The truth about the principle of land swaps

The issues may be the same, but as time goes on the political, demographic and territorial realities undergo change.

Settlers remove belongings from razed homes in Gush 370 (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Settlers remove belongings from razed homes in Gush 370
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
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 change.
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 resolution.
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 seminars.
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 Abbas.
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.
Time 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 discourse.
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 Katif.
Realities on the ground have changed considerably. What in 1990 was a settlement network of approximately 100,000 people has now grown to over 350,000.
Existing settlements have expanded and many new communities have been established.
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 communities.
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.
There 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.
These include 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 around.
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 same.
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 alone.