What do “1967 borders” really mean?

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The debate about whether an Arab – Israeli peace deal should be based on 1967 borders has become a very public point of contention between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama is advocating an agreement based on 1967 borders with mutually agreeable land swaps, while Netanyahu says that the 1967 borders are inherently indefensible.

The goal of this post is to present facts and opinions from both sides of the debate. I would also recommend taking a look at this basic list of pros-cons. Please correct me when I make a mistake, and feel free to share your opinions on this controversial subject.

Al Jazeera provides more detail on the rift between Obama and Netanyahu:

Israel is prepared to make “generous” concessions for peace in the Middle East, but cannot go back to the country’s “indefensible” 1967 borders, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said after White House talks with Barack Obama.

Netanyahu’s comments came after Obama, the US president, had said the 1967 borders, with mutually agreed land swaps, should form the basis for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said that Abbas would have to choose between “peace with Israel and his pact with Hamas”.

He also called Hamas the “Palestinian version of al-Qaeda”.

Obama said, “It is very difficult for Israel to negotiate in a serious way with a party that refuses to acknowledge its right to exist… [Hamas] is not a partner for a significant, realistic peace process.”

Both Obama and Netanyahu spoke about refugees from the region, with Obama calling for a right of return for Palestinians, and Netanyahu largely focusing on Arab countries refusing support for Palestinians.

“Palestinian refugees cannot come to Israel… It’s not going to happen,” he said.

After the 1967 war- in which Israel gained territory in the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan and the Sinai- the United Nations unanimously passed resolution 242.  This section called for an Israeli retreat and includes language about boundaries.

Emphasizing further that all Member States in their acceptance of the Charter of the United Nations have undertaken a commitment to act in accordance with Article 2 of the Charter,

  1. Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:
  • Withdrawal of Israeli 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;
  1. Affirms further the necessity
  • For guaranteeing freedom of navigation through international waterways in the area;
  • For achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem;
  • For guaranteeing the territorial inviolability and political independence of every State in the area, through measures including the establishment of demilitarized zones

Those in Netanyahu’s camp argue that retreating to pre-1967 borders violates their “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries.”:

Juan Cole makes strong statements in favor of an Israeli retreat, and throws in a very unflattering video of Netanyahu from last year for good measure:

The reason Israel has to go back to 1967 borders is that the annexation of territory from a neighbor through warfare is illegal according to the United Nations Charter, which is a treaty to which Israel and the United States are both signatories. ‘

It is not just the UN Charter. The Hague Agreement of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1949 forbid a power occupying enemy territory in war time from annexing it or in any way changing the life ways of its people.

Another bogus argument the Greater Israel expansionists trot out is that the UN Charter only forbids the acquisition of territory from other countries, and the Palestinians did not have a country, and so they are fair game. This argument is morally despicable, since the Israelis made the Palestinians stateless…

The settler movement could put down settlements in much of the sparsely populated south of Israel proper with no problem. Instead, they insist on taking Palestinian land. They are not colonizing the West Bank only to make it more ‘secure’ (they are making it less so), but rather out of greed, ambition, and expansionism. It is not about defense, it is about offense.

Charles Krauthammer makes some equally strong statements in the other direction:

[In 2004] President George W. Bush gave a written commitment that America supported Israel absorbing major settlement blocs in any peace agreement, opposed any return to the 1967 lines and stood firm against the so-called Palestinian right of return to Israel.

For 21 / 2 years, the Obama administration has refused to recognize and reaffirm these assurances. Then last week in his State Department speech, President Obama definitively trashed them. He declared that the Arab-Israeli conflict should indeed be resolved along “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”

[Obama] told Israel it must negotiate the right of return with the Palestinians after having given every inch of territory. Bargaining with what, pray tell?

“The status quo is unsustainable,” declared Obama, “and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.”

Israel too ? Exactly what bold steps for peace have the Palestinians taken? Israel made three radically conciliatory offers to establish a Palestinian state, withdrew from Gaza and has been trying to renew negotiations for more than two years. Meanwhile, the Gaza Palestinians have been firing rockets at Israeli towns and villages. And on the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turns down then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer, walks out of negotiations with Binyamin Netanyahu and now defies the United States by seeking not peace talks but instant statehood — without peace, without recognizing Israel — at the United Nations. And to make unmistakable this spurning of any peace process, Abbas agrees to join the openly genocidal Hamas in a unity government, which even Obama acknowledges makes negotiations impossible.

In 2008, then outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert conceded that Israel would have to retreat in order to reach a peace agreement:

Then outgoing Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, has publicly acknowledged for the first time that “almost all” of the territory seized during the Six-Day War in 1967 will have to be given back in return for peace with the Palestinians.

He added: “In the end, we will have to withdraw from the lion’s share of the territories and, for the territories we leave in our hands, we will have to give compensation in the form of territories within the State of Israel at a ratio that is more or less one to one.”

Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Dore Gold, wrote “The Myth of 1967 Borders.” The argument is that the 1967 borders were never meant to be a permanent solution:

Formally, the 1967 line in the West Bank should properly be called the 1949 Armistice Line.  Looking back to that period, on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts there had been a history of international boundaries between British Mandate and its neighbors. But along the Jordanian front what created the armistice line was solely where Israeli and Arab forces stopped at the end of the War of Independence, with some added adjustments in certain sectors. As a result, the 1949 line, that came to be known also as the 1967 border, was really only a military line.

President Lyndon Johnson made this very point in September 1968: “It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 June 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders.”

In a 2008 speech from Jerusalem, former President Bush contradicted his 2004 commitment to Sharon. He called for 1967 borders to be a “point of departure” for peace talks, but he referred to them as the 1949 armistice line:

The point of departure for permanent-status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear. There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people.

These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized and defensible borders, and they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent.

It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other’s fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interests of both parties.

Achieving an agreement will require painful political concessions by both sides. While territory is an issue for both parties to decide, I believe that any peace agreement between them will require mutually agreed adjustments to the armistice lines of 1949 to reflect current realities and to ensure that the Palestinian state is viable and contiguous.

The Economist argues that the 1967 borders are in fact very defensible, and Israel actually expanded during that time period:

in the context of the question of whether the borders established by the 1949 armistice are “defensible”, that Israel fought two wars from those borders. In 1956, the Israel Defence Forces seized the Sinai from Egypt in nine days. In 1967, Israel seized the Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights in six days. 

Another former Israel Ambassador to the UN reiterates that the borders are indefensible:

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stephan Solarz outline a policy based on a two-state solution with 1967 borders as a starting point, a divided Jerusalem, and no right of return for Palestinians. They argue that the Obama administration must continue to push this vision for peace even if one sides rejects it:

the administration must convey to the parties that if the offer is rejected by either or both, the United States will seek the U.N. Security Council’s endorsement of this framework for peace, thus generating worldwide pressure on the recalcitrant party.

…public opinion polls in Israel have indicated that while most Israelis would like to keep a united Jerusalem, they would rather have peace without all of Jerusalem than a united Jerusalem without peace.

Please share your thoughts!

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