Shira Efron is the former editor of Middle East Bulletin. She is currently representing The Institute for Inclusive Security in Israel. She is also a board member of Blue White Future, a non-governmental organization which sets out to remove the major obstacles to a two-state solution. Shira will become a doctoral fellow with the Pardee Graduate School at the RAND Corporation in the fall.
By Dan Rothem and Shira Efron
In his May 19 speech on the Middle East, President Obama said that “[the United States] believe[s] 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.” In his at AIPAC’s Policy Conference three days later, he further underscored that the border would be different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967 in that it would allow the parties to take into account the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years. Nevertheless, the actual use of the term “1967” reportedly took Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office by surprise. In Netanyahu’s own to AIPAC on May 23 and Congress on May 24, he responded by saying that “Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines.”
In this backgrounder, Middle East Progress breaks down the allegedly divisive part of Obama’s speech and provides useful historical info that sheds light on the controversies it stirred.
What are the 1967 lines?
The 1967 lines are the common phrase used to describe the separating lines that existed between Israel and its Arab neighbors on the eve of the 1967 War, also known as the Six-Day War. In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, the 1967 lines are actually the armistice lines that ended the 1948-1949 war.
On the Gaza front, the Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement was signed on February 24, 1949, but its line was finalized only a year later in February 1950, under what is known as the Israeli-Egyptian ‘Modus Vivendi.’ On the West Bank front, the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement was signed on April 3, 1949, but its original line was modified over the following months and ended in 1951 in a process called the ‘generals agreements’ in which Israeli and Jordanian security officials demarcated the line on the ground and resolved outstanding issues emanating from the relatively low resolution of the original map.
So why are they called the ‘1967 lines’ and not the ‘1949 lines’?
There is not really a good reason (President George W. Bush actually referred to them as the 1949 Armistice Lines), except that the defining moment in the evolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict was in 1967 (when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights). The relevant United Nations Security Council resolution—UNSCR 242—introduced the ‘land for peace’ formula, which has served as the basis for Arab-Israeli peace processes ever since.
Aren’t the 1967 lines borders?
No. The 1967 lines are the 1949 armistice lines, hence not borders. For practical purposes, only treaties—usually peace treaties—between consenting countries can define borders. Referring to the 1967 lines as the ‘1967 borders’ is an unfortunate but common mistake. President Obama was correct in referring to them as “lines.”
For decades, the international community has considered the 1967 lines as Israel’s de facto borders, with Israeli action on the Israeli side of them legal and legitimate and Israeli action beyond them—most notably settlement activity—illegitimate and in many instances illegal.
What are land swaps?
To better understand the concept of land swaps, there is a need to go back to the basic approach of each side to the question of permanent borders. Both sides fundamentally view the entirety of the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River as their historic homeland. The Palestinians perceive their acceptance of a Palestinian state along the 1967 lines as a historic compromise, since they are now willing to be satisfied with only 22 percent of their homeland, with the other 78 percent remaining Israel. Israel, on the other hand, does not attribute much importance to the 1967 lines. From the Israeli government’s perspective, development on the ground—first and foremost the Israeli population that resides in settlements—should consider heavily in the demarcation of borders. In its view, asking Israel to evacuate roughly 500,000 Israelis that reside beyond the 1967 lines is morally unjust as Jews trace their heritage to the Biblical places in Judea and Samaria, and politically unrealistic. For example, look at what Prime Minister Sharon had to go through when he evacuated merely 8,000 Israelis from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Land swaps are simply the mechanism that would be used to bridge the gap between the two views: they would introduce slight modifications to the 1967 baseline (somewhere around 3 percent from the territories in question), while including the majority of the settlers that live there. The truth is that around three-quarters of the settlers reside in relative close proximity to the 1967 lines.
What feasible options exist for land swaps?
For the most part, when people think about land swaps, they imagine swaps that are equal in size, also referred to as 1:1 swaps. In practical terms, this means that for every square kilometer that Israel annexes from the West Bank or East Jerusalem, the Palestinians get a square kilometer from within Israel proper. The short answer is that land swaps of around 2-3 percent from the Palestinian territories in question should be feasible.
The longer answer is that there are two fundamental approaches to land swaps: for the Palestinians, lands swaps are an additional compromise on top of their historic compromise, and therefore should be equal in size and in quality, as well as minimal in extent; for the Israelis, land swaps are not a given right by any means, could be symbolic in nature (indeed, in the 2000 Camp David summit Israeli then Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered swaps in a 9:1 ratio), and Israeli annexation of land in the West Bank could be offset by Palestinian use of Israeli infrastructure, such as the Gaza-West Bank link or use of Israeli airports and seaports.
