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A Step by Step Guide to Israel-Palestine Border Talks

by Andrew Wilson

A new window of opportunity for Israel and Palestine has opened. With the revolutions of the Arab Spring, many of Israel’s former allies have been de-stabilized, and the exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hamas have proven that negotiations can make both sides winners. Now is the perfect time for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to enter into serious talks under the auspices of the U.N., EU, U.S., and Russia, a group known as the Quartet. Everyone knows the major issues that need to be addressed—the border, security, settlements, Jerusalem, and the right of return—but in the past, no one could reach a resolution. Learning from the mistakes of previous negotiations though, there could be a way to finally succeed in the negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Security arrangements should not be difficult to work out. There are well-established precedents for one nation to lease land within its borders to another nation for military bases. Moreover, there is already ongoing cooperation between Israel and the PA for anti-terrorist operations.

As to the right of return, various proposals for compensa­tion of refugees and the resettlement of a limited number within Israel have been on offer since the Taba summit in January 2001.

This leaves the border, settlements, and Jerusalem as the major sticking points. How can the two sides wrap this complex set of issues into an agreement?

There is a decade-old account of the July 2000 Camp David summit by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, which reveals much about the pattern of the negotiations that would likely happen today. Arafat’s approach was a classic, haggling strategy: put pressure on the other side to make an offer and then reject it, in hopes of a better one. “What was being asked of the Palestinians was… that they put forward, at least once, their own counterproposal. That they not just say all the time ‘That’s not good enough’ and wait for us to make more concessions” Ben-Ami writes.  

There is nothing wrong with haggling per se, and the Israelis know how to play that game too. But in practice it means that, if there is to be an agreement, it won’t come until the last minute.

At Camp David, the borders and Jerusalem were addressed simultaneously, yet progress to resolving them was uneven. This meant when a tentative agreement was reached on wider border issues, for instance, the percentage of land within the 1967 lines to be swapped, the sides were still far from any agreement on the issue of sovereignty over neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The difficulties in getting the borders piece finished were so taxing that the talks collapsed soon after.

Given this history, it makes sense that the Quartet now proposes a two-step process, with “comprehensive proposals … on territory and security” within three months, and “substantial progress within six months.” To this framework, I would add an important modification: First, deal with the less contentious parts of the border and come to an agreement there, then have a substantive discussion on the borders of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the prize and key to the entire agreement. It requires a singular focus.

In the first step, negotiations could determine the border sections to the north and south of Jerusalem. For the border of the northern West Bank, we suggest a southern terminus on the 1967 line north of Mevaseret Tzion, and its northern terminus at the Jordan River. For the border of the southern West Bank, we suggest a northern terminus on the 1967 line between Batir and al-Walaja, and its southern terminus at the Dead Sea. An example of such a border is depicted on the inset map.

Jerusalem and settlements can then be addressed together in the second step. In return for PA guarantees to ensure the rights of Israelis remaining within Palestine, Israel might be willing to concede many of the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Linking these two issues may facilitate more balanced negotiations over Jerusalem, offering dignity and benefits to both sides.

The settlement issue is complicated by places like Ariel (whose population exceeds 17,000), which lies deep inside of Palestinian territory, and Ma’ale Adumim (population over 43,000), which juts so far to the east of Jerusalem that is cuts off the natural north-south routes between Ramallah and Bethlehem.

Options for these settlements include remaining part of Israel as island enclaves, annexation by Palestine, or finding some form of joint governance. It would neither be practical nor wise to expect the families residing in these settlements to relocate en masse. Therefore, as a trade-off to Israeli concessions on Jerusalem, Palestine could provide concessions as to their status and legal protections for their residents.

If they are offered to Israel as island enclaves, they will need roads through Palestinian territory. If they are incorporated into Palestine, they would need guarantees on security, property rights, and road access to Israel. The residents will want political rights as well, either as a minority in Palestine or as dual citizens with a say in Israeli elections.

Aside from these two settlements, it is in both sides’ best interests to encourage a flourishing Jewish minority in Palestine, because that will require the dislocation of the fewest people.

The expectation that most, if not all Israeli settlers will resettle in Israel rather than stay in Palestine places a heavy burden on the negotiations. It increases Israel’s reluctance to part with settlements and encourages it to demand more land from Palestine in order to preserve them. I am sure that Palestine would prefer a contiguous state to one in which Israeli incursions snake many miles through its territory to interior settlements. But Israel won’t be so generous about dismantling those settlements if it has to contend with the political destabilization bred by a flood of settlers fleeing Palestine.

Measures to maintain population stability and reduce political risk will require creativity and goodwill. Ideas that deserve consideration include: 99-year leases, joint economic development zones, and bilateral arrangements between settlements and neighboring Palestinian towns. People become settlers for many different reasons. We can expect a portion of them to remain in Palestine if Palestinians welcome them to stay and enrich their economic and social life.

The problems to be resolved regarding Jerusalem turn on many of the same issues. It will not be enough to simply cede neighborhoods to Palestine. How can there be two sovereignties in a single city without creating the ugliness of an East Berlin/West Berlin situation, or indeed of divided Jerusalem before the 1967 War? How can the city function as a community of peace, not divided by high walls and restrictive border crossings, with snipers shooting from rooftops across to the other side? A peace agreement that turns Jerusalem into a zone of hostility will not be worth the paper it is written on.

In Jerusalem, it has often been Palestinians who have suffered for lack of legal protections and secure property rights, mirroring what Israeli settlers will require if they are to stay in Palestine. In a Jerusalem serving as the capital of two states, Israel and Palestine will have to demonstrate the maturity of two peoples who wish to live in peace, by building institutions of joint governance, joint security, legal reciprocity, and joint community life.

Negotiations for a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be expedited if they are undertaken in two installments: First, to negotiate an initial border for sections of the West Bank north and south of Jerusalem, and second to negotiate the status of Jerusalem in tandem with guarantees and institutional arrangements for settled Israelis. The first step will be relatively straightforward, building upon the progress of Camp David and Oslo. The second step will be more arduous and will require the breaking of new ground.


Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user oceandesetoiles]

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