‘Land Swaps’ and the 1967 Lines
By DORE GOLD The Weekly standard 9:00 AM, Jun 20, 2011
When President Barak Obama first made his controversial reference to the
1967 lines as the basis for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on May
19, 2011, he introduced one main caveat that stuck out: the idea that there
would be "mutually agreed swaps" of land between the two sides. He added
that both sides were entitled to "secure and recognized borders." But the
inclusion of land swaps also raised many questions.
Several months after Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Six
Day War, the U.N. Security Council defined the territorial terms of a future
peace settlement in Resolution 242, which over the decades became the
cornerstone for all Arab-Israeli diplomacy. At the time, the Soviets had
tried to brand Israel as the aggressor in the war and force on it a full
withdrawal, but Resolution 242 made clear that Israel was not expected to
withdraw from all the territories that came into its possession, meaning
that Israel was not required to withdraw from 100 percent of the West Bank.
Given this background, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin made clear in his last
Knesset address in October 1995 that Israel would never withdraw to the 1967
lines. He stressed that Israel would have to retain control of the Jordan
Valley, the great eastern, geographic barrier which provided for its
security for decades since the Six Day War. He didn't say a word about land
swaps. For neither Resolution 242 nor any subsequent signed agreements with
the Palestinians stipulated that Israel would have to pay for any West Bank
land it would retain by handing over its own sovereign land in exchange.
So where did the idea of land swaps come from? During the mid-1990s there
were multiple backchannel efforts to see if it was possible to reach a final
agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians argued that
when Israel signed a peace agreement with Egypt, it agreed to withdraw from
100 percent of the Sinai Peninsula. So they asked how could PLO chairman
Yasser Arafat be given less than what Egyptian president Anwar Sadat
As a result, Israeli academics involved in these backchannel talks accepted
the principle that the Palestinians would obtain 100 percent of the
territory, just like the Egyptians, despite the language of Resolution 242,
and they proposed giving Israeli land to the Palestinians as compensation
for any West Bank land retained by Israel. This idea appeared in the 1995
Beilin-Abu Mazen paper, which was neither signed nor embraced by the Israeli
or the Palestinian leaderships. Indeed, Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas)
subsequently denied in May 1999 that any agreement of this sort existed.
There is a huge difference between Egypt and the Palestinians. Egypt was the
first Arab state to make peace, and in recognition of that fact, Prime
Minister Menachem Begin gave Sadat all of Sinai. Moreover, the
Israeli-Egyptian border had been a recognized international boundary since
the time of the Ottoman Empire. The pre-1967 Israeli boundary with the West
Bank was not a real international boundary; it was only an armistice line
demarcating where Arab armies had been stopped when they invaded the nascent
state of Israel in 1948.
In July 2000 at the Camp David Summit, the Clinton administration raised the
land swap idea that had been proposed by Israeli academics, but neither Camp
David nor the subsequent negotiating effort at Taba succeeded. Israel's
foreign minister at the time, Shlomo Ben-Ami, admitted in an interview in
Haaretz on September 14, 2001: “I'm not sure that the whole idea of a land
swap is feasible.” In short, when the idea was actually tested in
high-stakes negotiations, the land swap idea proved to be far more difficult
to implement as the basis for a final agreement.
After the collapse of the Camp David talks, President Clinton tried to
summarize Israeli and Palestinian positions and put forward a U.S. proposal
that still featured the land swap. But to his credit, Clinton also
stipulated: “These are my ideas. If they are not accepted, they are off the
table, they go with me when I leave office.” The Clinton team informed the
incoming Bush administration about this point. Notably, land swaps were not
part of the 2003 Roadmap for Peace or in the April 14, 2004 letter from
President Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It was Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who resurrected the land swap idea in 2008
as part of newly proposed Israeli concessions that went even further than
Israel's positions at Camp David and Taba. It came up in these years in
other Israeli-Palestinian contacts, as well. But Mahmoud Abbas was only
willing to talk about a land swap based on 1.9 percent of the territory,
which related to the size of the areas of Jewish settlement, but which did
not even touch on Israel's security needs. So the land swap idea still
proved to be unworkable.
Writing in Haaretz on May 29, 2011, Prof. Gideon Biger, from Tel Aviv
University's department of geography, warned that Israel cannot agree to a
land swap greater than the equivalent of 2.5 percent of the territories
since Israel does not have vast areas of empty land which can be
transferred. Any land swap of greater size would involve areas of vital
Israeli civilian and military infrastructure.
Furthermore, in the summaries of the past negotiations with Prime Minister
Olmert, the Palestinians noted that they would be demanding land swaps of
"comparable value" – meaning, they would not accept some remote sand dunes
in exchange for high quality land near the center of Israel. In short, given
the limitations on the quantity and quality of territory that Israel could
conceivably offer, the land swap idea was emerging as impractical.
In Jerusalem, the old pre-1967 armistice line placed the Western Wall, the
Mount of Olives, and the Old City as a whole on the Arab side of the border.
From 1948 to 1967, Jews were denied access to their holy sites; some 55
synagogues and study halls were systematically destroyed, while the Old City
was ethnically cleansed of all its Jewish residents. If land swaps have to
be "mutually agreed" does that give the Palestinians a veto over Israeli
claims beyond the 1967 line in the Old City, like the Western Wall?
The land swap question points to a deeper dilemma in U.S.-Israel relations.
What is the standing of ideas from failed negotiations in the past that
appear in the diplomatic record? President Obama told AIPAC on May 22 that
the 1967 lines with land swaps “has long been the basis for discussions
among the parties, including previous U.S. administrations.” Just because an
idea was discussed in the past, does that make it part of the diplomatic
agenda in the future, even if the idea was never part of any legally
binding, signed agreements?
In October 1986, President Ronald Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, and made a radical proposal that both
superpowers eliminate all of their ballistic missiles, in order to focus
their energies on developing missile defenses alone. The idea didn't work,
Reagan's proposal was not accepted, and the arms control negotiations took a
totally different direction. But what if today Russian president Dmitry
Medvedev asked President Obama to implement Reagan’s proposals? Would the
U.S. have any obligation to diplomatic ideas that did not lead to a
Fortunately, there are other points in President Obama's recent remarks
about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that can take the parties away from
the 1967 lines and assuage the Israeli side. At AIPAC, the president spoke
about "the new demographic realities on the ground" which appears to take
into account the large settlement blocs that Israel will eventually
incorporate. Using the language of Resolution 242, Obama referred to "secure
and recognized borders," and importantly added: "Israel must be able to
defend itself—by itself—against any threat."
However, for Israelis, mentioning the 1967 lines without these
qualifications brings back memories of an Israel that was 8 miles wide, and
a time when its vulnerability turned it into a repeated target of
hegemonial powers of the Middle East, that made its destruction their
principle cause. Sure, Israel won the Six Day War from the 1967 lines, but
it had to resort to a preemptive strike as four armies converged on its
borders. No Israeli would like to live with such a short fuse again. The
alternative to the 1967 lines are defensible borders, which must emerge if a
viable peace is to be reached.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is president
of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.