The Long Con(federation): Understanding the latest attempts to legitimize Israeli colonization 

The Wall (Saeed Qaq - APA Images)

Haim Bresheeth-Žabner

Mondoweiss  /  July 30, 2022

Recent proposals for an Israeli-Palestinian confederation are a makeover of the two-state solution, allowing Israel to continue to legitimize its settler-colonial project.

If there is one thing Zionism has been consistent about over the past century, it is  its commitment to territorial expansion to achieve demographic supremacy in Palestine, whatever diversionary tactics may be used by politicians to confuse and mislead the unwary. When such expansion was impossible through military means, and ever since before 1948, Zionism adopted the gradualist approach, dubbed “dunam after dunam.” In that sense, Israel’s partaking in any of the subsequent “peace plans” with the Palestinians was always underwritten by the aim of controlling the entire country over the long duree.

Anyone who viewed Biden’s vacuous and cringeworthy newspeak about a “two-state solution” during his recent visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia must be aware of the unease with which even Biden himself was spouting his hackneyed political platitudes. Nevertheless, the two-state mantra has served Israel well, allowing the continuation of its unrelenting expansion of illegal settlements and land confiscation in the West Bank with total impunity. 

For three whole decades after the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel has combined talk of the “two-state solution” with a refusal to accept any vestige of a Palestinian polity, as well as acting decisively to make such a purported “solution” totally unobtainable. While every western politician has learned the “two-state” mantra by heart, they have all colluded with Israel to make such an arrangement impossible.

Israel has understood, however, that to continue the occupation and its many travesties, it needs to be seen as always working towards a “solution,” which explains its nominal commitment to the two-state framework. Yet the two-state solution now faces serious challenges, to the point that it has become clear that a new linguistic formula is necessary for the main supporters of the Zionist project to continue their uncritical support over the next few decades. 

The search has started for the next verbal smoke-screen, alongside the social machinery serving to keep it alive–much like the PA has kept alive the two-state solution despite being aborted before it could ever be born.

No one carefully watching the debate about Zionism and Palestine in the last decade could have missed the emergence of a whole range of “solutions”–ones that are designed to achieve that elusive but prescient dictum of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, in his novel Il Gatopardo: “For things to remain the same, everything must change.” Such squaring of circles has become a specialty of Israeli politics. 

Leading the pack of would-be liberals who rush to offer the world another suit of the emperor’s clothes to cover the Zionist shame, are a number of erstwhile projects–the  Federation Plan, the Israeli-Palestinian ConfederationTwo States, One Homeland, and the unnamed J Street Confederation

This avalanche of proposals is hardly accidental. It provides an effective coverup for Israel’s policy of dispossession and brutal apartheid, put forward by a motley crew of politicians of fading notoriety in search of an unlikely revival.

The Good, the Bad, and the Con/federation

First, the so-called federation and confederation, the first being the cruder of the two, the second being somewhat more astute and sophisticated. The Federation Plan hardly hides its light under a bushel–in its very first tenet, it already declares its objective clearly:

“[To] reach political understandings with representative of the Palestinians, Arab nations, Europe, and the USA, over a solution which allows for the application of Israeli sovereignty over all land west of the Jordan River (with the exception of Gaza), full citizenship for West Bank Palestinians, and a federal government in the extended State of Israel.”

The Federation Plan

The non-inclusion of Gaza in this utopian arrangement is not accidental–the leaders of the Federation Plan openly explain that the “Israeli Federation will not include the Gaza Strip,” because as a Jewish state, it must have a Jewish majority. Instead, Gaza would be “segregated and declared an independent political entity, a sort of ‘city-state.’” And in order to secure Israeli-Jewish control, the country would be divided into “30 cantons, about 20 of which will have a Jewish majority and ten with Arab majorities (one of which will have a Druze majority).” 

One cannot blame them for not being open about their priorities. The political positioning of this grouping is of the Israeli extreme right, as exemplified by the terms used for the West Bank–“Judea and Samaria.”

