The role of the border in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Daniel Levy writes:

In March of this year, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution hosted a crisis simulation exercise on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The participants, myself included, assumed the roles of key players from the US, Israeli, and Palestinian sides and were presented with a scenario in which the protagonists were two weeks into the implementation of a US-brokered agreement on borders and security.

The March simulation exercise envisaged a Palestinian state alongside Israel with a border that was based on the 1967 lines, including a one-to-one land swap allowing for the majority of settlers to be annexed to Israel’s newly agreed and recognized boundaries with the remainder being evacuated by Israel according to an agreed timetable of implementation. Outstanding issues – final arrangements for Jerusalem’s old city, the claims of the Palestinian refugees, and an end of conflict – were left to be negotiated on a state-to-state basis between Israel and Palestine.

The implicit assumption of the simulation was that an Israeli-Palestinian border agreement is the key to unlocking and ultimately resolving the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is an idea that has gained considerable currency in decision-making and policy circles.

This would seem to suggest that the Israel-Palestine issue is itself a border dispute. That proposition would strike many as strange. Israel-Palestine is clearly not a classic territorial dispute in the sense of there being a state ‘A,’ existing on territory ‘X’ and a state ‘B’ existing on territory ‘Y’ with a territorial area ‘Z’ which is in dispute between states ‘A’ and ‘B.’ If this is about territory, then perhaps it is easier to consider the conflict as being about all of the territory.

That too may sound counterintuitive given the tendency, especially since the Oslo Accords beginning in 1993, to emphasize the territorial division of 1967 as the starting point for negotiations and potential solutions. Yet neither nationalism has remained static and addressing all of the territory probably better approximates the points that the respective nationalisms have reached today. From a religious Zionist perspective, for instance, Shchem/Nablus or Rachel’s Tomb on the outskirts of Bethlehem (both of which are beyond the 1967 line in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or OPTs) are of symbolic significance, unlike Tel Aviv, Rishon Lezion, Modi’in, or any number of modern Israeli towns and cities. From a historical perspective, there was Zionist settlement in Hebron and the Etzion bloc (both in the OPTs) before the 1949 Armistice Lines were drawn.

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