President Barack Obama has attempted to simplify the complexities of the
Israel-Palestine conflict; in advance of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit
to Israel this week, he has urged both sides to guarantee the single most
important objective for the other. An independent state with clearly defined
borders for the Palestinians, physical security and safety for Israel. The
details, such as settlements, he argues, can come later.
In one sense
this is a naïve statement. The assumption that the eventual demarcation of
borders can be worked out without paying attention to the details is faulty. The
location and dispersion of settlements throughout the West Bank has a major
impact on the way in which borders are demarcated. One only has to look at the
interim maps which accompanied the Oslo Agreements back in the 1990s to
understand what a significant role the settlements played in preventing the
creation of two distinct and separate territorial units, each of which
constituted a compact and contiguous piece of territory.
The Oslo map
looks more like a piece of Swiss cheese, full of enclaves and exclaves, with
bypass roads linking the Jewish settlements to each other and effectively
cutting off any form of territorial contiguity between the Palestinian areas of
autonomy. The division of the West Bank, at that time, into Areas A, B and C,
each of which had different levels of autonomy and self rule, were a recipe for
political instability, as indeed they proved to be.
The Palestinians only
agreed to sign on to the Oslo maps because at the time, this was seen as being a
first stage in a five-year transition period of negotiations aimed at arriving
at a final map which would satisfy the sovereign needs of the Palestinians and
the security needs of Israel.
Since that time, there have been numerous
attempts at map-drawing. Various versions of borders have been proposed at
countless “track II” discussions, by geographers, cartographers and diplomats.
Government ministers, each of whom has had aspirations of being the ultimate
“peace maker,” have proposed new contours for the future borders of a two-state
solution. In reality, they are not vastly different from each other.
all use the Green Line as a base from which they try to deviate so as to
incorporate as many of the settlements as possible, especially those in relative
proximity to the Green Line. During the past decade, some of these cartographic
scenarios have also included the proposal for land swaps, with Israel annexing
settlement areas inside the West Bank, in return for which the Palestinians
would receive land inside Israel which is unsettled and, in this way, maintain
the same proportions of land for Israel and the West bank which existed prior to
But since Oslo, the settlement project has doubled in numbers.
Existing settlements have grown to the size of small townships, while many new
settlements have been established, including the hilltop squatter communities
which have been dispersed throughout the region and which make it even more
difficult than before to create contiguous, uninterrupted
The construction of the Separation/Security
Barrier/Wall/Fence has been the only attempt to actually implement a border on
the ground and although it can be removed far more quickly than it was ever
established, its course indicates the political thinking of Israeli leaders
during the past decade concerning the ultimate route of a border.
who crosses this line on a regular basis can testify to the fact that it has all
the characteristics of an international border separating two states. Documents
are scrutinized, Palestinians refused entry and trucks checked for the
transportation of goods which are forbidden or require customs
It is no surprise that the new Economy and Trade minister,
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, has suggested that the separation barrier
should ultimately be removed and that Palestinians should eventually be allowed
back into the Israeli workforce. This is, in his worldview, the only way to
prevent the two-state solution, to which he is totally opposed, from eventually
becoming a reality.
For Bennett and the new right-wing coalition
government, any talk of borders has to cease. In their view Israel has to return
to a situation in which the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the
Jordan River is a single entity, never to be divided.
Ironically, this is
a territorial solution which is also supported by the more radical Palestinian
groups who see the future in terms of a single binational state of Jews and
Arabs in which all are equal and which is not defined by its Jewish or Arab
national status. The far Right (continued occupation) and the radical Left (a
binational state) share the same basic criteria – namely, that we should not be
drawing borders and that we should be relating to the entire territory as a
single political and administrative unit. Despite the geographic similarities
however, the contrasting sets of power relations are clear for all. Under a
Bennett solution, there would be first- and second-class citizens and the state
would retain its formal Jewish status, while under the binational scenario, all
would be equal and there would no longer be a State of Israel defined by its
What Bennett and his supporters on the Right constantly
fail to realize is that, by the abolition of borders, and the continued
construction of settlements throughout the West Bank, they are the people who,
more than any others, are bringing about the one-state scenario and the end to
the Jewish state.
No less than right-wing prime minister and warrior
Ariel Sharon eventually came to this understanding. As a result he forced
through the painful evacuation of Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip and established
the Kadima party with the intention of moving ahead with similar territorial
withdrawals and evacuations in the West Bank. He did not change his right-wing
beliefs, nor did he intrinsically believe in the legitimacy of a Palestinian
state, despite his public statements acknowledging two states.
But he did
understand, as a person for whom security was so important, that Israel’s
long-term security was threatened as much, if not more, by the demographics than
it was by the missiles and the foreign armies.
To implement a classic
version of the two-state solution, the recognition of an international border
along the Green Line, the Separation Barrier or any other single line would
necessitate the forced evacuation of tens, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of
settlers. This is simply not going to happen. No Israeli government has the
ability to implement such a scenario in the face of the massive opposition it
will entail. There will always be settlements on the wrong side of the border,
even those borders which have been drawn to include the major settlement blocs
close to the Green Line.
But the ultimate removal of borders will
eventually bring about one of two equally unacceptable scenarios for most
Israelis – either apartheid and institutionalized discrimination or a binational
What is required is an innovative way of thinking about borders
and their relationship to independence and citizenship.
Obama and Kerry
have their hearts in the right place but they make an extremely complex
situation sound too simplistic. They are concerned for both Israel’s security
and for Palestinians’ right to independence. But unless there is a clear
acceptance from both sides – especially Israel – as to what this entails it,
like all previous attempts at reaching a solution, will come to
nought.The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. Editor of the
International Journal of
Geopolitics, he heads the Israeli participation in the EU FP7 project examining
the future status of borders in Europe and the neighboring regions. The views
expressed are his alone.
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