On the importance of setting borders

Jerusalem-based writer Gershom Gorenberg wrote about the importance of borders, in an article entitled “Imagined Israel“, a book review published in the latest issue of “The American Prospect“.

Gorenberg is, in this article, reviewing a recent book by Israeli political sociologist Lev Luis Grinberg, entitled Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine.

Gorenberg writes that “The starting point of Grinberg’s analysis is that Israel doesn’t have borders, or perhaps has too many of them: ‘If we would ask Israelis … where the state of Israel is — where its borders are — we would never receive a simple answer. … There is no consensus among Jewish citizens of the state where its borders are, where they should be, or even what the legitimate procedure is to decide on them’.”

The argument is not unlike that made by the current + previous American Secretaries of State (Clinton, Hilary + Rice, Condoleezza) who had insights about the importance of setting boundaries as an essential step in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (“Then we’ll know what is legal and what is not” — as if we don’t now, because it can all be negotiated, both of these women have said. Israel’s former Foreign Minister and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, however, has pooh-poohed this idea by saying that Israel had no intention whatsoever of withdrawing and just “throwing the keys” over The Wall to the other side…)

Gorenberg says that “This matters, first of all, because modern democracy depends on borders that aren’t messy. ‘A precondition of democracy’, as Grinberg writes, is ‘the existence of recognized borders … which define the equal citizens of the state’. Physical boundaries allow creation of the social reality he calls ‘political space’ — the arena in which the institutions of state meet people who represent us and negotiate and compromise and make policy. When there aren’t clear borders, when there’s no agreement on who should be represented or how, violence replaces politics — as happens again and again between Israelis and Palestinians. Taking off from Benedict Anderson’s classic definition of the nation as an ‘imagined community’, Grinberg pays careful attention to imagination, positive and negative. Imagination allows us to see political representatives as standing in for us, making politics possible. Imagination lets us envision a different future. As a result of the first Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980s, many Israelis — including the influential top brass of the military — could imagine a border between Israel and the Palestinians and a political rather than a military solution to the conflict. That act of imagination opened up the space for negotiation with the Palestinians under Yitzhak Rabin’s leadership. Imagined realities can also be illusions. In the late Oslo years, Israelis imagined that they already lived in the era of peace and ignored worsening conditions in Palestinian society. When the Second Intifada erupted in 2000, imagination allowed Israelis to magnify real dangers into overwhelming ones. Wanting ‘national unity’ in the face of the threat, they let generals set policy. Debate between civil groups with alternative answers to the crisis sank to distant background noise. In Grinberg’s terms, ‘political space’ vanished. The book’s analysis does not reach the present day, but its implications do. With violence low at the moment, most Israelis can imagine that Israeli security measures alone ended the intifada and that the current quiet can last indefinitely. This is an illusion, and a dangerous one: It ignores the Palestinian Authority’s role in restoring order in the West Bank. It also ignores the frustration with blocked diplomacy that is again rising among Palestinians — and international impatience with the Netanyahu government’s foot-dragging. Imagination shapes behavior. Believing the illusion that things can go on as they are, Israelis have largely abandoned debate of alternatives. The space for politics remains closed … In fact, if there’s a reason to quibble with Grinberg, it’s his assertion that the myth of the Whole Land of Israel — of permanent Israeli possession of everything between the Mediterranean and the Jordan — has largely been undermined in mainstream Israeli politics. Netanyahu is evidence that the myth still moves extremely influential people. In physical terms, Netanyahu’s imagined Israel is the whole land. In political terms, it includes only Jews”…

Gorenberg’s book review can be read in full here.

Col. (Res.) Shaul Arieli, on the other hand, has a very concrete, reality-based view of borders. Now a member of the board of directors for Israel’s Council for Peace and Security, Arieli was an aide to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the heady days of the Camp David talks hosted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton in July 2000, and at the Taba talks that took place in January 2001, just before Barak was voted out of office. Arieli went on to become the map expert for the Israeli team of the Geneva Initiative co-launched by Israel’s Yossi Beilin and the P.L.O.’s Yasser Abed Rabbo.

