By Ghassan Khatib
What little news is seeping out from the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations gives the impression that chances of reaching an agreement this year are small, even though 2008 has been described by the American, Palestinian and Israeli leaderships alike as a year of opportunity. This is the last year of the administration of US President George W. Bush and likely also for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Nevertheless, the three parties look set to fail to broker the deal to which they claim to aspire.
As a result there seem to have been some attempts to come up with creative ideas, among them trying to achieve partial results rather than a comprehensive agreement. There are a wide range of possibilities for such limited agreements–including a general framework agreement, and agreements on technical issues such as environmental, agricultural, health and other aspects of relations between the two states–that might be tackled without necessarily resolving the main issues of refugees, Jerusalem and borders.
One of these attempts, it seems, is the idea of fixing the border issue first and leaving the rest to future negotiations. This might be worth considering in the light of two facts. First is the growing belief that there is no possibility of a comprehensive agreement for now. Second, the changes that are shaping the reality on the ground, notably the Israeli settlement building project, will make agreement on borders less and less likely the more time passes.
One of the reasons for the tensions that have accompanied the peace process since Oslo is the perceived motivation on behalf of both parties to influence the outcome of negotiations to their respective benefit, especially as far as determining borders is concerned. Israel is creating facts on the ground with its illegal settlements in occupied territory while the Palestinians are agitating against these settlements in order to ensure that the future borders will be as near as possible to the 1967 ones.
Thus, leaving the issue of borders subject to future negotiations will continue to instigate hostile and aggressive practices from the two sides. Many analysts and politicians have concluded, in their attempts to assess the reasons for the failure of the peace process, that the nature of the peace process is the main culprit at least as far as borders are concerned. The open-ended nature of negotiations convinced each side to keep open reserve options and motivated the parties to engage in words and deeds that prejudge the outcome of negotiations over borders, especially since that issue indirectly affects two other central issues for negotiations, settlements and Jerusalem.
An agreement on borders first can thus reduce tensions and allow for a more conducive atmosphere in which to negotiate other issues. It will also greatly reduce the hostile behavior and friction between the two sides before and during negotiations. When Israel knows that the border issue is settled it should be convinced to stop building settlements to the east of that border. And when Palestinians see that Israel is no longer consolidating its occupation and presence to the east of the borders, much of their motivation to resist the occupation and its practices will diminish. Settlers will have to start to think of choosing between moving back to their country or becoming citizens of a different state.
For Palestinians, a borders-first approach will also be seen as a test of the real intentions of the Israeli people and government. If Israel is hesitant in agreeing on borders, it will confirm suspicions among many Palestinians that Israel is using the pretexts of security and demography in order to control and annex as much occupied land as possible.
Finally, a borders-first agreement should be possible because there is a clear legal framework for where these borders are supposed to lie. Any deviation from these lines should only be made under the principle of a land swap equal in quality and quantity. Should this principle, the negotiating position that the late President Yasser Arafat took to the Camp David negotiations with the approval of the Palestinian National Council, be accepted, it should further facilitate a borders-first agreement. This in turn will constitute a significant achievement for both Israel and Palestine and will strengthen the peace camps in the two respective societies.
-Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. (This article was originally published in Bitterlemons – www.bitterlemons.org – May 26, 2008)