The euphoria of getting the two sides to sit down and talk to each other is
over. We are back to where we have been 20 times during the past two decades:
the nitty gritty of the details.
The issues may be the same, but as time
goes on the political, demographic and territorial realities undergo
One of the main Palestinian negotiators this time round is
Mohammad Ashtayeh, a senior figure within the Palestinian Authority. I remember
him from one of the earliest Track II type discussions which took place just
outside of Rome back in 1990 pre-Madrid, pre-Oslo, pre- Wye and pre-just about
every other agreement signed and then abandoned as the peace spoilers on both
sides have continuously derailed attempts at moving toward initial conflict
In a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian academics, under the
joint auspices of the Harry Truman Center for Peace at the Hebrew University and
the Arab Studies Association, the thorny issues – borders, settlements,
refugees, water, security – which remain on the table to this very day, were
discussed face to face for almost the first time.
It was at a time when
Israelis were still officially forbidden from meeting known PLO members. The
only forum for such “chance” meetings taking place were academic conferences and
I remember how, in the middle of one of the discussions, the
back door opened and a senior diplomat from the local Israeli delegation quietly
took a seat. A few moments later, the other back door opened and in walked a
representative of the local, unofficial Palestinian delegation to Italy. They
briefly acknowledged each others’ presence with wry smiles before turning their
attention to the discussions.
Ashtayeh was the Palestinian counterpart on
the discussion of settlements and borders. It was at this meeting that, for the
first time, the idea of border changes and potential territorial exchanges along
the course of the Green Line were discussed.
Areas in close proximity to
the Green Line within the West Bank where the main concentration of Israeli
settlements were to be found could potentially be annexed to Israel, in return
for which the state would agree to transfer areas of unsettled land inside to
the Palestinian entity, or future state.
Although no mention of land
swaps is to be found in the Oslo Agreements, this same principle was rooted
within the Beilin-Abbas plan of 1995 and subsequently denied by Mahmoud
It was argued that Abbas recognized the difficulty any Israeli
government would have in forcefully evacuating the settler population – which at
the time was approximately a third of what it is today.
At the time, land
swaps were little more than a dream. The idea that Israel would need to adapt
its borders to retain control over major settlement blocs close to the Green
Line has always been an accepted unilateral position on the Israeli side, but
the counter-idea that Israel would have to give up land to compensate for the
annexation was unacceptable at the time – and for many it still is.
has moved on, and in the war of attrition of ideas the notion of redrawing the
borders to include territorial exchange has become part of the public
Such has been its impact that some of the evacuated settlers
from Gush Katif have reestablished their homes in the settlement of Shomriyah
(formerly an unsuccessful kibbutz) inside the Green Line in the relatively
unsettled southern part of the region, so as to complicate the transfer of any
part of this area to a future Palestinian state. The residents believe that any
attempt to evacuate a settlement inside Israel will meet with much stronger
opposition from the Israeli public than was ever the case in Yamit or Gush
Realities on the ground have changed considerably. What in 1990
was a settlement network of approximately 100,000 people has now grown to over
Existing settlements have expanded and many new communities have
A new generation of settlement residents, many of whom
were not yet born or were in elementary school at the time of the meeting in
Rome, have grown to be young, politically active adults, creating their own
hilltop settlements or developing new neighborhoods in existing
Many have become radicalized in recent years, partly due to
the Gush Katif evacuations. The situation on the ground is such that the idea of
drawing a single line, even including land swaps, has, in the expert opinion of
many cartographers and border scholars, become all but impossible.
would still be so many settlement exclaves on the “wrong” side of the line –
however it were to be drawn – that no Israeli government would be able to
forcefully evacuate even the 100,000 to 150,000 highly religiously- and
ideologically- motivated residents of these communities.
many from the original Gush Emunim ideological heartland of the West Bank-Judea
and Samaria region.
What appeared to be a fictional principle of land
swaps – one which could have been implemented back in 1990 – is now
insufficient. It is never possible to simply take a static photo of what was and
then apply it to the present, if the present is so different to the past. That
may be good for the historians, but it doesn’t help the people who have to reach
an agreement based on current realities.
That is why the 1967 Green Line
may sound good in principle to all the neutrals and third party negotiators, but
in reality it is impossible to implement – even by those who actively support an
end to “occupation” and a total withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank. It is a
great slogan, but little more than that.
Alternatives have to be sought.
Crosscitizenship, territorial exclaves, or a return to the previously discounted
federal ideas of Dan Elazar are but some of the ideas floating
Given the high degree of animosity, mistrust and hatred between
the two sides, any form of territorial sharing is less than perfect. It would
require highly controlled security arrangements – probably with third-party
facilitators, led by the US.
But there are solutions all the
There are solutions which are relevant to the time and conditions
in which we live and need to be explored in much greater detail by the
respective negotiators.The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities
and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his