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1967 borders: Land swaps are no cure-all

The idea that the tough choice about settlers can somehow be waved away through the magic wand of land swaps is a fantasy. Any solution that will leave most settlers in place (in one state, or two states) will be just a perpetuation of the conflict under another title.

Following the uproar in the United States and Israel about his comments regarding 1967 borders, Obama, in his speech to AIPAC last week, stated

… since my position has been misrepresented several times, let me reaffirm what “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps” means. By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967… [this formula] allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.

This response rebuts critics, who have falsely claimed that Obama insists on a return to 1967 borders, and makes clear that Obama himself support changes to those borders. The crux of the matter appears to be the “swaps,” which are the sum of the difference between the 1967 borders and the modified borders that Obama (and many others) have in mind. To understand the debate on this issue, therefore, one must first understand the rationale and purpose of the swaps idea.

The main dispute about the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state concerns the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, with a population of roughly half a million people, of which about 200,000 live in areas surrounding Jerusalem, unilaterally annexed by Israel, and the rest spread throughout the Palestinian territories.

Israel wants to evacuate as few of these settlers as possible, whereas the Palestinians want to keep as much as their territory as possible. This is where the swaps come in: Israel will annex lands holding the majority of the settlers, thus reducing the amount of people evacuated, and the Palestinians will be compensated with other territories, which are within Israel’s internationally recognized borders, thus allowing them to keep the same amount of land.

On the surface, this appears to be a neat solution, and, in fact, the principle of land swaps has been largely accepted by both sides. The differences seem tiny: According to the Palestine Papers, in 2008, Israel offered land swaps amounting to 6.3 percent of the West Bank area, the Palestinians countered with 1.9 percent, and negotiations fell apart at this point. The West Bank is extremely small, smaller than three quarters of existing sovereign countries. The land area in dispute amounts to less than 250 square kilometers, or about 60,000 acres.

But what is truly at stake in the issue of borders is not the amount of land that is to be exchanged, but its geographical distribution. To see why, one need only look at a map created by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a moderate pro-Israeli think tank (h/t to Matt Yglesia).

Land swaps create a convoluted and strange-looking border (Map: Washington Institute for Near East Policy)

The map, which lies between the Israeli and Palestinian proposals in 2008, looks like someone spilled (purple) ink on it. It portrays a variety of narrow strips progressing from Israel into the heart of the West bank, complemented by Israeli blobs, surrounded by Palestinian territory, and connected to Israel proper only through slender, fragile looking bands. Moreover, there are lots of these spots – nine, to be exact.

This would not be a problem if the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians was based on mutual trust and friendship. Borders would be open, people would move across Israeli and Palestinian territories without feeling the difference, and the fact that your town is Palestinian or Israeli would matter for issues such as government services, voting in elections and questions of symbolism.

But this is not the situation envisioned by those who suggest land swaps. Indeed, part of the reason the map looks so strange is precisely because it is premised on total separation of movements. The strips are so narrow, winding, and strangely shaped, because the map makers attempted to ensure that both Israeli and Palestinian territory are “contiguous,” by which they mean that Palestinians would be able to move between Palestinian areas without entering Israel, and vice versa.

Even with total focus on this consideration, they fail in the task:

… the contiguity issue is particularly complicated in the areas surrounding Jerusalem because settlements annexed to Israel will need to maintain a direct route to the city without precluding the contiguity of Palestinian north-south transportation or access to east Jerusalem. These traffic flows can be maintained with existing overpasses and tunnels, the construction of a few new roads, and a degree of creativity.

The insistence on contiguity (up to the absurd “vertical” division of sovereignty, with one side claiming the tunnel and the other claiming the overpass directly on top of it) stems from the fact that Israel will not allow Palestinians to freely pass through its territory; nor are they willing for their citizens to rely on movement through Palestinian territory. Non-contiguity becomes complete disconnection under these circumstances.

As Shakespeare said, “This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.” If there is no free movement, there must be contiguity. However, in order to achieve contiguity, one must create borders which are so convoluted and elongated, that even the slightest incident could paralyze movement completely. Considering the balance of forces, it is far more likely that Palestinian movement, rather than Israeli, would be cut off.

That is why the Palestinians could not accept the Israeli offer in 2008, nor the option presented by the Washington Institute. It is not the amount of land that is problematic, but the impact of borders on movement within Palestinian territory. The past decade has demonstrated the devastating impact of such cutoffs from land and free movement for Palestinian lives, and anything that perpetuates this situation would just be a continuation of the conflict, even if some leaders sign on some dotted line.

What is the alternative? Some say, a one-state solution. Of course, right now, there is only one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and Palestinian movement is still hindered. Maybe if Israelis could be pressured to give the vote to millions of Palestinians, that will change. But surely, there is a solution that Israeli would find far easier to accept than one democratic state.