In an article published this weekend in Haaretz, Arieli reveals surprising new details about Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions: “One of the most difficult issues to be faced in the negotiations between us and the Palestinians relates to the number of settlers who are supposed to be evacuated. The number stands at between 110,000, according to Mahmoud Abbas’s suggestion, and the 70,000 that Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have suggested. The total number of Israelis living across the Green Line is currently half a million”.

Is it really possible that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wants only one quarter of the Israeli/Jewish settlers evacuated from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem)?

Arieli notes that “In 1947, when a UN commission determined the partition borders, it left behind some 10,000 Jews in the planned Arab state. It saw in their presence, just as in the presence of an Arab minority in the Jewish state, a kind of guarantee that would ensure cooperation between the new states. And indeed, the presence of a Jewish minority in Palestine will serve as a challenge to both states and will oblige them to relate to questions of civic equality, cultural autonomy and participation in government … A solution whereby the settlers remain under Palestinian government will relieve Israel of having to deal with their evacuation, but it is likely to undermine Israel’s stance with regard to territorial exchanges … A solution that leaves settlers in Palestinian territory will necessitate relating to the scope of the area including 96 settlements that is not included in Israel’s territorial demands, or to the 107 that are outside the Palestinian proposal. Their joint area covers between 83,000 and 114,000 dunams, which constitute 1.5 to 2.0 percent of the area of the West Bank, according to the respective positions of the sides … The sides will not be able to evade dealing also with the status of these lands. Since 1967 and to this day – despite rulings by the High Court of Justice which barred it – Israel has continued to build settlements and outposts on private land. They today constitute some 40 percent of the lands of the settlements that lie east of the separation fence. Both Israel and Palestine will be obliged to show great generosity toward the owners of these lands, so that they will be willing to accept the settlers as their neighbors. In order to make this solution more feasible, steps must be taken to block the continued intensification of its disadvantages. First, Israel must cease expanding the settlements that lie outside the line of its positions. The permission granted ‘during the year of freeze’ for some 1,500 new housing units east of the fence, and the granting of national priority status to isolated settlements, are not the way to do this. On the other hand, stopping the ‘laundering’ and the evacuation of unauthorized outposts – of which, according to Peace Now figures, approximately 84 are located either completely or partly on private land – can reduce the private lands problem. Palestine and Israel can exist with a Jewish and Arab minority in their midst. The establishment of a Palestinian state will ensure, firstly, that the Palestinians will be able to realize their right to self-determination outside the borders of Israel, and secondly, that those who do not grow accustomed to being a minority will always be able to emigrate to the homeland of their nation that lies across the border”. Arieli’s thoughts on this matter can be viewed in full here.

Another view was expressed in a recent press conference given by Major-General (Res) Giora Eiland at Mishkenot Shaananim in West Jerusalem, who said that there was no way it would be economically feasible or possible to relocate what he said would be “120,000 Israeli citizens — fifteen times more than the number of Israelis evacuated from Gaza five years ago — including from really big towns with a lot of emotional significance to Israelis”.

Eiland did not elaborate on which “towns” (settlements) carried such emotional significance for Israelis, or why.

Nor is it clear how Eiland arrived at the figure of only 120,000 settlers (out of 500,000 — including those in East Jerusalem) who would have to be evacuated…

Eiland put the direct cost — and, he stressed, this would be only the civilian cost, not including the military expenses — of such a “relocation operation” at more than $30 billion U.S. dollars. “These figures are not affordable”, Eiland said. In addition, he added, such a “relocation” would also entail a need to “redesign the infrastructure of the state of Israel”….

U.S. State Department: Mitchell is hanging in there

From an exchange between journalists and spokesman P.J. Crowley at the regular daily briefing of the U.S. State Department in Washington on 26 February:

QUESTION: There’s been several Arab media or Middle Eastern media reports that George Mitchell offered his resignation, and just seeing if you might be able to confirm – it was – which was refused.


QUESTION: Can you confirm that?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, George Mitchell was sitting with Secretary Clinton and [Israeli Defense] Minister [Ehud] Barak in the meeting in her office this morning. There appears to be a monthly rumor, story that George Mitchell is resigning. He is not, and he is on the job, and as we indicated, a critical part of the meeting today.

