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‘Land Swaps’ and the 1967 Lines

9:00 AM, Jun 20, 2011 • By DORE GOLD
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It was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who resurrected the land swap idea in 2008 as part of newly proposed Israeli concessions that went even further than Israel's positions at Camp David and Taba. It came up in these years in other Israeli-Palestinian contacts, as well. But Mahmoud Abbas was only willing to talk about a land swap based on 1.9 percent of the territory, which related to the size of the areas of Jewish settlement, but which did not even touch on Israel's security needs. So the land swap idea still proved to be unworkable.

Writing in Haaretz on May 29, 2011, Prof. Gideon Biger, from Tel Aviv University's department of geography, warned that Israel cannot agree to a land swap greater than the equivalent of 2.5 percent of the territories since Israel does not have vast areas of empty land which can be transferred. Any land swap of greater size would involve areas of vital Israeli civilian and military infrastructure.

Furthermore, in the summaries of the past negotiations with Prime Minister Olmert, the Palestinians noted that they would be demanding land swaps of "comparable value" – meaning, they would not accept some remote sand dunes in exchange for high quality land near the center of Israel. In short, given the limitations on the quantity and quality of territory that Israel could conceivably offer, the land swap idea was emerging as impractical.

In Jerusalem, the old pre-1967 armistice line placed the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, and the Old City as a whole on the Arab side of the border. From 1948 to 1967, Jews were denied access to their holy sites; some 55 synagogues and study halls were systematically destroyed, while the Old City was ethnically cleansed of all its Jewish residents. If land swaps have to be "mutually agreed" does that give the Palestinians a veto over Israeli claims beyond the 1967 line in the Old City, like the Western Wall? 

The land swap question points to a deeper dilemma in U.S.-Israel relations. What is the standing of ideas from failed negotiations in the past that appear in the diplomatic record? President Obama told AIPAC on May 22 that the 1967 lines with land swaps “has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.” Just because an idea was discussed in the past, does that make it part of the diplomatic agenda in the future, even if the idea was never part of any legally binding, signed agreements?

In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, and made a radical proposal that both superpowers eliminate all of their ballistic missiles, in order to focus their energies on developing missile defenses alone. The idea didn't work, Reagan's proposal was not accepted, and the arms control negotiations took a totally different direction. But what if today Russian president Dmitry Medvedev asked President Obama to implement Reagan’s proposals? Would the U.S. have any obligation to diplomatic ideas that did not lead to a finalized treaty?

Fortunately, there are other points in President Obama's recent remarks about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that can take the parties away from the 1967 lines and assuage the Israeli side. At AIPAC, the president spoke about "the new demographic realities on the ground" which appears to take into account the large settlement blocs that Israel will eventually incorporate. Using the language of Resolution 242, Obama referred to "secure and recognized borders," and importantly added: "Israel must be able to defend itself—by itself—against any threat."

However, for Israelis, mentioning the 1967 lines without these qualifications brings back memories of an Israel that was 8 miles wide, and a time when its vulnerability turned it into a repeated target of  hegemonial powers of the Middle East, that made its destruction their principle cause. Sure, Israel won the Six Day War from the 1967 lines, but it had to resort to a preemptive strike as four armies converged on its borders. No Israeli would like to live with such a short fuse again. The alternative to the 1967 lines are defensible borders, which must emerge if a viable peace is to be reached.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. 

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