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“Both sides,” wrote my colleague R.R. Reno in “Bad Dreams,” his “On the Square” entry yesterday, “recognize that the future outlines of a Palestinian state will roughly follow the 1967 boundaries, with a few square miles (perhaps fewer) in East Jerusalem as the (admittedly very) wild card.”

He was referring to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and “roughly,” to be sure, is a vague formulation, but it is very different from the position of the present Israeli government, or indeed any Israeli government that might come to power in the foreseeable future. It might be read, however unintentionally, as an endorsement of the Arab position”endorsed by the October Synod of Middle Eastern bishops”which simply demands an Israeli withdrawal to the so-called 1967 boundaries, which were not borders at all, but simply the armistice line at which fighting stopped in 1949.

That is something Israel cannot do, for reasons that should be obvious. No Israeli government would, or could, accept a return to the 1967 line, which would would make Israel indefensible. The Palestinian negotiating position always has been to force Israel to accept a settlement that would undermine its capacity to defend itself. Israel will not and should not accept a putative peace deal that would leave Palestinian territory just eleven miles from the Mediterranean Sea and put Hamas rocketeers atop hilltops a dozen miles from Tel Aviv and even closer to the country’s principal airport.

It has long been American policy to envision significant departures from the 1949 armistice line in any peace settlement. President George W. Bush supported substantive changes to the 1967 boundaries in a 2004 letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

Most American administrations since Lyndon Johnson have understood this. It is a commonly held misperception that U.N. Resolution 242, the basis in international law for any prospective peace negotiations, requires Israel to return to the 1949 armistice line. On the contrary: the United States crafted Resolution 242 with no specific boundaries, precisely because the U.S. recognized that Israel required defensible borders.

It calls for “secure and recognized borders,” the operative word being “secure.” As then-American Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg stated at the time, “Historically, there have never been any secure and recognized boundaries in the area. Neither the armistice lines of 1949 nor the cease-fire lines of 1967 have answered this description.” As Meir Rosenne explains, “It is important to stress that Resolution 242 in no way called on Israel to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967, before the outbreak of the Six-Day War.”

The Israeli position is that in any final settlement, Israel must absorb a small amount of West Bank land on which several hundred thousands Israeli citizens now reside, and will swap land elsewhere to compensate a new Palestinian state for the lost territory. Former National Security Official Elliot Abrams explained the matter last year: ‘Ten years ago, in the Camp David talks, Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered Yasser Arafat approximately 94 percent of the West Bank, with a land swap to make up half of the 6 percent Israel would keep . . . .”

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered 93 percent, with a one-to-one land swap. In the end, under the January 2009 offer, Palestinians would have received an area equal to 98 to 98.5 percent of the West Bank (depending on which press report you read), while 10 years ago they were offered 97 percent. Ten years of settlement activity would have resulted in a larger area for the Palestinian state.

It is naive to assert that the parameters of an eventual settlement are well known to both sides. On the contrary: Arab insistence on the 1967 “boundaries” and refusal of the land swaps offered by two Israeli governments are intended to force Israel into an indefensible position. The global campaign to isolate and de-legitimize the State of Israel centers on the 1967 “boundaries,” claiming that Israel is acting unreasonably by refusing to withdraw unilaterally.

But, as I wrote recently about the October Synod of Middle Eastern bishops, the Jewish people are threatened by a new Holocaust at the hands of Iran, whose president threatens the Jews as brazenly as Hitler.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, millions of Jews may burn, again. Iran’s proxies have ringed Israel with missiles on its northern and southern borders, the recompense Israel received for ending its occupation of Gaza and southern Lebanon. And now the Middle Eastern bishops’ Synod demands that Israel end its “occupation” of the West Bank, which as a practical matter means that Iranian proxies would install missiles on hilltops a dozen miles from Tel Aviv.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2004 in the context of an understanding with the Bush administration that the United States would back Israel’s requirement for defensible borders in any prospective settlement. That is the nub of the issue between Washington and Jerusalem in the present negotiations.

The Obama administration reportedly has prepared a map leaving Israel with only 4 percent of the West Bank, against the 6.5 percent mentioned in the 2007 offer made by the Israeli government of Ehud Olmert. These seem like small differences, but in the close confines of the West Bank, they affect tens of thousands of Israeli residents and key strategic positions.

There is, of course, an enormous difference between the context of Israel’s negotiations today and previous periods. Under the best of circumstances, the Palestine Authority of Mahmoud Abbas can offer peace only on Israel’s Western border. Hamas controls Gaza in the south and Hezbollah controls the Lebanese border in the north. Even presuming that the PA could contain the Islamist radicals who so easily routed its forces in Gaza, the PA no longer is in a position to offer peace to Israel, only a respite on the least dangerous of the three prospective fronts.

As long as Iran has a free hand to employ Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies against Israel, the content of any peace agreement will be questionable. Reno does not mention Iran, an important omission, and his characterization of the negotiations appears to suggest that if both sides got off their high horses, they could conclude an agreement along well-understood lines:

It seems to me that the current impasse is unsurprising but not insuperable. Negotiations have long been hobbled by the disorder and dysfunction of Palestinian political life, which is perhaps understandable, given their many decades of stateless existence. Their situation has been made miserable by unnecessary provocations, indignities, and ill-considered policies that have characterized Israel’s exercise of power in the occupied territories. Moreover, Israeli political parties have not been shy about spinning the details of negotiations in order to please coalition partners and gain electoral advantage.

It isn’t a matter of getting both sides to split the difference. And it is misleading to represent Israeli demands as domestic political spin. No Israeli majority will defend outlying settlements if a viable peace deal is on offer; no Israeli majority will accept a peace deal that leaves it with indefensible borders.

In sharp contrast to the Bush administration, the Obama administration has appeared to abandon support for defensible borders. This places Israel at risk: if Washington were to force Israel to accept indefensible borders with an ascendant Iran in the background, the existence of the Jewish State would be in jeopardy. The Israelis and Palestinians are not quibbling about the shape of the table, or spinning stories for domestic constituencies: they are discussing whether Israel will exist.

The Palestinian side never has agreed to a defensible Israeli border, and Israel never has agreed to an indefensible border. There is nothing about the border problem that “both sides recognize.” The suggestion itself is prejudicial to Israel.

David P. Goldman is a senior editor of First Things.


R.R. Reno’s Bad Dreams .
Meir Rosenne’s Understanding UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 22, 1967, on the Middle East .
Elliot Abrams’ The Settlement Freeze Fallacy .
David P. Goldman’s Disappearing Middle Eastern Christians, Disappointing Bishops .

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