Federation? Why Not?
By Uri Avnery
23 November, 2009
These days mark the 5th anniversary of the murder of Yasser Arafat, and bring back to me our last conversation in his Ramallah compound, a few weeks before his death. It was he who brought up the idea of a threefold federation – Israel, Palestine and Jordan. “And perhaps Lebanon, too. Why not?” – the same as he did at our very first meeting, in Beirut, July 1982, in the middle of the battle. He mentioned the term Benelux – the pact between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg that predated the European Union.
Lately, the term “federation” has come into fashion again. Some people believe that it can serve as a kind of compromise between the “Two-State Solution”, now a world-wide consensus, and the “One-State Solution” that is popular in some radical circles. “Federation” sounds like a miracle: there will be both “two states for two peoples” and a single entity. Two in one, one in two.
THE WORD “federation” does not frighten me. On the contrary, I was already using it in this context 52 years ago.
On June 2, 1957, my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, published the first detailed plan for an independent Palestinian state that would come into being next to Israel. The West Bank was then under Jordanian and the Gaza Strip under Egyptian occupation. I proposed helping the Palestinians to get rid of the occupiers. According to the plan, the two states, the Israeli and the Palestinian, would then establish a federation. I thought that its proper name should be “the Jordan Union”.
A year later, on September 1, 1958, there appeared a document called “the Hebrew Manifesto”. I am proud of my part in its composition. It was a comprehensive plan for a fundamental change of the State of Israel in all its aspects – a kind of complete overhaul. In its readiness to re-examine the fundamentals of the state and in the depth of the thinking involved, it has no parallel from the founding of Israel to this very day. Among its authors were Nathan Yellin-Mor, the ex-chief of the Stern Group, Boaz Evron, Amos Kenan and several others.
I was responsible for the chapter on Israeli-Arab peace. It proposed that a sovereign Palestinian state would be set up next to Israel, and that the two states would establish a federation, which would gradually assume more and more jurisdiction. I had to invent a Hebrew word to replace the foreign term “federation”: “Ugda” (grouping) and suggested that it should be called “the Jordan Federation” - “Ugdat ha-Yarden” in Hebrew and “Ittihad al-Urdun” in Arabic. (To my sorrow, this use the term “Ugda” did not take root. Instead, the army adopted it for a division, which is a grouping of regiments or brigades.)
On the morrow of the Six-Day War, after which the entire country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan was under the control of the Israeli army, a new political movement called “Israel-Palestine Federation” called for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. The founders were, more or less, the same people who had composed the “Hebrew Manifesto”.
When this historic opportunity was missed and with the occupation becoming gradually more and more oppressive, I abandoned the use of the term federation. I sensed that it frightened both parties. Israelis were afraid that the word covered a plot to establish a bi-national state – an idea that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis. Palestinians were afraid that it would serve as a disguise for a permanent Israeli occupation.
It should be remembered that the original partition plan adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, did envision a kind of federation, without using the term. It provided for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state, and a separate entity of Jerusalem, administered by the UN. All these entities were to be parts of an economic union that would cover customs, the currency, railways, post, ports, airports and more. This would have, in practice, amounted to a federation.
THE MAIN problem with the word “federation” is that it has no agreed and binding definition. In different parts of the world, it describes wildly different regimes. The same is true for “confederacy”.
No two countries in the world resemble each other completely, and no two federations are the same. Every state and every federation has been shaped by its particular historical development and specific circumstances, and reflects the people that created it.
The word “federation” is derived from the Latin “foedus”, treaty. Basically, a federation is a pact between different states which decide to unite on agreed terms. The USA is a federation, and so is Russia. What do the two have in common?
The United States is, theoretically, a voluntary association of states. The states have many rights, but the federation is headed by a single president with immense powers. In practice, this is one state. When in 1860 the Southern states tried to secede and set up a “confederacy” of their own, the North crushed the “rebellion” in a brutal civil war. Every morning, millions of pupils in the United States swear allegiance to the flag and to “One Nation Under God”.
Russia, too, is officially a federation, but their use of the term has a very different content. Moscow appoints the governors of the provinces, and Vladimir Putin rules the country as a personal fief. When Chechnya tried to secede from the “Russian Federation”, it was crushed even more brutally than the confederacy in the American civil war. (This does not hinder Putin from supporting two seceding provinces of neighboring Georgia.)
