Other Options

Two States With Open Borders

03.13.13 3:20 PM ET

Ben Birnbaum’s “The End of the Two-State Solution” in The New Republic has made quite a splash this week, and deservedly so. But the conclusion of the article—that the two-state peace deal that leaders neared agreed to in 2008 is becoming more distant—missed something important. The argument, like many others on the topic, is based on the assumption that any two-state solution must resemble the so-called Clinton Parameters—guidelines recommending the creation of a Palestinian state composed of Gaza, parts of East Jerusalem, and 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank, as well as small land swaps from Israeli territory in exchange for Palestinian compromises on the “right of return” for refugees and Israeli security concerns. Though demographic changes are making the Clinton Parameters less feasible, the two-state solution isn’t dead—but it may be time to reimagine what two states could look like.

Imagine, for a moment, what I would call the “open borders” solution, an alternative two-state solution based on freedom of movement principles and a citizenship-choice program for foreign residents. This would entail the State of Israel at peace with a Palestinian state made of Gaza, virtual all of the West Bank, and most of East Jerusalem. But instead of cumbersome Israeli enclaves or forced settler evacuations, all Jews currently residing in the West Bank are offered their choice of Israeli or Palestinian citizenship, and do not have to move regardless of which they choose. Likewise, Palestinians now living in Israel have their choice of citizenship and can live wherever they wish. Jews could still immigrate to Israel and the state of Palestine would be able to repatriate Palestinian refugees without any formal “right of return,” though after immigrating to Palestine they could buy homes in Israel as Palestinian citizens.

Legal jurisdiction would go in accordance with the 1949 armistice agreement. Israeli law would apply on Israel’s side of the green line, and Palestinian law would be in force in the West Bank and Gaza, with special provisions for Jerusalem. Violent acts and acts of inter-communal hatred will be dealt with by police as criminal matters, not as international incidents.

Despite legal affairs being based on borders, voting rights would go in accordance with citizenship. Thus a Palestinian citizen living in Nazareth would enjoy basic residency rights under Israeli law, but would only vote in Palestinian parliamentary elections, not Israeli ones. The same goes for Israeli citizens, no matter where they live. Decoupling citizenship from residency rights would ensure a democratic Jewish state and a democratic Palestine, both accorded with U.N. membership and statehood rights under international law.

At the center of the plan is a new system of border crossings. Instead of normal international border crossings or the current IDF checkpoint system, the green line would dotted with booths manned by both Palestinians and Israelis charged only with insuring that no illegal items—weapons or drugs—cross the border. Those carrying Israeli or Palestinian passports will be legally entitled to cross the border as long as they are not carrying anything dangerous.

Why could this idea work? In short, such a plan has something for everyone, at least in comparison with other solutions currently being discussed. For Palestinians living in the West Bank, the “porous borders” solution offers them a state with no cumbersome Israeli enclaves interrupting traffic and daily life. Gazans will appreciate a plan that makes it easy to visit family in the West Bank and in Israel, granting them for the first time the freedom of movement that they understandably desire. The prospect of returning to Palestine would of course appeal to refugees.

On the Israeli side, settlers may be more amenable to a peace plan that does not require mass evacuation of their towns. Meanwhile, the Israeli center can rest assured that this plan of action—unlike the one-state solution—ensures the preservation of a democratic Jewish state due to its unique citizenship laws. And lastly, for the left on both sides, this idea bucks the unappealing concept of permanent separation embodied by the system of fences and walls that currently divide up the land.

Conservative elements on both sides might not be pleased, as this idea requires great compromise and increases the level of inter-communal interaction. This will also upset people supporting the creation of a single, unitary state—Jewish, Palestinian, or otherwise. Those who create a false dichotomy between the Clinton Parameters and the one-state solution will be also sorely disappointed, as they hoped to recruit all those who believed settlement growth has made a two-state plan impossible.

Personally, I don’t think that the Clinton Parameters are unworkable just yet. But I do believe that there should be more than one option on the table, and fellow two-staters should be willing to explore ideas that fit today’s demographic realities. Polls show that the two-state solution remains the only plan acceptable to the majority of Palestinians and Israelis. It’s about time we start considering variations on that theme before the original becomes too dated.