Geneva Initiative Border Tour


Today I joined some 40 foreign nationals for a tour put on by the Geneva Initiative illustrating the group’s proposed territorial partition of the West Bank and Jerusalem. The tour was led by former head of the “Peace Administration” under PM Ehud Barak, Col (Res.) Shaul Arieli, who also serves as the initiative’s chief cartographer.

The focus of the tour was on two issues where the initiative directs much of its attention: Land swaps in the West Bank and the partition of Jerusalem. For Jerusalem, they sought to highlight the differences between terms like the sacred or historic basin, the Old City, East Jerusalem, the Jerusalem Envelope, and so on. As for the larger question of the West Bank, Arieli emphasized the differences between the official Palestinian demands generally understood to be in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 242, and the Israeli position which takes into account facts on the ground, namely the reality of Jewish settlement.

Much of this post will follow specific geographic details for which a map would be quite useful. I suggest opening up a copy of the Geneva Initiative’s proposed map by clicking on the image above or here for a full selection of detailed maps. Enjoy following along.

Since 1967, over half a million Israelis have moved eastward including some 200 thousand in twelve neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem and over 300 thousand in over 130 settlements in the West Bank (Yehuda and Shomron). The Geneva Initiative proposes that the major settlement blocs be dealt with through land swaps with a future Palestinian state. The official Israeli position over the last decade has been to demand some 6-8% encompassing some 300-400 square kilometers while the official Palestinian position offers some 2-2.5%. The Israeli position, Arieli argued, is clearly delineated by the route of the security barrier which defines a “seam zone” between it and the Green Line, including some 8% of the West Bank.

Our first stop was in Modi’in, a city situated on the western side of the Green Line just north of the Latrun Pocket, the critical strategic bulge through which Israel’s Highway 1 passes. In this area, the Green Line is actually doubled, owing the 1949 armistice between Israel and Jordan which maintained a no-man’s land precisely because of the critical highways in this area. The territory was the site of major battles during Israel’s War of Independence and the 1967 Six Day War. Failing to capture Latrun in 1948-9, Israeli drivers were subject to constant sniper attacks. After capturing the territory in 1967, Israel destroyed the three Arab villages which were located there and built the moshav of Mevo Horon to further solidify its hold on the territory.

Just on the eastern side of the line lies Modi’in Illit, a Haredi Israeli city of about 50,000 making it the largest Jewish community in the West Bank (including two neighboring yishuvim). Running just south of the town is Route 443, the second major highway linking Jerusalem to the Mediterranean coast. The Israeli security barrier includes the whole of the no-man’s land on the “Israeli side” while the Palestinians have demanded that it all be included in a future Palestinian state. The Geneva Initiative, ever mindful of territorial percentages, suggests that the “no-man’s land” be divided roughly evenly between the two.

Under their proposal, Mevo Horon would be dismantled and be given over to Palestinian sovereignty. Modi’in Ilit, however, would remain in Israeli hands. The logic here is that the large city would be both incredibly costly and socially disruptive to destroy, while the moshav with a population of just over 1000 would not be. Here one of the tour participants brought up the subject of Ariel, a Jewish city of about 17,000, located in central Shomron. The Geneva Initiative insists that it must be abandoned owing to distance, some 17 kilometers, from the Green Line. Our guide also pointed out that it the site “is only a third of Modi’in Illit.”

At this point, I asked about the status of Efrat, a highly developed and urbanized Jewish city in Gush Etzion of some 8500 residents. The initiative’s map excludes Efrat although it is literally across the street from the other yishuvim in the Etzion bloc which the plan includes. This, Arieli explained to me, is because Efrat lies east of Route 60, the major north-south highway which bisects the West Bank. The relatively new Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa would also be abandoned under the Geneva Initiative, home to over 4000 families. The logic here is that construction of the neighborhood began in 1997, four years after the signing of the Olso Accords which stipulated that no side should alter facts on the ground through construction. I will write more on these justifications at the end of the post.

From here, we drove to the hilltop just north of Jerusalem which is home to the Tomb of Shmuel haNavi (Samuel the Prophet) and a Palestinian village by the same name in Arabic: Nabi Samuel. Traveling here we took Route 443, which required passing through the security “barrier.” Here, the barrier is nothing more than a 10-foot high fence. As our guide pointed out, only 6% of the so-called “Apartheid Wall” is in fact a wall, while the remaining 94% is fence. Driving we also passed by Givat Ze’ev, a bedroom community of some 20,000. Although outside the Jerusalem municipality, the Geneva Initiative includes this town in Israel’s final borders attached the the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot by means of a protected access road.

From the hilltop of Shmuel haNavi, it was easy to see why this area is considered to be of strategic importance to Israel. Standing at the overlook, one can see the whole of Jerusalem as well as Ramallah, the major highways, and, on a clear day, both the Mediterranean coastline and Jordan. If one controls these hilltops, one can likely control the whole of the region. It is for this reason that Israel demands (and the Geneva Accords stipulate) that a Palestinian state should be demilitarized. Although Route 443 would be under Palestinian sovereignty, a special international regime would be put in place under the plan to ensure that Israelis could still travel this way to Jerusalem. With more than 30,000 Israeli cars driving this route every day, it would seem this is a practical necessity.

