Arab Peace Initiative

05.07.13

Excitement Over Land Swaps Is Misplaced

The excitement provoked by a totally insignificant statement made by an Arab Gulf Prime Minister in Washington last week is the best proof of the moribund situation of the attempt to establish a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani said that "comparable and mutual agreed minor swaps of the land" were "possible." Tzipi Livni, Israel's Minister of Justice and chief peace negotiator, described the statement as "very positive news," while Secretary of State John Kerry called it a "big step." These descriptions constitute a gross exaggeration; in fact, if the statement marked any sort of step at all, it was a step backward.

The Arab Peace Initiative may have some value if it is more moderate than the official Palestinian position. If the Arab League is even more extreme than the PLO itself, the inevitable consequence will be the hardening of the Palestinian position. Just as Mahmoud Abbas could not be more accommodating than President Obama on settlements back in 2009, he cannot now be more flexible than al-Thani on “land swaps.”

Abbas reiterated more than once that the Palestinian state he demands should comprise 6205 square kilometers of land, without setting a quantitative limit to swaps. When the Qatari PM includes in a 12-word sentence the terms "possible," "comparable," "mutual agreed" and "minor," it can hardly be seen as a step forward.

Moreover, consider the often-overlooked fact that the Arab Peace Initiative demands that Israel fully withdraw from the Golan Heights and give them up...to whom, exactly?

The importance of the Qatari statement is, all things considered, negligible. The excitement it caused can be likened to a desperate family's reaction to an imaginary movement made by a comatose patient. However, a tremendously important lesson can and should be learned from all this, and that is the way an Israeli concession immediately becomes a fait accompli, and is later presented as an Arab concession for which Israel is expected to reciprocate with an additional concession or gesture.

"Land swaps" are in fact a concession offered by Israel to the Palestinians. Yitzhak Rabin never thought he had to "compensate" the Palestinians for his intention to leave the vast Jordan Valley in Israeli hands in any agreement. I can only imagine his sarcastic reaction, were he to be told that Israel should "compensate" anyone for the area of the Kotel and the Jewish Quarter.

This was not only an Israeli position. In fact, it was also the international community's. The famous U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 call Israel to withdraw "from territories," not from "the territories," and recognize its right to "secure borders." Even those who believe the demand for withdrawal applies to each front separately must admit it does not include a territorial compensation for the areas that remain under Israeli control.

Experts trace the origin of the idea of "land swaps" to the 1995 alleged understandings between Yossi Beilin and Mahmoud Abbas. In an unsuccessful effort to convince Abbas to sign a peace plan with him, the ingenious Beilin devised and offered the "land swap" mechanism and included it in the text that Abbas nevertheless refused to sign for a myriad of reasons.

Eighteen years later, Sheikh al-Thani comes to Washington with the "fresh idea" of minor possible land swaps, and Israel is expected to be thrilled by it and thank the Arab League for its flexibility.

On the contrary, this absurd situation is a good, though belated, opportunity to rewind and take off the table entirely the notion of territorial swaps. The consequences of the repeated failed attempts to annihilate Israel should and will be reflected in the final status. Just as there is no way back to the 1947 lines, there is no way back to the 1967 lines, and the idea of a territorial compensation for the losses incurred in those aggressions is as absurd and immoral as it is impractical. Going back to square one would be an unjust outcome and a prize to the aggressor. Moreover, flourishing Jewish communities have been rightfully built since then in Judea and Samaria. Today they are an irreversible fact, a fact that cannot be swapped out.