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”….