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‘Land Swaps’: Is There Enough Land To Swap?

It is the magic formula that could end the occupation while letting the majority of settlers stay put. But how would an Israeli-Palestinian land swap, the basis of President Obama’s Middle East vision, outlined on May 19, actually work?

The main practical problem of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is the fact that some 300,000 Israeli settlers live there. Not only would a full evacuation be hazardous for any Israeli government on the domestic political front, but it also would be logistically difficult and exceedingly costly.

The solution Obama talked about, one that is “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” means that Israel would hold on to some settled areas that it captured in 1967 and compensate the Palestinians with land that currently falls under Israeli sovereignty.

Even if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorses the principle, a problem remains. Every Israeli leader insists on retaining the large settlement blocs — usually defined at a minimum as the Etzion Bloc, Modi’in Illit, Ma’ale Adumim, and Givat Ze’ev and its surroundings — and the national consensus in support of this position is strong. But in Israel, many experts say there simply isn’t enough free land under Israeli sovereignty to exchange for them.

“You could find the equivalent of 2.5% of the territories, but when people in Israel talk about it, they are talking about keeping 6% to 10%. Finding that kind of land inside Israel just can’t be done,” said Tel Aviv University geographer Gideon Biger, editor of the “Encyclopedia of International Boundaries.”

The idea of land swaps is not new, and, in fact, it predates the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Before Israel first met with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and some three years before Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin famously shook hands on the White House lawn, Israelis and Palestinians were sitting together, talking about land swaps.

The idea was first proposed in 1990 at meetings in Italy, jointly arranged by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the an alliance of Arab academics and intellectuals. In 2000, at the Camp David Summit, the Palestinians showed openness to the basic principle, and it has been a staple of negotiations ever since.

Though Israel does not have an official position on what percentage of the territories it wants to keep, the last land-swap proposal, made to the Palestinians in 2008 by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, is thought to offer an insight. He wanted 6.3% of the territories — that is, the West Bank and Gaza — which would keep 75% of settlers in their homes.

But Olmert could make such an offer only because he ignored three principles on which Palestinian leaders insist. The first is that exchanges must be on an acre-for-acre ratio, and Olmert was offering only areas equivalent of 5.8% of the territories. The second is that the land must be what they consider good quality — usually assessed from agricultural criteria — while large sections of what Olmert offered are not easily cultivated. The third is that Palestinians must be compensated acre for acre for the Israeli presence in parts of Jerusalem that was captured in 1967, while Olmert’s calculations discounted Jerusalem. These principles are clear from documents from the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit that were leaked earlier this year to Al-Jazeera.

And some experts believe that there are new factors limiting the land available in Israel for swaps. Olmert made his offer shortly after Hamas took full control of Gaza, when many Israeli officials expected its rule to be short-lived. “Olmert’s idea was to give land next to Gaza, but it’s difficult to see Netanyahu giving land there when he won’t even speak to Gaza,” said Alon Liel, a former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and a signatory to the Israel Peace Initiative, a new peace proposal.

Liel estimates that while in any land swap, Netanyahu would have less land inside Israel to trade than Olmert offered, he will demand more of the West Bank. The main reason is the strong value he attaches to the Jordan Valley, which covers almost 20% of the territories. “I think that even if he agreed, Likud will not permit evacuation of settlers from the Jordan Valley. So I say that Netanyahu’s demands are about 10% higher than Olmert’s,” Liel said, adding, “It’s a waste of time now to even start talking about swaps.”

But Shaul Arieli, a former member of Israeli negotiating teams who is today a leader of the Geneva Initiative peace proposal, is more optimistic. He believes that Hamas rule in Gaza will end prior to the implementation of any Israeli-Palestinian agreement, that Israel will accept military-only presence in the Jordan Valley, which would not require land exchange, and that Israel could find the equivalent of 3% to 4% of the territories inside Israel for exchange. According to his analysis, 2% can be found along the Gaza border; 1% near the West Bank, in the Lakhish district in south central Israel, and another 1% near the West Bank in the Beit She’an Valley, in northern Israel. There is also 1% close to the West Bank near Arad, in southern Israel, but it is mostly nonagricultural land.

Of course, the figures are tight only if populated areas are off the table.

Currently, nobody in Israel is suggesting evacuating kibbutzim or small villages populated by Jews to free up space for exchange. But David Newman, professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and chief editor of the journal Geopolitics, believes this could change. “It’s only as taboo as talking about land swaps was 15 years ago, or talking about a Palestinian state was 20 years ago,” he said.

Swapping areas populated by Arabs is, however, already an accepted principle by many in Israel. Yisrael Beiteinu, the third-largest political party in the Knesset, is proposing freeing up land for swaps and strengthening the Jewish majority in Israel by incorporating Arab areas close to the Green Line, such as the city of Umm al-Fahm, into a future Palestinian state.

The plan actually predates Yisrael Beiteinu and has some prominent advocates outside the political arena, such as the Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola, professor at Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry. While many Arabs and left-leaning Israelis object to the plan, he argues that if Israel and the Palestinians agree on an exchange, this presents no moral or legal grounds to object. “This is something that has happened infinite times in Europe,” DellaPergola said.

And despite the objections, Biger predicts that it could become acceptable to the majority of Israelis, the Palestinians, the Arab League and the international community. “I think that if this would be it or we don’t have peace, they may accept it,” he said.

But even the most favorable swap agreement imaginable for Israel would not solve its West Bank woes. “The problem is that a swap would allow Israel to keep settlement blocs, home to more moderate settlers who you could compensate to leave,” Newman said. “But Israel would still need to evacuate settlements outside the blocs, which is where the real hardcore settlers who are most opposed to evacuation live.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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