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Separation Without Separating -- A Friendly Divorce for Palestine and Israel

All hope is not lost in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Once we depart from the "we all know how it looks" two-state solution paradigm, other models become relevant.
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The Israeli-Palestinian peace making process is stuck in a conundrum: psychologically, the only way to resolve the conflict is by separation: two-states for two people. The separation paradigm led originally by Yitzhak Rabin and then adopted by former Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert took hold on the Israeli public. Its obvious manifestation is the construction of the barrier in the West Bank and the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Physically, however -- and anyone visiting the West Bank including East Jerusalem can see this very clearly -- separation is increasingly, if not already, impossible.

Settlement growth and construction makes it impossible to draw a rational line, and evacuating settlers, as much as one might hope will happen, does not seem to be politically feasible in Israeli domestic and popular politics. And despite all the hand wringing by the United States and European countries over continued settlement growth, no country appears to possess the political will to fundamentally divorce themselves from the enterprise. In fact, Israel's announcement this week of its intention to build more than 1,000 settlement units on Palestinian territory barely raised an eyebrow while Mr. Netanyahu met with Vice President Biden.

There you have it: psychologically a conflict that can only be resolved by separation, yet realistically separation is impossible. But not all hope is lost. Once we depart from the "we all know how it looks" two-state solution paradigm, other models become relevant. One very realistic possibility is the creation of two national sovereign governments with clear international borders, that share specific elements of sovereignty, such as immigration and residency.

If asked why not grant Palestinian refugees the right of return, a main-stream Israeli-Jew will likely answer that this entails the end of Israel as a Jewish democracy since the number of Palestinians will surpass the number of Jews. If asked why not give up the right of return, a main-stream Palestinian will likely answer that this is a basic human right that can never be conceded by the Palestinians. Sounds like a zero-sum game? It is certainly perceived as such. But it gets even worse.

Due to the barrier, Israelis are currently not anxious or fearful of Palestinians in the West Bank. They don't see them, and do not feel threatened by them in daily life or empathize with their plight. The emerging fear in the Israeli Jewish public is that of the Israeli-Palestinians, currently consisting of almost 25 percent of Israel's population. In conversations with Israeli-Jews who still support two states, one often hears: "yes, I am for two-states, but before I allow a Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza, you need to tell me what to do with the Israeli-Palestinians." In essence, these Israelis are not so much concerned about the "demographic problem" posed by the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as challenged by the concept of how to have a Jewish polity in a country with a Palestinian national population.

On the Palestinian side, leaders over the last couple of decades, explicitly or inadvertently, made Israelis and Americans believe that they can negotiate away the Palestinian right of return, in return for financial compensation and concessions over Jerusalem. While some Palestinian leaders might believe they can do so (and Israelis and others could not be happier about that), political realities suggests otherwise. The Palestinian people, especially those living in refugee camps, as well as others in the diaspora, are not likely to accept such a concession on their behalf, by leaders who do not represent them and do not have the authority to strip away their rights.

But there is a way to increase the pie while dividing it. Introducing a permanent residency status into the toolbox of an agreement can lead to two national states, with two national polities, and clearly defined borders, while not forcing relocation or denial of political rights from those who want to remain in or return to their homes. In essence, separation without separating. Here is how it might work:

  1. Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, there will be two national states with clearly defined, internationally recognized borders along the internationally accepted 1967 border.
  2. Each person living in this territory will be able to hold one of two citizenships: Israeli or Palestinian, regardless of which nation state is their place of residence.
  3. It is possible for a citizen of one state to reside in the other, under a clear mutually agreed upon formula between the two states, with a permanent residency status, as exists with a number of states around the world.
  4. Those permanent residents will be allowed to own property, pay taxes, abide by local laws and even vote in municipal elections. Their national political aspirations, however, will be exercised by voting in the elections of their national government.

This concept can allow Israeli-Palestinians to choose their nationality, while maintaining their property, residency and rights. It will allow Jewish settlers, who choose to remain in their homes to do so, while retaining their Israeli citizenship. It will allow Palestinian refugees the right of return, gaining Palestinian citizenship and residing in a location of their choice. In both cases, both governments would need to find a mutually agreed upon formula for how to implement such a policy and by what standards to deny its application to individuals (for example those individuals who may have been involved in violence against the other community).

In essence, this would appeal to existential concerns of both Israeli Jews and Palestinians.

True, this sounds like science fiction, as conventional wisdom remains mired in nineteenth century concepts of ethnic nationalism when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are many details to be worked out in order to make this operational. Obstacles such as compensation for confiscated property, security concerns, property laws, ownership, and yes, mutual hatred, need to be discussed and mitigated. But as Einstein famously once said: the definition of insanity is trying to do the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results.

There are real substantive reasons for our inability to bring this conflict to an end. To succeed, we need to decipher the rhetoric into the real concerns and motivations of the constituencies. A lasting agreement must address these concerns, while staying true to international norms.

Mickey Bergman is the Director of Middle East Programs at the Aspen Institute. He is the Founder and President of Solel Strategic Group and a former officer in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Amjad Atallah is co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and an editor of the Middle East Channel at He was a legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team from 2000-2003.