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Notes on the idea of a land swap with Israel

The Arab League's agreement to the idea of a land swap between the Palestinian Authority and Israel as part of any possible peace agreement between the two has prompted a number of reactions. Most were criticisms of the organisation for bending under American pressure to whet Israel's appetite for ever more Arab and Palestinian concessions. However, such politically-prompted criticism ignored not only the Palestinian Authority's previous acceptance of the principle of land swaps but also the philosophy upon which the premise of the peace process is based. That is, the Palestinians are to concede 75 per cent of historic Palestine, with the implication also that they must give up the right of return for refugees.

It is worth noting that the idea of a land swap has always been on the official Palestinian political agenda since the peace process was launched 20 years ago. During Yasser Arafat's presidency it was certainly implied and it has become clearer with Mahmoud Abbas at the helm. Negotiators Saeb Erekat and Riad Almalki have explained that the Arab League position is nothing but a restatement of previous Palestinian positions and negotiating documents. When Abbas met the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the spring and summer of 2008 the latter offered the idea of a maximum 6 per cent land swap. The PA agreed to a minor swap – as the Arab League said – equal in value to a maximum of 2 per cent of the West Bank designated for a Palestinian state to be equal in area to the land occupied in June 1967.

Thus, the Arab League's position is in accord with the principle that has prevailed over the past three decades; the Arab states will accept whatever the Palestinians accept and they cannot be asked to be "more royal than the king". In other words, the Arab League cannot be asked to show more loyalty to Palestinian issues than Palestinians themselves, and if the Palestinians agreed to a land swap then why blame the Arabs for accepting the same idea?

Although the principle of a land swap was behind the talks in both Madrid and Oslo, the notion that the issue could be resolved through negotiations while ignoring international law and legitimacy was promoted deliberately. This means that it should not be a surprise to see such matters discussed in such a way that genuine obstacles to peace are pushed to one side.

When the peace talks in Madrid and Oslo began the number of illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank, including Jerusalem, was close to 200,000; I don't think anyone really believed that they would ever be evacuated as part of an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. The large settlements are cities in all but name and today there are almost half-a-million settlers in the occupied territories.

A land swap is actually consistent with the idea of partition, upon which the whole two-state solution has been based. However, partition has never been a just solution for a people under occupation at the hands of an occupying power, which is the situation in Palestine.

To have reached this state of affairs suggests a disastrous negotiating performance by Palestinian officials, not least Yasser Arafat whose tactics were intended to get as much power as possible while delaying the "final status" issues of the right of return, land, borders and the status of Jerusalem. This has provided Israel with the chance to establish more facts on the ground and double the numbers of settlers. Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed to the idea of a land swap before actual discussion of the final status issues and gave concessions before he even sat down at the negotiating table.

It should also be mentioned that a land swap was proposed initially to legitimise the three major settlement blocs of Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma'ale Adumim. Ariel extends deep into the West Bank, cutting off the north from its centre and south. Ma'ale Adumim isolates Jerusalem from its natural West Bank hinterland. Both basically kill any possibility of establishing a viable independent state of Palestine. Accepting the idea of a land swap gives legitimacy to settlements already established on land occupied in 1967 contrary to international laws and conventions, some of which raise the status of settlements to the level of war crimes.

Arab and Palestinian acceptance of a land swap not only increases Israel's appetite for more concessions but also gives it a reason to falsify the facts by claiming that Israel and its policies are not the problem; that, they say, lies with Arabs and Palestinians who refuse to grant even more concessions in order to reach a compromise agreement.

In conclusion, it must be said that the land swap concept is a sign of disastrous Palestinian negotiation tactics. It also highlights the failings of the whole peace process and its inability to produce a just and lasting peace in the region. When partition is suggested as the only way forward even though it is inconsistent with justice and international law, then such a peace is unlikely to become reality.

The writer is the Director of East Mediterranean Media Centre

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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