The Fury Over the 1967 Borders is Disingenuous
Although President Obama stated nothing new during his speech last Thursday about the 1967 borders with "mutually agreed land swaps" as a basis for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian agreement, he put it in a manner that should give the Palestinians pause before they go to the United Nations General Assembly to seek statehood recognition. Moreover, in doing so he has marginalized the settlements problem, which has been a major stumbling block to resume the negotiations, while encouraging some key member states of the European Union to rethink their endorsement of a Palestinian state come September. The fury of Israeli and Jewish leaders over what the president said is entirely misguided, misplaced and disingenuous.
Every American administration since President Carter has supported the idea that the 1967 borders provide the baseline for negotiations. Furthermore, in every negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians since the Oslo Accords in 1993, both sides have agreed on the same principle: a land swap to accommodate the Palestinians for the land on which Israel's three major settlement blocs are situated. Indeed, every Israeli government, regardless of its political leanings has - and will continue - to insist on incorporating these blocs of settlements into Israel proper under any peace agreement. For most Palestinians and Israelis, this formulation has become a given. There will be other territorial disputes in connection with Ariel, for example, which is located deep in the West Bank, and Silwan near Jerusalem. But both sides know that any agreement would entail a land swap, albeit they will argue about the quality, contiguity and equivalence of the land to be swapped. That said, there is no question that these and many other even more intractable issues can be resolved if both parties are genuinely committed to peace.
However modified the borders will be to accommodate both sides, the contour of the final borders will not substantially enhance or severely undermine Israel's national security. Prime Minister Netanyahu is being fundamentally disingenuous when he proclaims that the 1967 borders leave Israel "indefensible." The annexation of more land two or three kilometers deep into the West Bank will make little difference from a security perspective. A mutually acceptable land swap, required because of demographic necessity, where more than 70 percent of the settlers reside along the 1967 borders is one thing, to go beyond that is a simple land grab in the guise of national security. What Netanyahu and his hardline coalition partners have in mind is to surround the Palestinians from the east, west, north and south which theoretically enhances Israel's security while isolating the Palestinians completely, and denying them contiguity. This will not only be rejected off-hand by the Palestinians, but will also deny Israel even a semblance of real peace with security.
Israel's ultimate national security requirements rest on five pillars agreed upon by every politically non-biased Israeli defense and security expert. The Obama administration should begin to articulate these requirements to demonstrate that Israel's genuine national security cannot be met by mere annexation of more swaths of land in the West Bank but must rest, first and foremost, with peace augmented by other measures to alleviate Israel's long-term security concerns.
First, all efforts must focus on achieving a peace agreement negotiated to accommodate Israel's legitimate national security and demographic requirements while providing the Palestinians the right and the space in a contiguous land mass to live freely in their own independent state, alongside Israel with dignity. In the final analysis, only a genuine peace that meets the aspirations of both peoples and the acceptance of one another as partners and neighbors will endure and offer Israel the real security it seeks.
Second, since there is - and will continue to be - a lingering distrust between the two sides, Israel must maintain a credible military deterrence that will make it abundantly clear to all those who now or in the future harbor ill intent against Israel that they will suffer an utter devastation should they threaten Israel's security. In this regard, Israel and the United States can make sure, as they have in the past that no single country or a combination of states can overwhelm Israel militarily, along with America's continued guarantee for Israel's national security.
Third, the alleviation of Israel's concerns over the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists from the Jordan Valley cannot be achieved by maintaining Israeli residual forces along the Jordan River, which for many Palestinians will be tantamount to continued occupation. Instead, an international peacekeeping force (perhaps with some Israeli and Palestinian participation) will have to be stationed along the Jordan River. The force should be assembled from specific countries that have a vested interest in maintaining peace, including Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, EU nations like Britain, France and Germany, all under the command of the United States. Such a robust force should be empowered by the United Nations Security Council to act as it sees fit to maintain calm, to foster close relations with all neighboring states and not be removed without an explicit UNSC resolution where the US enjoys a veto power.
Fourth, the newly established Palestinian state must be demilitarized, with its security assured by the same peacekeeping forces. The Palestinians should accept the fact that they will never be in a position to challenge Israel militarily. Moreover, no country, including Israel, will ever threaten a Palestinian state that lives in peace and harmony with its neighbors. Instead of wasting money on military hardware, presumably to boost its national pride, future Palestinian governments should respond to the yearning of the people by investing in economic developments, education, health care, infrastructure and democratic institutions that will enable them to take pride in their achievements. This is what the Arab youth demands from their governments throughout the Arab world and the Palestinian people are no exception.
Fifth, once a peace agreement is achieved, the United States could offer a security umbrella, along the lines of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed more than a year ago, to which all nations in the region at peace with Israel and with each other can belong. Such a regional security umbrella could also serve as a major deterrence against Iran to prevent it from intimidating or threatening any state in the area.
Finally, national security for Israel is a state of mind; no one should fault Israelis for their preoccupation with national security. Indeed, the Jewish historical experience speaks for itself. But national security in the current technological environment - with the sustained exponential growth in social and economic connectedness on the world stage - make it imperative for Israel to recalibrate its national security strategy. Instead of reaching out and demonstrating its willingness to achieve an equitable peace, Israel is becoming a garrison state, building fences and walls, isolating itself not only from its neighbors but also from the international community. Surely there will always be risks involved in making concessions but as long as such risks are calculated and can be mitigated should they come to pass, seeking absolute security becomes a liability as it offer no room for concessions necessary to make peace.
The President's speech was one of the most pro-Israel speeches ever delivered by any sitting US president. Netanyahu's reaction to it was both divisive and counterproductive. It is time for the Israeli public to rise against such hypocrisy and disdain to demand accountability from a government that has led the country astray from Day One. Thanks to Netanyahu's government, no one can say that Israel is better off today than it was two years ago. It is time to put an end to the illusion that Israel will be more secure by further territorial entrenchment in the West Bank. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. His website is www.alonben-meir.com.