In his wide-ranging Mideast speech of May 19, 2011 at the Department of State, President Barack Obama also referred to the Israel-Palestine conflict. And in that segment of his address he urged the parties to negotiate the core issues, the basis of which, he said, is clear. “A viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestine borders with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.” And then the President added a sentence that received the greatest attention: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”
There is a great deal of history behind this last sentence. As one who covered for the Voice of America the United Nations deliberations regarding the future of the British Palestine Mandate at Lake Success in New York in 1947, I have followed developments in that part of the world with particular interest.
After the British Government informed the United Nations that it would surrender its Mandate over Palestine by May 14, 1948, the UN drafted a Partition Plan that was discussed intensely by the UN General Assembly in the fall of 1947. The plan was adopted on November 29 as Resolution 181. It divided the Mandate into three entities: a Jewish state, a Palestinian state and Jerusalem as a UN administered corpus separatum. The Jewish Agency, acting in behalf of a future Jewish state, accepted the Resolution, The Arab states and the Palestinian leadership rejected it. On the next day, November 30, irregular Palestinian forces, later joined by volunteers from Arab countries, started attacking Jewish communities.
On May 14, the day the British Mandate over Palestine ended, the leaders of the Jewish Agency proclaimed a Jewish state based on the UN General Assembly Resolution 181 and named it Israel. On the following day, the adjacent Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, as well as Iraq - attacked the new Jewish state. It was generally assumed that Israel, only one day old, could not survive the combined Arab states’ attack. The new citizens of Israel had lived in the British mandate. Where and how would they have obtained weapons – large and small – to defend themselves? Obviously, they did. Jewish organizations readied themselves for possible military actions. Many of the citizens who would carry out these tasks were officers and men and women who had served in the British army, some in combat during World War II.
This first Arab-Israeli war ended in a few months. Both sides were exhausted. Neither achieved what it wanted. The Arabs were unable to wipe out Israel and Israel was unable to achieve one of its primary objectives: to drive the Jordanians out of East Jerusalem where the Jewish Holy Sites (including the Wailing Wall) are located. Armistice agreements were reached and armistice lines were drawn between Israel and its neighbors: With Egypt on February 24, 1949, with Lebanon on March 23, 1949, with Jordan on April 3, 1949 and with Syria on July 20, 1949. (Iraq refused to sign an armistice agreement.)
Before President Obama gave his speech on the Middle East on May 19, news reports speculated whether the President would include a reference to “1967 borders” between Israel and Palestine. There were, of course, no borders surrounding Israel neither before nor after the June war of 1967. There were armistice lines dating back to 1949 when the first Arab-Israeli war ended.
In his speech, President Obama spoke of “1967 lines” and did not use the word “borders.” In reality, he referred to the 1949 armistice line, also known as the "green line", agreed to by Jordan and Israel in their armistice agreement of April 3, 1949. Under that agreement, Jordan was assigned the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem (including the Old City). Israel got West Jerusalem and retained virtually all the territory assigned to a future Jewish state by the United Nations under its Partition Plan. When Jordan, after the Israel-Jordan Armistice agreement of 1949, annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Egypt took control of the Gaza strip, the Palestinian state envisaged by the UN Partition Plan was effectively erased from the map.
Armistice lines were converted into borders between Egypt and Israel by their Peace Treaty of 1979 and between Jordan and Israel by their Peace Treaty of 1994. Jordan, however, had renounced in 1988 all legal and administrative ties to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Israel had captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, so their disposition was not included in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. No peace treaties have been signed between Israel and Syria and Israel and Lebanon. The de facto dividing line between Israel and Lebanon is the “blue” line demarcated by the UN after Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000; and the line between Israel and Syria is the line around the Golan Heights, which Israel captured in 1967. (The line was amended in the 1974 disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria following the 1973 war.) Neither Syria nor Lebanon has internationally recognized borders with Israel.
