An Option That Doesn't Really Exist

Prof. Gideon Biger is once again suggesting the transfer of areas populated today by Israeli Arabs to a Palestinian state in exchange for the transfer of some Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel. When we examine the details of this proposal from a practical point of view and from the perspective of both international and Israeli law, it is revealed to be an impractical and dangerous idea.

In the wake of reports of new negotiations on a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, Prof. Gideon Biger is once again suggesting the transfer of areas populated today by Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian state that will arise, in exchange for the transfer of some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israeli sovereignty. This would ensure a Jewish majority in the State of Israel and increase the area of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel. However, when we examine the details of this proposal from a practical point of view and from the perspective of both international and Israeli law, it is revealed to be an impractical and dangerous idea.

Biger argues that the idea of exchanges of territory was brought up in the past in order to ensure what he calls "national equality," which, as he sees it, is disrupted by the fact that an Arab minority exists in Israel, whereas in the Palestine that will arise, there is no Jewish minority. But the truth is that when the proposal for exchanges of territories came up in the past - at Camp David, Taba and Geneva, and with presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush - it was with the purpose of satisfying Israeli interests and to overcome the difficulty inherent in the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the territories, despite the illegal status of the settlements in international law.

Proponents of the idea want to bring about, in Biger's words, the adjustment of the armistice lines "to the demographic reality that has developed in the Land of Israel." A quick glance at the maps published by Prof. Arnon Sofer suffices to show how dangerous this sweeping assertion is. It is easier to link the Arab Galilee to Jenin and the Bedouin concentrations in the Negev to the Hebron area than it is to link Ariel in the West Bank to Israel. Who can guarantee that after Israel expresses willingness to enter negotiations not based on the consensus that the pre-1967 borders will be the basis for agreement, by which Israel would enjoy 78 percent of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, that will be the end of the process, and there won't then be pressure to return to Palestinian claims connected to the 1948 files - the Partition Plan boundaries, the internationalization of Jerusalem, the destruction of the villages, the internal refugees, the expropriated lands, the property that remained and so on.

Biger offers as an example the exchanges of population between Greece and Turkey and between India and Pakistan (during the course of which many people died). However, international law today explicitly prohibits any transfer of population because of the great importance that is attributed to place of residence and the fabric of life in the international basket of human rights.

The possibility of a transfer of sovereignty depends above all on Palestinian agreement - a necessary condition to which Biger does not relate at all. And the Palestine Liberation Organization can be expected to have no interest in embarking on a course to which those who are supposed to be the citizens of the new state are themselves strenuously opposed. The PLO is interested in receiving additional areas that are uninhabited, for absorption of refugees.

Even if the PLO were to change its position, the sides - in accordance with what has become accepted and obligatory in international law today - would have to grant all of the inhabitants of the areas in question two options for maintaining their Israeli citizenship.

This, too, is a necessary condition that is absent from Biger's presentation of the issue: Those Israeli Arab citizens living in towns proposed for transfer to Palestine would be able either to move to a new place of residence within Israel, or to maintain their Israeli citizenship while continuing to reside in the transferred territory. This latter possibility would then obligate Israel to undertake complex arrangements for transit and employment of them in Israel, while denying them the right to vote in elections for the Knesset and also deny citizenship to their children who are born in Palestine.

Biger claims that the measure would reduce Israel's Arab minority to 14 percent of the population (from today's 21 percent), and that 200,000 Arabs would move into the Palestinian Authority. Practically, however, this is not possible. This would necessitate the transfer of Arab locales that are to the west of the Trans-Israel Highway (Road 6) - Kalansua, Tira and Jaljulya; the relinquishing of the Shaked bloc of settlements, so as to allow for the transfer of the Wadi Ara towns to their west to Palestinian sovereignty, as well as the evacuation of the western Samaria bloc of settlements (Elkanah, Oranit, Sha'arei Tikva, Etz Efraim and others), if it is decided to transfer Kafr Qassem and its environs.

If these locales, which are impossible to transfer, because all are to the west of areas that Israel is demanding remain within its sovereignty, are subtracted from the equation, the result would be that only 12 percent of Israel's Arab minority - 2.3 percent of the population of the country - would be transferred to the PA. Moreover: The living area of this small population spreads over a bit more than 120 square kilometers, much less than what Israel is asking to annex in the framework of the Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank.

The right way to reduce the Arab minority that is living in Israel is a permanent-status agreement in whose context 250,000 East Jerusalem Arabs will come under Palestinian sovereignty and will lose their Israeli residency. In this way, the ratio between Jews and Arabs will return to what it was on the eve of the Six-Day War. The Israeli answer to the separatist Arab currents that deny the Jewish character of the State of Israel lies in the equalization of the rights and obligations of the Arabs in the State of Israel and in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinian state will realize the Palestinian people's demand for and right to self-definition outside the borders of the State of Israel. By virtue of its existence, it will enable all of the Arab citizens of Israel to define their identity and their affiliation to the State of Israel and to choose, from an equal national position, the state with which they identify and where they wish to live and to realize their citizenship.

The writer was head of the peace administration in the government of prime minister Ehud Barak, and is among the signatories of the Geneva Accords.