For these reasons, past negotiations—primarily the 2008 Annapolis Process’—saw remaining gaps. Israel wanted to change the 1967 lines by annexing roughly 6 percent in a way that would maintain 430,000 Israelis in its final borders and would require the evacuation of roughly 70,000 settlers. The swap proposed by Israel fell short of 1:1, as Palestine was to receive Israeli land equivalent to roughly 5.2 percent. The Palestinian map showed swaps in a 1:1 ratio of around 1.6 percent, with roughly 310,000 Israelis in Israel’s final borders and roughly 190,000 of them needing to evacuate.
What are the new demographic realities that have shaped over the last 44 years?
The new demographic realities which Presidents Bush and Obama referred to are a code phrase for the Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. Generally speaking, there are more than 300,000 Israelis in West Bank settlements and nearly 200,000 Israelis in Jewish settlements/neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. More specifically, the new realities that would figure into final borders are some of the large settlement blocs.
What are the settlement blocs?
Settlement blocs are the areas that are home to the majority of Israeli settlers in the West Bank (and East Jerusalem) and reside in relative close proximity to the 1967 lines. In some cases, like the Ezion Bloc or the Modi’in Illit bloc — it’s easy to see why they are called blocs: the settlements there are geographically close, without Palestinian villages amongst them. In other cases, the Israeli definition of the bloc tends to get a little more elusive, like the Ariel bloc, which actually stretches more than 20 kilometers into the West Bank, is not geographically cohesive, and includes many Palestinian villages and towns within it. In areas like the latter, border proposals used innovative and sometimes awkward methods to include settlements in Israel’s final borders such as long, thin territorial fingers of Israeli sovereignty that would reach such places, as well as special status and special transportation arrangements for Palestinians left on the Israeli side of the border.
What was the basic framework for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians thus far?
The two rounds of serious final status negotiations—first in 2000-1 and second in 2008—fundamentally revolved around the modification to the 1967 lines. Despite Israeli reluctance to formally accept the latter as the baseline, for all intents and purposes they served as such. The major differences were the scope of the swaps and their ratio. Israel traditionally asked for somewhere between 6-12 percent to be annexed, including all the large settlement blocs, with swaps moving toward, yet falling short of , 1:1. The Palestinian maps showed Israeli annexation of 1-2 percent, with equal swaps.
What was new about President Obama’s proposal?
Not much. Here’s what President Clinton had to say about the matter in 2000:
Based on what I heard, I believe that the solution should be in the mid-90%’s, between 94-96% of the West Bank territory of the Palestinian State. The land annexed by Israel should be compensated by a land swap of 1-3% in addition to territorial arrangements such as a permanent safe passage. The Parties also should consider the swap of leased land to meet their respective needs. There are creative ways of doing this that should address Palestinian and Israeli needs and concerns. The Parties should develop a map consistent with the following criteria: 80% of settlers in blocks; contiguity; minimize annexed areas; Minimize the number of Palestinian affected.
Here’s what President Bush had to say about the matter in 2004:
… As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. 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 [read: 1967 lines], 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.
Here’s what President Obama said in 2009:
… [T]he goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.
Here’s what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to say about the matter in 2010:
We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements.
Thus, when Obama said at AIPAC that what he did “was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately,” it was actually inaccurate. In fact, he simply reiterated what he himself, his secretary of State and previous two presidents had already said out loud before.
What has been the Israeli position on the 1967 lines with swaps formula?
The most explicit reference to 1967 lines with swaps was given by Ehud Olmert in November 2008: "We must give up Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem and return to the core of the territory that is the State of Israel prior to 1967, with minor corrections dictated by the reality created since then."
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s most relevant statement regarding the territorial issue was given in May 16, 2011, to the Knesset, in which he said Israel needs to maintain "… long-term IDF presence along the Jordan River … [and maintain] the settlement blocs. There is widespread agreement that the settlement blocs must remain within the State of Israel." A lot of hoopla was made in Israel about interpreting his statement as a willingness to ‘let go’ of the isolated settlements, including those on the Jordan Valley, that are not in the big blocs. Sure enough, however, after President Obama’s May 19 speech, Netanyahu — misrepresenting Obama’s statement –responded by saying he was seeking reassurance of commitments relating to "Israel not having to withdraw to the 1967 lines which are both indefensible and which would leave major Israeli population centers in Judea and Samaria beyond those lines."
This document demonstrates that the so-called "controversy" over President Obama’s statement about the 1967 lines is largely a fabricated one: all parties have recognized (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) a 1967 baseline for negotiations, along with the need for modifications, or swaps. Far from being any sort of radical departure from past U.S. policy, the Obama administration’s approach is notable mainly for its clarity on this point.
Dan Rothem is a Senior Research Consultant for the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Based in Tel Aviv,Dan has overseen the development of an extensive map database relating to the Israeli-Arab conflict, and regularly briefs top officials in the Israeli and U.S. governments and security establishments.He is also a member of the Council for Peace and Security, an Israeli NGO dealing with security and diplomatic issues.