The return of the Jordanian option
TEL AVIV—France’s initiative to hold an international conference to relaunch direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians, aimed at the ever elusive “two-state solution,” is the child of a resilient fantasy. But after decades of failed negotiations, it’s time to start thinking like adults.
Neither Israeli nor Palestinian society is primed for compromise. On the contrary, in Israel, surging nationalism has become a major obstacle to any negotiation. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu catering to ultranationalist elements, there is no possibility that he will produce the kinds of peace proposals pursued by his predecessors, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. As for Palestine, its fragmented polity undermines any possibility of effective negotiation.
But even beyond the current circumstances, there are more fundamental reasons why the Israel-Palestine peace process has never worked. The role of history and religion in the conflict, together with the small size of territory over which the parties are fighting, leaves too little room for accommodation.
There is another vital reason: The Palestinian interlocutor is not a state, but an unpredictable movement. It is a movement that is institutionally invertebrate and split between Islamists, who dream of a borderless Arab nation, and ineffective secular nationalists who four times (1937, 1947, 2000, and 2008) rejected offers for the creation of a Palestinian state.
When negotiating with Arab states, Israel was far more forthcoming than it ever was in the case of the Palestinian national movement. In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin promised Syria’s then president, Hafez al-Assad, a return to the 1967 borders without so much as a meeting. In 1979, Egypt got back 100 percent of the land that Israel captured from it in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Of course, Israel also began as a movement. But almost from its inception, the Zionist project was driven by a unifying sense of purpose in building an independent nation-state. At every crossroads throughout the years leading to Israel’s creation, the movement’s leaders made the pragmatic, rather than the fanciful, choice.
Palestinian nationalism, by contrast, was never focused on state-building. Fueled by the tragedy of expulsion and disinheritance, it focused on the dream of restitution. The failure and eventual sacking in 2013 of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad—whose professed intention was to emulate Zionism through a laborious policy of state-building—is revealing.
But there is an alternative to the two-state solution that accounts for these factors: The West Bank could revert to Jordan, which would then become a kind of Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. In essence, this option represents a return to the parameters of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, at which a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation represented the Palestinian cause.
Israel, in this scenario, would benefit from gaining an interlocutor that is an orderly state with a tradition of—and interest in—negotiation and compliance with agreements. This should be enough to impel Israeli leaders at least to consider the option, and behave less deceitfully than they have in direct negotiations with the Palestinians.
With Israel no longer able to use Palestinian institutional weakness as a justification for its continued occupation of the West Bank, Palestine would stand to benefit. Moreover, Israel could not, as it attempted to do in the past, annex strategic areas of the West Bank and return the rest to Jordan; instead, it would have to withdraw to the 1967 borders, with agreed modifications and land swaps.
Palestinians seem to recognize these benefits. In 2013, according to polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 55 percent of Palestinians supported the Jordanian option—a 10-percent increase from five years earlier.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle is Jordan, which currently is not interested in getting involved. That will change only if it faces a threat to its own security, stemming, say, from the spillover of Palestinian instability from the West Bank.
Paradoxically, one potential trigger of such a security risk could be apparent progress toward a two-state solution. The late King Hussein feared that an independent Palestinian state could become a radical irredentist entity, and his own 1988 decision to waive Jordan’s claim on the West Bank, taken under pressure from the Arab League, was never ratified in parliament, and is still regarded by many as unconstitutional.
Fear of Palestinian instability also drove two former Jordanian prime ministers, Abdel Salam Majali and Taher al-Masri, to advocate a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation. Majali remains a staunch champion of the idea, as he made clear in a recent meeting in Amman with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. His elaborate 2007 plan, undoubtedly shared with King Abdullah’s consent, was spurred by the prospect of chaos should an Israeli government decide to secure Israel’s survival as a Jewish state through unilateral withdrawal from much of the West Bank. That chaos, Jordan’s government feared, could spread to the East Bank, potentially dealing a fatal blow to the Kingdom.
The international community is about to embark, yet again, on a peace process aimed at creating an orderly and viable independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. That would be the most just outcome. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely, leaving a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation as the last remaining hope for Palestinian statehood. Project Syndicate
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is vice president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of “Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.”
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