Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Border assumptions

A bit late in coming, but an interesting discussion last week between Nizar Farsakin and David Newman regarding the future borders of Israel and a Palestinian state – the most recent IPCRI event. Farsakin used to work at the Negotiations Support Unit in Ramallah and is now at the JFK School fo Government in Harvard (a place I can only dream of working at!) while Newman is based at Ben-Gurion University. So what were the main points I took from the event?

1. Farskakin’s neat little point about fixing the border not being the solution. Rather the key to a good boundary is engagement between the two sides.

2. The Palestinians believe they have made countless concessions, from the 1947 proposed borders on the basis of demography to the 1967 lines for political reasons. They want to see a comprehensive final status deal put before them, because they see themselves compromising but to little effect.

3. Both Newman and Farsakin note the ‘open-ended’ nature of the Israeli approach. Farsakin pointed out that for the Israelis, the Oslo process started from the assumption that they would see how Area A worked out and then add additional results from it, rather than setting out their intentions from the start. Newman distinguished between the two sides as the Palestinians having a clear endgame in sight (i.e. the 1967 borders) and the Israelis’ absence of one. To my mind that makes the Israeli position far more flexible and fluid – and reflects the nature of Israeli policymaking since before 1948. Even though they officially accepted the 1947 partition plan Ben Gurion always saw it as a tactical rather than final solution.

4. Both presenters felt that the bulk of the territorial division is already in place and what’s up in the air is around 10-15% - which Newman argues would be decided on the final day of any negotiations. That’s just the nature of brinkmanship. Farsakin pointed out that the latest Palestinian overture was to approach the US mediator, George Mitchell, and ask the Israelis through him to lay out what land they would be willing to swap – effectively getting it on the table rather than just having an ambiguous starting position.

5. Newman noted the rise of the one-state solution as being talked about among the settlement movement. Of course it has nothing in common with the idealistic, leftist vision. Moreover, he argued that the two-state solution remains the most pragmatic and closely associated with public opinion.

6. That said, even though borders remain in the public consciousness, the discourse is being hijacked by ‘facts on the ground’. Newman pointed out that even though the Wall was unilaterally imposed and presented as a security measure, increasingly Israeli public opinion is coming to see it as the ‘border’. At the same time Farsakin commented that refugees’ attitudes to their right of return shifted depending on what they were offered. This has been shown in surveys that phrase the details of a final agreement differently.

7. Newman also observed the re-emergence of borders in wider discourse. He said a decade ago the discussion was about a ‘borderless’ world as a result of globalisation. Since 9/11 borders have become more relevant and discussed about, although they aren’t necessarily territorial. I have to concur: crossing the Green Line in Jerusalem you get a mental shift whether you walk from East into West or vice versa.

8. Speaking of discourse, Newman also noted that Israelis may be increasingly likely to accept land swaps. Since 2005 there has been discussion about this in the Israeli street, especially regarding how to resolve the challenge presented by territorial contiguity on both sides as a result of the settlements.

All these points lead neatly to tomorrow’s event, which I’m really looking forward to: about Israeli and Palestinian public opinion and the prospects for changing them (that said, a friend’s recent piece on Israeli and Palestinian taxi drivers’ attitudes towards the process in Jerusalem suggests that ordinary people just want the thing resolved – so maybe the gulf isn’t as great as I thought. Then again, it may just be wishful thinking on my part...).