In other words, why not evacuate more settlers? The Washington Institute provides the answer mandated by conventional wisdom:

No Israeli administration could evict a large majority of settlers—the prospects for social unrest would be too high, as presaged by the problems accompanying the much more modest Gaza disengagement in 2005…

This argument is strange on two levels. First, the most generous scenario presented by the Institute would still require the eviction of 60,000 settlers. But they reject the solution proposed by the Geneva initiative, because it would require removal of 130,000 people. So, Israeli society would survive the eviction of less than 1% of its population, but would collapse if barely 2% had to move? The Washington Institute (or, for that matter, any other pundit I have read) fails to explain the rationale behind such distinctions.

Second, there are clear indications that the difficulty of evacuating settlers is overstated. The Gaza evacuation was traumatic for the settlers and the hard right, less so for the nation as a whole. And it was conducted as a unilateral move, with hazy and dubious benefits, not as part of a comprehensive deal to end the conflict. Moreover, the problem of evicting Gaza was not the size of the population which had to be moved. It was only marginally more difficult than the evacuation of some tiny outposts.

The resistance to the evacuation of the settlers does not stem from their numbers, but from ideological and nationalist sentiments. Israelis finds it very hard to move Jews in order to make room from Arabs, when their entire history is based on the reverse dynamic. When displacement occurs on a large scale in a different context, this is much less of a problem.

This is, after all, a country that absorbed half a million immigrants, a 70 percent increase in its population, in just two years (1948-1950), when it was much poorer than it is today. It the 1990s, it absorbed a million immigrants from the former Soviet union, or about 20 percent of its population. In both cases, almost none of the new immigrants spoke Hebrew or had any familiarity with Israeli society. So 70 percent or 20 percent completely new immigrants is possible, but 6-7 percent (all of the settlers in the West Bank, including Jerusalem) of people who are already well-integrated in society would be impossible?

One may argue that this is technically possible, but politically impossible. Once again, I disagree. Let us compare this to the return of Palestinian refugees into Israel (not the right of return, or symbolic return, but actual, massive return of millions of refugees). Almost all Jewish Israelis believe that this will lead to Israel’s destruction, and their own, personal physical destruction. Right or wrong, that is what they believe, and that belief will not change in the foreseeable future.

No such belief holds for the mass evacuation of settlers. Surely, right now, opposition to this scenario is almost as high as opposition to Palestinian return. But the factors shaping the two positions are different. Resistance to mass settler evacuation stems from the belief that it is an unnecessary concession, a pointless pain. Israelis believe, and this belief is reinforced by opinion makers in Israel and abroad, that most settlers can stay in place in a future agreement. So why evacuate them?

This belief may change, if the assumptions underlying it are undermined. If Israelis have to choose between perpetual conflict with the Palestinians combined with international isolation, on the one hand, and evacuating most of the settlers, on the other hand, they may yet choose the first option. But it will be a tough choice. Not so with Palestinian return. Choosing between conflict and isolation, and one’s own demise, is an easy choice. The first option will always prevail.

Right now, of course, Israel is faced with neither choice, and it may be able to go on as it is for a long time, maybe even forever. But the idea that the tough choice about settlers can somehow be waved away through the magic wand of land swaps is a fantasy. Any solution that will leave most settlers in place (in one state, or two states) will be just a perpetuation of the conflict under another title. Perhaps that is what is in store for us. But let us not kid ourselves about the implications.

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    1. Y.

      A) The PA demands that any would-be deal based on these borders would have some form of movement between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. This movement would have to pass somehow through Israeli territory. If this is acceptable for the Gaza-WB link, one must wonder why this is not acceptable inside the WB itself – after all, any argument against WB bypasses (‘Israel could cut it off’) works just as well there.

      B) This, of course, assumes we are talking about peace here. The talk about ‘incidents’ and ‘cut offs’ suggests we are talking about continuing the war with other means.

      C) The attempted explanation for the failure of the 2008 talks is of course fiction, and the slightest look at the Palestinian positions would confirm that, but again, the entire point is not peace, so why should I bother?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Koshiro

      “If this is acceptable for the Gaza-WB link, one must wonder why this is not acceptable inside the WB itself”
      If one isn’t paying attention, and only looking for more excuses for more Israeli landgrabs, yeah.
      a) One single passage between WB and Gaza *will* negatively impact Palestinian economical and social life. But it is just *one* barrier, and…
      b) … one which can be circumvented by going through the territory of third states which the Palestinians trust more (with good reasons) than they do trust Israel. Enclaves of territory entirely surrounded by Israeli walls and fences are a different matter altogether.

