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Federation? Why Not?

By       Message Uri Avnery     Permalink
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These days mark the 5th anniversary of the murder of Yasser Arafat, and bring back to me our last conversation in his Ramallah compound, a few weeks before his death. It was he who brought up the idea of a threefold federation -- Israel, Palestine and Jordan.

"And perhaps Lebanon, too. Why not?" -- the same as he did at our very first meeting, in Beirut, July 1982, in the middle of the battle. He mentioned the term Benelux -- the pact between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg that predated the European Union.

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Lately, the term "federation" has come into fashion again. Some people believe that it can serve as a kind of compromise between the "Two-State Solution," now a world-wide consensus, and the "One-State Solution" that is popular in some radical circles. "Federation" sounds like a miracle: there will be both "two states for two peoples" and a single entity. Two in one, one in two.

THE WORD "federation" does not frighten me. On the contrary, I was already using it in this context 52 years ago.On June 2, 1957, my magazine, Haolam Hazeh, published the first detailed plan for an independent Palestinian state that would come into being next to Israel. The West Bank was then under Jordanian and the Gaza Strip under Egyptian occupation.

I proposed helping the Palestinians to get rid of the occupiers. According to the plan, the two states, the Israeli and the Palestinian, would then establish a federation. I thought that its proper name should be "the Jordan Union."

A year later, on September 1, 1958, there appeared a document called "the Hebrew Manifesto." I am proud of my part in its composition. It was a comprehensive plan for a fundamental change of the State of Israel in all its aspects -- a kind of complete overhaul.

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In its readiness to re-examine the fundamentals of the state and in the depth of the thinking involved, it has no parallel from the founding of Israel to this very day. Among its authors were Nathan Yellin-Mor, the ex-chief of the Stern Group, Boaz Evron, Amos Kenan and several others.

I was responsible for the chapter on Israeli-Arab peace. It proposed that a sovereign Palestinian state would be set up next to Israel, and that the two states would establish a federation, which would gradually assume more and more jurisdiction.

I had to invent a Hebrew word to replace the foreign term "federation": "Ugda" (grouping) and suggested that it should be called "the Jordan Federation" -- "Ugdat ha-Yarden" in Hebrew and "Ittihad al-Urdun" in Arabic. (To my sorrow, this use the term "Ugda" did not take root. Instead, the army adopted it for a division, which is a grouping of regiments or brigades.)

On the morrow of the Six-Day War, after which the entire country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan was under the control of the Israeli army, a new political movement,"Israel-Palestine Federation" called for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. The founders were, more or less, the same people who had composed the "Hebrew Manifesto."

When this historic opportunity was missed and with the occupation becoming gradually more and more oppressive, I abandoned the use of the term federation. I sensed that it frightened both parties. Israelis were afraid that the word covered a plot to establish a bi-national state -- an idea that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of Jewish Israelis. Palestinians were afraid that it would serve as a disguise for a permanent Israeli occupation.

It should be remembered that the original partition plan adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, did envision a kind of federation, without using the term. It provided for the establishment of a Jewish state and an Arab state, and a separate entity of Jerusalem, administered by the UN.

All these entities were to be parts of an economic union that would cover customs, the currency, railways, post, ports, airports and more. This would have, in practice, amounted to a federation.

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THE MAIN problem with the word "federation" is that it has no agreed and binding definition. In different parts of the world, it describes wildly different regimes. The same is true for "confederacy." No two countries in the world resemble each other completely, and no two federations are the same. Every state and every federation has been shaped by its particular historical development and specific circumstances, and reflects the people that created it.

The word "federation" is derived from the Latin "foedus," treaty. Basically, a federation is a pact between different states which decide to unite on agreed terms.

The USA is a federation, and so is Russia. What do the two have in common? The United States is, theoretically, a voluntary association of states. The states have many rights, but the federation is headed by a single president with immense powers. In practice, this is one state. When in 1860 the Southern states tried to secede and set up a "confederacy" of their own, the North crushed the "rebellion" in a brutal civil war.

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