Let's first review what we know does not and cannot work:
- Israeli control. Neither side wishes to continue the situation that began in 1967, when the Israel Defense Forces took control of a population that is religiously, culturally, economically, and politically different and hostile.
- A Palestinian state. The 1993 Oslo Accords began this process but a toxic brew of anarchy, ideological extremism, antisemitism, jihadism, and warlordism led to complete Palestinian failure.
- A binational state: Given the two populations' mutual antipathy, the prospect of a combined Israel-Palestine (what Muammar al-Qaddafi calls "Israstine") is as absurd as it seems.
Excluding these three prospects leaves only one practical approach, that which worked tolerably well in the period 1948-67:
- Shared Jordanian-Egyptian rule: Amman rules the West Bank and Cairo runs Gaza.
To be sure, this back-to-the-future approach inspires little enthusiasm. Not only was Jordanian-Egyptian rule undistinguished but resurrecting this arrangement will frustrate Palestinian impulses, be they nationalist or Islamist. Further, Cairo never wanted Gaza and has vehemently rejected its return. Accordingly, one academic analyst dismisses this idea "an elusive fantasy that can only obscure real and difficult choices."
It is not. The failures of Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, of the Palestinian Authority and the "peace process," have prompted rethinking in Amman and Jerusalem. Indeed, the Christian Science Monitor's Ilene R. Prusher found already in 2007 that the idea of a West Bank-Jordan confederation "seems to be gaining traction on both sides of the Jordan River."
The Jordanian government, which enthusiastically annexed the West Bank in 1950 and abandoned its claims only under duress in 1988, shows signs of wanting to return. Dan Diker and Pinchas Inbari documented for the Middle East Quarterly in 2006 how the PA's "failure to assert control and become a politically viable entity has caused Amman to reconsider whether a hands-off strategy toward the West Bank is in its best interests." Israeli officialdom has also showed itself open to this idea, occasionally calling for Jordanian troops to enter the West Bank.
Despairing of self-rule, some Palestinians welcome the Jordanian option. An unnamed senior PA official told Diker and Inbari that that a form of federation or confederation with Jordan offers "the only reasonable, stable, long-term solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." Hanna Seniora opined that "The current weakened prospects for a two-state solution forces us to revisit the possibility of a confederation with Jordan." The New York Times' Hassan M. Fattah quotes a Palestinian in Jordan: "Everything has been ruined for us - we've been fighting for 60 years and nothing is left. It would be better if Jordan ran things in Palestine, if King Abdullah could take control of the West Bank."
Nor is this just talk: Diker and Inbari report that back-channel PA-Jordan negotiations in 2003-04 "resulted in an agreement in principle to send 30,000 Badr Force members," to the West Bank.
And while Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak announced a year ago that "Gaza is not part of Egypt, nor will it ever be," his is hardly the last word. First, Mubarak notwithstanding, Egyptians overwhelmingly want a strong tie to Gaza; Hamas concurs; and Israeli leaders sometimes agree. So the basis for an overhaul in policy exists.
Secondly, Gaza is arguably more a part of Egypt than of "Palestine." During most of the Islamic period, it was either controlled by Cairo or part of Egypt administratively. Gazan colloquial Arabic is identical to what Egyptians living in Sinai speak. Economically, Gaza has most connections to Egypt. Hamas itself derives from the Muslim Brethren, an Egyptian organization. Is it time to think of Gazans as Egyptians?
Thirdly, Jerusalem could out-maneuver Mubarak. Were it to announce a date when it ends the provisioning of all water, electricity, food, medicine, and other trade, plus accept enhanced Egyptian security in Gaza, Cairo would have to take responsibility for Gaza. Among other advantages, this would make it accountable for Gazan security, finally putting an end to the thousands of Hamas rocket and mortar assaults.
The Jordan-Egypt option quickens no pulse, but that may be its value. It offers a uniquely sober way to solve the "Palestinian problem."
Jan. 7, 2009 update: The National Post cleverly dubs my plan (in its title to this article) the "back-to-the-future option," but I like best the name bestowed on it by blogger Mary P. Madigan: "the no-state solution." Perfect.
For an extended discussion of this topic, see my weblog begun in 2005, "The West Bank to Jordan, Gaza to Egypt."
Also, I am not a recent opponent to a Palestinian state; note the title of an article I published in the New York Times on April 25, 1988, "Imagine a Palestinian State: A Nightmare for the Arabs and for Israel," and a brief extract from it:
no one should expect a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza to end the Arab-Israeli conflict: It would merely move it to a new stage … A Palestinian state means new disasters for the Palestinian people and instability for the Arab states.
Jan. 8, 2009 update: Some readers interpret this column as an endorsement of Jordan-is-Palestine - the idea that Palestinians can have Jordan as their state. Two responses:
- I argued at length against Jordan-is-Palestine back when that was a live issue. See my full-scale article on this issue from 1988 at "Is Jordan Palestine?" and a shorter one from two years later at "President Arafat? [and the Jordan-Is-Palestine Issue]." My views have not changed in the interim decades - I remain opposed to this gambit for all the reasons expressed there.
- My idea in the above column is that Jordan - the Hashemites in particular - rule the Palestinians, not the reverse. And the same goes for Egypt, obviously. Call it, if you will, Palestine-is-Jordan.
Other readers have asked what implications the Jordan-Egypt scenario has for Israeilis living on the West Bank - specifically, does it mean their forced evacuation as happened to their counterparts in Gaza? No, and again two points:
- The boundaries between Israel and the West Bank are more fluid than those between Israel and Gaza. I assume they would not return to those that existed in 1967.
- My idea concerns the Israeli government not ruling the Palestinian population; it says nothing about control of territory.