Borders first?

 Rumors of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front have been trickling out of late. A deal for the release of Gilad Shalit seems to be close (for about the seventieth time), especially after the visit of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Cairo to meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.  George Mitchell is reportedly close to ...

 Rumors of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front have been trickling out of late. A deal for the release of Gilad Shalit seems to be close (for about the seventieth time), especially after the visit of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Cairo to meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.  George Mitchell is reportedly close to a deal with Israel on a settlement freeze after all those frustrating months. Salam Fayyad has released a blueprint for achieving a Palestinian state through institution building within two years.  Palestinian and European sources have been talking up an alleged American plan for peace talks. It is widely reported that President Obama plans to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas during the United Nations meeting in New York this month.   And now Haaretz reports that Benjamin Netanyahu is promising a Palestinian state in the West Bank within two years to begin with talks on defining borders.

 All of this suggests that the long-promised push for resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may finally be getting underway. I hope so -- the battle over the settlements may have been necessary and appropriate, but should have been concluded months ago.  Not all the pieces are in place, but they may be as positioned as they are going to get.  No Hamas-Fatah deal appears to be on the horizon, but if the Shalit deal goes through there may be enough in it for Hamas (especially with regard to the blockade of Gaza and release of Hamas prisoners) to convince them to sit back for the moment and let the negotiations proceed.  Netanyahu's coalition isn't going to get any solider, and there have been some noises at least about attempting to rebuild the Israeli peace camp.  There have been reports that the U.S. has secured some commitments from Arab states to offer concessions on normalization with Israel, which I'll believe when I see but which may be in the appropriate pockets to play when helpful.  So let's go. 

How might the talks proceed?  According to Haaretz, the talks will focus on first defining the borders of the West Bank and Israel.  There's a good argument to be made for the "borders first" approach.  If an agreement could be reached on the borders, then many of the battles over the settlements would be rendered moot.  Defining the borders would also allow for the evolution of Palestinian state institutions and the removal of the many obstacles to Palestinian economic and social normality -- the checkpoints, roadblocks, and road networks which make up the "matrix of occupation."  It might also then allow the discussions over refugee return to take place in a more favorable environment.  

 Rumors of movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front have been trickling out of late. A deal for the release of Gilad Shalit seems to be close (for about the seventieth time), especially after the visit of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Cairo to meet with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.  George Mitchell is reportedly close to a deal with Israel on a settlement freeze after all those frustrating months. Salam Fayyad has released a blueprint for achieving a Palestinian state through institution building within two years.  Palestinian and European sources have been talking up an alleged American plan for peace talks. It is widely reported that President Obama plans to sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian President Abbas during the United Nations meeting in New York this month.   And now Haaretz reports that Benjamin Netanyahu is promising a Palestinian state in the West Bank within two years to begin with talks on defining borders.

 All of this suggests that the long-promised push for resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may finally be getting underway. I hope so — the battle over the settlements may have been necessary and appropriate, but should have been concluded months ago.  Not all the pieces are in place, but they may be as positioned as they are going to get.  No Hamas-Fatah deal appears to be on the horizon, but if the Shalit deal goes through there may be enough in it for Hamas (especially with regard to the blockade of Gaza and release of Hamas prisoners) to convince them to sit back for the moment and let the negotiations proceed.  Netanyahu’s coalition isn’t going to get any solider, and there have been some noises at least about attempting to rebuild the Israeli peace camp.  There have been reports that the U.S. has secured some commitments from Arab states to offer concessions on normalization with Israel, which I’ll believe when I see but which may be in the appropriate pockets to play when helpful.  So let’s go. 

How might the talks proceed?  According to Haaretz, the talks will focus on first defining the borders of the West Bank and Israel.  There’s a good argument to be made for the "borders first" approach.  If an agreement could be reached on the borders, then many of the battles over the settlements would be rendered moot.  Defining the borders would also allow for the evolution of Palestinian state institutions and the removal of the many obstacles to Palestinian economic and social normality — the checkpoints, roadblocks, and road networks which make up the "matrix of occupation."  It might also then allow the discussions over refugee return to take place in a more favorable environment.  

 That’s the favorable case.  The weaknesses of "borders first" are equally apparent.  By ignoring the most sensitive, core issues — the Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem — it could lead to widespread disenchantment with the negotiating process.  If coupled with demands on the Arab states for reciprocal concessions (as expected), it could lead to their most valuable cards being given away before the core issues are addressed.  Defining the borders on paper may bear little relation to reality on the ground.  And the whole enterprise would remain hostage to the ability of spoilers to use violence at any moment — while the pressures on the Palestinian side to try to prevent that could lead to an over-emphasis on security institutions and the neglect of rule of law and institutional development. 

 The most immediate issue raised by ‘borders first’ is whether it will deal with the Greater Jerusalem border.   The issue here is not the Old City, the central focus of so much emotion and identity.  It is the large central area of the West Bank, an area far beyond the old municipal boundaries of the city which extends deep into the central West Bank.   Israel has developed huge settlements and a massive infrastructure which now almost surrounds East Jerusalem and which all but prevents any meaningful connection between the north and the south, and between the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

 Will the negotiated border between the West Bank and Israel deal with the Jerusalem area? If the negotiated borders ratify the Israeli settlements and infrastructure as currently configured and proposed (including the controversial E-1 area), then the supposed Palestinian state would be essentially non-viable.  It’s hard to imagine a government led by Netanyahu agreeing to remove existing settlements around the Greater Jerusalem area.  But no Palestinian leader is likely to be able to sell a deal which ignores or ratifies the Greater Jerusalem settlement areas to his people, even if pressured to accept.  If the negotiated borders ignore or defer the Jerusalem area – an idea I’ve heard in circulation —  then the outcome would be meaningless and counter-productive.  So…. whose move? 

 The second major issue is Gaza.  The approach for now seems to be to simply ignore Gaza and focus on the West Bank under PA control.  That’s a major problem, obviously, and one which everyone seems keen to pretend doesn’t exist.  It does.  

 Indeed, "borders first" negotiations under current conditions — especially if Gaza is ignored and the Jersualem area either deferred or ratified — might well lead not to a two state solution but to what I’ve heard described as a "five statelet" outcome: Israel, Gaza, Ramallahstan, Nablusstan in the northern West Bank and Hebronstan in the southern West Bank.  Does anyone really think that this would be the foundation for an end of conflict agreement?  

 So if ‘borders first’ is going to be the approach to negotiations then I sure hope that early attention is paid to the questions of Gaza and Jerusalem.  If serious spoiler violence is to be avoided, then Hamas and its constituency are going to have to be engaged.  If acceptable borders are going to be drawn, they have to grapple with the realities of the Jerusalem area. And if it is meant to lead to a genuine and lasting end of conflict, then it can’t just be about borders — as Rob Malley has argued the Palestinian refugees need to be brought into the discussion.  

 It’s high time to get these talks started, whether the approach is borders first or something else.  But it’s also important to get the structure of the talks right so that they aren’t trapped by early decisions.  

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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