auspices. Their purpose would be to establish political stability and economic viability in each area; in both cases, Jordan and Egypt would work to prevent military or terrorist attacks on Israel, maintain domestic order, develop stable and sustainable political structures in both areas, and foster economic interdependence between itself and its protectorate.
I acknowledge that both Jordan and Egypt would be reluctant to assume responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. The problem is greater for Egypt, given internal domestic problems, which Hamas would likely aggravate. At the same time, Egypt has greater capacity for dealing with Gaza, even under Hamas control, as the recent negotiations between these two parties to effect a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas suggest.
To mitigate these and other difficulties, I propose a two-pronged approach. First, the United States would take an initial but limited start-up leadership role in this project. Only the United States has the authority with all parties, and the political, economic, and military resources, to launch this change. A primary concern should be the integrity of the West Bank and of Israel; to this end, it should unequivocally insist on Israel’s repatriation of all West Bank Israeli settlers and just as unequivocally support Israel’s rejection of the refugees’ right of return.
Second, to avoid undue prominence in what is, in effect, separate nation-building efforts, the United States should urge and support the creation of a Middle East organization of its Arab or Muslim states, an equivalent of NATO and EEU combined—call it the “Brotherhood of Middle East States” (BOMES)—to assume primary executive responsibility for these efforts and prepare it for other problems in the region.
The United States should first provide full support to Jordan and Egypt to help them in their leading roles. Then, as an act of good faith when BOMES is ready, it should gradually funnel most of its support of this new “Marshall Plan” for the West Bank and Gaza through BOMES but maintain a level of increased assistance to Jordan and Egypt. During this defined period of transition, the United States would gradually decrease, and BOMES would gradually increase, its support of this regional alliance.
If and when the West Bank or Gaza becomes politically stable and economically viable, the United Nations would terminate the protectorate and create it as an independent state. When both the West Bank and Gaza have achieved statehood, they would be free to consider political affiliation or even amalgamation—or not.