In a recent article, former ambassador Dennis Ross, reported on several days of discussions he recently held in Ramallah and Jerusalem. He states: "I was struck by the nature of the debate I witnessed in both places. To my surprise it wasn't about the stalemate in the peace process or the Arab Peace Initiative. It was about...whether Gaza was in fact already lost to the Islamists'. Both Israelis and Palestinians were wondering about the consequences of Gaza becoming in their word "Hamisistan."
For the Palestinians the most striking conclusion was that it was essential that Hamas not succeed in the West Bank the way it is succeeding in Gaza...among some, I heard an interesting proposal. Let's make the West Bank work; socially, economically and institutionally. Then let's hold up our model of success in contrast with the failure of Gaza where functional unemployment is close to 70 percent. Let's create understandings with Jordan and Israel for at least economic confederation and security. And if Hamas still hangs on in Gaza perhaps there can be a 'three state solution.'"
Ross, a little too blithely, dismisses the notion by saying that "no matter how sensible confederation between the Palestinian State and Jordon might be, at least economically, a failed State in Gaza would be a constant source of instability." That point of view, however, both ignores and misrepresents the notion voiced, not by Israelis, but by Palestinians, of creating "understandings with Jordan and Israel for at least economic consideration and security." That idea is not, however, the most daring part of the proposal. The following sentence is:
"And if Hamas still hangs on in Gaza perhaps there can be a three state solution."
The fact that this proposal is being voiced by Palestinians is perhaps the single most hopeful turn of events since the failed Oslo Accords. It implies recognition by factions within Fatah, in the Palestinian Authority, of the fact that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict has in essence ended. A political solution to that conflict is at hand for those who wish it. What is left after that is not a political conflict between Palestinian and Israeli, but an Islamist conflict that is today making its presence felt throughout the Middle East between Jihadi movements and governments, and non-Jihadi movements and governments, be they Moslem, Christian, or Jewish.
Whether one looks at Hezbollah (a Shiite Jihadi movement in Southern Lebanon) or Al-Qaeda (a Suni Jihadi movement making its presence felt most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq) or at the attacks of Hamas (an Iranian and Syrian backed Jihadi movement) in Gaza, or Fatah Al-Islam (a Jihadi movement currently battling the Lebanese Army) in Northern Lebanon while hiding behind trapped Palestinian civilians, one sees the same pattern recurring over and over again. It is the struggle of Islamist movements against non-Islamist movements and governments. It is also instructive to note that none of those conflicts listed above have Israel as a participant. What is hopeful is that those factions in Ramallah with whom Dennis Ross spoke have recognized that the conflict has morphed. It is no longer a question of Palestinians struggling for their independence in order to implement a two state solution. Indeed, there is no bigger proponent today of a two state solution than the government of Israel. Today the battle raging across the Middle East is not Moslem versus Jew but Jihadi Islamist versus everyone else; Moslem, Christian, and Jew alike.
Could the proposed confederation which these Palestinians discussed with Dennis Ross be viable? The answer is absolutely. From an economic point of view there is no question that each one of the members of this proposed Benelux-like economic and security confederation would benefit from its existence. Indeed, such an arrangement could become one of the greatest economic success stories in the history of the region.
Moreover, the four thorniest issues could be dealt with quickly and easily within such a framework. Those four issues are: the Palestinian Right of Return; the future of the settlements; East Jerusalem as the capital for a proposed Palestinian state; and Al-Aqsa and the Mosque of Omar.
