On May 19, 2011, when President Barak Obama first made his controversial reference to the 1967 lines as the basis for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he introduced one main caveat that stuck out: the idea that there would be “land swaps” between the two sides. He additionally mentioned that both sides were entitled to “secure and recognized borders.” But the land swaps captured the imagination of those who tried to analyze the full significance of what Obama said. It also raised many questions. Did the promise of a land swap counterbalance or offset his statement about the 1967 lines?
It should be recalled that according to Resolution 242, Israel was not expected to withdraw from all the territories that it captured in the Six Day War. That meant that it did not require Israel to withdraw from 100 percent of the West Bank. This point was stressed by the most senior levels of the U.S. Department of State for years, as Resolution 242 served as the legal cornerstone of every Arab-Israeli peace negotiation for decades. The extent of the areas Israel would be entitled to retain so that it could achieve what the resolution defined as “secure and recognized boundaries” has been an issue of contention. But neither Resolution 242 nor any subsequent signed agreements with the Palestinians stipulated that Israel would have to pay for any West Bank land it would retain by handing over its own sovereign land in exchange. The term “land swaps” never even appeared.
So where did this idea come from? During the mid-1990’s there were multiple back channel efforts to see if it was possible to reach a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The land swap idea was born in these discussions. The Palestinians argued that when Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt, it agreed to withdraw from 100 percent of the Sinai Peninsula. So they asked how could PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat be given less than what Egyptian President Anwar Sadat received?
As a result, Israeli academics involved in these talks accepted the principle that the Palestinians would obtain 100 percent of the territory, just like the Egyptians, despite the language of Resolution 242. In order to obtain vital West Bank land, they proposed Israel give the Palestinians Israeli land to compensate them.
Of course there was a huge difference between Egypt and the Palestinians. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace, and out of recognition of that fact, Prime Minister Menahem Begin gave Sadat all of the Sinai. Moreover, the Israeli-Egyptian border had been a recognized international boundary since the time the Ottoman Empire reached down to Sinai and the British ruled Egypt. The pre-1967 Israeli boundary with the West Bank did not have the same legal status; it was only an armistice line demarcating where Arab armies had been stopped when they invaded in 1948. A new international boundary needed to be negotiated.
At the Camp David Summit in July 2000, the Clinton administration adopted the land swap idea. Of course, neither Camp David nor the final negotiating effort at Taba succeeded, despite the unprecedented Israeli concessions. Israel’s Foreign Minister during Camp David and Taba, Shlomo Ben Ami, admitted in an interview with Ari Shavit published in Haaretz on September 14, 2001: “I’m not sure that the whole idea of a land swap is feasible.” Thus when the idea of land swaps was actually tested in official negotiations, and not in back channel contacts, it became clear that it was not practicable. To his credit, President Clinton stated that the ideas he proposed in December 2000 in what became known as the Clinton Parameters – which included land swaps – were to be removed from the negotiating table when he left office. Land swaps did not appear in the 2003 Road Map for Peace plan or in the April 2004 Bush letter to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who resurrected the idea of land swaps in 2008, when he proposed new Israeli concessions that went even further than the ones at Camp David and Taba. Olmert, who made his offer without informing his cabinet, wanted 6.3 percent of the West Bank, but Mahmoud Abbas was only willing to talk about a land swap based on 1.9 per cent of the territory. These numbers related to settlement areas and did not even touch on Israel’s security needs.
Moreover, a recent article in Haaretz on May 29, 2011, by Prof. Gideon Biger, from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Geography, warned that Israel cannot agree to a land swap that is bigger than the equivalent of 2.5 per cent of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. His point is that Israel does not have vast areas of empty land which can be transferred. According to his analysis, if the land swap is too big, areas of vital civilian and military infrastructure become quickly affected. In short, given the Palestinian stance on land swaps and Israel’s own geographic constraints, land swaps have only limited utility in keeping Israel away from the 1967 lines.
The land swap question points to a deeper dilemma in US-Israel relations. What is the standing of the diplomatic record of failed negotiations in the past? At a subsequent address at AIPAC, when President Obama proposed the 1967 lines with a land swap he said: “…this basic framework for negotiations has long been the basis for discussions among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.” Just because an idea was discussed in the past, under a previous Israeli government, does that make it part of the diplomatic agenda in the future?
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. At AIPAC he 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,” adding also that “Israel must be able to defend itself –- by itself -– against any threat.” The real alternative to a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines are not land swaps, but rather defensible borders, which must emerge if a viable peace is to be reached.