by Neville Teller
Back in February 2020, shortly after President Donald Trump had unveiled his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN Security Council. Having categorically repudiated everything about the Trump proposal, he added that he was ready for peace negotiations under the sponsorship of the Middle East Quartet.
With Biden in the White House and Trump’s “deal of the century” in limbo, the PA leadership might well be tempted to pursue its overtures to the Quartet ‒ especially if current attempts to glue the PA and Hamas together fail to gell. In addition, pressure to seize the initiative is mounting as Arab-Israel normalization proceeds apace, and the Palestinian issue is being pushed to one side.
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The Quartet was established in Madrid in 2002 and consists of the UN, the US, the European Union and Russia. Its objective is to take “tangible steps on the ground to advance the Palestinian economy and preserve the possibility of a two state solution.”
In recent years it has become moribund, but in June 2020 PA prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh submitted to the Quartet a counter-proposal to the Trump plan. It envisaged, in his words, the creation of a “sovereign Palestinian state, independent and demilitarized” with “minor modifications of borders where necessary.”
Having gone so far, perhaps the PA might be prepared to sit down at the negotiating table under the auspices of the Quartet, without pre-conditions or pre-conceptions, but shielded by support from the Arab League, and especially perhaps from the nations that have signed agreements with Israel – Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.
On September 2, 2018, a delegation from Israel’s Peace Now organization traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank to discuss with Abbas prospects for settling the conflict. The statements that follow such meetings rarely contain anything of substance. This was an exception. The next morning, the Palestinian Information Center, known as Palinfo, published a deadpan account of Abbas’s conversation with the Israelis. without comment.
“During a meeting with an Israeli delegation that visited Ramallah on Sunday,” ran the report, “Abbas said that senior US officials, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, asked him recently about his opinion of a ‘confederation with Jordan’. Abbas said: “I said yes to the offer, but I want a three-way confederation with Jordan and Israel.”
At the time Kushner and Greenblatt were, of course, heavily engaged in constructing the Trump peace plan. By the time Abbas made his comment, the word “confederation” had been featuring in the speculation buzzing about the “deal of the century”. This is why the Jordanians had recently issued a statement rejecting the idea of uniting with, or taking over, the West Bank. But Abbas’s endorsement of a triangular confederation comprising Jordan, Israel and a sovereign state of Palestine could have been a game changer – and still might be.
A confederation differs fundamentally from a federation. In a federation, states hand over some of their sovereignty to a central government; in a confederation, sovereign states retain their sovereignty but agree to collaborate on certain political, economic or administrative matters, appointing a joint central authority to coordinate the arrangement.
In supporting a three-way Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation Abbas has a good deal of reason on his side. Prowling around the PA stockade is Hamas, ruling over nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza, hungry for power in the West Bank, and harrying Abbas for a decade. No Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is likely to be effective. The PA is set on achieving a Palestinian state by way of an accommodation with Israel. No matter that the PA leadership sees this as only a step towards eventual control of the whole of Mandate Palestine, Hamas will have no truck with the long game. Hamas rejects the idea of a peace deal with Israel because it rejects the right of Israel to exist at all, and is dedicated to destroying it.
Abbas fears that if a sovereign Palestine were indeed to be established, it would not take long for Hamas to seize the reins of power just as it did in Gaza. The PA leadership has long feared losing power to Hamas, either by way of a military coup or via democratic elections. Like it or not, Abbas realizes that a new Palestine would need stronger defenses against “the enemy within” than his own resources could provide – one powerful reason for supporting the confederation concept.
As for Jordan, the last thing it wants is a weak Palestinian state 15 minutes from Amman that could be overrun at any time by Hamas, and possibly become a base for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and other elements keen on overthrowing not only Israel, but Jordan as well.
The political reality is that any viable solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute would have to be based on an Arab-wide consensus, within which Palestinian extremist objections could be absorbed. Facilitated by the Quartet, the Arab League could prove a broker for peace acceptable to all parties. Under its shield the PA could participate with Jordan and Israel in hammering out a three-state confederation – a new political entity, to come into legal existence simultaneously with a new sovereign Palestine that ideally would include Gaza.
The negotiations to bring about this kind of political solution would be lengthy, intensive and complex, but if successful the end-result would be eminently worthwhile. A Jordan-Israel-Palestine confederation could be dedicated above all to defending itself and its constituent sovereign states, but also to cooperating in the fields of commerce, infrastructure and economic development. From the moment it came into legal existence, the confederation could make it abundantly clear that any subsequent armed opposition, from whatever source, including Hamas, would be disciplined and crushed from within.
Acting in concert with the defense forces of the other states, the Israel Defense Forces would guarantee both Israel’s security and that of the confederation as a whole.
A confederation of three sovereign states, dedicated to providing high-tech security but also future economic growth and prosperity for all its citizens − if this is indeed Mahmoud Abbas’s vision, it is a possible route to a peaceful and thriving Middle East.
Neville Teller is read Modern History at Oxford University. He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years and has published five books on the subject, and blogs at a Mid East Journal. His latest book is “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”.
He was made an MBE – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in 2006 “for services to broadcasting and to drama.”