This blog explores as a ‘thought experiment’ what a ‘one state’ combination of what is now Israel, the Gaza strip and the West Bank might comprise in terms of constitutional components.
The role of thought experiments
The phrase ‘thought experiment’ is used to describe a speculative train of logic that departs from either a standard line of theoretical argument or a standard view of the real world. It describes a way of questioning received or conventional wisdom. It does not however imply that it offers a superior alternative, either as a theoretical argument, or in terms of any relevance to practical policy making. A thought experiment aims to offer no more than an internally consistent line of speculation. There is no presumption about the conclusion of the thought experiment. It might lead to further questioning of received wisdom. It might, on the contrary, provide an indirect endorsement of the established way of looking at the object of inquiry.
In this particular case the speculative departure is from the standard view expressed and endorsed in the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO and the Israeli government that Israel and its Palestinian neighbours should develop a framework for living side by side in a ‘two state’ arrangement. Instead, it speculates about what might be the features of a constitutional arrangement if Israel and its Palestinian neighbours were to try and live together within a unified state. It is a line of speculation that is far, far distant from the realm of practical politics. However, the features that are explored are not chosen arbitrarily. They are internally consistent with a consociationalist view of the kind of political arrangements that try to hold together deeply divided societies.
Hypothetical features of ‘one-state’
In a state that combined Israel, the Palestinian Arab population of the Gaza strip and the West Bank the population would total about 14m of which about half would be Jewish. Power sharing would be inevitable. Some aspects of power sharing are easier to envisage than others. Any power sharing agenda would need to include the following:
Proportional representation in elected assemblies
Elected assemblies would need to reflect the two communities in proportion to their population share. In so far as representation is evenly divided and simple majorities for law making would likely be unacceptable to those excluded, there would be a need to put in place an incentive to form more broadly based coalition governments. For example, the majority needed to pass legislation might be set at say 60% in order to encourage cross community agreement.
A second and smaller elected assembly could also include seats reserved for representatives of smaller but historic communities whose size would not be sufficient to ensure representation otherwise. The powers of the second body might be to amend, and/or delay for further consideration, acts proposed by the first assembly.
Shared executive power
Government executive powers would also need to be shared in a manner consistent with coalition governments. This would mean that cabinet functions would be divided between the two communities and that ministerial offices would be shared. Arab ministers would have deputies from the Jewish community and vice versa. Traditionally, some ministries are seen as more important than others - notably finance. There would be a case for saying that the most important ministerial decisions would have to be decided by the government as a whole and not by a single minister and their deputy.
Under a Prime Ministerial system, the Head of Government would normally be the person able to command a majority in the parliament. A 60% requirement might again be required in order to achieve cross-community backing. In addition, in order to avoid permanent entrenchment, the position could rotate in line with the life of a parliament. An Israeli PM during the life of one parliament would be followed by an Arab PM for the next. Again, a rotating deputy position would be needed.
Decentralised policy domains
Heterogenous electorates traditionally call for decentralised decision making. However, geographical borders do not necessarily reflect community borders particularly in cases where city populations are important. If a unified state were to have any success in practice, today’s geographical borders would become increasingly permeable over time. Therefore, decentralisation that better protects communities could be achieved through decentralised arrangements for particular areas of policy. These might include education and the delivery of health care. National schemes might apply in areas such as state pensions, social security and unemployment benefits and health insurance.
The capacity to exercise a veto on acts and measures of a government deemed unacceptable to one of the communities offers an ultimate form of protection to each. Veto power could reside with the second chamber. Alternatively, it could reside in the arrangements around the functions of the Head of State in signing off and giving final approval to the acts of government.
Power sharing would extend to any role of the Head of State. The office might itself be shared on a rotating basis. But in addition, a system of mutual veto final might involve the consent of an advisory committee to the Head of State, where both communities are represented equally, before signoffs are approved.
It is axiomatic for any form of democratic government that judiciaries should be independent of government and that the principles of justice lie in sources outside politics. In this case more than one judicial system would be needed in order to reflect different community beliefs about the principles of justice. There might need to be a secular court system, distinct for each community, and religion-based systems distinct for each. Citizens accused of committing wrongs would be able to choose in which court system their case would be heard.
Who owns what in a unified state would depend on the dating of claims and judgements about the character of those transactions, whether willing or not, corrupt or not, documented or not. There would need to be a separate independent system for adjudicating claims and for hearing appeals. The system might be organised on a geographical basis but appeals would need to be heard by a central body representing both communities.
Security and defence
The Jewish population of Israel would need absolute assurance of its ability to defend itself against external enemies before considering power sharing with its immediate Arab communities. It would also need these reassurances on a continuing basis and need to retain its own independent defence and security capacity even after the setting up of any hypothetical unified state. External guarantees, whether emanating from an international organization such as the UN or from single states such as the US, would not be sufficient.
Internal security, law and order, and policing would be a common concern of both communities in a unified state. Each faces risks from extremists on each side. A distinction can be drawn between those tasks that involve ‘boots on the ground’ and other aspects of law enforcement. ‘Boots on the ground’ would require a joint force.
Progress on a two-state model of arrangements between Israel and the Arab territories since the 1993 Oslo Accords has been disappointing to say the least. Continued strife justifies looking at hypothetical alternatives. A ‘thought experiment’ setting out the contours of a unified state is one hypothetical alternative even though it is very remote from today’s practical reality. There are no general conclusions to be drawn from this experiment. It does however help to identify the most significant areas of practical difficulty around defence and security arrangements and property rights. In addition, power sharing offers only an indirect approach to the more fundamental problem of the long-term psychological adjustment each community would need to make in this and future generations.