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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 44

Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Comparing Partition and Federation as Options for Coexistence

Monday 22 October 2007, by Sujata Ashwarya Cheema


The Middle East peace process, that began with the signing of Oslo Accords (1993), as well as the various peace initiatives which were taken up prior to Oslo and after its collapse (2000), have focussed on the two-state solution to the conflict, based on the notion that partition is the best solution to conflicting territorial claims, nationalisms, or ethno-national conflicts where claim over land is an issue. Partition is firmly entrenched in the theory and practice of international conflict management and territorial disputes. Some examples where territorial division has been affected for resolution of conflicts are Indo-China (1954), India (1947), Ireland (1920), and others, though not too successfully and with desirable consequences. In all these examples the notions of ’viability’ and ’justice’ have been questioned in the resultant political arrangements, leading to demands by the parties to annul the partition or rework the political boundaries. In some cases, the partition arrangement has been dissolved to make way for a single state or political entity. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a unique case that offers ground to check the ’viability’ and ’justice’ in the two conceivable options for its resolution: partition and federal coexistence. By ’viability’ I mean the material and physical maintainability of a political entity over longue durée and ’justice’ here is understood as ’entitlement’, a concept that has withstood the test of time and transience of ideas.

The idea of partition of Palestine/Israel as a solution to the Arab-Jewish/Palestinian-Israeli conflict was put forward for the first time during the period of the British Mandate. The Palestine Royal Commission, headed by Earl Peel, despatched to investigate the causes of the Arab revolt of 1936 in Palestine, suggested that partition could solve the growing animosity between the Jews and Arabs. The Peel Commission concluded that lasting peace between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine required a formal separation. After the termination of the League of Nations-led Mandate over Palestine, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the Partition Plan in 1948, accepting the majority position of the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP) recommendations. The Partition Plan envisaged the division of the territory into an Arab state and a Jewish state, based on the “population-majority area” principle. The raison d’etre of those who supported this plan was that the “a state for each people” would satisfy the national aspirations of both the Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the best possible way and would lead to their peaceful coexistence as neighbours in the region. They accepted the notion that both the communities, Jews and Palestinian Arabs, had ancient and historical basis for their respective possessory claims over the Land of Palestine and to this extent upheld the idea of justice. The supporters of the Partition Plan also believed that a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem was viable, as minority rights, economic union, internationalisation of Jerusalem under UN jurisdiction, and appeal to both the parties to eschew violence would remove the roadblocks to a lasting peace.

It is pertinent to note that three members of the UNSCOP (India, Iran and Yugoslavia) also had come up with an alternative option for the solution what was called the Federal State Plan. This plan called for an independent state of Palestine comprising an Arab and Jewish federated units, with Jerusalem as their capital. The federal state would have a federal government, and governments of Arab and Jewish units, each having their respective areas of authority. The Constitution was to guarantee equal rights for all minorities and fundamental human rights and freedoms. It would guarantee, inter alia, free access to the Holy Places and protect the religious interests of both the communities. There would be a single Palestinian nationality and citizenship. Those who supported this arrangement believed that the territorial integrity of Palestine was important as partition would involve force, violence, and displacement of a large number of Arabs in the prevailing circumstances and, therefore, could not be ’justiciable’. Moreover, partition would also alter the fact that Palestine was primarily an Arab country. Further, they argued that a Jewish state born out of violence would not be acceptable in the larger Arab region and, therefore, could not be ’viable’.

The adoption of the Partition Plan by the United Nations, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and eventual creation of the state of Israel, and the subsequent intensification of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the decades that followed, removed the Federal Plan from the discourse on the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After the war of 1948, the Arabs/Palestinians were left with a much diminished West Bank and Gaza Strip than what was promised to the Palestinians in the Partition Plan. The June war of 1967 resulted in the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since then, all peace initiatives have focused on the Israeli withdrawal from these two territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state on them. In effect, partition has been the mainstay of the discourse on the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The most significant effort to bring peace among the Palestinians and Israelis, the secret Oslo negotiations between Israel and the PLO, which resulted in the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 that heralded the beginning of a “peace process”, was also premised on partition.

The Oslo Accords were primarily based on two principles: mutual recognition and a two-state solution to the conflict as the sine qua non of further Israel-Palestinian negotiations. The Accords envisaged the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, existing alongside Israel, within a transitional period not exceeding five years, leading to a permanent settlement based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 and resolution of “final status issues” such as of the ’return/compensation of Palestinian refugees’, ’status of Jerusalem’, ’delineation of final borders’ of the two states, ’access to aquifers in the West Bank’, and the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. While the Oslo process drew upon the notion of justice of the UN Partition Plan, it did not pay much attention to the viability of partition in the vastly changed circumstances in the region. By making the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of the final status issues, the Accords failed to address the most important factor in the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, that is, a state with contiguous borders. Further, by beginning with phased withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, there was a presumption that ’enclaves could be expanded into state’ and that settlements were ’facts on ground’ that could not be altered. Thus the question of ’viability’ of a solution based on partition in the changed scenario was not taken into account. It also fell short of being justiciable by relegating the questions of the return of Palestinian refugees, distribution of water resources, and permanent borders to a later stage of negotiation given the colossal inbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians. The Roadmap Plan for Peace, which has been proffered by the Quartet, comprising the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, is one such plan which came into being after the collapse of the Oslo agreements, also holds the same premise but goes further.