After Israel captured the area in 1967, it was decided to widen the “Jerusalem corridor” in order to defend a “United Jerusalem”. This necessitated building a transportation, settlement, and security infrastructure which would ensure Israeli control over the entire area, a triangle stretching from Modi’in Illit and Route 443 to Ma’ale Adumim to the east of Jerusalem, to Beitar Illit (and Gush Etzion) to the south.

The problem of this seam zone in the northern area of the triangle today, our guide suggested, is primarily demographic in nature. Although the area has several significant Jewish settlements, to include the smaller ones in the security barrier, as it currently does, means including a number of Palestinian villages. Cutting away the more isolated ones would allow Israel to shrink its footprint and, importantly for the Geneva formula, shrink the percentage of territory which Israel would need to swap with the Palestinians.

Driving next to Har Hatzofim (Mount Scopus), Arieli described what he believes have been the two primary patterns of Jewish settlement. The first, which immediately followed 1967, were implemented by successive Labor governments. They promoted the development of kibbutzima and moshavim particularly at strategic sites throughout the West Bank in order secure an Israeli foothold. The vast majority of settlement in this period, however, focused on the urbanization of the hills surrounding Jerusalem to guarantee its unity.

When Likud came to power in 1977, the emphasis switched to urban settlement which was less labor intensive and more likely to draw larger populations. Indeed, between 1977 and 1993, more than 100 thousand Jews moved into the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem) while between 1993 and 2001, this number more than doubled. Again, from 2001-2009, another 100 thousand have since moved in. One of the largest settlements to develop in this period was the city of Ma’ale Adumim, in the relatively isolated far east of Jerusalem. It is today home to some 35,000 Israelis and is the third largest settlement after Modi’in Ilit and Beitar Ilit.

The current Israeli security plan, thus far unimplemented, is to build the security barrier in a 60 square kilometer bubble around the city, significantly larger than the city itself. And there are plans to expand it further with the construction of the proposed E1 neighborhood, another 12 square kilometers, which would make the city contiguous to the Jerusalem municipality. The Palestinians charge that the inclusion of Ma’ale Adumim in the Israeli state would effectively cut the West Bank in half, making territorial contiguity of the Palestinian state impossible.

As a matter of perspective, Ma’ale Adumim sits a mere 15 kilometers from the Jordanian border. Yet at its narrowest point between the Mediterranean and the West Bank, Israel too is only 15 km wide. Our guide argued that the topographic dimensions here are entirely different and therefore not at all comparable. However, the Geneva Accords too stipulate that Ma’ale Adumim should be included in Israel’s borders, although within a much smaller bubble, without E1, and connected to Jerusalem by way of an access road similar to the one proposed for Givat Ze’ev.

Finally, we took the bus to an overlook at the top of Har Zeitim (Mount of Olives) for a discussion of how the Geneva Initiative believes Jerusalem itself should be divided. Their approach largely follows that of the Clinton Parameters, namely that if the Old City is to be divided, the Jewish Quarter, Kotel, and some portion of the Armenian Quarter should be under Israeli sovereignty while the Muslim and Christian Quarters as well as the Temple Mount would be under Israeli sovereignty. The neighborhoods in the city would be divided on the basis of demographic considerations, namely that those Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty while the rest would be under a Palestinian state. To this, the Geneva Initiative adds Har Zeitim and the Tower of David as needing to be under Israeli control.

The alternative approach, which the Geneva Initiative also accepts, is that of taking the entirety of the Holy Basin, which includes the Old City, Har Zion, Har Zeitim, Ir David, and possibly the Kidron Valley, and placing under some kind of shared international control. Former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert suggested this formula at the Annapolis conference in 2007 where he suggested that the committee be composed of representatives from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the United States, and the Palestinians. The Geneva Accord website offers more specifics on these and I encourage you to read them for your own edification. I have also discussed the feasibility of their recommendations of division and/or shared control elsewhere with regard to holy sites and Jerusalem in general: here, here, and here.

Having now sat and discussed these matters with many of the negotiators and initiators of the accord, attended its public events, and seen first-hand how they suggest dividing the land, I believe a few summary comments are in order.

The first is that, common with the vast majority of Israelis, those behind the Geneva Initiative believe in the principle of Jewish state in the Land of Israel. While they are more willing to discuss territorial partition than many vocal “Land of Israel” advocates, it is clear that the accord is sensitive to the needs of Israelis to identify with and have continued access to critical holy sites particularly in Jerusalem. That said, the majority of Israelis seem to be less willing than those who negotiated the accord to cede sovereignty over critical spaces like the Temple Mount or the Old City of Jerusalem. While their plans in this respect are innovative, even the polls which they employ to indicate public support for their project do not resonate on these issues.

