Avishai: Not One State, But Confederation of 2

Avishai: Not One State, But Confederation of 2

In “One State Illusions: From Quebec To Palestine,” native Montrealer, Bernard Avishai, a scholar who splits his time nowadays between the U.S. and Israel, reacts to Ian Lustick’s controversial NY Times article, drawing upon Canada’s experience with Quebec.  This is most of the concluding half of his piece, published both at his website and online at The New Yorker:

. . .  [Many] have made essentially the same point Lustick did. Given Likud’s annexationist momentum, together with the Palestinian Authority’s feebleness and lingering commitment to the “right of return,” prospects for a negotiated settlement have become pitiable, so let’s imagine one state instead.

The trouble is, [Lord] Durham’s plan [a similar British recommendation for Canada made in 1838] was less a plan than an expression of exasperation. It proved utterly unworkable, and was quickly forgotten. The “warring nations,” which continued to be at odds, and might always be, did not forge modern Canada that way. Instead, by 1867, a new generation of leaders, John A. Macdonald in English-speaking Canada and George-Étienne Cartier representing the French population, found the formula for the only possible civilized solution: a Canadian confederation, which was careful to leave to the provinces all the powers that Quebec, in particular, needed to preserve French-language education, religious liberty, and civil law. … If it [Canada] looks like one peaceful country now, it got there because of leaders negotiating as if there were two.

Much like Durham, Lustick confuses exasperation with remedy. He is so impatient with the “peace process industry”—“legions of consultants, pundits, academics and journalists”—that he seems oblivious to how the very reasons he advances for the end of a two-state solution make one state not just unlikely but absurd.  . . . 

. . . For post-two-staters, it would be no tragedy if one of these nations essentially disappeared. Jews aren’t really a nation, are they? Just listen to the national-religious settlers, who see themselves as messianic messengers. Jews may be driven to solidarity by the pathos of historical persecution, but this doesn’t mean they need to remain separate—not when Jon Stewart enjoys America the way he does and Benjamin Netanyahu steals West Bank land the way he does. Maybe Israelis, once they realize that their “Zionist project” is producing “isolation, emigration and hopelessness,” will go down the same path in the Middle East that Durham imagined for the French in North America.

. . .  In fact, advocates of a two-state solution are not a bunch of naïfs unwilling to see how badly the peace process is doing. They are terrified citizens, trying, against hope, to avoid Bosnia—that is, a terrible, engulfing violence in which memories of the fighting of 1948 will be eclipsed by much greater atrocities, which will leave us with exactly the same problem we had at the start: namely, Canada’s problem. How do you reconcile the fierce desire for national distinction—and the fear of national extinction—with civil rights for all?

Lustick is surely right that many supporters of the two-state solution ignore what seems too painful to acknowledge: that the Palestinian desire to return cannot simply be finessed; that hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, many of them armed, could make the O.A.S. of Algeria’s pieds noirs look tame. I have argued myself … that two states cannot be separated the way those who call for a “divorce” suppose. The two states would need to be developed, almost from the start, along confederal lines. Together, these projected states … share a single urban infrastructure and business ecosystem, with a need to coöperate to a very high degree on security—in the face of terror undergrounds armed with sophisticated weapons—on roads and bridges, water and sewage systems, telecommunications, public health and epidemiology, banking and currency policy, tourism, and so on.

None of this means, however, that the step of negotiating two states can be skipped, or that negotiators can sidestep confederal principles if and when serious talks progress. We’ve already seen this in practice: when Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas negotiated over Jerusalem, they quickly realized that their respective desires to have a capital in the city, with access to the Old City, required confederal solutions—two sovereignties, but a single municipal government for the greater city, with an international committee of states to act as custodian for the Holy Basin.

Lustick might have advanced the idea of a confederation, not as an afterthought but as the culmination of the two-state approach. Confederal ideas have emerged, as in Canada, as the product of—not as a substitute for—prolonged, serious negotiations over preserving two distinct cultures, two sovereign peoples.  . . .

By | 2013-09-24T12:31:00-04:00 September 24th, 2013|Blog|2 Comments


  1. […] a Canadian-Israeli) is among a number of observers and NGOs who speculate on the need for cooperative elements that may resemble a lose confederation in a final resolution of the conflict. As far back as 2003, the Geneva Accord/Initiative has even […]

  2. […]  But we should all know that a two-state solution will only function well if it includes what Bernard Avishai has been writing about for years, some “confederal” features that involve close economic, security, and environmental […]

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