While the Federation Plan is clearly a naked ruse to bring about Israeli control of all of Palestine–excluding Gaza–the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation (IPC) represents a sophisticated effort to achieve the same aim and is the most detailed of all the “solutions.” Over the past year it seems to have garnered some degree of interest, attracting an unlikely combination of speakers, including Noam ChomskyCornell West, and Alan Dershowitz, for what it terms its “simulations”–a series of bi-weekly online meetings, with repetitive votes by the partakers, and role-playing members of the three Parliaments of Israel, Palestine, and the IPC itself.  The speakers are supposed to endorse the process; if they do not, they are soon ignored. The IPC game plan is complex: two physical parliaments, the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, and the Palestinian assembly in Ramallah–in which the Majority party, Hamas, is not represented–are to be joined by a third, that of the IPC, which is proposed to have some sort of web-existence. 

This voluntary body will serve “as a government of the people to resolve conflicts and develop into the future in a fair and equitable manner.”  In other words, it is a low-cost virtual assembly, and will be constructed along imaginative lines–with 300 members personally elected in 300 districts in which either Israelis or Palestinians can stand and be elected. The first assembly will not be elected, but appointed by the founding committee, which will then decide on and call the first election, as well as the manner, time, and place of its meetings. After the first election, the 300 districts will be set up by an Israeli-Palestinian committee of members who will not stand for office. No bill passed by this body may become law, unless a number of conditions have been met relating to the percentage of Israeli and Palestinian parliament members that have passed it.

Interestingly, this text uses “Israeli” and “Palestinian” as exclusive identities, with both seemingly defined along ethno-national lines. This means that a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship may well be confused about their identity, whose status is not addressed by the definitions. This confusion is very evident in the presentations of the founder, Josef Avesar, who runs the sessions in an imperious manner. Such an essentialist set of problematic definitions of civic identity are evidence of the non-democratic and confused assumptions behind the project–separating people across ethno-religious lines. This is not surprising, though, as the structure is designed to uphold such divisions rather than transcend them.                  

Two States+

A very different offering comes from the crew behind Two States, One Homeland, and somewhat more substantial than the monarchic Josef Avesar. These are led by the renowned journalist Meron Rapoport, and the Fatah activist Awni Al-Mashni. Behind them range a long line of academic-activist-experts, such as Prof. Oren Yiftachel, the media activist Ran Cohen, Dr. Assaf David of the Van Leer Institute, Reluca Ganea–founder of the Zazim movement–Human Rights lawyer Michael Sfard, Dr. Thabet Abu-Rass, and Dr. Rula Hardal, to name but a few. This is the most serious of the three organizations dealt with here; their website is detailed and asks the right–and difficult–questions, answering these comprehensively. 

In sum, what is proposed could be called a “two-state plus solution.” The borders proposed are those of June 1967–the so-called Green Line. This is done in part to give the State of Palestine a better chance of functioning properly. The assumption here is that a viable Palestinian state is allowed to emerge and shape its policies independent of Israeli and other outside control. The element of Confederacy is not external, as it is in the Israeli-Palestinian Confederation, but is provided by a range of shared institutions of a confederate nature, such as the Human Rights Court, Economic Authority, cooperative institutions for regulating water, natural resources, and the environment, and a special body for “realizing the Two States, One Homeland solution”. The plan also includes provisions on how the rights of minorities are to be protected, giving them certain rights as a “national minority,” including civil equality and certain forms of institutional representation.               

The main innovation of the plan, and one not shared with the other plans described here, is the partial (and unspecified) acceptance of the Palestinian right of return. This is to be enacted by the tiny Palestinian state that is to be established in the West Bank and Gaza. As the plan envisions, this will be done in stages, but like in the Oslo Accords, no specific or firm undertakings are made when describing the restitution of the refugee problem, save for some lip-service to “appropriate monetary compensation” and the possible rebuilding of some towns, as well as some freedom of movement of refugees that are naturalized within their homeland. In other words: “this is not a full return…but we cannot satisfy one hundred percent of everyone’s desires.”                    

In that way, while the rights of the settlers (many of whom originate in the Jewish diaspora) are fully protected, and they may live on either side of the border, Palestinians from the diaspora are offered very little, though their diasporic state is a direct result of illegal Israeli acts. 

Moreover, an important part of the plan is the principle of Open Land, “where citizens of both countries are free to move and live in all parts of the land,” but not all those who have residence rights in those lands have the same political rights. Instead, “residents would exercise their voting rights in the state where they enjoy citizenship,” not where they live.               