1.) Palestinian Right of Return
There would be a two pronged approach. First, a mutual recognition, on the part of the Independent State of West Palestine and the Independent State of Israel, of the Right of Return of both the Palestinian and Jewish peoples to areas within the borders of British Mandatory Palestine. It will be remembered that British Mandatory Palestine was partitioned by the UN in 1948 into one Jewish and one Palestinian Arab state. Literally, at the stroke of midnight, after the British mandate ended the Jewish people declared the independence of the State of Israel. The Palestinian people however, did not. During the years of conflict leading up to and immediately after the establishment of the State of Israel both Jewish and Palestinian populations were uprooted and displaced. Both parties would now agree that both peoples have a right to return to find their national homelands within the borders of Mandatory Palestine. This would mean that Palestinians have a right to return to areas which are now in Israel; and Jews have a right to return to areas now part of the Independent State of West Palestine. However, both sides would recognize that the way in which those rights would be implemented would not be through a physical return of Palestinians or Israelis to homes they occupied prior to the Armistice Agreement of 1949. They would have a right to physically return to the Independent states of their own peoples (Palestinians to West Palestine and Jews to Israel) however those who lost property in the years of hostilities dating from the start of the British mandate over Palestine through the Armistice of 1949 would be allowed to seek compensation. That compensation could come from a fund contributed to by the member states of the confederation and third interested parties, such as the EU, U.S., UN, etc. Thus, the Palestinian whose home was lost to him or her in Jaffa would be able to receive compensation for their lost property. In addition, the Jew whose home was lost in Hebron, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, etc. would be able to receive similar compensation. This compensation as a form of implementing the Right of Return would apply only to the Palestinians of West Palestine or to those other Palestinians who wished to once and for all settle their claims, regardless of their geographic location. This for the first time would put a real incentive in place for individuals to opt out of the conflict.
2.) The Future of the Settlements
The majority of the settlements in the West Bank would be disbanded. Those larger settlements which Israel wishes to retain would become part of Israel proper IN EXCHANGE FOR a like sized territory of pre '67 Israel. This is an arrangement which has already worked under the terms of the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel. With Jordan being a part of the confederation, there would be no reason for the Palestinians not to be able to accept such a solution. This would not be land for peace.
This would quite literally be land for land, with peace as the byproduct and sine qua non.
3.) East Jerusalem as the capital for a proposed Palestinian state
Just as Jerusalem has grown to the West, so could Jerusalem grow to the East under the terms of this agreement. Thus, greater Eastern Jerusalem would stretch in that direction and Northward and in that new greater Eastern Jerusalem would be the capital of the Independent State of Palestine. Moreover, provisions could be made that after forty years of peace, the borders of the East Jerusalem capital would be those of the Clinton proposal at Camp David. In the mean time, Arab residents of what is currently municipal Jerusalem could opt immediately for Palestinian citizenship and choose to pay their federal taxes to the Palestinian state instead of Israel. Thus, they would have both political representation and would be able to direct the federal portion of their tax to the state which claimed their loyalty.
4.) Al-Aqsa and the Mosque of Omar.
The current cry of the Jihadi throughout the Moslem world is to liberate the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Mosque of Omar from the hands of the infidels, namely the Jews. Currently both mosques as well as the Temple Mount area as a whole are administered, not by Jews nor the State of Israel, but by the Waqf or Islamic trust. Under the proposed confederation however there would be an opportunity to diffuse that situation once and for all. The interiors of both mosques from the surface of the tiles on the floor to the top of the ceilings of the mosques themselves could be placed under the protectorship of the Arab League, under the direct supervision of the Sharif of Mecca, who is none other than the current King of Jordan, King Abdullah. This would mean granting an almost consular status to the interior of the mosques. Thus when anyone entered those mosques they would be entering the protectorate of the Arab League. In this way, Jews would not be losing sovereignty over their Holy places which exist beneath the surface of the tiles of the mosques; while Moslems would once and for all be able to declare that the mosques themselves were within Moslem and Arab sovereignty.
Moreover, with West Palestine having declared independence and shown the way to a political solution, with the Arab League serving as a protector for the third holiest shrines in Islam, a Hamas led Gaza state would rightly be viewed as rejectionist and a pariah within the non-Jihadi Moslem world. Western Palestine could be a shining example of economic and political success which the Gazans had only to embrace while simultaneously rejecting Jihadism.
Should the Gazans choose not to do so, and should they present a military problem, there would be a military solution. The single most hopeful occurrence in the history of the Middle East conflict may well have had its beginnings in those initial exchanges between Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and Ambassador Ross. That glowing ember must now be nurtured and fanned both by the United States, Israel, and non-Jihadi Palestinians and Arabs throughout the Middle East. If that is accomplished, it will ignite, not a conflagration of war, but a torch of independence, prosperity, and peace.
Originally published in Jewish World Review prior to the Hamas take over of Gaza.