The predictable failure of the Oslo process to resolve the conflict and the continuing escalation of violence between the Palestinians and Israelis leading to the derailment of the Roadmap Peace Plan in the past four years has brought forth the notions of viability and justice in the present peace discourse. With the collapse of the Oslo peace process, the weaknesses of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, based on the notion of partition as an answer to competing nationalistic claims, have been laid bare. The two-state solution has already lost a great deal of its historic appeal, given the lack of meaningful gains for the Palestinians in terms of territory and other crucial questions, and for the Israelis, as their security and stability has been constantly threatened by periodic upsurges of violence.

In the present scenario, a two-state partition is unlikely to satisfy the territorial aspirations of either side. The several large and small Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the separation wall being built by Israel to secure its settlements dismembers the territory into a series of enclaves, shattering the spatial contiguity of the territory and the viability of a two-state solution. To make partition successful in terms of bringing forth a viable Palestinian state with contiguous borders, the Israeli settlements would have to be dismantled. The West Bank settlers would not leave without a fierce fight, with heavy losses on both sides. Also, many Arabs within the pre-1967 borders would not prefer to live permanently in a Jewish state, with de facto discrimination by a state partial to Jews, even if the state nominally endows Arabs with political equality. There is also a question of the ’economic viability’ of a Palestinian state. Since 1967, the economies of the West Bank and Gaza have become integrated with Israel, due to factors such as daily labour movement and goods to and from Israel. Periodic closure of borders and restriction of labour movements to Israel and barriers to trade have already caused economic havoc in the Palestinian areas. Studies also indicate that Israel has systematically destroyed the Palestinian economy in the Occupied Territories so as to preclude an economic undergirding of a viable Palestinian state. In addition, the West Bank requires access to Gaza, which would be through Israeli territory—a situation replete with possibilities of instability given the lack of trust between the two sides. Disputes over the use of water (aquifers) in the West Bank would require cooperative agreements. The status of Jerusalem poses another stumbling block in the partition proposals, as Israel has issued categorical official statements against its partition; Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. Some analysts say that Jerusalem forms the core of the conflict. Thus we see the development of social and economic “structural dependency” between Israel and the Palestinian regions.

Both the political dead-ends of the Oslo process as well as greater economic integration and changes in political geography of the region make it worthwhile to explore an alternative way of peace-making. A solution based on coexistence in a single political domain, which would mark a paradigmatic shift in the thinking about the solution to the conflict, appears to be more in order, given the ground realities and impasse over contentious issues. If a solution to the conflict has to be viable and stabilising, with diminished possibility of its collapse, it must be underscored by the principle of justice. Coexistence, which is the watchword in this troubled region, points a way towards resolution of this seemingly intractable conflict, and deserves serious consideration. Any resolution of this conflict will involve certain compromises on certain political and philosophical positions. This was also the spirit of Oslo Accords and all other peace initiatives based on partition. In this context, it is worthwhile to look into the possibility of Palestinian-Israeli coexistence in the form of a federation. The details could be worked out taking into account the ground realities and also by drawing upon the experiences of other federations around the world.

A typical federation would comprise of two ’autonomous’ self-governing units, one Palestinian and the other Jewish, with Jerusalem as the common capital. There would also be a federal government vested with the authority on common concerns of national defence, foreign relations, immigration, taxation for federal purposes, and transport and communications, and most importantly, Jerusalem and other holy places. The Arab and Jewish units would enjoy powers of local-self government and others under various heads. The government could be organised on the basis of a parliamentary system, including a head of state, an executive body, a representative federal legislative body composed of two chambers, and a federal court. The executive would be responsible to the legislative body. Like other successful federations in the world, the federal court would be the final court of appeal regarding constitutional matters. The Constitution was to guarantee equal rights to all citizens and equal rights to minorities in each state. It would also guarantee fundamental human rights and freedoms such as those of speech, assembly, belief, faith and worship. It would guarantee free access to the Holy Places and protect religious interests. This would be based on free movement of people between the two federating units. There would be a single citizenship. The Constitution would provide for settlement of disputes between units by peaceful means. The above-mentioned features of a ’Jewish-Arab federation’ are but preliminary ideas of its political contours.

A federation based on the principle of ’One Land for Two Peoples’ would not only solve the problem of self-determination of both peoples, but also the issues of refugees, Jerusalem, and security. It would do so while preserving the Jewish and Arab character of the respective states. However, the question of military withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the dismantling of colonial settlements would diminish support for the federation on the Israeli side. Giving up struggle against these two issues could limit support for a federation on the Palestinian side. While it now appears as a “utopian” political proposal given the deficit of trust on both sides, talking about federal coexistence in practical terms may force people to understand and confront more seriously the limits of alternative approaches. Moreover, with increasing incidences of political violence in the region, there is much disquiet, not all of it publicly expressed, about the two-state solution. If federation is considered a desirable outcome of negotiation and compromises, then it might have some chance of crystallising opinion and emerging as a serious alternative. Such a decentralist solution would satisfy the nationalist aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis and stabilise the lives of both the peoples. If this be so, the principles of viability and justice would be met, ensuring continuing peace in the region.

The official Palestinian position now is that Palestinians are willing to accept a coexistence with Israel if it retreats to its June 4, 1967 borders—a demand long made even by the United Nations (Resolution 242)—and right to return. They project the continuing Israeli ’violations’ of 242 as one of the justifications for militancy. Israel refuses to give up the territory and recognize the right of return—which would soon turn Israel into a majority Arab state—and continues retaliation in ’self-defence’. A transcendent political solution such as the federal coexistence, which takes care of the contentious issues in its institutionalisation, can possibly resolve this conflict, and demands a serious reconsideration.

The author is a Lecturer at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia; currently she is a post-doctoral Fellow at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris.

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