August 23, 2018


Imagining a Federalist Israel: Notes Toward a Disruptive Fantasy (Benjamin Wittes, August 14, 2018, Lawfare)

This is out there. It's unrealistic. It's a fantasy thought experiment. But it's time to start talking about federalism in Israel--and ultimately in Palestine as well.

To be clear, I'm a two-state solution guy. I believed in the two-state solution before it was cool. I believed it in while it was cool. I kept the faith while others were busy losing it. And I continue to believe in it now that it's decidedly no longer cool. I believe in it because I am sympathetic to the Zionist aspirations of Jews over more than a century, and I believe in it because I am sympathetic also to Palestinian national aspirations that have matured over the same time period. I believe in it because I believe that divorce is generally the best solution to a truly terrible marriage. The day we can get back to the negotiation of an equitable divorce arrangement for Palestinians and Israelis, count me in.

Indeed, I want to stress at the outset that I'm not writing this piece because I have given up on the two-state solution. I'm writing it because, to a great extent, the parties to the conflict have done so, or are in the process of doing so, and the conflict is thus drifting toward a one-state reality--either a one-state reality in which Israel actively incorporates the West Bank, as some of its politicians advocate, or a one-state reality in which the populations have become so intertwined as a consequence of the current stalemate that they become impossible to separate and the status quo thus becomes a permanent state of affairs. In either context, it strikes me as important to try to imagine the qualities and character of the state that will emerge. Will it be a state in which one ethnicity dominates another--the prospect that many people see in the recent passage by the Knesset of a new Basic Law on Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people? Will it be a unitary single state with bloc voting by ethnicity and religion? Or can Israelis and Palestinians be creative in designing structures that lower the stakes in what seem today like zero-sum disputes? And can we somehow enable this single state to express both communities' national aspirations?

I want to stress something else at the outset too: I'm not delusional. There's a known condition in the psychiatric literature called Jerusalem Syndrome, in which a person of previously sound mental health visits Jerusalem and experiences a religiously themed period of psychosis. These episodes are often accompanied by the perceived need to give a sermon at a religious landmark. There's a related--related, at least, in my view--phenomenon in which outsiders to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict suddenly developing the delusion that they have some comprehensive plan to solve the unsolvable, to bring the parties both to their senses and to the table, and get done at long last "the deal." Some who have suffered this diplomatic version of Jerusalem Syndrome have served at the most senior levels of American government. I suffer from Jerusalem Syndrome neither in its psychiatric nor its diplomatic form. I am not offering here any kind of peace plan, let alone a comprehensive one. I am fully aware that what I am proposing--as I said at the outset--is a kind of blue-sky fantasy that may well raise more questions than it answers. So consider what follows less of a proposal and more of a mood that might constructively guide us in a period of drift.

With those prefatory disclaimers, I think it's time for a serious discussion of federalism, both in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and within the context of domestic Israeli politics themselves. I don't mean federalism here in the sense that it's sometimes used in the Israeli-Palestinian context, which is to say of some kind of confederation between Israel, the Palestinian territories, and--in some iterations--Jordan. I mean it in the far more ambitious sense of tearing up all internal borders within the combined territory of Israel and Palestine and carving the land up into a series of small and highly-autonomous provinces, cantons, or states--the specific terminology here carries symbolic importance to which I will return--unified by a national government empowered in the realms of foreign relations, national security, certain criminal enforcement, and human and equal rights protection. I am by no means the first to suggest this. A pair of articles in Ha'aretz in 2014 suggested carving up Israel into cantons as a way of handling internal divisions. Wrote Judd Yadid and Carlo Strenger:

Israeli cultural politics need not be a zero-sum game, imposing the values of one community over others. Solutions are to be found in countries like the United States, Switzerland, India and Spain. Just as U.S. states provide a framework for playing out America's "culture wars" on a sub-national level, Israel's cultural regions could create a more livable status quo. While the U.S. may dwarf Israel's population and landmass, our cultural chasms are exponentially deeper. And just as the Swiss cantons afford their residents a high degree of autonomy in such areas as education, health and personal-status issues (including marriage), so should and can Israel's.

Last month, writing in the Washington Post, former Foreign Service officer Daniel Hollander penned a short essay, entitled "Forget the Two-State Solution. Let's Try Six" in which he floated the idea of a "a federalist, multistate solution."

In this essay, I want to flesh out the idea that a federal Israel may offer an approach to Israel's drift toward binationalism. In Israel these days, there's a fair bit of talk of approaching the conflict on the basis of "two states, one homeland." I want in this essay to explore the idea of this sort of deep federalism both as a more concrete expression of the concept and as a means of alleviating certain tensions within contemporary Israeli society more broadly. The idea here is not to replace either Zionism or Palestinian nationalism with some binational secular vision, but to try to imagine a governance system that might give reasonable expression to the aspirations of both historical movements.

The fundamental problem remains: what happens when a national election chooses a Muslim leader?

Posted by at August 23, 2018 4:37 AM