To Resolve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Do Away With Borders Instead of Firing Across Them

News Abroad
tags: Israel, Palestine

Mathias Mossberg is a retired Swedish Ambassador and long-term diplomat on issues related to the peace process, and a Senior Research Fellow at Lund University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Mark LeVine is Professor of History at UC Irvine and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Center. They are the editors of "One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States" (University of California Press, 2014).

This summer's carnage in Gaza, and now the explosion of violence across North Africa and the Middle East, would seem to leave the Israeli-Palestinian peace process on the brink of not merely death, but irrelevance as well. At the very least, the local and regional dynamics are forcing Israelis, Palestinians and the international community to confront a host of issues that have brought the situation to its present state.

From the scope of international law and the limits of legitimate self-defense, to the wisdom of the now defunct Oslo process and the cost of the major powers abandoning their traditional mediating role—the unraveling of a generation of attempted peacemaking has discredited the entire architecture of the negotiating process open to critique.

One can blame Secretary of State Kerry for lack of negotiating fortitude, Israel for using disproportionate violence and for being so afraid of Palestinian unity that it would launch a new war to thwart it, and Palestinians for being unable to stop the missiles and murderers in their midst.

But all of these elements point to a more fundamental problem: the devastating absence of creativity among all the parties and mediators involved in the conflict. The lack of honesty and originality in addressing both its root causes and present-day dynamics have proved as deadly as the attacks on civilians on both sides. Even after a dozen years of renewed conflict, Israel cannot figure out how to stay in the West Bank while offering Palestinians their full measure of rights while Palestinians have failed to implement a resistance strategy that could effectively challenge the ongoing settlement enterprise.

Putting Peace in Formaldehyde

That the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic seems frozen in time is no accident. Rather, it is the result of a deliberate policy choice by Israel. In 2004, as Israel prepared to “disengage” from Gaza, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's senior advisor Dov Weisglass, explained it this way: “The disengagement [from Gaza] …. supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.”

This was “exactly what has happened,” he continued. “The peace process ... has now been frozen. What I effectively agreed to with the Americans was that part of the settlements would not be dealt with at all, and the rest will not be dealt with until the Palestinians turn into Finns. That is the significance of what we did."

There has been no major shift in Israeli policy since then.

The third major Israeli attack on Gaza in the last five years, coupled with the ongoing settlement enterprise across the West Bank, have demonstrated the prescience of Weisglass’s and Sharon's strategy. But if the Israeli government has successfully kept the peace process on ice, realities on the ground never froze, and continue with brutal regularity to reanimate the violence in ever more toxic forms.

Israel has entrenched itself in the West Bank far beyond the point of any possible return to the 1967 borders, and thus to any solution envisioned by Oslo. Palestinians leaders are either entirely coopted by Oslo, effectively enforcing Israeli's expansionist policies, or wedded to strategically outdated and morally untenable models of resistance that have the same effect, however unintended.

The Only Possible Two-State Solution

It seems, tragically, that the two-state solution is dead—drowned in a decade of formaldehyde, unoriginality and bad faith.

Or is it?

For the last half decade a group of Israeli, Palestinian and international scholars have worked to develop a very different two-state solution than the one based on Oslo; one building on a new conception of the relationship between territory, sovereignty and citizenship.

We call this vision a “parallel states” scenario because it envisions two states existing in parallel rather than next to each other, sharing various levels and degrees of overlapping sovereignty across the entirety of historic Palestine/Eretz Yisrael.

The basic principle rests on dividing sovereignty instead of territory, creating two parallel state structures that would co-exist over the whole of the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. This would entail re-shaping the political foundations of traditional state structures by de-coupling the exclusive link between state and territory, replacing it with a link between governments and citizens wherever they live within the broader territory.

The two states would retain their separate identities, national symbols and political structures. But the two parallel states would be distinguished by their lack of internal borders, allowing free movement and access to land, resources and economic opportunity for the citizens of both polities.

Such an arrangement has two significant advantages over existing, territorially grounded state systems. First, it would enable both Israelis and Palestinians to create a state covering the whole territory of Palestine/Eretz Yisrael, including a shared Jerusalem. In so doing, the issue of settlements and Jerusalem, which more than any other problem doomed Oslo, would be rendered moot.

Equally important, it would allow both peoples to “return” to their historic homeland without upsetting the demographic balance within each state. This would address the previously irreconcilable issue of the Palestinian “right of return,” the number and location of Palestinians would not affect the demographic balance of the Israeli state.

In short, a parallel states scenario would enable both Jews and Palestinians to live in two states that are free, democratic and open to the return of however many of their diasporas wish to do so.

The parallel states scenario does not just address the grand issues. In our newly published volume, One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States (University of California Press), our team of Israeli, Palestinian and international scholars explore the details through which military, political and economic barriers would be lifted as a joint security and defense policy, a common and equitable economic policy, and joint and harmonized legislation would replace existing divisions and ensure the fundamental interests of and broader equality between both states.

While many questions remain, our research at least demonstrates that, unlike either Oslo or a one-state solution, the paradigm can accommodate the complex realities on the ground. Indeed, we argue that parallel states is the only remaining two-state solution available to Israelis and Palestinians.

Parallel states is no panacea. But such a scenario at least does away with borders instead of reinforcing them. Today in the Holy Land a 19th century model of nation-states and the borders dividing them serves little purpose other than to encourage both sides to fire across them time and again, with deadly results.

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