1967 Borders: Disruptive Innovation

Suddenly, it seems a forgone conclusion that the White House will be presenting a plan of some sort in advance of Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to a joint session of Congress in May. For those of us who have been advocating for something along these lines, this should be welcome news. But all of the preliminary reports I've seen suggest a plan that is no plan: "Israel's acceptance of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders; Palestinian acceptance that there would be no right to return to Israeli land; Jerusalem as the capital of both states; and the protection of Israel's security needs."

The problem with this formulation is twofold. First, it may seem important, even radical, that the administration would commit to a Palestinian state in the 1967 border, but nobody really expects the border to be the same as the one in 1967. The old border is only an agreed benchmark that will be used for a land swap. And thanks to Secretary Rice, this benchmark was already the basis for the many hours of negotiation between Olmert and Abbas throughout much of 2008. The 1967 border per se is not a contentious issue anymore. What is contentious are the number and forms of settlement that would remain in place, that is, what swap would be effected.

The administration knows very well that the Palestinian position foresees, at most, Israel's annexation of various Jerusalem suburbs, and thickly populated towns along the Israeli border, such as the Etzion bloc. This would leave about 62% of Israeli settlers in place. Israel, for its part, wants to see Ariel, Efrat, and Maale Adumim remain in place. (Here we have the difference between the Abbas map, which saw Israel swapping for 1.9 percent of the land, and the Olmert map, which foresaw a swap of somewhere between 5.5 and 6 percent.)

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You may think the difference is trivial, but it is not. This is where even parties negotiating in good faith got stuck, as I pointed out recently. If Ariel remains in place, we would continue to have a finger protruding into the area between Nablus and Ramallah. If Maale Adumim remains in place, we would have a similar obstacle between Ramallah and Bethlehem. Efrat, which hems Bethlehem in from the south, seems the least intrusive settlement, and the most likely to be negotiated; but it is also the smallest and least important from the Israeli point of view.

Yes, it is time to look forward, not backward. So many opportunities come with a peace deal. Why not engineer a swap that disrupts the lives of as few people as possible? Here is where the border and the second problem, the refugee issue, intersect for Palestinians in ways Israelis tend to gloss over.

WHEN YOU SAY to Palestinians "let's disrupt as few lives as possible" they grow understandably furious. For the creation of Israel has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for three generations, and the occupation has felt like something beyond disruption. It is a little like saying to them that there are two classes of human beings, people whose lives you try not to disrupt, and people who must simply take this kind of thing for granted. The Abbas offer already seems to Palestinians an extraordinary concession.

It is one thing, they say, to finesse the language around the Palestinian "right of return," so that all Palestinian refugees would, in effect, be resettled and compensated in a Palestinian state, not within the boundaries of Israel proper. It is quite another thing for Palestinians to make this concession, which they consider a grand, historical compromise, and then be told that Israeli towns that almost everyone now considers a mistake should be left to disrupt the development of Palestinian urban centers.

Israelis usually respond at such a moment, look, hundreds of thousands of Jews from Arab countries also had their lives disrupted. Israel resettled them. Why not acknowledge that there was injustice in the past and get on with things? But it is precisely the effort to get on that seems impossible if the land fingers in question are not removed. The fact is, Jordan has already resettled at least as many Palestinians as Israelis resettled Middle Eastern Jews. The real challenge is to allow the Palestinians state to grow and thrive in its earliest stages. Does it make sense to interrupt the geographical contiguity, economic integration, and security systems of what will be, in effect, suburban centers for the sake of people who could easily be resettled in Israel proper, just as Palestinians are being resettled in Palestine?

THE POINT IS, opposition to new territorial concessions beyond Abbas's map (such as the ones Olmert sought) are going to be opposed not only by Hamas but also by Palestinian professionals and business elites who are looking forward to the responsibility of making a Palestinian state work. They may, as Salam Fayyad suggested, agree that if Jews want to live in these parts of the ancient land so much they are welcome to become Palestinian citizens. But Abbas will have as much trouble allowing Ariel to stay as Olmert would have had removing it.

And here is where the administration's plan comes in, or it is of no use at all. It must do more than provide a basis for further negotiation, as if the Netanyahu government has any desire to negotiate in the spirit Olmert did. The administration must innovate, state where the border will be, or at least the principles of mutual economic growth that will determine where it should be. Otherwise, the Obama plan will only reinforce the pathos of the deadlock rather than provide a way out of it.

A final note. When I talk to Israeli friends along these lines, many will express fury of their own, that Palestinians are now relying on mounting international pressure to get their way rather than negotiate. One feels that Israeli politics are changing, subtly, as the prospect of facing Palestinians who are enjoying a kind of world backing has begun to sink in. There is no end of talk about "September," about which more in my next post.