When President Barak Obama made his first public reference to the 1967 lines as the basis for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on May 19, 2011, he introduced one main caveat: the idea that there would be “mutually agreed swaps” of land between the two sides. He added that both sides were entitled to “secure and recognized borders.” But the inclusion of land swaps also raised many questions.
Where did the idea of land swaps come from? True, they have been part of the Israeli discourse among peace process experts for years, but were they legally required? To what extent do land swaps protect Israel’s rights to “secure borders” in the event the 1967 lines are used as the territorial basis of a peace settlement?
Several months after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, the U.N. Security Council defined the territorial terms of a future peace settlement in Resolution 242, which over the decades became the cornerstone for all Arab-Israeli diplomacy. At the time, the Soviets had tried to brand Israel as the aggressor in the war and force on it a full withdrawal, but Resolution 242 made clear that Israel was not expected to withdraw from all the territories that came into its possession, meaning that Israel was not required to withdraw from 100 percent of the West Bank.
Given this background, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin specified in his last Knesset address in October 1995 that Israel would never withdraw to the 1967 lines. He stressed that Israel would have to retain control of the Jordan Valley, the great eastern, geographic barrier which provided for its security for decades since the Six Day War. He did not say a word about land swaps. For 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 territory from inside of pre-1967 Israel in exchange.
So if land swaps were not part of any formal Arab-Israel agreement, what was their source? During the mid-1990s there were multiple backchannel efforts to see if it would be possible to reach a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 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 had in these backchannel talks accepted the principle that the Palestinians would obtain 100 percent of the territory, just like the Egyptians. Despite the language of Resolution 242, they proposed giving Israeli land to the Palestinians as compensation for any West Bank land retained by Israel. This idea appeared in the 1995 Beilin-Abu Mazen paper, which was neither signed nor embraced by the Israeli or the Palestinian leaderships. Indeed, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) subsequently denied in May 1999 that any agreement of this sort existed.
There is a huge difference between the Egyptian precedent and the negotiations with the Palestinians. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, and in recognition of this fact, Prime Minister Menachem Begin met Anwar Sadat’s demand and ceded all of Sinai. Moreover, the Israeli-Egyptian border had been a recognized international boundary since the time of the Ottoman Empire. The pre-1967 Israeli boundary with the West Bank was not a real international boundary; it was only an armistice line demarcating where Arab armies had been stopped when they invaded the nascent state of Israel in 1948.
At the Camp David Summit in July 2000, the Clinton administration raised the land swap idea which Israeli academics had proposed, but neither Camp David nor the subsequent negotiating effort at Taba succeeded. Israel’s foreign minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, admitted in an interview in Haaretz on September 14, 2001: “I’m not sure that the whole idea of a land swap is feasible.” In short, when the idea was actually tested in high-stakes negotiations, the land swap idea proved to be much more difficult to implement as the basis for a final
After the collapse of the Camp David talks, President Clinton tried to summarize Israeli and Palestinian positions and put forward a U.S. proposal that still featured the land swap concept. But to his credit, Clinton also stipulated: “These are my ideas. If they are not accepted, they are off the table, they go with me when I leave office.” The Clinton team informed the incoming Bush administration about this point. Notably, land swaps were not part of the 2003 Roadmap for Peace or in the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
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. Effectively, the land swap idea still proved to be unworkable.
Writing in Haaretz on May 29, 2011, Prof. Gideon Biger of the Department of Geography at Tel Aviv University warned that Israel cannot agree to a land swap greater than the equivalent of 2.5 percent of the territories because it does not possess 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 proving to be impractical.
In Jerusalem, the old pre-1967 armistice line placed the Western Wall, the Mount of Olives, and the whole Old City on the Arab side of the border. From 1948 to 1967, the Jordanians denied the Jews access to their holy sites. They systematically destroyed or desecrated some fifty-five synagogues and study halls and ethnically cleansed the Old City of all its Jewish residents. If land swaps have to be “mutually agreed,” would 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 failed ideas from past negotiations that appear on 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.” If an idea was discussed in the past, would that make it part of the diplomatic agenda of the future, even if the idea were 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 did not work: Reagan’s proposal was not accepted, and the arms control negotiations took a totally different direction. But what if today Russian president Vladimir Putin asked President Obama to implement Reagan’s proposals? Would the United States be obligated to accept diplomatic ideas that did not lead to a completed 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 eight 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. Indeed, 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. It may be that a future Israeli government will employ the idea of land swaps in order to secure vital portions of the West Bank for itself in a negotiation. But it would not be under any legal obligation to follow such a course of action. At the end of the day, it must be remembered that if a viable peace is to be attained, defensible borders must replace the 1967 lines.