      P.S.: You probably realize yourself that the entire argument can easily be turned around.
      P.P.S.: The Palestine Papers show quite clearly that the disruption of Palestinian territorial continguity was indeed one of the concerns on the Palestinian side.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Y.

      So even you implicitly admits (“one of the concerns”) this was not the reason for the negotiation’s failure – contra Roi’s claim. As for the rest, nobody takes the Egypt-Jordan path seriously, and one look at the map would explain why.

      P.S. Roi has in fact been following the same logic in his posts to preposterous ends (e.g. ‘Nethanyahu doesn’t officially claim 100% of WB, ergo 67 lines are fine’). It’s only reasonable to turn this around at him.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Ben Israel

      In theory, you are right that 100,000 or 200,000 or more settlers could be expelled IF Israelis thought that they were really getting peace and IF the Palestinians gave up the “right of return”. But Israelis remember the big suicide bomber war, the massive rocket attacks from Gaza and Lebanon, the endless antisemitic propaganda put out not only by HAMAS but also the official Palestinian Autority and everyone sees the rising of radical political Islamism in Egypt, Jordan and other “moderate” countries. SO the question is, would Israelis be willing for such a massive expulsion only to please Obama and the EU, knowing that Arab grievances hostility will continue after an agreement, no matter how much Israel is willing to give up?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Deïr Yassin

      It might be that your article is globally correct, but when I read your description of WINEP as a ‘moderate pro-Israeli’ think tank, I just don’t trust the rest. Robert Satloff, Robert Perle, Zuckerman, Peretz etc have been or are collaborating with the WINEP, for God sake. If that’s moderate, I’m the Queen of Saba ! Mearsheimer and Walt describe the WINEP in their classic on the Israeli Lobby (maybe mentioned on ‘sourcewatch’ or the wiki’page) as more or less part of the Ministry of Hasbara …

      Reply to Comment
    6. abban Aziz

      This journalist fails to include the fact that the Oslo Accords never placed limits on settlement construction. The Palestinians never voiced any serious opposition to settlements until it became an excuse to halt negotiations.

      In the absence of settlements, would there be peace? No, because thousands of Israelis and far more Arabs were killed in border conflicts before one Israeli sat outside of the 67 LINE.

      The real question is why the Palestinians demand a Jew-free state and how come they aren’t be called out on it? If Israelis called for an Arab free state that would be seen as racist and disgusting.

      But when Arabs are racist it is somehow okay? Why the double standard?

      Since it is both disgusting and racist to demand thousands of Jews who live 15 kilometers from Tel Aviv to vacate their homes so Arabs can have a Jew-free nation, perhaps the Lieberman plan is the best solution.

      Re-drawing borders means no one has to leave their homes. And perhaps Arab-Israelis who end up in the Palestinian-controlled zone can apply for some dual-citizenship option.

      Israel would love to divorce itself from the Palestinians. The Arab states did a long time ago, they hate them.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Kernod

      Does anyone in their right mind believe that the map that was presented by the Washington Institute is in fact viable? If the 1967 borders represent a security threat, these represent a security disaster. A Palestinian child with a slingshot could disrupt the traffic to Ariel and the resulting Israel incursion would destroy any stability. This is an insane, unworkable map.

      We have to say it like it is — the settlements were created to prevent a resolution of the conflict through partition. Leaving them will do just that. There is no way around it — they all have to go. All.

      As for the land swaps — what kind of “swap” gives the Palestinians pieces of unusable desert in exchange for parts of their deepest, most productive and strategic heartland?

      The only agreement that has any chance of surviving is one that will be seen to both sides as “fair”. An agreement that leverages the current balance of forces to provide the Israelis with an unfair division of the meagre 22% of Palestine that is on the table will collapse sooner or later.

      The green line is the only viable line. It made sense in 1949, in a weird sort of way, and it makes sense now. Nothing else can work. The Latrun enclave is the only territory that can be exchanged for a bit of desert around Gaza.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Kernod

      ABBAN AZIZ says: The real question is why the Palestinians demand a Jew-free state and how come they aren’t be called out on it? If Israelis called for an Arab free state that would be seen as racist and disgusting.

      This has got to be one of the most absurd and self righteous statements I have ever heard. The settlers are there through theft of land and the power of the occupier. By being there, they are prolonging the suffering of the Palestinians. They have to be removed for the occupation to end. This is national liberation — no racism.

      If Israelis wants to purchase a home in (say) Nablus or a piece of land from their rightful owners later, and are willing to abide by the law of the land, I expect that may be possible. However, it requires equality and lack of coercion — both totally absent from the settlement project , just as they were absent from the Zionist takeover of most of the rest of Palestine from the Naqba until today, as Al-Araqib so blatantly illustrates.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Koshiro

      “The real question is why the Palestinians demand a Jew-free state and how come they aren’t be called out on it?”
      They don’t. They demand a settlement-free state. All Atheist, Christian and Muslim settlers would have to go as well. There just don’t happen to be any as of course the settlements are for Jews only.
      If any Jews want to emigrate to Palestine once it is established, they should get a fair shot at it, same as members of all other religions.

