A man with flag of Palestine during the sunset participates at the pro Palestinian protest against the conflict between Israel and Palestine was held in front of the White Tower, the city's landmark. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP / Nicolas Economou

Let us start with the term “state.” A “state” must have a monopoly of the use of force. Only then can a government function, and among other things, credibly negotiate borders. Yet Palestinians have one army in Gaza, others in Lebanon and another one in whatever is now Syria. None of these are under the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) control.

Nobody advocating the “two state” solution has come up with an idea about how to disarm non-PA Palestinian military forces.

Few recall that Israel in 1948 faced a similar problem. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, ordered the newly created Israel Defense Forces to fire on the ship Altalena in June 1948 when it was bringing arms to the Irgun, an organization unwilling to law down its own arms and be absorbed into the IDF. 

After this episode in Israel’s history – the idea of Jews shooting Jews a few years after 6 million perished in the camps was shocking – the Irgun laid down its arms. The new state’s monopoly on force has not been challenged since.

Jordan passed through a similar stage when, having tolerated the Fatah military organization in its territory, the kingdom felt under threat. In September 1970, the Jordanian army fought Fatah and threw it of the country. Fatah found its way to Lebanon, together with other military factions, destabilizing it. 

Syria, a failed state, saw various armies fighting on what was once its territory, had 400,000 of its citizens killed (compared with 300 killed in Gaza, mostly fighters), as well as millions of refugees in Turkey and Jordan – with no outcry as followed the recent Gaza conflict.  

Thus the problem is not only that the Palestinian Authority has no credible plan how to gain monopoly power on force, thus becoming a credible partner to negotiate borders, but that  Syria is no longer a functioning state partner either.

Under these circumstances it is surprising that European and US politicians are sticking to the fiction of a “two-state solution” when there are no states that Israel can negotiate with, and no plan to make a prospective state viable. 

True, Egypt and Jordan are states, but they made their peace with Israel long ago. Naturally, the negotiated borders with Egypt and Jordan do not correspond to the pre-1967 ones. Egypt does not want to control Gaza, and Jordan does not want to control the West Bank. 

These facts on the ground raise even more questions about the fiction of pre-1967 borders being a benchmark for agreements.  

JERUSALEM – MAY 10: Israeli police use tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse Palestinians who were on guard Al-Aqsa Mosque to prevent raids by extremist Jews, in East Jerusalem on May 10, 2021. Photo: Eyad Tawil / Anadolu Agency via AFP

What other options are available, considering the fact too that Gaza and the West Bank are not contiguous territories? To come up with an alternative, consider some additional facts about the Gaza-Israel conflict. 

Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza upon leaving in August 2005; James Wolfensohn, the previous president of the World Bank and the UN special envoy who oversaw the disengagement, arranged the purchase and transfer of 1,000 high-tech greenhouses employing 3,500 Gazans from settlers’ ownership to the Palestinian Authority. 

The greenhouses were expected to be a factor in Gaza’s future, but Gazans looted them instantly. The borders between Israel and Gaza are where they were before the 1967 war, except, as noted, Egypt no longer controls the area and sealed its borders with it. Except for two years during a previous conflict, Hamas, and not the PA, has ruled Gaza since 2007. 

The recent East Jerusalem controversy in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, close to the sacred places for all religions, started as a real-estate dispute. Jewish agencies bought the land at the end of 19th century under Ottoman rule. Jordan confiscated it in 1948 and rented it out.

When Israel defeated Jordan in 1967, the property came under Israeli control. For various reasons what was a “real-estate dispute” was not solved promptly, and 60 years later predictably became a political issue. According to some it was the spark that brought about the present war, while according to others Hamas’ power struggle with the Palestinian Authority was its cause, the Jerusalem events having been an excuse.  

The situation changed with the Abraham Accords, with four Arab states signing on and others once vehemently opposed to Israel weakening their stand (Bangladesh just removed its travel ban on Israel a few days ago).

European U-turn

Europe realized that solutions can be found for the Middle East without having to deal with Palestinian issue first (although US President Joe Biden’s administration does not appear to have grasped this). 

The German, Czech and Slovak presidents showed up in Israel declaring their solidarity in the recent conflict; the Austrian president raised Israeli flags over its official buildings; Slovenia and other European countries declared unconditional support for Israel in unprecedentedly strong language; Hungary disagreed with the European Council for even asking for ceasefire. 

Angela Merkel called Hamas rockets “terrorist attacks,” and Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Green candidate for chancellor, called Israel’s security “the national interest of the modern German state.” 

Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defence system is activated to intercept a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, above the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on May 12, 2021. Photo: AFP/ Menahem Kahana

This drastic U-turn in European outlook happened for various reasons, one of them being that the conflict in the failed state of Syria had nothing to do with Palestinians but with internal conflicts among Arab tribes, conflicts that have plagued Yemen and Iraq too. 

The unsettled affairs in non-Arab Iran, which has been suffering a constant brain drain, with more than 3 million of its people (3.6% of its population) since mid-1970s having left the country, had nothing to do with Palestinians either.  

