a range of federalism options for Israel-Palestine

In the Washington Post today, Daniel Hollander notes that there is another possible option for Israel/Palestine beyond one state or two states: “a federalist, multistate solution.” I think this direction should be considered, if for no reason than “inventing options” is generally a good idea when parties are at loggerheads. Expanding the menu of choices is sometimes a way to “get to yes.”

In that spirit, I would note that a federal entity is not one idea but can take many forms. Americans may immediately think of our federal republic, which has certain basic similarities to those of Germany, India, and Brazil, among other examples. But those familiar characteristics can be altered to fit the circumstances.

In our federal system:

  1. The polity that really matters to people is the national one. Yes, some people may care more about Texas than the USA (or more about Bavaria than Germany) but theirs is a marginal view. Most people experience their political citizenship fundamentally in the federal republic, with other social identities (such as race) coming into play in various ways. Membership in a state-level entity is secondary.
  2. All the states are very similar. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature. Bavaria has the Christian Social Union party instead of the Christian Democrats, much as Minnesota has the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party instead of the Democrats. Mississippi has made different social policy choices from Hawaii’s. But the states’ constitutional designs and even policies are much more similar than different. That is not only because of top-down directives from the national capital. It is also a result of having one national debate and one set of national interest groups and movements that produce congruence (or isomorphism) across the states.
  3. Fundamental questions of a constitutional nature are mostly settled at the national level. That includes most of the basic civil and political rights and matters like the relationship between religion and politics.
  4. The states are territorial. Individuals are legally permitted to move across state borders, and many actually do. Citizenship at the state level results automatically from residency, as long as you have national citizenship. Thus a citizen of New York is simply an American who resides in the State of New York.
  5. Goods and investments also move rapidly and frequently across state lines. There is one market.

None of these features is definitive of a “multistate federal system.” I can envision a multi-state arrangement in the Israel/Palestine area with features like these:

  1. Membership in the smaller state is much more important to most people than their relationship with the federal umbrella entity. In fact, many people on all sides may demonstrate–at most–a grudging acceptance of the umbrella entity, while still identifying strongly as Israelis, Palestinians, or in other ways.
  2. The various states may be quite dissimilar. One state might, for example, “establish” Judaism while another might establish Sunni Islam or favor Islam and Christianity. One state might be governed by the Knesset with its current system of proportional voting while another state adopts a presidential system. I write “might” because I don’t know which specific choices would emerge, but the states would be permitted to form different kinds of regimes, within broad limits.
  3. State citizenship might not be territorial. Perhaps anyone who identifies as Jewish remains a citizen of Israel, and whether that person is allowed to live in certain zones within Israel/Palestine is a matter of negotiated policy. You don’t become Israeli by moving to Tel Aviv, or Palestinian by moving to Ramallah, but you retain your state citizenship wherever you live. There is a precedent in the Ottoman millet system, but this version can be more democratic.
  4. The federal umbrella guarantees certain rights, but they are much more limited than the rights enumerated by the US Constitution or even the EU. The separate states retain a lot of flexibility about freedom of religion, economic rights, etc.

Certainly, these options leave extremely difficult issues to be resolved. How many states? With what jurisdictions? How are conflicts among the states, between the states and the federal entity, or among citizens of different states resolved? Can some of the states be non-democratic? What does the federal entity do, and how is it governed? What rights are guaranteed to all, and can they be changed? Who can live where? Is there any redistribution among the states? What is the umbrella entity even called (in Arabic, in Hebrew, in English)?

I could offer my own opinions on these matters, but that’s irrelevant. The question is whether any reasonably decent compromise could attract sufficient breadth of support to fly. The odds are no doubt against that, but then the status quo seems not only unjust but also unsustainable. (I wrote most of this before today’s vote in the Knesset, which just underlines the previous sentence.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.