Daniel Levy
New America Foundation (Opinion)
June 30, 2011 - 12:00am

In March of this year, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution hosted a crisis simulation exercise on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The participants, myself included, assumed the roles of key players from the US, Israeli, and Palestinian sides and were presented with a scenario in which the protagonists were two weeks into the implementation of a US-brokered agreement on borders and security.

The March simulation exercise envisaged a Palestinian state alongside Israel with a border that was based on the 1967 lines, including a one-to-one land swap allowing for the majority of settlers to be annexed to Israel’s newly agreed and recognized boundaries with the remainder being evacuated by Israel according to an agreed timetable of implementation. Outstanding issues – final arrangements for Jerusalem’s old city, the claims of the Palestinian refugees, and an end of conflict – were left to be negotiated on a state-to-state basis between Israel and Palestine.

The implicit assumption of the simulation was that an Israeli-Palestinian border agreement is the key to unlocking and ultimately resolving the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an idea that has gained considerable currency in decision-making and policy circles.

This would seem to suggest that the Israel-Palestine issue is itself a border dispute. That proposition would strike many as strange. Israel-Palestine is clearly not a classic territorial dispute in the sense of there being a state ‘A,’ existing on territory ‘X’ and a state ‘B’ existing on territory ‘Y’ with a territorial area ‘Z’ which is in dispute between states ‘A’ and ‘B.’ If this is about territory, then perhaps it is easier to consider the conflict as being about all of the territory.

That too may sound counterintuitive given the tendency, especially since the Oslo Accords beginning in 1993, to emphasize the territorial division of 1967 as the starting point for negotiations and potential solutions. Yet neither nationalism has remained static and addressing all of the territory probably better approximates the points that the respective nationalisms have reached today. From a religious Zionist perspective, for instance, Shchem/Nablus or Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem (both of which are beyond the 1967 line in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or OPTs) are of symbolic significance, unlike Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion, Modi’in, or any number of modern Israeli towns and cities. From a historical perspective, there was Zionist settlement in Hebron and the Etzion bloc (both in the OPTs) before the 1949 Armistice Lines were drawn.

Likewise, on the Palestinian-Arab side Lydda, Deir Yassin, Yaffo, or Bi'r as-Sab, or any of the 531 Palestinians villages and towns destroyed or partially depopulated of Palestinians from 1947-1949, would have to be considered integral to Palestinian history and notions of Palestinian patrimony. All these areas are within what is known as Israel proper, which is also today the place of residence for a community of circa 1.5 million Arab citizens, most of whom self-identify as being Palestinian alongside having an Israeli citizenship. While Israeli citizenship for self-identified Palestinians confers a set of democratic rights, their citizenship is widely considered to be of second-class status given the entrenched structural discrimination faced by that community.

The religious dimension is less clear-cut and prominent on the Palestinian side, and Palestinian identity is not coterminous with one religion. There is a majority Muslim and minority Christian community among Palestinians. The prominence of religion as part of a national narrative is mainly confined to the Islamist wing of Palestinian politics and in particular the Hamas party. That Islamist perspective, as outlined in the Hamas Charter for instance, would consider all of Palestine to be waqf land, necessitating it to be under Muslim control. Nevertheless, this absolutist religiously-inspired approach tends not to dictate the practical politics of Hamas, which has recently displayed a capacity for flexibility when addressing possible outcomes for the conflict. Hamas did, for instance, enter democratic electoral politics under the terms of the Oslo Agreements, has reached ceasefire understandings with Israel, has previously endorsed PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s mandate to negotiate with Israel, and most recently in a Palestinian unity deal with Fatah, its leaders endorsed a two-state deal on the 1967 lines.

