01 July 2007 - Northern Ireland for the West Bank?
Tony Blair’s recent appointment to be the official representative of the Mideast Quartet raises an interesting question: could what worked in Northern Ireland work in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? That is to say, could the West Bank and Gaza become a joint Jewish-Arab polity, with a bi-national, democratically-elected government and a power-sharing arrangement under the aegis of regional powers?
Jordan’s King Abdullah recently dismissed any notion of Palestinian confederation with Jordan prior to Palestinian independence. But that would not rule out an arrangement of this kind, in which Palestine would be placed under joint trusteeship between Israel and Jordan (and Egypt?) until its national institutions were well-developed and secure enough to survive and thrive on their own.
The system could work as follows. Elections would be held under international supervision in which residents of the West Bank and Gaza could vote for any party that agreed to suspend violence. A legislature with certain devolved powers would then be elected, and power-sharing arrangements negotiated between the various parties. Security would be taken care of by joint Israeli-Jordanian forces.
Although this arrangement might depart from current international norms, it would be based on the recognized, if somewhat antiquated, Mandate system—similar to that which existed in Palestine prior to 1948. It would have several advantages over the current proposals for Israeli withdrawal, which have been stalled by Israel’s acute security concerns and Palestinian institutional collapse.
One advantage would be that Israel’s political boundary could be reestablished along the 1967 lines, with the West Bank and Gaza immediately confirming their separate political status. (The security barrier would remain standing to continue to protect Israeli cities from attack, and to serve as a “plan B” border in case the new arrangement failed, but could eventually come down as progress was achieved.)
Another advantage would be that the settlers would not need to be moved right away, and could be given the option of future Palestinian citizenship. For the moment, uprooting the settlements seems a political impossibility in Israel. Also, the settlements represent significant development infrastructure that the Palestinian state may one day wish to harness, and it may be best to leave them up.
A further advantage is that a future Palestinian state could begin to take shape without forcing Israel to give up the strategic depth that the territories provide in case of war. A confrontation with Iran (or its proxies) is a distinct possibility in the next few years, and it might arguably be best to allow the IDF to remain deployed on the high ground, for now, to protect both Israeli and Palestinian security.
Just as Anglo-Irish relations served as the backdrop for successful negotiations in Northern Ireland, Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan could provide the basis for negotiating a new arrangement in the territories. This arrangement succeeded in overcoming Catholic-Protestant divisions in Northern Ireland; perhaps it can overcome divisions among Muslims, Christians and Jews as well.
A West Bank arrangement of this kind would differ from the Good Friday agreement—and conform to the Middle East Road Map—in that it would stipulate that Palestinian statehood was to be the explicit goal of the process. This could help alleviate fears that the plan would merely be the latest version of the “autonomy” proposals of the 1980s, which aimed at thwarting Palestinian national aspirations.
A Northern Ireland option would face many challenges, of course. It would require a determined and successful effort to disarm both Hamas and Fatah. The new arrangement would also require Israel to facilitate the social and economic integration of the territories by progressively removing the checkpoints and barriers that often separate Jews from Arabs, and Arabs from each other.
There might also be resistance to the new administration as nationalist groups push for early independence, which could exacerbate the existing internal security problems,. In addition, the demographic status quo of the West Bank will have to be protected from attempts by the Israeli settler movement to bring in more settlers and thereby increase their demographic and political power.
But there would also be positive spin-offs from this proposal. A devolution of powers to the West Bank might force Israel to create the constitutional apparatus that would make such an arrangement possible, accelerating the long-delayed process of Israeli constitution-writing. A stable administration in the West Bank would also improve the prospects for investment and trade within the region.
Of course, this is all speculative—I’m just throwing the idea out there to see what kinds of comments it attracts. Blair might not even have much of a chance to do anything—the U.S. may be uncertain about his potential as a mediator, and the prospects for any kind of peace seem dim right now. But if something like this were actually to be proposed, at least Blair would be on familiar ground. Who knows?