Geography or demography?

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When Israel negotiated armistice lines with Jordan and Egypt at Rhodes in 1948-49, it insisted that certain Arab villages and lands in the Samaria region of the West Bank be annexed to it, in order to expand Israel’s “narrow waist” in the Hadera-Netanya area. In so doing it consciously undertook to increase the Palestinian Arab population of Israel in order to improve its territorial situation. It even threatened to renew hostilities with Jordan and Iraq (whose expeditionary force was in the West Bank), unless the Arab side agreed to move the green line further to the east.

Similarly, a year or so later, in the course of abortive peace talks in Lausanne, and under pressure from Washington, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion offered to repatriate 100,000 or even 200,000 Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip in return for peace and Israeli annexation of the Strip. Such a step, had it been accepted by the Arabs, would have eliminated the green line with Gaza right up to the Israel-Egypt international border.

This line of thinking reflected Israeli leaders’ understanding of their strategic dilemma at the time. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were pouring into the country, and the demographic balance did not appear to be a problem. On the other hand, the 1948 War, Israel’s War of Independence in which it fought with its back very much to the sea, had taught it that territory counts. So in its early years it preferred geography over demography.

Territory counted in the 1967 Six-Day War, too, which brought the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation. At the time, few Israelis were bothered by the long-term demographic consequences of Israeli rule over the Palestinian residents of the territories across the Green Line. The occupied lands seemed more important as strategic depth and as bargaining cards for future negotiations.

The post-war euphoria, together with the Israeli reading of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, with its emphasis on “secure and recognized boundaries” and “withdrawal . . . from territories occupied” (i.e., not all the territories) and its reference only to “every State in the area” (i.e., not the Palestinian territories, which were legally not part of any state), encouraged Israeli policymakers to think in terms of future borders very different from the green line, and nourished the renascent Land of Israel movement which gave birth to the settlements.

That the green line has survived the ensuing 35 years, and has become virtually synonymous with 242 in the eyes of the international community, is testimony to Arab and particularly Palestinian persistence. The green line, after all, is not an international border–unlike Israel’s borders with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon–and the Palestine Liberation Organization only arrived at the advocacy of a two state solution based on 242 in the late 1980s.

Yet successive Israeli governments, including that of Ehud Barak which attempted in 2000 to negotiate final status with the PLO, tried and failed to establish some alternative principal as the agreed point of departure for territorial negotiations. So sacred was the green line to Palestinian negotiators at Camp David II in July 2000 and at Taba in January 2001, that they insisted on a dunam-for-dunam, one-on-one land exchange in return for any settlements Israel sought to annex.

Since Camp David II the Palestinians themselves, by dwelling on the right of return of 1948 refugees, have succeeded in calling into question their commitment to a two state solution. Israel, in turn, has successfully persuaded most of the western world and part of the Arab world that the PLO cannot have both a two state solution, based on a Jewish state and an Arab state, and an Israeli declaration that in principle large numbers of Palestinians can repopulate the Jewish state, thereby in effect rendering it a binational state.

But PLO insistence on the right of return was also instrumental in persuading Israelis that their primary strategic problem with the Palestinians today is demographic rather than geographic. If, today, we could revisit the Rhodes talks and renegotiate the green line, we would almost certainly agree to live with a narrower waist, on condition that fewer rather than more Palestinians become Israeli citizens.

Indeed, when negotiations are resumed, there will be considerable sentiment on the Israeli side to compensate Palestine for the annexation of settlement blocs with at least a one-on-one swap, on condition that the territories on the Israeli side of the green line that are included in Palestine contain some of the very same Arab towns and villages that Israel insisted on annexing in 1948.

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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