A New State Solution?

A few days ago I attended a fascinating talk by two officers in the Israel Defence Forces, Brigadier-General Amir Avivi and Sergeant Benjamin Anthony. They were representing the Miryam Institute, a recently-founded Israeli think-tank which advocates for the "New State" solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. For those unfamiliar with the geopolitical situation, a very rough summary is that are two separate Palestinian territories, the Gaza Strip (controlled by Hamas) and the West Bank (controlled by the Palestinian Authority). The Gaza Strip is less than 10% of the size of the West Bank, and much poorer, but far more densely populated (2 million in Gaza strip vs 3 million in West Bank). Both are occupied by Israel, with significant economic repercussions, particularly in the Gaza Strip. There are also frequent outbreaks of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, including several uprisings ("intifadas"), crackdowns by the Israel Defence Forces, and regular terrorist and rocket attacks on Israel. Given the technological and military advantages of Israel, there are many more casualties amongst Palestinians; the number of these who are active combatants is disputed.

Proposed resolutions to the situation can generally be classified as either "one-state" or "two-state" solutions; in arguing for the New State solution, Avivi and Anthony aim to break out of those two categories (note that I follow their lead in using "two-state solution" to refer to the establishment of a Palestinian state roughly based on current borders, and autonomous from Israel). They started by making a number of claims, all of which sound fairly plausible:
  1. When considering possible solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it's important for a Palestinian state, if formed, to be independent and sovereign.
  2. Controlling the West Bank is crucial to Israel's long-term security. Its western border is high ground overlooking flat, densely-populated portions of Israel. Snipers or artillery based there could easily terrorise most of Israel's population; defending against a large-scale assault launched from there would be incredibly difficult. In the long term, without Israeli securing the border, Jordan would likely not be able to prevent militants from ISIS or Iran from entering the West Bank.
  3. Israel, Gaza and the West Bank are tiny. Israel, at its narrowest point, is only 9 miles wide. Planes from Europe landing at Ben-Gurion Airport need to cross over almost the entire West Bank just to get the right landing angle. There's no way, in a two state solution, both could maintain effective sovereign airspace.
  4. The West Bank is not economically promising territory. It has no significant natural resources and no sea access.
  5. A disconnected Palestinian state comprising the West Bank and Gaza Strip would also be economically difficult; and even if they could be connected (e.g. via a tunnel) the connection could not realistically be defended.
The four points above suggest that no two-state solution can remove Palestine from Israeli control without leading to significant future conflict or else an effective client state status for Palestine. There are also other reasons why the current solutions are undesirable :
  1. Most proposed two-state solutions also involve the forced removal of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes; even if this is a necessary step, it still breaches their rights.
  2. All proposed one-state solutions would involve either Jews eventually losing control of the Israeli government (since Palestinians have many more children) or Palestinians being second-class citizens without voting rights.
  3. While there is a lot of focus on the West Bank, it is the Gaza Strip which is the most urgent humanitarian crisis; most proposed solutions unfairly treat it as a side issue.
  4. Given the chaos throughout the Middle East, and the threat of Iran, many nearby countries are or want to be on relatively good terms with Israel, and no longer find the Palestine situation useful to drum up outrage. So it'll become more difficult to apply enough pressure to force Israel to accepted the strategic concessions which I outlined above.
In a roundabout way, these claims boil down to the fact that there is no proposal for Palestinian autonomy which it would benefit Israel to accept - and that while this remains the case, peace cannot last. It may well be a good thing to apply international pressure to force Israel to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in the short term, but in the long term I'm not sure that it will ever make such major strategic concessions as those outlined above. It does seem unjust, in response to this, to propose peace agreements which give Israel even more of what it wants. But any approach to the peace process which emphasises justice will inevitably get bogged down in arguments over historical wrongs stretching back at least to the foundation of Israel, if not before. I'm more interested in figuring out how to realistically achieve the best outcome for the most people - and so, it seems, is the Miryam Institute. Their proposal, the New State solution, is to form an independent Palestine comprising the Gaza Strip, plus a connected area of the Sinai Peninsula roughly the size of the West Bank. Israel would get control of the West Bank. Egypt would therefore lose a little less than 10% of the Sinai, or in other words a little less than 0.6% of its overall territory; this area houses roughly 30 000 people, or 0.03% of Egypt's population. Everyone involved would have the choice whether to stay in their current location, or to relocate.

