Far from the heart of the problem

All my inquiries have failed to produce an authoritative answer to the question why US President George W. Bush, in his remarks in the Rose Garden on May 26 alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, opened up a Pandora’s box of mysterious distinctions between the 1949 lines and the 1967 lines. At the end of the day there is almost no difference between the two lines as the basis for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians–negotiations that in any case are not on the agenda.

The 1949 and 1967 lines are essentially the same armistice line, in sharp contrast with the status of an international border. A few demilitarized zones or no-man’s lands that existed in 1949 but not in 1967 were divided between Israelis and Jordanians or Egyptians in perfectly legal and legitimate acts that remain valid. Those that were not partitioned, like the isolated Israeli enclave of Mount Scopus, were no different in 1949 than on June 4, 1967. All of Israel’s land and border dealings were with Jordan and Egypt, occupying powers, not with the Palestinians, who had no legal standing at the time.

Palestinians who profess to see in President Bush’s mention of the 1949 lines an innovative American endorsement of the green line as a basis for agreed border alterations are referred to the “minor alterations” remark by Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, in the late 1960s, and of course to Bush’s own endorsement of the 242 formula, which is based on the 1967 lines, in his letter to PM Sharon of April 14, 2004.

Staunch defenders of Israel’s position who fear that Bush’s mention of the 1949 lines will somehow legitimate extreme Palestinian territorial and other demands going back to UNGA resolutions 181 and 194 from the 1947-1949 period can relax. Surely we all understand by now that Bush’s periodic rhetorical gestures to the parties are just that–attempts to postpone any really meaningful entry by the administration into the process. By the by, the American president is also trivializing the process. In April 2004, Bush wanted to help Sharon gain Israeli government and Knesset approval for disengagement, so he spoke out against the return of Palestinian refugees and in favor of Israel annexing the settlement blocs–as if Sharon was getting an American quid pro quo in return for leaving Gaza. In May 2005, Bush wanted to enhance Abbas’ status, so he emphasized alternative aspects and issues and seemingly left Sharon without a quid pro quo and Abbas with an achievement.

Further, if we take Bush at his word, he stated that the 1949 lines are the basis for agreed changes of the border between the sides, not the basis for an agreement. Indeed, there are some indications that it was actually Israel that first asked the president to mention the 1949 lines–in his April 14, 2004 letter–apparently because it saw no significant difference in the Palestinian case but valued the precedent vis-a-vis Syria, where repeated failed negotiations have shown that the difference really is meaningful and works in Israel’s favor.

If all goes well, Israel will soon embark on a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Because this is by definition a one-sided act, Israel alone will determine the borders of its disengagement. The Sharon government has poorly-argued pretensions to make this a political act with finality and to claim that after withdrawal Gaza is no longer Israel’s responsibility. But these pretensions have nothing to do with the distinction between the 1949 and 1967 lines, say, in northern Gaza, particularly after the PLO agreed to the existing lines in the 1994 Gaza-Jericho agreement. Palestinians who argue that mention of the 1949 lines somehow opens up new possibilities to extend the territory of Gaza northward from Erez are not reading either Bush or Sharon accurately. To Sharon’s credit, in rebuffing that claim he has also not bought into the argument put forth by the settlers of the northern Gaza Strip that they are located in no-man’s land and not in the Strip–a position ! he could theoretically take were he to try to “adopt” the 1948 or 1949 or even June 4, 1967 lines.

Israel cannot set Gaza adrift politically and economically without attaching it to the outside world and to the West Bank. In other words, the issues at this point are political and not geographic. Whether Sharon likes it or not, Gaza will remain on the agenda of eventual final status talks between Israel and the PLO/PA. Whether the Palestinians like it or not, Bush’s periodic official remarks about the conflict and its resolution, including those that ostensibly contradict one another–like mention of the 1949 lines alongside mention of UNSCR 242, which enshrines the 1967 lines–are far from engaging the heart of the issue.

True, if and when Bush really does commit his administration to dealing with the conflict, he’ll have some explaining and some clarifying to do. But that’s the least of our worries.