Since Jordan abandoned its legal claims to the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1988 and Egypt has never laid such a claim to Gaza, Israel’s interlocutor regarding these areas has been the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which all the Arab states recognized in 1974 as the sole representative of the Palestinian people. Under the Oslo Accords of 1993-1999 signed by Israel and the PLO, the latter gained self-government over Gaza and 40 percent of the West Bank but not in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem. Israel has built settlements in the 60 percent of the West Bank that it retained under its control and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, as well as settlements in Gaza. In 2005, Israel withdrew all of its settlers and troops from Gaza, which since 2007 has been under the exclusive control of Hamas.
The words in President Obama’s speech that created so much attention were “1967 lines” but the following words “with mutually agreed swaps” were largely ignored. It is widely known that future borders have almost been agreed to, first in December 2000 when, at Camp David, President Clinton issued “parameters” for an agreement which then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak accepted and PLO leader Yasser Arafat rejected for reasons that were unrelated to Clinton’s proposed borders negotiated at Camp David; and then in 2008 when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas came fairly close to agreement on the border between Israel and the West Bank. This near-agreement on borders became public when in February 2011, the Middle East radio network al-Jazeera published Palestinian documents relating to the Olmert-Abbas negotiations. These documents, which describe the border swaps discussed by Olmert and Abbas, were called “Palileaks” because they were leaked (or stolen) from the office of Saeb Erekat, the principal Palestinian negotiator (who later assumed responsibility and offered his resignation). A map showing the swaps was published by Time Magazine in its June 6, 2011 edition and is part of this essay. (Former President Jimmy Carter has stated that then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had told him that linking the West Bank with Gaza through a Palestinian highway traversing Israeli territory was a possibility.)
Of course, neither the 2000 nor the 2008 negotiations led to a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. But it was not the borders that were the real obstacle: rather the questions of the return of Palestinians who left or were forced to leave their home within the new state of Israel during the 1947-1949 war and the future of Jerusalem were and continue to be the major stumbling blocks.
Israel did not like President Obama’s reference to “1967 lines”. It has always, under every government since 1967, refused to acknowledge the 1949 armistice lines as the basis for permanent borders with the West Bank. (The armistice lines did form the basis for the permanent borders between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.) Former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban (Labor) called the lines “Auschwitz borders”.
In the 62 years since the armistice lines were drawn, the Israeli-Palestine situation has gone through cataclysmic events: two wars (the 1967 June war and the 1973 Yom Kippur war) followed by UN Security Council resolutions 242 of November 22, 1967 in the aftermath of the June War, and 338 of October 22, 1973 in the wake of the Yom Kippur war), two peace treaties (with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994), the Oslo Accords of 1993-1999 between the PLO and Israel and two serious negotiations (2000 and 2008) at which border lines came close to being adopted by Israeli and PLO negotiators at the highest level. One often hears knowledgeable officials and commentators say that “everybody knows where approximately the final borders between Israel and Palestine will be drawn”.
Why, then, was the President’s reference to borders formulated as it was? There seems to be wide agreement that it was done to make a general pro-Israel speech more acceptable in the Arab world and to strengthen America’s position to prevent a possible showdown at the UN.
Indeed, the President felt it necessary to clarify his position when, three days after the speech, he addressed the annual conference of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on May 22. He said:
Thus, the President put the emphasis on “mutually agreed swaps” rather than on the widely reported words “1967 lines”.
What is required now is an early resumption of Palestine-Israel bilateral negotiations. Every effort must be made to achieve that objective. These negotiations were interrupted three years ago mainly because of the insecure positions of then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (financial allegations) and PLO Leader Mahmoud Abbas (Hamas pressure). The Israeli election in 2009 resulting in the elevation of Benjamin Netanyahu to Prime Minister and the stiffened attitude of President Abbas have impeded the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
But it is an important fact that the last Israel-Palestinian negotiations in 2008 did not falter because of the border issue.