Germany defines itself as a “federal republic (“Bundesrepublik”). It is composed of “Länder” that enjoy a large measure of autonomy. Switzerland calls itself a confederation in French and Italian (“Eidgenossenschaft” or “Oath Association” in German) and its cantons enjoy their autonomy. But it is also a very unified country.
It is generally supposd that a “federation” is a tighter association, while a “confederacy” is a looser one. But in reality, these differences are very blurred. It seems that Americans and Russians, Germans and Swiss, identify themselves first of all with their united state, not with their own particular province. (Except for the Bavarians, of course.)
The new Europe is for all practical purposes a confederacy, but its founders did not name it thus. They chose the less definite “European Union”. Why? Perhaps they thought that terms like “federation” and “confederacy” were outdated. Perhaps they considered such terms too binding. The term “union” does not commit its members to anything specific, and they can fill it with whatever content they all agree on and change it from time to time. If the “Lisbon agreement” is finally ratified, the union will change again.
IT MAKES no sense, therefore, to discuss the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian “federation” in general terms, without defining right from the beginning what is meant by this. The same word, used by different people, can express completely different and even contradictory intentions.
For example: I recently saw a plan for a federation here in which every person would have the right to settle anywhere in either state while holding the citizenship of one of them. I can hardly imagine that many Israelis or Palestinians would embrace that. The Israelis would be afraid that the Arabs would soon constitute the majority within Israel, and the Palestinians would worry that Israeli settlers would take possession of every hilltop between the sea and the Jordan.
In any discussion of federation, the matter of immigration looms large as an ominous bone of contention. Would millions of Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to Israeli territory? Would millions of Jewish immigrants be allowed to submerge the State of Palestine?
The same is true for the matter of residence. Could a citizen of Palestine settle in Haifa, and an Israeli citizen in Nablus, as a Pole can now settle in France, a New Yorker in Miami, an inhabitant of canton Zurich in canton Uri?
EACH ONE of us who considers the idea of federation must decide what he or she wants. To draw up a beautiful plan on paper, which has no chance at all of being realized because it ignores the aspirations of both “partners” - or to think in practical terms about real options?
In practice, a federation can come about only on the basis of a free agreement between the two parties. This means that it can be realized only if both – Israelis and Palestinians – consider it as advantageous to themselves and compatible with their national aspirations.
In my opinion, a practical way to realize the idea could look like this:
Stage 1: A sovereign Palestinian state must come into being. This must precede everything else. The occupation must end and Israel must withdraw to the Green Line (with possible mutually agreed swaps of territory.) That goes for Jerusalem, too.
Stage 2: The two states establish a pattern of fair relations between them and get used to living side by side. There will be a need for real steps towards reconciliation and the healing of the wounds of the past. (For example: the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” on the South African model.) On the practical level, fair arrangements of matters like movement between the two states, the division of water resources etc. are put into place.
Stage 3: The two states start negotiations for the establishment of joint institutions. For example: the opening of the border between them for the free movement of people and goods, an economic union, a joint currency, a customs envelope, the use of ports and airports, coordination of foreign relations, and so on. There will be no automatic right for citizens of one state to settle in the other. Each state will decide for itself on its immigration policy.
The two parties can jointly decide whether to invite Jordan as a third partner to the proposed treaty.
Such a negotiation can succeed only if the population in each of the partner states is convinced that the partnership will bring it positive benefits. Since Israel is the stronger economically and technologically, it must be ready to make generous proposals.
Stage 4: The more trust between the parties develops, the easier it will be to deepen the partnership and to widen the powers of the joint institutions.
Perhaps, at this stage, conditions may be ripe for the founding of a wider association of the entire region, on the lines of the European Union. Such an association may include the Arab states, Israel, Turkey and Iran. The name I suggested for it in the past was “Semitic Union”. (Turks and Iranians are not linguistically “Semitic” nations, but Islam is a Semitic religion and plays a major role in their culture.)
This is a vision for the future, and it can be realized. To paraphrase Barack Obama’s slogan, even if it has lost some of its luster: Yes, we can!