After the Trump Administration presented the first reality-based proposal to end the Israeli-Arab conflict since 1967’s UN Security Council resolution 242, I thought I would never have to write an article like this one again. But thanks to the Biden Administration’s phalanx of pro-Palestinian officials, many of whom are Obama retreads, and its determination to reverse every one of Trump’s initiatives, here I am.
Last week a memo describing the administration’s position by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr was leaked to The National, an English language newspaper published in Abu Dhabi. Suddenly it’s 2009 again, when Barak Obama made his conciliatory speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt.
The memo calls for a two-state solution “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps and agreements on security and refugees.” One wonders if they’ve learned nothing in all this time.
Obama’s people always said their ideas weren’t new, that they represented a continuation of traditional American policy toward the conflict. I’m sure Biden’s team will say the same. But this is incorrect, and it’s worth looking at a few historical facts before taking up the Biden Administration’s policy.
In 1949 Israel signed armistice agreements with Egypt and Jordan. In both cases, the Arabs made it clear that they did not recognize the state of Israel within any boundaries, and that the cease-fire lines were not borders; indeed, they had no political significance. Both agreements contain language like this (from the agreement with Egypt):
It is emphasised that it is not the purpose of this Agreement to establish, to recognise, to strengthen, or to weaken or nullify, in any way, any territorial, custodial or other rights, claims or interests which may be asserted by either Party in the area of Palestine or any part or locality thereof covered by this Agreement…
Fast forward to 1967. After the war, the UN Security Council passed resolution 242, which included this well-known text:
Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;
Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;
As a Chapter VI resolution, it was nonbinding; but it was accepted by both sides (due to a bit of deliberate ambiguity: it did not specify how much of the territories “occupied” had to be returned). Nevertheless, it was made clear by the British Ambassador to the UN, Lord Caradon, whose draft became the official version, that it did not require an Israeli withdrawal to the armistice lines. Indeed, even the Soviets admitted that this was the case. And the American UN Ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, explained as well that the US position was in accordance with the armistice agreements: the cease-fire lines were not the “secure and recognized boundaries” envisioned in the resolution.
If anything was “traditional American policy” it was the ideas expressed by 242: there would be negotiations between the parties, and the results of those negotiations would determine the borders, as well as obtaining normalization of relations between the State of Israel and its (one hoped) former foes. Peace treaties were indeed signed with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994. Although these treaties established borders between the countries, they did not deal with the armistice lines between pre-1967 Israel and the Gaza strip and Judea/Samaria.
In 1988, after the First Intifada, King Hussein of Jordan recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinians and relinquished his claim to Judea/Samaria. From that point on, Jordan was out of the picture. American policy remained the same except that any negotiations over the future of these territories would have to be between Israel and the Palestinians. The Oslo Accords followed in 1994, and again the establishment of borders was considered a “final status issue,” to be settled later by direct negotiations between the parties.
In 2000, Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to mediate a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. A few months after the failure of the Camp David Summit, Clinton made a further proposal that included land swaps in which areas beyond the armistice lines that would be kept by Israel were balanced by a transfer of land from pre-1967 Israel to the Palestinians. This proposal was not accepted by the PLO.
This seems to be the first introduction of the pernicious idea of land swaps into American policy. Why pernicious? Because underlying it is the assumption that land beyond the armistice lines belonged to the Palestinians, and so they had to be compensated for any of it that Israel received. Keeping in mind the illegitimacy of the Jordanian invasion and occupation of Judea and Samaria, as well as the armistice agreements and resolution 242, the presumption that the Palestinians have prima facie ownership of the territories is a big step away from the even-handed 242 and toward a pro-Palestinian policy.
Of course, for Clinton this was a last-ditch proposal, and the understanding is that proposals are just that, and if there is no final deal then they disappear. Still, the Palestinians always try to insist that future negotiations must start at the high point of previously proposed concessions. Ehud Olmert renewed and expanded the swap idea in 2007-8. But this too was rejected (or simply ignored) by the Palestinians. Various initiatives by the Obama Administration also included the swap idea. No agreement could be reached then either, but swaps have now come to be considered essential to any peace agreement.
What seems to have happened over the years is the reification of the armistice lines. Instead of trying to find a solution that provided “secure and recognized boundaries,” the process now tries to find a way to give the Palestinians all the land they “deserve.” Of course this is impossible because of the physical geography of the region, which would make a pre-1967-size Israel indefensible. So then there needs to be discussion of “security arrangements” to protect Israel against the terrorism that would doubtless flow from a Palestinian state, in addition to the danger of invasion through the Jordan Valley. Fanciful ideas like foreign peacekeepers (something which did not work in Egypt in 1967 or in Lebanon since 2006), or complicated technological Maginot lines are contemplated, in order to obscure the fact that only Israeli military control of strategic territory can protect the state.
The Amr memo also references refugees. The “return” of the millions of descendants of Arab refugees from 1948 is another subject that has been shifted in the direction of Palestinian demands over the years. These descendants are not “refugees” according to international law; only the Palestinians and UNRWA, the UN agency that feeds, clothes, and educates them to believe that they will someday “return” to “their homes” that they have never seen, insist that they are. Even if they were refugees, there is no right of return in international law – just ask the millions of ethnic Germans that were kicked out of Central and Eastern European countries after WWII.
The Biden Administration seems intent on reopening these cans of worms that could have been disposed of if Trump’s “deal of the century” had been implemented. The deal represented a return to the philosophy of UNSC 242 and an end to the coddling of the PLO, which has never renounced terrorism, changed its charter, or seriously intended to be satisfied with a peaceful state alongside Israel, despite their insistence to the contrary. The plan could have broken the logjam that has prevented progress toward ending the conflict. Despite warnings to the contrary, the sky didn’t fall when the US finally recognized Israel’s true capital, or its sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and the new policy helped bring about the normalization of relations between Israel and several Arab states.
Now, judging from the memo, the US will go back to funding the PLO – which refuses to stop paying terrorist’s salaries – and UNRWA. It will reopen the PLO embassy in Washington, and the “American Embassy to Palestine” (the US consulate in eastern Jerusalem). It even recommends going back to the policy of requiring that products from Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria not be labeled “made in Israel.”
In short, if the administration carries out these policies, Israel will be faced with the dilemma of choosing between dangerously compromising its security and its sovereignty, or damaging its relationship with an increasingly pro-Palestinian US administration.
Add to this Biden’s Iran policy and you have a recipe for real trouble.