While peacemaking continues to focus on 1967 and borders, the prospects for such an outcome are today considered fragile. That fragility is most often attributed to the density of Israeli settlements in the OPTs. There are over 500,000 Israeli Jews today living in residential communities beyond the 67 line, including 13 neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and another 139 settlement communities in the West Bank, that out of a total Israeli population of just over 7.5 million. In order to explore that question, a little historical journey is required.
The Boundaries of National Narratives

After the First World War, the retreat of the Ottoman Empire and the British and French carve-up of the region, Palestine came under a British mandate (with part of the area becoming Transjordan in 1923). The British made somewhat contradictory commitments to the Zionist movement and to the leadership of the indigenous Palestinian-Arab community.
Under British rule, the two nationalist movements began to clash. Post-World War II, Britain asked the UN to step in, and the United Nations Special Commission on Palestine in a majority opinion recommended partitioning the area into a Jewish state on 56 percent of the land and an Arab state on 44 percent, with a large corpus separatum in and around Jerusalem and Bethlehem to be internationally administered (the minority opinion of that commission recommended the creation of a federal union in the entire area of the mandate).

The Palestinian-Arab community opposed partition and gained the support of surrounding Arab states. With the British Mandate drawing to a close, Israel declared and then fought for its independence. Both sides paid scant attention to the geographical stipulations of the original partition plan. When armistice lines were drawn in 1949 Israel was not only in control of 78 percent (rather than 56 percent) of the territory of the Mandate, but it also now controlled an area extensively depopulated of Palestinian Arabs. A Palestinian refugee community of some 750,000 was created (56,000 remained within armistice Israel) with historical evidence suggesting that this was in large measure premeditated expulsion (See Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian refugee problem revisited: Cambridge University Press, 1989; Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.). Those refugees were barred from returning to Israel – today a community of some 2.9 million Palestinian refugees reside in the surrounding countries of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon with an additional 2.1 million Palestinians living in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem.

The remaining 22 percent of Mandate Palestine was then divided between Jordan, which controlled (and formally annexed) the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and Egypt, which administered the Gaza strip. This situation prevailed until the 1967 war. By June 11, 1967, Israel was in control of 100 percent of Mandatory Palestine (in addition to the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula).

It is interesting to chart the journey taken by the respective national movements – and while territory obviously features prominently in their respective narratives, borders hold no significance beyond being a derivative of that national narrative. Up to this day, any attempt to delineate an Israeli-Palestinian border barely touches on being a conversation about the functionality of that border when it comes to economic relations or security. The OPTs were almost fully integrated into the Israeli economy post-1967, with the Palestinians becoming a convenient source of commuter labor for Israel, as well as a captive market for Israeli products. With the Oslo agreements and the establishment of a partially self-governing Palestinian Authority, a customs union was created essentially preserving existing economic relations. If there were ever to be a two-state agreement, economic cooperation would likely feature prominently.

On security, since 1967, Israel has maintained a ubiquitous military presence in the OPTs. Under Oslo and with thecreation of a Palestinian Authority, including security and police forces, Israel has maintained that military presence. Even in the less than 20 percent of the West Bank supposedly under exclusively Palestinian security control, the Israel Defense Forces conduct frequent raids and incursions. When the respective leaderships have attempted to negotiate a future two-state agreement and border delineation, Israel has insisted that it maintain a military presence in part of what would become Palestine (notably in the Jordan Valley), in addition to maintaining early warning stations in Palestine and controlling its airspace, electromagnetic sphere, and border crossings. Israel withdrew its settlements and permanent military positions from Gaza in 2005, yet it currently maintains an air, sea, and land closure of Gaza and has created a military zone of 150 meters into the Gaza territory bordering Israel.
What a Border Would and Would Not Solve

So, what is that journey which the respective national movements have taken, and which suggests that a border-centric approach to the conflict might be insufficient? On the Jewish-Israeli side, there are generally considered to be two wings to the national movement: A more pragmatic and liberal Zionism that is in competition with a more pugnacious and maximalist settler Zionism. In the pre-state era of the so-called Zionist yishuv and in the three decades following Israel’s establishment, the more pragmatic or Labor Zionist school was dominant (with Labor Zionists leading all of Israel’s governments from 1948-1977). Their moderate approach was demonstrated in, amongst other things, acceptance of the UN partition proposal, in the text of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, and the establishment of strong democratic institutions in a new state. However, it was also during this period that Israel came to control 100 percent of the territory, that the majority of the Palestinian community became refugees, that a military governorate was imposed on the remaining Palestinian-Arab population inside Israel until 1966 and that the establishment of settlements in the OPTs began, sometimes facilitated by the Israeli government.