The second relates to their concern for a democratic state. Like most in the Israeli mainstream, particularly on the left, those behind the Geneva Accord are incredibly concerned with the Palestinian demographic threat. This is the belief that Arab birthrates are so high and population trends are so in their favor, that the Jewish population of Israel will soon be out-bred and demographically outmatched. Critics of this perspective, such as Yoram Ettinger, have been getting increasing public attention, but the belief is so widespread that there is a tendency to emphasize the need for rapid territorial withdrawal over careful planning. It is also indicative of an underlying notion that coexistence itself is impossible. Yet partition, without considering the place of Israel’s Arab Palestinian minority as a part of the bigger picture, will do little to alleviate the clear lack of social trust.

The third and final point that bears referencing is the very criteria by which the Geneva Initiative believes land should be partitioned. While the proponents of the accord are concerned with limiting withdrawals from densely populated areas, they are insistent that withdrawals should occur from those areas which are geographically isolated. As such, one can understand their intent to keep Modi’in Illit but withdraw from Ariel.

However, if the interest is to prevent the inclusion of isolated enclaves in the borders of the state, it is difficult to explain why Ma’ale Adumim and Givat Ze’ev are significantly different. While they are certainly closer to the capital than Ariel, they too would be isolated enclaves with only tiny corridors connecting them to the rest of the state. Here I am reminded of my interview with Danny Hershtal from Yisrael Beiteinu. Although from the opposite end of the political spectrum, his party too is an advocate of partition and land swaps. They also argue for the use of corridors to link isolated Jewish enclaves to the final borders of Israel. If you can draw a line between them, than you can build a road. If it works for Ma’ale Adumim, there is no reason it cannot work for Ariel.

On the reverse, if the Geneva Initiative’s position is that only isolated settlements should be abandoned, why does it exclude territories which are by no means isolated, namely Efrat and Har Homa? In the case of the former, surely the mere accident of being on the opposite side of a major road should not be the sole determining factor. If roads can be constructed which creatively link Ma’ale Adumim to Jerusalem, although passing through (or under) major Palestinian villages, why is it so unworkable to reconstruct the major road which now “excludes” Efrat to go around it?

As for Har Homa, the best logic for excluding this neighborhood is that it was built after Oslo, meaning it goes against the agreement not put new facts on the ground. But if this is the criteria for exclusion, then so too should not Israel also exclude Ramat Shlomo, founded in 1995. Conversely, if the problem is that new construction prejudices the final resolution of the conflict, should not borders be drawn in such a way which are also irrespective of massive Palestinian urban expansion over the last 15 years around Jerusalem and other major West Bank metropolitan centers?

While the Geneva Initiative’s criteria for inclusion and exclusion of Jewish population centers are by no means arbitrary, they are certainly not consistent. Opponents of withdrawal on the right in particular will charge that this is a result of their politics: that they hate the religious, or that they wish to increase the power of the left in Israel politics at the expense of the right. There was an interesting article to this effect in a recent edition of the Jerusalem Post by Caroline Glick. I am in no positions to make such a judgment.

However, I will suggest that the problem stems from a disjuncture between desired political outcomes and facts on the ground. Israel, the Palestinians, and the international community are attempting to impose a clear-cut, linear border which will result in two demographically homogenous nation-states where the geographic, historical, economic, and strategic ingredients for such a division are highly tenuous. If the proponents of the Geneva Initiative really want to garner public support for their approach, they will have to address these apparent inconsistencies. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board.

2 Responses to Geneva Initiative Border Tour

  1. a) what does this – “Arieli emphasized the differences between the official Palestinian demands generally understood to be in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 242” – mean? Why not say complete and total withdrawal as per Oslo Accords?

    b) funny, but on this – “The Israeli position, Arieli argued, is clearly delineated by the route of the security barrier which defines a “seam zone”” – it was Arieli who did the majority of that ‘delineating’.

    c) odd this – “owing the 1949 armistice between Israel and Jordan which maintained a no-man’s land precisely because of the critical highways in this area” – there were no critical highways there then.

    d) there seems to be no logic with Efrat and Har Homa.

    e) this – “Labor governments. They promoted the development of kibbutzima [sic] and moshavim particularly at strategic sites throughout the West Bank in order secure an Israeli foothold” – I suggest is wrong. The Allon Plan dictated the locations.

    e) on Jerusalem – “The neighborhoods in the city would be divided on the basis of demographic considerations” – that’s ridiculous, unrealistic and fraught with future death for Jews and prevention of approach to holy sites for Jews.

    • arielzellman says:

      a) these were his words, not mine
      b) yes, he did
      c) not exactly true. HWY 1 did exist following mostly the same route is does today as did a road roughly similar to Route 443. In addition, the Jordanians had one other highway in the area.
      d) see my notes at the end
      e) Arieli’s take on the Allon Plan was that it focused on strategic sites over other preferences. This is not an entirely inaccurate assessment of the plan, just not fully descriptive. The “sin” is of omission, not commission.
      f) again, just relaying what they had to say. This approach is not new: essentially identical to the Clinton Parameters and to Ehud Olmert’s approach at Annapolis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: