“A few minutes after 6 p.m. in Beirut on Tuesday, church bells clanged and the call to prayer rang out from mosques in a joint mournful vigil. Exactly a week earlier, a huge explosion, triggered by the ignition of around 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the city’s port, devastated much of the Lebanese capital, killed at least 171 people, wounded thousands and left more than 300,000 homeless.” (Ishaan Tharoor and Ruby Mellen, The Washington Post) Was the blast the inflection point that tips Lebanon into total collapse?
The explosion not only reverberated through Lebanon but through Israel as well. Israelis are raising funds for their northern neighbour. The flag of Lebanon was projected onto the City Hall in Tel Aviv. Not all Israelis feel compassion for the suffering of the Lebanese. Former MK, Moshe Feiglin announced that he hoped that Israel was behind the massive explosion at Beirut’s port. He declared it a “gift from God” and said that he was glad it was Beirut and not Tel Aviv.
Most Israelis, I am sure, including most settlers, right-wingers and those living along the northern border, were ashamed of the words Feiglin uttered that expressed such a deep lack of empathy. If suffering ends with three strikes and you are out, Lebanon has just been hit with a fourth strike on top of its economic implosion, political crisis and the spread of COVID-19. Well it is the fault of the Lebanese alone. They have chosen corrupt governments, misrule and political leaders who show no indication that they accept responsibility for the dire straights in which Lebanon finds itself. They have allowed the country to go to rack and ruin and half its population to fall below the poverty line currently.
But Lebanon, a country of 7 million, has received and holds 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Lebanese have responded to the explosion with a strong sense of solidarity and community at the same time as the absence of efficacious institutions have become so apparent. It is a paradox. There is another. Lebanon has refused to grant the vast majority of Palestinian refugees citizenship or even the permanent security of a right of residence. On the other hand, its generosity towards refugees is only rivalled by that of Jordan, a poorer country with a slightly smaller population which hosts a minimum of 1 million registered refugees and countless others who are not registered.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has led a worldwide effort at providing aid. 300 million has been pledged, but this will only cover the need for humanitarian assistance, not development. The main Lebanese grain silo was destroyed in the blast. The World Food Program is shipping 50 metric tons of flour to stave off starvation. After all, Lebanon imports 85% of its food needs. In addition, the cost of rebuilding the port, the infrastructure and the homes of 300,000 Lebanese who lost their residences to the explosion will cost billions. Who will pay? Who will help? The Gulf States are no longer willing to foot the bill to restore Lebanon. They were already burnt twice.
Further, this is a country which is not even controlled by its formal parliament but by Hezbollah backed by Iran and determined to exterminate Israel – though it is extremely cautious in undertaking an action now that might trigger a full scale war. One would not be surprised if very few Israelis felt deeply about the suffering of the Lebanese. But most do, in spite of the threat on their northern border. Lebanon has 160,000 rockets aimed at Israel which no Iron Dome could protect against if the rockets were fired in short succession. Lebanon has been on such a self-destructive path since the multi-billionaire Prime Minister (five times between 1992 and 2005), Rafic Al-Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 that one could reasonably have doubts that any fear of mutually assured destruction could really serve as a deterrent.
Yet most Israelis conjoin their bleeding hearts with policies rooted in fear rather than hope, rooted in minimizing risk rather than maximizing a possibility for reconciliation. And this is the real choice Israelis face when they approach the prospect of peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank. Their security concerns are up front and centre and their hopes for a shared homeland tied together in a confederation and divided into two states representing the two ethnic groups is seen to belong to a dreamscape. They have the example next door of different religious groups trying to share a single state and turning it into a wasteland for plunder and exploitation by each group. How could one hope for a putative unity between Palestinians and Israelis who practice different religions, speak a different language and stem from different ethnic origins when people who are all Arabs are so divided?
Yet, under the auspices of Jewish Currents and the Foundation for Middle East Peace with Peter Beinart as the moderator, a webinar on a “Shared Homeland” was held yesterday with three guests: Meron Rapoport, an Israeli journalist and co-founder of “A Land for ALL/Two States One Homeland” promoting a confederation of two independent states – a Palestinian and Israeli one; Sari Nusseibeh, a professor of philosophy who I have known for decades when he taught at Bir Zeit and when he became president of Al-Quds University when he also represented the PLO for Jerusalem; and Dr. Limor Yehuda, a legal scholar, currently a Fellow at Tel Aviv University. She founded “A Land for All” and wrote her doctoral thesis on multi-ethnic societies sharing a common homeland.
Meron Rapoport summed up the confederation idea in terms of five principles:
- Two independent states based on the 1967 border;
- Open borders and freedom of residence for all, including both refugees and settlers;
- Some shared institutions;
- A shared capital, Jerusalem, as an open city;
- Past injustices to be mended if and only if they do not lead to the creation of new ones.
I thought, however, that Sari Nusseibeh summed up the choice, more importantly, the conditions for making such a choice, very well. It meant that moral concerns trump security concerns. Without that priority, there is no possibility of creating a shared homeland. Of course, that is not sufficient. As Meron Rapoport noted, mutual understanding and shared narratives had to precede negotiations. As Limor Yehuda pointed out, there are extant precedents, foremost among them, the European Union that established the longest peace ever in Europe. However, her citation of Northern Ireland and Bosnia did not offer the same appeal. But once again, she stressed the key ingredient – mutual respect and recognition.
Confederation was claimed to be both more just and more realistic than either the simple two-state model or Beinart’s vision of a unitary state. In the confederation model, each group was allowed to express its communal right to self-determination, admittedly with the caveat that such assertions are subject to the recognition of how interdependent the parties to the arrangement are.
In addition to the problem of requiring a moral outlook to dominate security concerns for that path to work, the proposal seemed to stand in stark contrast to the example of Lebanon on Israel’s and Palestine’s doorstep. Further, it ignored the issue of spoilers and the fact that historically in both 1937 and 1947, similar proposals were considered but rejected by independent bodies representing neither party.
I have already dealt with Lebanon. But the problem of spoilers is much more insidious. On one side, many believe that in order for there to be peace in the region, the Zionist colonial and apartheid state must be dismantled. On the other side, there are those who recognize only Jewish claims to the whole of Palestine and insist that Palestinians as a distinctive national group are Johnny-come-latelies. Both groups of spoilers include many people willing to die for what they believe. Since it only takes a small minority of dedicated spoilers to undermine cooperation and spread fear and suspicion, security concerns re these spoilers has to take priority over an ethical and moral approach.
Finally, there is the argument that these proposals for confederation have been made many times before, most explicitly before the Peel Commission in 1937 and before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) in 1947. Independent examiners found more merit in the two-state solution than in a two-state plus solution in the form of a federation or confederation. But, at the same time, both examinations concluded that any solution would require some + to enhance the possibility of the two states living side-by-side in peace.
The dilemma in the end is not the dream or the aspiration, but the means of getting from A to B if the path requires morality trumping security. For, in order to walk that way, security against spoilers had to be a priority.
This paradox and impediment, however, does not make the two-state solution a better choice, especially currently when it is moribund.