Despite its self-proclaimed pragmatism and moderation, Labor Zionism never produced a liberal solution to the tension inherent in Israel’s self-definition of being Jewish and democratic; nor did it offer a more humanist or international-law derived solution to the broader conflict with the Palestinians. Since the demise of Labor Zionist dominance, there has been a consistent, if sometimes interrupted, shift to the right in Israeli politics.

The democratic debate in today’s Jewish-Israeli politics takes place almost exclusively between different approaches to the legacy of right-wing or Revisionist Zionism. The leaders of Israel’s three largest parties (Livni of Kadima, Netanyahu of Likud, and Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu) would all claim to be descended from the Jabotinskyite right Zionist tradition. It was not that right Zionism was incapable of being pragmatic or moderate. It was the first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, who reached a peace treaty with Egypt, withdrawing from all of occupied Sinai and dismantling all of the settlements there. But to understand the contemporary Zionist debate is to understand that those tensions implicit in Israel’s creation and left open by the Labor Zionists have for the time being been resolved in favor of a narrow, nationalist, and exclusivist approach to the Jewish state, to the treatment of Palestinians, and to issues of territory and resources.

While settlers may be a minority of Israeli Jews and settler Zionism is sometimes considered a somewhat outsider trend of zealots, in most respects it can actually be considered the dominant narrative in contemporary Israel. That narrative suggests that Israel should be a Jewish state in which there are differentiated rights for Jews and non-Jews, in which religious and historical claims to land beyond the 1967 lines should be taken seriously, and in which there is almost no willingness to address the Palestinian experience of dispossessions and refugee-hood. (In fact, Israel’s Knesset in March 2011 passed a law restricting state funding to any institution commemorating the Palestinian Nakba or catastrophe of 1947-49.)

Of course it is not inconceivable that Israeli-Jewish nationalism could undergo a metamorphosis and find itself in a position to reach an accommodation with Palestinian nationalism, especially in light of Israel’s changed geostrategic position following democratic revolutions in the neighborhood. Yet this does not appear to be a likely short or medium-term outcome.

Palestinian nationalism has itself of course not remained static. It transitioned from a movement struggling for independence against what it saw to be two forms of colonialism – the British mandate and Zionism—to opposition to partition, and then a movement of refugees seeking a return to their homes. When the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was created in 1964 it called for a secular democratic state in all of Mandate Palestine – with armed struggle, including frequent acts of terror, becoming a principal tool to achieving that end. This might be called the more maximalist-nationalist period of the Palestinian movement.

After years of internal political dialogue, informal contacts with international third-parties (including the US), and track II dialogue with Israelis, the PLO at a Palestine National Council meeting in 1988 in Algiers embraced the two-state solution on the 1967 lines and “[d]eclared its rejection and condemnation of terrorism in all its forms…”. The PLO later endorsed Palestinian participation in a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 and green-lighted the unofficial Oslo talks until they produced a formal breakthrough with Israel-PLO mutual recognition and a Declaration of Principles in 1993. The Palestinians entered into what was supposed to be a five-year period of limited self-governance in the OPTs, and of negotiations for a permanent status agreement.

For Palestinian nationalism, the decade and a half from the mid-1980’s to the early-2000’s can be seen as the era of 1967 state-centricism and accommodation (despite the continued use of terror by certain groups). Implicit in the embrace of two states, and often explicit in negotiations with Israelis, was that the Palestinian refugee question would be solved without a massive return to Israel proper. The Palestinian-Arab community inside Israel was removed from the equation of the broader struggle of the national movement. The Oslo breakthrough also came in the wake of the first largely non-violent Palestinian civil uprising inside the OPTs to protest against the occupation and demand its removal – the first intifada.

