Two States: Starved For A Vision

When most people envision, however skeptically, a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, they imagine adding a Palestinian state to the Jewish one — something similar to redeeming the partition the United Nations intended in 1948. But Israel is no longer the state envisioned in 1948 — and not only because in 1967 it bit off, without quite swallowing, what was left of Arab Palestine. Palestine has no hope of becoming that kind of state either.

In 1948, the area was sparsely populated with agricultural villages and collectives and rivalries erupted over hilltops. Today, Israel and Palestine exist in a globalized, networked, densely populated, urbanized land. North of the Negev, Israel and Palestine, together, are approximately the size and scope of greater Los Angeles; under 10,000 square miles. Israel is more like a city-state, an arc-shaped Hebrew-speaking megalopolis of about six million Jews, from Beersheba to Haifa and on into the Galilee. Bending around this arc is a string of hybridized Israeli Arab cities, another million and a half people, many of whose residents percolate into the civil society, as professionals and merchants, and whose Arabic disrupts Israel’s urbane Hebrew culture hardly at all.

And interfacing with this Israel is a Palestinian, Arabic state-in-the-making, increasingly integrated with the economic life of Amman. Indeed, if and when hundreds of thousands of refugees start pouring back into the area, much of the West Bank hill areas (and Jordan Valley) will look like,and have the urban density of, Amman. Demography is not simply about counting live births in "ethnic" groups. It is also about education and development, the distribution of professional classes, in short, the political economy of growth in a networked world, where inflow of intellectual capital is the key to creating wealth.

Israel has a GDP of about $250 billion; fully 20 percent of this comes from exporting technologically advanced solutions and components to Europe, the United States, and the Far East. Over the past decades, Israeli businesses have built intimate relationships with myriad global companies. Freedom has allowed them opportunities to develop talent, scope markets, import components, learn management, and so forth. They had a lot to learn after the 1980s, when the state- and Histadrut-dominated economy nearly collapsed.

Palestine, for its part, has a GDP of about $5 billion; and Palestinian cities need international donors to provide around $2 billion a year to pay teachers and police. And yet, Palestinian individuals hold over $8 billion in bank deposits (Jordanian Palestinians have well over $12 billion). But the banks can’t lend even half of those funds because there are not enough Palestinian entrepreneurs with plausible business plans to borrow money. The main obstacle to building an entrepreneurial base is the occupation, to be sure. There are not enough freedoms to develop talent, scope markets, etc. But an additional, urgent problem is a dearth of know-how in science and high technology — even in writing business plans, for that matter. Palestinian businesses could never get off the ground without leveraging relationships with Israeli investors and companies.

So statehood, yes; but independence as in 1948? On the contrary, only infrastructural integration and political interdependence — regionally and globally — will enable Palestine and Israel to grow fast enough to outpace their respective social problems and inequalities. About the importance of close security cooperation against terror undergrounds on both sides, what more needs to be said?

Housing stock and office space in Palestine, as in Israel, will grow up, not out. The flow of know-how and know-about into Palestine from Israel and Jordan will matter more to Palestine’s urban development than any financial capital it may receive from Western Europe or Gulf States. Consider this: Palestine graduates about 1,200 computer technologists a year, but those graduates will need to work on large-scale projects such as those found in the technology centers Israel has established for Intel, Cisco, and Google if they are to develop strong competencies. Israeli medical tourism, for its part, will be far more robust if it forges partnerships with Palestinians and Jordanians draws clients from Dubai and Qatar.

This inevitable interdependence has immediate political consequences; negotiations over two states should anticipate moves toward greater integration, hence confederated arrangements, to mitigate the fears each side has of the other’s “self-determination.” The jurisdictions these city-states would exercise encompass much more than police, education, civil law, and cultural affairs — what the Palestinian Authority has hypothetically exercised under the Oslo Agreement. Rather, these jurisdictions would cover water and sewage, bandwidth and telecom, health delivery and control of epidemics, labor law, certification and integration of tourist services, banking and currency controls, roads and bridges, railways, construction standards, technical university certification.

In effect, we would have one big system: two nations, but one urban infrastructure. And sharing these governmental responsibilities would help Israel and Palestine work cooperatively and grow reciprocally. In 2008, then Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas advanced a cooperative security arrangement. They also explored new confederative institutions for Jerusalem. They agreed the city would serve as two capitals but would be constituted as one municipality. What was that projected municipality if not a confederative institution? What was the projected international committee that would become custodian of the old city? A confederative solution could also establish an international commission to resolve the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

I am not suggesting either side is interested in abandoning national sovereignty nor that notions of holiness, or justice under international law, won’t matter. Both sides will want to build “their own state.” And I know that the very word “confederation” raises eyebrows. How would two peoples that seem to hate each other contemplate anything but separation? But confederative institutions are, historically, what peoples build precisely when they do not trust one another and their economic realities do not permit separation. That is how Canada and the European Union began. That is what the global economy portends for us all.

Besides, poll after poll indicate that majorities on both sides can converge on the terms of a deal, but even larger majorities do not believe the other side wants, or can implement, a solution. All are starved for a vision. In this sense, confederative institutions should not be thought of as a stroke of optimism but the reverse: a way of offering two despairing peoples a chance to slip the traps of the immediate past, and move together into the new political economy that awaits them. Of course, they can also resume the fight to the finish, as in Bosnia during the 1990s; Israeli settlers and Hamas leaders seem eager to do so. But this will leave us with no finish, only more dead and grieving and the same damn problem: not just the need to keep the past at bay but the present in sight.

A version of this article appears in the current Sh'ma.