Borderline views: A picture frozen in time

Ben-Gurion argued that for as long as the borders remained mere armistice lines, there would always be the possibility of further territorial changes which would improve Israel's security situation.

April 20, 2015 22:17
THE MAP on the plate, frozen in the briefest of historical periods, reminds us that, as we celebrate

THE MAP on the plate, frozen in the briefest of historical periods, reminds us that, as we celebrate our 67th year of independence, we have a lot of unfinished business.. (photo credit: DAVID NEWMAN)


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It is one week prior to Independence Day, and I am about to give a lecture at a synagogue in Daytona Beach, Florida, about the challenges facing Israel as it seeks to move forward into its 68th year. The topic concerns the future borders of the country, which have not, as yet, been finally drawn and which are unlikely to ever attain full international recognition for as long as the issue of Palestinian statehood remains under contention.

Of Israel’s five potential borders, only two – with Egypt and Jordan – are fully recognized as international borders by virtue of the peace treaties that have been signed with those countries. The borders with Lebanon (even though we know its precise course), Syria (with or without the Golan Heights) and a future Palestinian state are yet to be determined.

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This is a rare phenomenon in the contemporary world. Almost all territorial borders have long been demarcated and the number of territorial conflicts that arise out of disputes between neighboring countries over the demarcation of their respective borders are few and far between.

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The borders in parts of the Middle East, especially Syria and Iraq, are under question as Islamic State has captured large swathes of territory, blurring those state borders superimposed upon the landscape almost 100 years ago by the European powers following the end of World War I and according to the principles laid down by Sykes-Picot and other international treaties. At the time of writing, we no longer know what the territorial configurations of our immediate neighboring region will look like five years down the road, and as we prepare to celebrate yet another year of independence, we watch the new threats which have emerged just beyond our eastern border with growing concern.

As I prepared to enter the auditorium, my attention was caught by a commemorative plate which is hanging on the wall of the rabbi’s office. As someone with a professional interest in the geopolitics of maps and cartography, I am struck by this decoration. The plate, produced shortly after the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948, bears a map depicting the new Jewish state at the time of its birth.

Not the map of Israel as we know it, rather the map of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), the map which was voted on at that historic night in November 1947 when the UN Special Assembly recognized and authorized the establishment of an independent Jewish state. It is surprising how many people have forgotten the fact that the map of the State of Israel which came into being following the War of Independence and the subsequent Rhodes Armistice Agreements with each of Israel’s neighboring countries was vastly different to that which was approved by the United Nations. Without the ensuing War of Independence, which resulted in significantly different boundaries, the map on the plate would have been the map of the new state.

The plate captures a rare moment in the history of the new state. It must have been produced immediately after the Declaration of Independence. It is a map frozen in time, showing the partition proposal and what the State of Israel would have looked like had the partition proposal come into effect and been accepted by all parties at the time. The new State of Israel would have been cut into two sections, would not have included significant parts of the Galilee and the Negev and would have had significantly worse borders than those which emerged in the aftermath of the war.

The town from which I write, Beersheba, the capital of the Negev, and its international university with 20,000 students and high-level scientific activity would not have been part of the Jewish state. The borders of the state which were, much later, in 1967, described by Abba Eban as “suicide borders” would have been even worse and it is hard to imagine in retrospect how Israel would have survived its formative period of development and absorption of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants under such conditions.

It is perhaps no wonder that prime minister David Ben-Gurion rejected the suggestion of Abba Eban, the young Israeli ambassador to both the United Nations and the United States, that the country enter into full peace negotiations with the Arab neighbors with the aim of transforming the country’s much improved but nevertheless temporary armistice lines into full-fledged international boundaries which would be recognized by the international community. According to Eban, Ben-Gurion argued that for as long as the borders remained mere armistice lines, there would always be the possibility of further territorial changes which would, as far as Israel was concerned, improve Israel’s situation even more.

And that is precisely what happened in 1967 when Israel conquered the West Bank, extending its control as far as the Jordan River and, in the eyes of the leading military strategists of that time, such as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, improved its security posture. Few believed that Israeli control and occupation would last a further 50 years or that during that time some 350,000 Israeli settlers would relocate to the region in an attempt to prevent the country from entering into any future peace treaty which would necessitate territorial withdrawal.

Time has moved quickly. The West Bank was under Jordanian administration for no more than 19 years, while almost three times as much time has passed since the eventful days of the Six Day War in 1967. But while much of the West Bank, excepting the Palestinian autonomy “area A” as drawn up in the Oslo Accords, remains under Israeli control, the “green line” boundary which was drawn up in Rhodes remains the official unofficial line separating Israel from those territories it conquered in 1967, but over which it does not exercise sovereignty recognized by the international community.

If, and when, Israel and the Palestinians ever return to the negotiation table, they will have to demarcate a border separating the two states, however difficult it appears and however it becomes more complex every passing week and month. The fact that the official borders of the state at Independence 67 years ago this week, depicted so beautifully in the commemorative plate, were so different from those which we have today is evidence of the dynamic nature and artificiality of borders, which are demarcated, constructed and superimposed upon the landscape by governments and individuals.

These are based on contemporary realities and will always be contingent upon the political conditions which prevail at the time the borders are drawn up and negotiated.

The map on the plate, frozen in the briefest of historical periods, reminds us that, as we celebrate our 67th year of independence, we have a lot of unfinished business. Only when we can eventually agree and draw a map which is the outcome of a bilateral agreement with our neighbors can we rest assured that the territorial process which began on May 14, 1948, may have finally been completed, and that our independence and security are even more assured than they were in 1948, in 1967 or today.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and holds the chair of Geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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