But even in its more limited and pragmatic aspiration of statehood in 22 percent of Palestine and for a state alongside Israel, the Palestinian national movement had not found an approach that could achieve real gains. The five-year deadline of Oslo passed with little fanfare (and we are now well over a decade since even that deadline expired). Israeli settlements in the OPTs continued apace: when Oslo was signed there were 111,000 settlers in the West Bank alone, while today that number exceeds 300,000. Palestinian self-governance remains limited with Israel still in full control of over 60 percent of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem. There is no link between the West Bank and Gaza, Israel controls external border crossings, and the OPTs remain dotted with over 500 check points, road blocks, and obstacles to Palestinian freedom of movement.

In 2011, Palestinians still do not control their own population registry. Little surprise, then, that recent years have witnessed a powerful Palestinian skepticism regarding the Oslo paradigm and the gradual negotiated approach to 1967 statehood alongside Israel. Hamas won Palestinian Authority legislative elections in part based on its critique of Fatah’s failure to deliver via the Oslo process. The current realities of Palestinian nationalism are best described as a movement in flux. Fatah and the PLO remain formally committed to the Oslo paradigm, to negotiations, and to state building under conditions of occupation. Hamas remains formally committed to the armed struggle and to a full Islamic state in all in Palestine (while, in practice, pursuing occasional ceasefires with Israel and suggesting it is ready for a deal on the 1967 lines). Palestinian civil society movements in the OPTs and among Palestinian diaspora communities and public intellectuals increasingly frame the Palestinian struggle more in terms of universal rights and justice than a particular nationalism, advocating for the rights of Palestinian refugees to return and receive property restitution, calling for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel and re-integrating the struggle for full democratic rights for Palestinian Arabs inside Israel to the broader Palestinian narrative.

The basic premise of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts for more than 20 years and across the last four US administrations has been that something of a quick fix can be achieved for the conflict – with its central feature being agreement and implementation of a border between Israel and a Palestinian state to be created, based on the 1967 line. This was the core of Israeli-Palestinian permanent status negotiations since Oslo and of the US and international interventions during this period: from the Clinton Parameters of December 2000 to the Road Map, the Annapolis Process, and the talks launched under President Obama in September 2010.

But the essence of a quick fix is probably just that – that it needs to be quick, which also implies an ability to catch opponents by surprise. Almost 20 years later that is quite evidently no longer the case – constituencies that would be opposed to this type of solution and who saw their interests as being compromised have had time to develop strategies, articulate opposition, and win adherents to their cause. Those constituencies have in part moved from the fringe to the mainstream of the conversation.

Any solution focused on a border between two states would, for instance, provide no answer to the Palestinian refugee community or the inequalities facing Israeli Arabs. For that matter, neither would it provide an answer to many settlers (those outside of a possible agreed land swap), nor for Jewish-Israeli nationalists believing in a biblical claim for land in the OPTs. This solution would actually be a denial of the causes of these elements of the respective national movements and narratives.

If the quick fix border-centric solution has become so compromised and itself difficult to achieve, might there be different approaches worth considering – and what would these mean for how we think about borders? Three options are worth briefly looking at -- in one of which a border is the key feature, while in the other two the border gets relegated to a secondary issue. Options Bordering on a Solution

The first and border-centric option would be something of a return to the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and would look to create two more narrowly defined nation-states – one Jewish-Israeli and one Palestinian-Arab. This would certainly be in keeping with the current Israeli zeitgeist and is, in fact, how the Israeli mainstream often understands the notion of the two-state solution. Foreign Minister Lieberman has made this more explicit and talked about a two-state solution with land swaps principally designed to redraw the borders to allow for Jewish settlers in the OPTs to be part of Israel and Palestinian-Arab areas of Israel to become part of Palestine.