Disconnecting the two sets of rights is clearly designed to defend the Zionist principle of the Jewish State. The plan does not clearly specify the annulment of the racist legislation of Israel, nor a process of de-Zionisation.      

J Street’s flirtation with the Confederation

In a +972 Magazine article last year, Arianna Skibell reported on a shift within J Street regarding the two-state solution, quoting the opinion of an anonymous J Street staffer who believed that facts on the ground rendered the solution impossible, and that “a sizable proportion of staff members…recognize that this solution is increasingly infeasible.” Notably, however, the staffer “spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.”

This shift has been seen in small ways, such as a presentation from Bernard Avishai, an Israeli-American professor, and Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant on April 6, 2021 to members and followers of J Street Chicago. The title of their joint presentation was “Confederation: An Emerging Plausible Two-State Solution?” and discussed an Op-Ed the pair had written for the New York Times exploring the confederation idea.

There is not a publicly-available recording of the event, and J Street did not follow it with any announcement of changed policies, but it seems to point to the fact that J Street seems to be showing belated signs of realization of the two-state solution’s obsolescence.

In that same +972 article, J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami said that the confederation idea is “a really creative extension of the two-state discussion that’s getting past some of the limitations that may have prevented us from getting to a solution.” So, one may assume that the discussion of the Confederation model by J Street is a kite-flying exercise, intended for evaluating the chances for a revival of the now-disgraced “solution” by employing the new formulation to give it a new lick of paint.

The two-state solution gets a makeover     

All three approaches discussed here are carefully engineered to protect the mainstays of current Israel–its military, financial, and diplomatic advantages, its Jewish identity, and its inbuilt apartheid. Moreover, these various permutations of the confederation idea renew and modernize the political and linguistic mechanisms which protect the aforementioned advantages. In other words, no true move towards decolonization.

It would be wrong to declare them all the same, though. 

The Two States, One Homeland plan is clearly identifying some of the most important characteristics of the colonial occupation as crucial for a future peaceful resolution, even if it does not cross the line towards a just resolution. Its work is more widely representative than any of the other proposals, and more carefully thought out and historicized. Its proposals offer Zionism the minimum it requires, while avoiding the minimum necessary to enlist Palestinians behind its vision. Instead, Palestinians are offered “the best that can be done” now, alongside vague promises about future advances. We are back to Oslo obfuscations, it seems.

In the new reality of the normalization agenda aggressively pushed by Washington, the need for a legal and conceptual framework that would allow Israel to extend its control to the whole of Palestine, without continuously tussling with enormous legal hoops–the likes of which brought down the Bennett government after less than two years–is clear and urgent, and the blooming of con(federation) “plans” is the clearest evidence. It seems that the Israeli state, through its multitude of undercover bodies, is flying political kites to gauge the international environment. The use of such formulations has enormous potential–if the two-state solution allowed three decades of freedom from international pressure, then the new formulations may well give it at least three more decades to entrench its control over Palestine. 

What is never discussed by any of the models here is the simple, logical, and just solution developed by the PLO many decades ago–a single, secular, democratic state of all its citizens, in the whole of Palestine. 

This campaign is now spreading fast on both sides of the Green Line, argued by the ODSC, a Palestinian campaign which includes also anti-Zionist Israeli Jews, and Jewish organizations such as the UK Jewish Network for Palestine, with its innovative Convivencia Alliance, supported by most Palestinian faith leaders. Such programs are out by definition–they are, after all, democratic, anti-Zionist, requiring equal rights for all, an end to Apartheid, and the return of the refugees. Perish the thought.

It is exactly this proposed solution of the seemingly “insoluble” settler-colonial occupation and its growing popularity that is deeply worrying for Zionism. After all, what argument can one use against democracy, equality, justice, and equal rights for all? Against just peace based on universal human rights and numerous UN resolutions?

On the other hand, much like Biden’s nonsensical chatter, the con(federation) plans are pure discourse, like the two-state solution always was. But such discourse may allow Zionism to bury past memes so deep, that its control of Palestine will be seen like peace-making, especially to those always ready to give Zionist apartheid yet another chance.

Haim Bresheeth-Žabner is a Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, University of London; his recent book is An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, Verso, London, August 2020