Bishop's vision for an Israel-Palestine confederation

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Bishop's vision for an Israel-Palestine confederationThe man who was the secret force behind the Oslo peace talks more than a decade ago is now promoting a 25-year plan to form an Israel-Palestine confederation, as a way to end Middle East strife. The Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, Riah H. Abu El-Assal, says the two nations should work towards the establishment of a confederation with a common currency, open borders and even a shared head of state.

Bishop Riah, who recently toured Australia, met Foreign Minister Alexander Downer to argue his case that only closer cooperation between Arabs and Jews can resolve the 40-year conflict. “Both Arabs and Jews, Palestinians and Israelis, have more in common than people in the West believe,” said Bishop Riah, who is one of the dwindling group of Palestinian Christians. “We are both Semites—the majority of us—we are both hard working and both groups are committed to their homelands.”

Back in 1990, as a guest of Christian peace activists in Norway, he convinced the country’s conservative foreign minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, to host a private dinner with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and some Israeli activists with links to the government. He was later present as Arafat and the later assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzak Rabin toasted each other privately—Rabin with his Scotch, Arafat with his milk—before accepting their Nobel Prizes.

Bishop's vision for an Israel-Palestine confederationBishop Riah has been advocating a confederation since 1984, when he was an Anglican priest in Nazareth. He now believes the impasse between the hardliners in the Israeli government and the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority makes his proposal more important than ever. “There is very little alternative to a peaceful outcome because neither people is going anywhere,” he said while in Australia.

While a minority of Palestinians—and an even smaller minority of Israelis—advocate a single, bi-national state, Bishop Riah does not. “If I were a Jew, I would not support it because it would defeat the very cause for which I had fought for so long,” he said. “They fear that demography is against them as the Arabs are having more children. Anyway it [a bi-national state] is not necessary.”

He says that, just as the European Union has opened its borders, introduced a common currency, integrated its economies and elected a continent-wide form of government, so too could Israel and Palestine. “After the state of Palestine has been officially established, the two parties should set up a high-level team to examine the possibility of a confederation 25 years down the track,” he said.

He even believes the two states, while retaining separate governments with their own prime ministers, could share a head of state—a presidency that rotated between Israel and Palestine, much as the presidency of the EU is rotated at present.

On the fraught issue of who should govern the Old City of Jerusalem, with its sites holy to the Jew, Muslim and Christian, Bishop Riah says a municipal council, with representatives of the three monotheistic faiths, should be set up. “Israel does not have oil or gold or iron or coal,” he argues. “Like Palestine, it depends on tourism, and on the pilgrims of every faith. To make it easy for the pilgrims to come in the hundreds of thousands, free access to these holy places is a vital condition.”

Bishop's vision for an Israel-Palestine confederationWhile the Israeli economy is relatively robust with its preponderance of new technology industries, the Palestinian economy is at present moribund, at least in part due to the severe travel restrictions placed on those traveling in and out of the West Bank and Gaza strip.

But Bishop Riah admits his design for a confederation of Israel and Palestine looks like a pipe dream while Israel continues to build the separation wall between the two territories. “It is a big stumbling block,” he says. “And in an age when people can buy rockets in the supermarkets and fire them into Israel, it is no guarantee of security, [a guarantee] that the Israeli people deserve.”

If the two sides in this conflict can reach a negotiated settlement, and it stays in place, then the future of the Holy Land looks bright. At present though, there are many, many obstacles to this agreement being reached.

“The cement blocks used to build the wall may have to be used to build bridges between Israel and Palestine. If I sound like a visionary, you must excuse me because I am a churchman.”

 

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Great story. What a visionary the bishop is. If only others shared his vision for a peaceful middle east. The idea of a confederation of encompassing both israel and palestine is an excellent one.
Peter Connolly | 17 October 2006


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