What's required:
  1. Egyptian consent (and whatever remuneration would ensure it)
  2. Money to set up basic housing, infrastructure and services in the New State
With those requirements fulfilled, advocates of the New State solution claim that New Palestine could become autonomous without being an existential threat to Israel (in the same way as Jordan, Lebanon or Egypt) which wouldn't be possible in any other solution; and further, that it would have good opportunities to develop economically, with ports and the tourism potential of a beautiful coastline (unlike the West Bank).

The list of requirements might seem rather short. It would of course be ideal to also have the agreement of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the UN. But my favourite thing about this proposal is that unlike any other I've seen, it has the potential to work without requiring the agreement of any of the above parties (let alone all of them!). All you need is one country - say, the US - capable of cutting a deal with Egypt, pumping investment money into New Palestine, and providing interim governance for a couple of years until elections could take place. Given the option, I think many or most Gazans would flee there. Israel wouldn't be stupid enough to forcefully close the Egypt-Gaza border, especially if that meant antagonising the US. Hamas might want to stop people from leaving to the rest of New Palestine - but given the deprivation of the Gaza Strip, any attempt to do so would dry up its support very quickly. Similarly, the PA couldn't do much - and if the New State did well enough, the West Bank would find its population shrinking rapidly, up to the point where its being absorbed into Israel seems entirely reasonable.

I'm not even sure that very much money is needed, either. The terrible conditions in Gaza are fundamentally driven by oppression; left to themselves (and with the help of remittances from abroad), Gazans and immigrants to New Palestine would likely become better off relatively quickly. Further, US aid to Egypt (mostly military) is a significant amount, and the Egyptian economy is not doing particularly well; it may well be beneficial for Egypt to agree to the New State solution for little more than goodwill and the assurance of continued assistance.

I have, of course, been ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the fact that the New State proposal doesn't meet the demands of Palestinian negotiators - most notably the Right of Return of Palestinian refugees to Israeli territory, and partial control over Jerusalem - and would almost certainly be rejected outright by the Palestinian Authority. However, this does not seem to me to be a knock-down argument against it. The international community is not outraged primarily because Palestinians do not have the Right of Return, or control over Jerusalem; rather, the current situation is abhorrent because of the depredations which are being imposed on them. If there is a way for Palestinians (especially Gazans) to be liberated from that position, then that would be a good solution - not perfect, but a lot closer than any other. It's also worth noting that even if older generations are committed to the goals above, it seems unlikely that younger Palestinians, less represented by authorities, feel similarly about returning to areas that they've never lived in or even seen.

A second elephant is the reaction of the Israeli government - for example, whether they'd feel secure with a militarised Palestine as their neighbour. However, the fact that this proposal is being pushed by Israeli military officers in particular is reassuring on that front. New Palestine's borders wouldn't be as close to Israeli population centers as the West Bank is, and it also wouldn't have the advantage of high ground. And even if there were an eventual conflict, geography would allow it to be a fairly limited one (similar to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war), unlike what would happen if Palestine kept its current borders and a war broke out.

Lastly, there's the question of whether a good government could be set up in New Palestine. In theory, a neutral interim government, followed by democratic elections, should allow the Palestinian people to choose a government that represents them. In practice, all major factions have been involved in terrorism against civilians, and it's unlikely that any government could truly represent a "fresh start". Again, however, this would be true in any proposed solution; and I hope that a New Palestinian government busy with running a country would be defined to a lesser extent by their opposition to Israel. When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, hopes have often been misplaced. Perhaps, though, that is all the more reason to embrace a new approach.


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