An Israeli-Palestinian Commonwealth?

Secretary John Kerry is reported to making progress in restarting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Many analysts and high-ranking officials involved in this and previous rounds of give and take between the two sides assert that "everyone knows what a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians would look like," as Bill Clinton put it. Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat stated that "We don't need to reinvent the wheel. I believe it is known by now. It is no secret. The Palestinian state will be established on June 4, 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital, living side by side with the state of Israel." Uri Avnery (founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement) has written that "the terms of Israeli-Palestinian peace are clear": a "sovereign and viable" Palestine; a border based on the pre-1967 lines with agreed-upon "land swaps"; a divided Jerusalem with Palestinian sovereignty over Arab areas; evacuation of settlements outside Israel's borders; and Israeli recognition of the "principle of the right of the [Palestinian] refugees to return." No mention is made in these and numerous other such statements -- that Oslo agreements and President Obama assume that the new Palestinian state will be a demilitarized one; that in the past Palestinian negotiators accepted this assumption, and the Israel governments -- past and present -- consider this assumption a vital one.

For a long time, the right-wing parts of the Israeli political spectrum objected to the very notion of a Palestinian state. When finally Prime Minister Netanyahu stated Israel's willingness to accept a two-state solution in June 2010, he added that "Israel cannot agree to a Palestinian state unless it gets guarantees it is demilitarized." President Obama's "Cairo II" speech in May 2011 referred to the Palestinian state as a "non-militarized" one. Much more is at issue here than the positioning of some Israeli troops along the Jordan River.

By far the most detailed case for a demilitarized Palestinian state is made in a document that received scant attention. The document, "Israel's Critical Security Needs for a Viable Peace," carries an introduction by Lieutenant General (ret.) Moshe Ya'alon (Vice Prime Minister of Israel) and contains extensive presentations by several highly influential Israeli generals, including Major General (res.) Uzi Dayan (former head of the Israeli National Security Council); Major General (res.) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash (former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate); Brigadier General (res.) Udi Dekel; and Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror (national security advisor to Netanyahu).

The Israeli precept of demilitarization, spelled out in the document, encompasses "a wider definition than is normally accepted or spelled out in international law -- since the common term does not take into account the changing nature of military conflicts and threats." According to the document, the precept includes 1) the absence of any kind of Palestinian army or security force beyond what is needed for internal policing and security. The formation of an army with "planes, tanks, and other conventional heavy armor and weaponry" would be prohibited. Only weapons whose purpose is for internal security would be permitted. 2) The Palestinian state would be prohibited from forming military alliances with other nations or conducting joint military exercises. It would not be allowed to maintain any military forces or build any military structures outside its borders. 3) Any sort of military infrastructure would be banned and the manufacture of dual-use components (though perhaps not intended for military use) would be prohibited. 4) The Palestinian police and security forces would have to engage in activities to prevent terrorism and smuggling. 5) The Palestinian government would have to work to build a "culture of peace" and prevent interference in the state by radical extremists and opponents of peace. 6) Effective control, supervision, and inspection along the borders of the Palestinian state would be established. 7) The Israeli-Palestinian airspace would be unified and controlled by Israel. 8) Israel would control the electromagnetic spectrum to prevent disruption and jamming of Israeli military and civil communications. 9) Israel would retain the right to locate some strategic sites and early-warning stations in the West Bank. 10) Israel would have the capability to deploy IDF troops against military and irregular forces infiltrating the Palestinian state. 11) The Israeli navy would have control of the seas and would have the ability to detain boats to prevent hostile activity and smuggling. 12) Israel would maintain control of strategic high-ground areas overlooking Ben Gurion Airport. 13) Israel would maintain the capability of stopping foreign armies and weaponry from crossing the Jordan River into the Palestinian state. 14) The Palestinian state would be allowed to possess only explicitly permitted weapons and capabilities, rather than not possessing weapons that were specifically prohibited. 15) Palestinian and Israeli forces would have to share intelligence to prevent terrorism in the Palestinian state. 16) An effective supervision and verification system would be created to ensure that the Palestinian state remains demilitarized.

