The speeches of the leaders at the World Economic Forum in Amman once again attest to the insight that often emerged from the negotiations Israel held with the PLO on a final status agreement: The territorial issue is the most significant one for the Palestinians, while they consider the right of return a bargaining chip. The required agreement about the border is the highest hurdle that the sides have to overcome in order to eliminate tensions that undermine their ability to conduct negotiations, to renew confidence and to bridge the gaps on the other issues.
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Israel has come a long way since Camp David 2000, when Ehud Barak proposed to annex 11 percent of the West Bank to Israel without a territorial swap, while another 7 percent of the area, mainly in the Jordan Valley, was to be acquired for long-term leasing. Barak’s position was based on the claim that United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 − whose effective interpretation in the peace agreement with Egypt and with Jordan was that “all the territories in return for peace” doesn’t apply to the Palestinians, who were not among the “countries in the region” during the Six-Day War.
The Palestinians, who saw Resolution 242 as a basis for negotiations, insisted on its complete implementation according to the international interpretation, but agreed to be flexible: a territorial exchange at a ratio of 1:1, which would enable Israel to leave most of the Israelis living beyond the Green Line under its sovereignty.
Only in Annapolis in 2008 did then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert adopt the parameter guiding negotiations on the territorial issue: The 1967 lines as a basis, and a 1:1 territorial swap. Olmert proposed a permanent border to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, one that would annex 6.5 percent of the territories and 85 percent of the Israeli settlers to Israel, while compensating Palestine with 5.8 percent of the land within Israeli territory, plus a land corridor between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Abbas, for his part, proposed a 1.9 percent territorial swap, which enables Israel to retain 75 percent of the Israeli settlers under its sovereignty. The previous and present governments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retreated from this parameter, and after zigzagging in clandestine meetings, the prime minister tends to accept the 1967 lines as the basis and even the idea of territorial exchanges − but not in an equal ratio.
Those around him hasten to explain that the idea of territorial swaps is really a matter of Israeli flexibility, which is designed to demonstrate generosity towards the Palestinians. They claim that partial compensation with Israeli territory will lead to an improvement, in favor of the Palestinians, of the “land for peace” formula, which does not obligate Israel to withdraw from the entire West Bank.
But the painful truth is that there is no real land potential in Israeli territory for a 1:1 territorial exchange that could fulfill all the declarations, announcements and promises of Netanyahu and his people. They will have to explain how massive government support led to an increase of 250 percent in the number of Israelis in Judea and Samaria in general, and an increase of 350 percent in the number of Israelis outside the settlement blocs in particular. They will have to explain to the kibbutzim and moshavim of the “Gaza envelope” (areas bordering on the Gaza Strip), the farmers of the Lachish region in the south, those living in Meitar and in the Arad Valley, the kibbutzim of Emek Hama’ayanot in the north, and others, the logic of the mortal blow to their lands and their orchards − which will be transferred to Palestine in return for “laundering” a long series of illegal outposts and far-flung expansions of existing settlements.
In the absence of an Israeli agreement on the territorial parameter, the chances of a peace treaty are almost nil. To give it a chance, the government should present a modest proposal of a 3 percent to 4 percent territorial exchange, which makes it possible to leave over 80 percent of Israeli settlers under its sovereignty, and does not undermine the contiguity of the Palestinian state or the future of Israeli communities within the Green Line, some of which were built overnight during the “tower and stockade” period of the British Mandate.