At the Weekly Standard, Dore Gold does an excellent job exploring the origins of the concept of “land swaps” as the solution to the question of the borders between Israel and a theoretical Palestinian state.
The first mention came from Israeli academics working on back-channel negotiations with the Palestinians that were disavowed by both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. It was resurrected by the Clinton administration in the Camp David talks but never fully embraced until Ehud Olmert proposed it to Mahmoud Abbas as part of his offer for a Palestinian state that would encompass almost all of the West Bank and part of Jerusalem. The Palestinians turned that down, but somehow the Obama administration has become convinced this idea is still the magic formula to bring about peace. But just because it was discussed before doesn’t mean (as Obama suggested during his speech to AIPAC) it is legally binding on the present Israeli government.
As Gold points out, there are two big problems associated with this idea.
First, it isn’t clear there is enough empty Israeli territory along the border with the West Bank that can be safely exchanged for the parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank with large Jewish populations. And even if there were, the Palestinians don’t seem interested in those lands. They want parts of the country of “equal value,” whatever that might mean.
Just as dangerous is that the American idea of land swaps doesn’t accommodate the concept of defensible borders even Obama said Israel needs. That would necessitate Israel hold onto parts of the Jordan Valley and other strategic points in the West Bank. There isn’t enough vacant Israeli land to swap for those points on the map as well as the settlement blocs. And even if there were, the Palestinians aren’t likely to trade the Jordan Valley.
Some dismiss the concept of defensible borders by pointing out Israel survived very nicely from 1949 to 1967. In fact, that was a time of great instability and constant cross border terror attacks against Israel. But more important, the only way Israel survived during that period was by adopting an offensive military strategy in which it was constantly launching pre-emptive attacks against terror bases in Egyptian-ruled Gaza and the Jordanian-ruled West Bank. The Six-Day War itself is the best example of that strategy. Had Israel sat back and waited for the Arab armies massing on its borders to attack in 1967 (as it would six years later at the start of the Yom Kippur War when it had some strategic depth), it might not have survived. Would the world accept a similar stance on Israel’s part if that meant crossing into the newly sovereign Palestinian state? I don’t think so.
Those who throw around the term “land swaps” as if it is a long accepted, quick and easy answer to the borders question are ignoring both history and the strategic realities of the Middle East. Far from a magic formula, it is yet another diplomatic trap Israel must avoid.