The reasons given for ensuring that a new Palestinian state ought to be a disarmed one are basically of two kinds. First, disarmament is necessary to prevent the new Palestinian state from turning into a "Hamastan." Second, as Jackson Diehl put it in the Washington Post, is "how to ensure that the post-occupation West Bank does not become another Iranian base."

The Israeli document rejects the use of foreign troops on the grounds that both UN and NATO peacekeeping forces in the past did not stop terrorists and left once fighting started. Hence, the current Israeli government holds not only that a Palestinian state must be demilitarized, but also that Israeli forces will be the only ones to enforce this condition.

At various points both sides have agreed to at least some elements of demilitarization. The Declaration of Principles (9/93), the Gaza-Jericho Agreement (5/94), and the Interim Agreement (9/95) all contain statements to this effect. For instance, there was agreement that the Palestinian state would have a strong police force but no army, and that Israel would be in charge of securing the borders with Jordan and Egypt. The 2000 Oslo agreements called for Israeli early warning stations in the new Palestinian state, and for the IDF to be able to reenter the West Bank along designated routes in "emergency" situations.

From a legal viewpoint, one can imagine two nations agreeing that one nation would be armed to the teeth and control the space of the other, while the other would have few arms and no military trappings. For a sociologist, it is hard to image that such an agreement would win the support of the population of the newly independent state, as the coming and going of all people and many goods would be scrutinized and controlled by the other state. It is extremely rare for a national state to be demilitarized. The very precept of national sovereignty stipulates that a nation can conduct its internal affairs, including arming itself, in any way it prefers. For Palestinians who feel that they have long been humiliated, the establishment of a truncated state would be viewed as a continuation of their treatment as second-class citizens.

Once the Palestinian state has a seat at the UN and embassies in the capitals of the world and otherwise assumes the trappings of an independent state, the presence of Israeli forces on what used to be the West Bank and the restrictions Israel would impose on the Palestinian state would seem almost as debilitating as the siege of Gaza. One must therefore expect that large segments of the international community would pressure Israel to respect Palestinian sovereignty and allow the new state to modify or deviate from the restrictive agreement.

The apparent conflict between Israel's security needs and the Palestinians' aspirations for a "real" state calls for thinking outside the box. Treating the two states as members of one commonwealth, may move the deliberations in a constructive direction. For example, Israelis and Palestinians might carry out joint security patrols of disputed areas. Such patrols would be similar to the largely-successful ones carried out between 1945 and 1955, when the U.S., the UK, and France patrolled the center of Vienna jointly with the USSR -- a nation that was already emerging as a Cold War adversary. There is precedent for such operations. The 1993 peace accord established a series of joint patrols to be carried out by Israelis and Palestinians in regions where political control was shared by the two sides. Such patrols were implemented in 1994 in both Gaza and Jericho and, in their first 21 months of operations, successfully thwarted roughly 80 attacks against Israelis. These operations were expanded to include the city of Hebron in 1997 and continued through the end of the year 2000, when a security incident led to a cessation of the patrols. During their operation, the patrols reportedly served to enhance cooperation between the two sides, soften the attitudes of those whose security they ensured, and reduce overall Israeli-Palestinian tensions by focusing upon common threats.

A fair number of other projects have been suggested that could be viewed as building blocks of a joint architecture into which the jointed security forces could be folded. There is already considerable collaboration between Israel and the Palestinians on matters concerning water. Especially imaginative is a project that calls for bringing water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, providing for desalinization and generating a great deal of electricity for both nations. Other such potential building blocks include the formation of binational industrial parks and green parks at the borders of the two states, to which citizens of both nations would have free access. And commonwealth committees of historians could review the educational material used in both states to remove texts that promote hate.

If Germany and France could form the European Union after they fought each other longer than the Israelis and the Palestinians, one cannot argue that a Middle Eastern commonwealth has no prayer, though granted, that is all it got right now -- and Secretary Kerry.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.