Israel’s recent clash with Hamas brought up the old quandary: what to do about the Palestinians? Western states, including Israel, need to set goals to figure out their policy toward the West Bank and Gaza.
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, anti-Semitism, jihadism, and warlordism led to complete failure.
- A binational state. Given the two populations’ mutual antipathy, the prospect of a combined Israel-Palestine (what Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi calls "Israstine") is as absurd as it sounds.
Excluding these three prospects leaves only one practical approach, the one that worked tolerably well from 1948 to 1967: shared Jordanian-Egyptian rule, whereby 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 would frustrate Palestinian impulses, be they nationalist or Islamist. Furthermore, Cairo never wanted Gaza and has vehemently rejected returning there. Accordingly, one academic analyst dismisses this idea as "an elusive fantasy that can only obscure real and difficult choices."
But it is not. The failures of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the "peace process," have prompted rethinking in Amman and Jerusalem. Indeed, Ilene R. Prusher of the Christian Science Monitor found, 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 in the Middle East Quarterly in 2006 how the Palestinian Authority’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 also has shown 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 a form of federation or confederation with Jordan offers "the only reasonable, stable, longterm solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." Hanna Siniora, co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, opined, "The current weakened prospects for a two-state solution force us to revisit the possibility of a confederation with Jordan." Hassan M. Fattah of the New York Times quotes a Palestinian in Jordan: "Everything has been ruined for us—we’ve been fighting for sixty 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 negotiations between the PA and Jordan in 2003–4 "resulted in an agreement in principle to send 30,000 Badr Force members" to the West Bank.
And although President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt 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 exists for an overhaul in policy.
Second, Gaza is arguably more a part of Egypt than of Palestine. During most of the Islamic period, Palestine either was controlled by Cairo or was part of Egypt administratively. Colloquial Arabic in Gaza is identical to what Egyptians living in Sinai speak. Economically, Gaza has the most connections to Egypt. Hamas itself derives from the Muslim Brethren, an Egyptian organization. Is it time to think of Gazans as Egyptians?
Third, Jerusalem could outmaneuver Mubarak. Were it to announce a date when it ends the provisioning of all water, electricity, food, medicine, and other trade, plus accepts enhanced Egyptian security in Gaza, Cairo would have to take responsibility for Gaza. Among other advantages, this would make Egypt 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."