Add to these facts on the ground that European countries have been eager to emulate Israel’s success in becoming a “startup nation,” leading to unprecedented scientific cooperation. 

The discovery of energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean brought about Israeli, Egyptian, Greek and Cypriot cooperation, with Greece and Israel entering defense contracts too, France and Germany having entered such contracts earlier. The fact that European countries have been facing violence from Middle Eastern migrants in their midst related to cartoons rather than Israel made its mark too. 

Considering these facts that all make a “two-state” idea a non-starter, is there an alternative? A solution that Karl Renner proposed for the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I may have a chance.  

Lessons from history

Karl Renner (1870-1950) was Austria’s foreign minister after World War I and the first president of the new Austrian Republic (1945-1950). He suggested the following solution to rising nationalism, though his plans came too late and were not pursued. 

The empire’s traditional policy was to buy off nationalist grievances with infrastructure spending, job creation and tax concessions. By 1914, more than 3 million civil servants were running schools, hospitals, welfare, taxation, railways and the post. This failed miserably – unfortunately a forgotten lesson. 

Renner proposed that the empire should have an economic sphere that crossed ethnic boundaries, while redrawing the empire’s map around lands homogeneous in language, ethnicity and culture, decentralizing spending and decisions. 

He thought this could mitigate nationalist discontent in nine-tenths of the Austrian Empire at the time. In places where people were too intermingled to be separated, special provisions and institutions were to guarantee equal rights and an impartial administration.  Each individual, irrespective of his domicile, would be member of one ethnic organization which would have agencies all over the empire – much like the Catholic Church – paying their dues.

The plan bore similarities with what has been the unique Swiss federal system for centuries. There, the French, the German and the Italian-speaking “tribes” (and a tiny Romansch one) each have their territorial entities. There is one Italian canton (Ticino), many German ones, and a few French.

The last French one, Jura, was carved out from the German canton of Bern in 1974 through a series of votes when the French minority was dissatisfied with the German majority’s allocation of funds. 

Also, when the countryside in the Canton of Basel disagreed with the city more than a century before, it led to unrest, and in August 1833 the canton was separated into two “half-cantons” (this had precedents too), though it took until the revised constitution of 1999 for the two half-cantons to be recognized as full-fledged “cantons.”

A Palestinian man walks in a neighborhood hit by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City, after a ceasefire brokered by Egypt between Israel and Hamas, on May 21, 2021. Photo: AFP / Mohammed Abed

An arrangement along Renner’s lines in the Middle East would create a “canton” of Gaza, and one in the West Bank – with the Kingdom of Jordan as the federal state with monopoly on military powers, able now to execute such solution with the drastically changed European and Arab states’ policies.  

Note: Though the definition of “who is a Palestinian” is open to debate, even if just 30% of Jordanians are (according to some estimates) or 60% according to others, Jordan appears to be the only state with a chance to move toward exercising such option. 

Note too that Jordan’s demography further undermines the notion of “two-state solution,” since if 60% was the accurate number of Jordanians of Palestinian origins, that would imply Palestinians having a state already.   

Would people accept it?

This solution has nothing to do with what was called the “Jordan option” of expelling Palestinians from the West Bank to what is Jordan. And the “canton” arrangement would have a rough precedent: The founders of Israel and King Abdullah of Jordan had a tacit agreement that Israel would live side by side with a Hashemite-run state, and Israel’s early leaders considered Jordan to also be a buffer between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. 

Would the people of Gaza and the West Bank agree to such arrangement? Would Jordan – in collaboration with other Arab countries, four more of whom have normalized relationships with Israel, and with Europe’s different outlook, have Hamas and other military factions be disarmed and pursue this initiative – something it could not do until now?

Based on the facts summarized above, the Abraham Accords and Europe’s U-turn, the answer may be yes, as it is now more difficult to rearm Gaza, and also more difficult for countries such as Iran and Turkey to keep fueling instability with words and swords. 

Last, but not least: In spite of the violent eruptions in some Israeli cities with Arab populations, the 2020 survey of the Jewish People Policy Institute (with diplomats Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat as co-chairmen) found that 51% of Israeli Arabs no longer call themselves Palestinians but “Israeli Arabs,” 23% identify as “Israelis,” and only 7% as “Palestinians” (page 8 of the survey). 

All the facts taken together suggest getting rid of the “two-state” fiction and starting to consider alternatives – of which the above could be one. 

Reuven Brenner held the Repap Chair and is a Governor of IDEM (Montreal Economic Institute. The article draws on Reuven Brenner’s books History – the Human Gamble and The Force of Finance and recent speeches reprinted at the Konrad Adenauer Center site.

Reuven Brenner

Reuven Brenner is a governor at IEDM (Institut Économique de Montréal). He is professor emeritus at McGill University. He was the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, was awarded the Canada Council's prestigious Killam Fellowship Award in 1991, and is a member of the Royal Society.