QUESTION: Would you – sorry, would you be able to – I mean, they’re citing that he’s frustrated. You know, is there – what are the hurdles that the U.S. is seeing right now in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? What are the main —

MR. CROWLEY: Well, are we frustrated? Sure, we’re frustrated. As we’ve said over and over again for the past few months … We want to see the parties get in negotiations. We want to see the parties taking steps that create an impetus that moves you towards negotiation, not unilateral steps that create either tension or obstacles that can inhibit the return to negotiations. We think that these – as we’ve said many, many times, the issues that are complex, emotional, can only be resolved in dialogue between the parties, and the sooner they begin talks, the better. So – but George Mitchell is determined, if you know him. He is – he’s engaged in discussions with the Palestinians, with the Israelis, with others around the region. And we’re all looking for that formula that can open the door to – for talks to begin … He’s not resigning.

QUESTION: Right. But the rumors keep coming up, so I’m just curious why.

MR. CROWLEY: I have no idea. (Laughter.) I mean, look. He is – if you know George Mitchell, he’s committed to this and he is an extraordinarily patient man. When you look – when he talks about his experiences in Northern Ireland over several years, that – he understands that it will just take hard work and determination that finally will create that tipping point where the parties will commit, seriously address the issues, and move towards a settlement. So I don’t – I see nothing but determination in George Mitchell’s eyes“…

Olmert asks: What happened?

Speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University today, Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert said that “during his tenure he offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas an unprecedented peace offer, based on a return to the 1967 borders and a fair demographic land arrangement which would see heavily Jewish areas in the West Bank remain under Israeli control. ‘I offered a land swap, I offered a solution for Jerusalem, where the Jewish part would remain under Israeli authority and the Arab sections would be given to the jurisdiction of a Palestinian state’ … According to Olmert’s plan, the Holy Basin would be demarcated under the rule of five different states with access available to believers of all religions. The offer was based on the agreements reached at a 2007 summit in Annapolis Maryland, Olmert said, and would be carried out in accordance with the Road Map for peace. Olmert said he and Abbas had reached an interim agreement on the Palestinian right of return, but he never received a final response from the Palestinians on the matter. ‘I found Abbas to be a fair partner, opposed to terror’, said Olmert. ‘What happened? That is the question of all questions, which I would answer if I could. I hope that the State of Israel will put at the top of its agenda the fact that there was a peace proposal offered by a legitimate government… It’s time the international community demand an answer from the Palestinians instead of arguing about a building here and a building there’ … Olmert added that he had ‘reached the conclusion that in choosing between the greater Israel and a Jewish, democratic state, I prefer the latter’, saying he knew it would be necessary to withdraw from much of the land the Palestinians want for a state. Olmert also said he had been ‘hours’ from meeting with the Syrian foreign minister during his tenure, but that the talks were canceled after Israel embarked on its offensive in the Gaza Strip”. here.

Why do people wait so long to say these things?

What would have happened if he had said it loudly, publicly, insistently, repetitiously, at the time?

Tony Blair – once restricted to economics – now upgraded

It’s not for the time he’s put on the job — the Quartet’s Middle East envoy Tony Blair is a real absentee.

If he’s here, at the Quartet’s quarters in The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem once a month, that’s a lot.

It’s not that the problems here aren’t urgent.

But, as a seasoned politician, Blair doesn’t want to waste his “image” on just spinning his wheels for nothing.

But now, the U.S. is hard up. The Obama Administration’s efforts have not “yielded fruit”, crushing everybody’s hopes.

And, just as there have been calls over the past year-and-half or so for Tony Blair to resign as Quartet representative [and for the UNSG to resign as well], there have been calls on the past couple of months for George Mitchell to resign.

But, that would be to admit defeat — and that won’t happen, at least not quite yet.

So, now there is new idea: a decision for Blair + Mitchell to work together.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced yesterday in Washington that “Consistent with Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan for a future Palestinian state, Tony Blair, as the Quartet representative, will intensify his partnership with Senator Mitchell in support of the political negotiations”, as we also reported here.

While I wondererd if it were an upgrade, or a downgrade — I’d say it’s an upgrade, because from the time of his appointment (immediately after leaving his post as Prime Minister of the U.K.) until now, Tony Blair was restricted to dealing with “economic” improvement of the Palestinian situation, a battle in which he has declared victory numerous times.

Now, with this new announcement from Washington, Blair is now upgraded to working in support of “the political negotiations”, mainly but not exclusively in efforts to revive direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.