For more than half a century, Israelis and Palestinians have been
fighting over the same tracts of earth. Numerous proposals for
dividing the land have come and gone, and none has proved workable.
Israel's most recent effort to end the territorial stalemate by
pulling out of Gaza and dismantling some of the West Bank
settlements has drawn criticism for being too little, too late.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has outlined plans to
finalise the country's boundaries by 2010 - but as long as the
Palestinians demand a return to the 1967 borders, few expect the
deadlock to be resolved. Given the current downward spiral of
violence, the prospect of a peaceful and mutually agreed two-state
solution seems further away than ever. But it also makes it
necessary for us to think about the conflict in new terms.
In today's world, control of geographic territory doesn't mean as
much as it once did. Statehood has become less about territory, and
more about access to markets, technology, and the rule of law. What
if the Israelis and the Palestinians were able to somehow separate
the concepts of statehood and territory and to explore new ways of
living together? What if both peoples were given the right - at
least in principle - to settle in the whole area that lies between
the Mediterranean and Jordan?
I'll admit that it might not be the easiest thing to imagine. When
we think about states, we naturally think about borders - real,
specific, definable borders that you can plot on a map. What I have
in mind is utterly different, and no doubt somewhat far-fetched.
(That said, given the failure of all the "realistic" solutions over
the past 50 years, forgive me for suggesting that it may now be
time to consider other possibilities.)
You might call it a "dual state". Instead of the familiar formula
in which two states exist side by side, Israel and Palestine would
be two states superimposed on one another. Citizens could freely
choose which system to belong to - their citizenship would be bound
not to territory, but to choice. The Israeli state would remain a
homeland for Jews and, at the same time, become a place in which
Palestinians were able to live freely.
This basic administrative structure has worked elsewhere: for
example, in the cantons of Switzerland. There people of different
origins and beliefs, speaking different languages and with
different allegiances, live together side by side. In the
Israel-Palestine dual state, smaller territorial units could be
given the right to choose which state to belong to, based on a
majority vote. At the same time, individuals would be able to
choose citizenship for themselves, regardless of where they lived.
A person living in a canton that opted to belong to Palestine could
continue to be a citizen of Israel and vice versa.
An Israeli and a Palestinian living side by side in, for example,
an Israeli-administered area would share many of the same rights
and live by many of the same laws. They would both be free to move
about within the area now occupied by Israel and the territories.
They would share a common currency, participate in the same labour
market and contribute common taxes for a number of shared services.
Civil disputes could be settled by independently appointed
arbitrators. Parents would be free to send children to the schools
of their choice; government funding for education could be
allocated on a proportional basis. Neighbours would vote for
separate leaders in separate elections, but these elected
representatives would harmonise legislation on a number of matters,
such as taxation, criminal law and traffic regulations.
There would be no need for security fences or barriers, no need for
corridors or safe passages, and no need for checkpoints. A joint
defence force could secure the borders, and a joint customs service
could ensure one economic space. Both states could keep their
national symbols, their governments, and their foreign
representation. Local affairs would be dealt with by canton
administrators on a majority basis, while individual human rights
and freedoms could be guaranteed by the two states in cooperation.
It is not difficult to imagine a Jewish-majority area consisting
largely of present-day Israel, plus a number of major settlements.
That area would be under Israeli jurisdiction but remain open to
Palestinians who wished to live under Palestinian jurisdiction.
Similarly, one can imagine a core Palestinian area, consisting of
the West Bank and Gaza, and perhaps even parts of Israel where
Israeli Arabs are the predominant population. The whole of this
area would also be open to Jews living under Israeli law. Jerusalem
could be subject to the same principle. The demographics of
neighbourhoods would not change overnight - for example, the
divisions between East and West Jerusalem would linger for some
time - but there would at least be the opportunity for people to
move and live freely.
To be sure, the road to such a "dual state" solution would create
its own challenges. But, to a large extent, it could build on
present realities and proceed one step at a time. Israeli
withdrawal from the West Bank, accompanied by the development of
credible and lasting Palestinian institutions, could ignite the
process. At some point, direct talks about shared economic, civil
and defence responsibilities could begin to build the architecture
for this new type of state.
Is this proposal completely unrealistic? Perhaps. But present
realities are far from sane and sound. There is a crucial need for
new thinking if the peace process is to take root. Perhaps by
re-envisioning how statehood can exist outside the traditional
notions of who owns what strip of land, Israel and the occupied
territories can produce the first modern embodiment of the
globalised state, where the intangibles of the 21st century can
solve the most intractable territorial conflicts of the 20th
Such a state would be an innovation in world politics,
international law and constitutional design. But it would in many
ways be a codification of the new world in which we already live,
where our lives are no longer tied to the land in the same way they
once were. For Israelis and Palestinians, forgetting about the land
may be the only way they will both be ever able to live on it.
Mathias Mossberg is vice-president for programmes at the EastWest
Institute in New York. He served as Sweden's ambassador to Morocco
from 1994 to 1996 and he has been involved in Middle East peace
negotiations since the 1980s.