Trump administration officials Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt recently asked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas whether he would be on amiable toward a confederation with Jordan.
Surprisingly, Abbas expressed interest in the idea, according to the dovish Israeli group Peace Now.
The weakness of the Palestinian Authority, coupled with the complete unattainability of a peace agreement at this point, has led to the revival of a moribund plan conceived by the late Jordanian King Hussein in 1972.
The Palestinian Authority believes closer ties with Jordan may help it maintain relevance in the peace process and attain international recognition as a state.
According to Peace Now members, the Palestinian President told them: “‘I said [to Kushner and Greenblatt]: ‘Yes, I want a three-way confederation with Jordan and Israel.’ I asked them if the Israelis would agree to such a proposal.”
The content of the meeting was confirmed by Mahmoud al-Habash, Abbas’ religious affairs adviser.
The exact content of the proposal (assuming Trump officials overcame their known aversion to specifics) is unknown. But according to reports that have surfaced, the general idea is that Jordan would be responsible for security in the West Bank, excluding Jerusalem, and particularly for policing the border between Israel and the new confederation.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority would continue to manage internal affairs. Israel would potentially be willing to recognize a Palestinian state, but only as part of the confederation — and without Gaza — which it hopes would be placed under the auspices of the Egyptian security services. Israeli settlements would remain in place under this arrangement.
The positive response from Abbas is almost certainly a sign of the Palestinian Authority’s desperation.
Palestinian Authority under pressure
The attention of the international community has recently turned towards the attainment of a Hamas-Israel long-term ceasefire and the Palestinian Authority is worried it will be left behind.
The United States has shown that it is willing to utterly ignore Abbas and has taken steps designed to undermine him, most recently by defunding UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), the United Nations agency that provides education and healthcare for millions of Palestinians across the region.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arab states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been moving closer to Israel against the wishes of the Palestinian Authority.
In order to maintain relevant, Abbas seems willing to eschew two principles he stressed in the past. First, he is willing to put the idea of a two-state solution on the back-burner.
He is also backtracking on a vow made earlier this year not to cooperate with the Trump administration on the peace process, a pronouncement that came after the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated its embassy.
The willingness of the Palestinian Authority to cooperate with the Trump administration involves eating a significant amount of humble pie. And although the adoption of a confederation would entail drawbacks for Abbas, there are also some advantages to the plan from his perspective.
The idea enjoys relative support in Palestinian public opinion. An October 2016 poll taken by An-Najah University in Nablus found that 46% of respondents supported the creation of a confederation with Jordan, while 41% rejected it.
On the diplomatic level, Abbas hopes recognition of a confederation by Israel and the United States would lead to recognition of Palestinian statehood through the back door. After all, a confederation is defined as a union of sovereign states, united for purposes of common action.
If legally recognized as part of a confederation, the Palestinian Authority would technically be taking a step closer to official statehood. A three-way confederation as Abbas envisions it would involve three internationally recognized states involved in a creative integration of commercial and security functions.
Israel envisions the idea of confederation differently. According to local media reports, Israeli officials were the ones to propose the idea to the Trump administration.
The reason for Israel to concoct an arrangement of this sort is obvious — it is the latest version of many for Palestinian “autonomy,” which would not reach the level of statehood.
Since the period immediately following the 1967 war, Israel has occasionally floated schemes to create an autonomous Palestinian entity which would be responsible for the municipal day-to-day operation of Palestinian affairs.
Meanwhile, by providing the Palestinians with autonomy rather than independence, Israel could deprive them of the right to run their own security and foreign policy.
In this plan, Jordanian oversight would be the tool to simultaneously deprive the Palestinians of statehood and maintain Israeli security.
It was the Hashemite King Hussein who originally conceived of the idea of a confederation. Ironically, Amman is now also backing away from the idea. A spokeswoman for Amman said: “Discussing the idea of a confederation with the regions of the West Bank is not possible.”
The Jordanian government washed their hands of a claim to the West Bank in 1988. They are now concerned that a revival of the idea would undermine the Hashemite hold on the kingdom by widening the demographic gap between people of Palestinian origin, believed to be the majority, and indigenous Bedouins, the minority.
The government in Amman views the confederation proposal as opening the door for a Palestinian entity encompassing not only the West Bank, but also Jordan itself.
In order for the idea to work, Jordan would have to be convinced that this is not a trojan horse for the creation of a Palestinian entity on both sides of the Jordan River. It is up to the interested parties to repackage the idea in a manner that is appealing to Amman.
Whether this happens or not, the idea that the Israeli government, the Trump administration, and the Palestinian Authority would show interest in the idea is an indication of an openness to creative solutions and the gradual softening of two-state solution dogma.