      “If Israelis called for an Arab free state that would be seen as racist and disgusting.”
      They are calling for Arab free settlements.

      “Re-drawing borders means no one has to leave their homes.”
      It is impossible to have a viable Palestinian state with all the settlements remaining, as one look at a map will show. I also find it amazing on how quickly you switch from the ‘Jew-free = racism’ spiel to the ‘Ethnic homogenity’ spiel without even twitching. Doubleplusgood doublethink!

      Reply to Comment
    10. abban Aziza

      “The settlers are there through theft of land and the power of the occupier. By being there, they are prolonging the suffering of the Palestinians. They have to be removed for the occupation to end. This is national liberation — no racism.”

      Yes, it is racism for Palestinians to demand a Jew-free Arab nation. Jews who have lived in the West Bank for 40 years shouldn’t be forced to leave their homes so the Palestinians can have a JEW FREE ARAB NATION.

      The Arab world already expelled their 1,000,000+ Jews without consequence, the Palestinians won’t get to do it. Israelis did it in Gaza and look how that turned out.

      “They don’t. They demand a settlement-free state. All Atheist, Christian and Muslim settlers would have to go as well.”

      And yet losers don’t get to make demands. These “settlements” aren’t going anywhere and like I said before the Oslo Accords never placed limitations on settlement construction. Now that it has become a lightening rod to rally behind it is suddenly the biggest obstacle to peace. Even though thousands of Israelis were killed in war before the “settlements.”

      You don’t care about the Palestinians, you just want more war, period.

      Reply to Comment
    11. abban Aziz

      why are my comments being moderated? because i called out the journalist on his bias? what?

      seriously. and you whine about the arab states censoring criticism. heh.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Peace is constructed in fact of 80% development of good relations (tangibly, in the form of sentiment to work things out, and the mechanics to work things out), and 20% of defensibility, not the other way around.

      EVERY proposal will be unfair to some.

      With good intentions as clear prerequisite to the actual construction of good relations, then even the 67 borders literally become defensible.

      With the 67 borders, with settlers allowed to remain where they are (but as Palestinian citizens), there can be more contiguous borders than the maze (more defensible as less exposed frontier), and there comes to be an actual minority in Palestine, rather than ethnically pure in Palestine, but integrated in Israel. (Similar to the pattern in India and Pakistan, in which there are very very few Hindus in Pakistan, but 13% of India are Muslim).

      The relationships are confused by the different scope of who are adversaries.

      Israel is understood as surrounding Palestine (West Bank), and when people speak of disprortionate relationship, Israel is described as oppressor/suppressor.

      But, Israel is also understood as being surrounded by pan-Arab and pan-Islamic world, in which the one-person one-vote theme applied to that jurisdiction leaves no Israel, 96-4.

      The Arab League proposal is critical. Absent Netanyahu’s rejectionism, and Hamas’ rejectionism, with stronger support from the Arab League for peace (not just words, but actual recognition of Israel), then peace would be possible.

      Hamas would not buck the will of the Arab League and a plebescite of Palestinians. Hezbollah would not buck the will of the Arab League.

      But, if they remain passive, as the US is accused of remaining passive, then movement doesn’t happen.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Koshiro

      “With the 67 borders, with settlers allowed to remain where they are”
      In their Araberrein hilltop communities blocking the prime land and water resources?
      Are you nuts?

      “rather than ethnically pure in Palestine, but integrated in Israel.”
      So, in Israel it would be fine that the ‘minority’ – among other things – has to learn the majority language, loses their citizenship if they marry the wrong person and have an extremely underproportional share of land and resources, while in Palestine the ‘minority’ need not bother with integrating, can marry and bring in whoever they want and should receive a vastly overproportional share of land and resources?

      But what am I even asking this for? You have dodged these questions before, you are going to dodge them now.

      Reply to Comment
    14. I assume that any Jewish-only status to the settlements would dissolve quickly.

      In any settlement, a large number of settlers would return to Israel, and the individual units would be auctioned in an open market.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Gin

      What an excellent analysis. It shows, to me, the bad faith of the Israeli’s negotiating stance. What a shame.

      Reply to Comment
    16. max

      People arguing whether the window of a highrise suspended in the air should be painted blue or green…
      Israel will negotiate borders with an entity that accepts its right to exist as a Jewish state, that is, no so called Right of Return.
      The biggest success of the Arab propaganda is managing to switch the attention from the fundamentals to the anecdotal

      Reply to Comment