Nabeel Kassis
The Daily Star (Commentary)
May 30, 2008 - 5:11pm

The Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 13, 1993, left several issues - Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, security arrangements, borders, relations and cooperation with other neighbors and other issues of common interest - for later negotiations that would determine permanent status.

One could argue that most of these issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, were left for later negotiations because they were simply too difficult to resolve up front and needed much work to prepare the ground for agreement. Another argument - cynical to some but, in hindsight, not so at all to others - is that the additional work needed was in fact to create more facts on the ground and thus render those issues even more intractable and less amenable to resolution.

In any case, the issues seem to have been arranged in a descending order of difficulty, borders coming lowest on this ladder since the last two items, relations and cooperation with other neighbors and other issues of common interest, are tangential and there is no point discussing them before the more basic issues are dealt with. With this in mind, what are the merits of settling the least difficult issue, in other words borders, first?

Agreeing on borders and putting other issues on hold would constitute another "interim agreement." Experience tells us that this is a recipe for prolonging the process and that nothing good will come of it. In any case, one would assume that the negotiating teams would undertake to approach all permanent status issues simultaneously and in parallel and not sequentially, stating and resolving that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," probably with room for minor trade-offs when all issues are brought together.

Still, it is possible that progress in dealing with one particular issue may be quicker than with others. Agreement, however, is something else. Having said this, let us see if the issue of "borders" is amenable to faster progress.

The border issue is intuitively less difficult to resolve than the issues of Jerusalem or refugees. But it is far from easy. In fact, it is difficult enough to warrant calling resolving it "real progress." From a Palestinian point of view - and according to international law - the issue of borders is not one of determining where the borders are and delineating them, since this is a matter that is already settled by the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war. Hence, the borders are the armistice lines drawn in 1949, which are, by and large, the same as the lines on the eve of June 4, 1967. The issue of "borders" then becomes one of resolving details such as what to do with the no-man's land, determining border crossings, addressing the permeability of the borders between the two states, trade across borders, transit, movement of persons and goods between the two states and between Gaza and the West Bank, and so forth.

However, the history of negotiations and the repeated references to land swaps and ratios, tells us that the issue as tackled in real negotiations is certainly more complicated than as just described. If this is the case, then it is difficult to ascribe any value to a discussion of "borders" unless the context is defined and agreed.

To be more specific, before the two parties even start to look at maps, they should have already agreed and settled all issues of principle, including that the Palestinian people should be able to freely exercise their right to self-determination on all land bounded by those borders, that within the solution of two independent sovereign states; that Palestine shall be recognized by the community of nations and be guaranteed to enjoy all rights and privileges as a member state of the United Nations; and that the Palestinian state shall enjoy full sovereignty over its land, natural resources, water, sub-soil, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and air space.

In such a context, one could argue that movement along the "borders" front constitutes real progress. However, all this would be of no practical consequence and should actually not be pursued as a strategy, if all the two parties are trying to achieve is a "shelf-agreement." That won't be acceptable. The principle of a comprehensive solution should remain paramount and the idea of a shelf-agreement should be shelved. Progress on "borders" would be a worthwhile pursuit, but with "no agreement until everything is agreed."

Nabeel Kassis is a former member of the Palestinian negotiating team and a former minister. This commentary first appeared at, an online newsletter publishing contending views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



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