However, if this option is to be pursued, then one really has to abandon the 1967 lines as a point of departure (given that those lines have little correspondence to where the larger concentration of Palestinian Arab communities within Israel are). The premise that guided the 1947 partition would then come back into play, in other words maximum ethnic demographic continuity in delineating the border and would certainly deviate from 78 percent/22 percent territorial division and probably end up being closer to the original 56 pecent/44 percent split. Although this is the logic of the current Zionist zeitgeist, that kind of a territorial dispensation is not something that Israelis seem keen to consider. It is also not something that has been raised by Palestinians. It is less in line with how their nationalism and national aspirations are construed.

A second option would be to do away with an internal border between states altogether and to view the entire area of Israel and the OPTs as a single territorial unit. This is often referred to as the bi-national state or one-state solution, which would either be along the more simple lines of a single democratic state of two ethnic communities more or less equal in size, or more of a federal/cantonal system akin to a Belgium or Swiss model. It is an option that the Israeli non-Zionist Jewish left is open to, but that group represents a tiny minority in the Israeli-Jewish public.

The no-border, one-state option has more numerical and elite support among elements of the Israeli right and settler community (including Knesset Speaker and Likud MK Reuven Rivlin, former Defense Minister Moshe Arens and former chairman of the Yesha Council of Settlements Uri Elitzur). However, their version of a no-border reality is to simply extend the existing Jewish state of Israel to all of the territory (possibly excluding Gaza), leaving unresolved and numerically-compounding the issue of the rights of the Palestinian Arab community. On the Palestinian side variations on the one democratic state idea have significant traction in academic, elite, and diaspora circles but this is not the political platform of either of the major political parties, Fatah and Hamas, and the idea polls rather poorly. (According to a March 2010 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Social Research: “29% of the Palestinians [surveyed] supported the solution of a bi-national state, in which Israel is unified with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to establish one state in which Palestinians and Israelis would have equal rights.”)

The third option would still envisage a border approximating the 1967 line, between two states, but would treat the border delineation exercise as only one part of a far broader reconciliation between the two nationalisms that would, in itself, likely reduce the functional consequences of that border. In other words, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis would come to terms with their respective national and historical narratives and responsibilities, ultimately requiring a degree of mutual recognition and acceptance that would effectively put to rest the conflict and the claims arising from it. This would in particular challenge Israel to make good on its commitment to democratic principles of equality vis a vis its own Palestinian-Arab community and to address its historic responsibility to the uprooted Palestinian communities of refugees. Palestinians in particular would need to address their use of indiscriminate terror and violence against Israeli civilians, just as Israel’s own acts of military aggression against the Palestinian civilian population would have to be accounted for. Such an approach may open new possibilities for solutions on issues such as refugees, Jerusalem, and the settlers and allow for greater post-conflict cooperation between Israel and Palestine. Option three would, needless to say, not be an easy breakthrough to achieve.

Given the political and practical complexities and difficulties associated with any of these alternative options, it is not surprising that even after 20 years and so little progress, the existing Oslo paradigm remains the dominant one for approaches to resolving this conflict or that the recent Brookings simulation was framed in that way. Yet adhering to that paradigm will almost certainly continue to be an exercise in frustration and failure unless at least two lessons from the above commentary are acknowledged and put into practice. One is that defining a border for the purposes of creating two viable states is only the first step towards a fuller process of reconciliation and conflict resolution – something along the lines of truth and reconciliation efforts that have been pursued elsewhere. Issues surrounding historical justice, full democratic equality, and rights of religious access cannot simply be swept under the carpet by a border-resolves-all approach. Secondly, to even achieve a borders-first fix (almost a new armistice line) a different structure of incentives and disincentives would have to be created, especially for the Israeli side, and the asymmetry between an occupying power and an occupied people will have to be factored into approaches to peacemaking.


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