Jerusalem and refugees, not '67 borders, are the problem

U.S. President Barack Obama's call for a two-state solution with the 1967 borders as the basis has unleashed a diplomatic frenzy, including in Russia.

U.S. President Barack Obama's call for a two-state solution with the 1967 borders as the basis has unleashed a diplomatic frenzy, including in Russia. Last Friday the leaders of major Palestinian organizations, including Fatah and Hamas arrived in Moscow. Talks will continue this week.

Naturally, diplomats of all countries are trying to use the situation to their advantage. Russia's main ace in the hole is the fact that it has never boycotted Hamas. Now Russia is in a position to act as an intermediary between Hamas and the West - an arrangement the West wants to avoid.

'67 borders

Peace cannot be imposed on the Israelis and the Palestinians. They have to want it. And without an agreement on the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees there can be no peace deal.

The Arab-Israeli wars of the past 60 years were, in fact, a series of military campaigns in a bigger war that started in 1948, when Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon and Iraq refused to recognize Israel and launched an attack against it. Their goal was to destroy Israel and to divide all the land (including land given to the Palestinians under the UN partition plan) among themselves.

As is often the case, the Arab allies failed to achieve their goal because of internal disagreements. During separate Jordanian-Israeli talks, Jordan's King Abdullah encouraged Israel not to cede the Negev - the rocky desert between Jerusalem and the Red Sea - to Egypt.

Abdullah had his eyes set on Jerusalem, or rather its Old City, home to the holy places of the Abrahamic religions. Shortly before that, the ruling Jordanian dynasty, the Hashemites, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, had ceded Islam's holy cities of Mecca and Medina to the Saudi dynasty, and so they needed Jerusalem - the third most sacred place in the Islamic faith - as a matter of prestige.

The first military campaign ended in an armistice, with Israel taking over West Jerusalem and Jordan, East Jerusalem and the Old City. The territory of the hypothetical Palestinian state was divided among Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

The ceasefire line of the 1949 General Armistice Agreement is the 1967 border Obama referred to in his speech before the U.S. State Department last week. Although it has been included in all draft peace treaties, it is not a proper border, only the line where the warring armies stopped in 1948.

Indivisible city

Many people thought the armistice would evolve into a lasting peace and the ceasefire line would become a proper border. But this did not happen, and some of the countries involved are still technically at war.

The first battle was followed by two more military campaigns. In 1967, Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan.

Jerusalem was proclaimed the "sole and indivisible" capital of Israel, whose policy regarding the other lands was very simple: their former owners could reclaim them by signing a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt made peace with Israel in 1977, resuming ownership of Sinai but giving up Gaza over fear of potential problems with Palestinian militants.

Jordan officially recognized Israel in 1994 but refused to take back its territories for the same reason. Israel insisted until recently that it should hold negotiations with Jordan rather than with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which it considered a terrorist organization.

Direct talks between Israel and the PLO began in 1993; the sides came very close to a peace deal in 1999-2000 only to trip over the main stumbling block, Jerusalem.

The talks on residential neighborhoods were productive. Israel was ready to give up the Arab part of Jerusalem, where the population was growing faster than in the Jewish districts, fearing that Jews would soon become a minority if the city remained united. But it turned out that the Old City is indeed indivisible.

The Old City is a small area of Jerusalem, home to just 2-3% of the capital's population. But how can you divide the Temple Mount, a small hill with the sacred Wailing Wall on the west and Al-Aqsa Mosque a few meters higher? And can you divide off the neighboring Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where the Miracle of the Holy Fire is believed to take place every Easter?

Diplomats and lawyers all around the world have been trying to resolve that problem, some of them offering absurd solutions. One such solution was to divide the Temple Mount into three parts to be controlled by Israel, Palestinians and the UN. There have even been disputes of who owns the land under the Temple Mount.

The problem appears to be without solution.

Many diplomats and Middle East experts, including in Russia, think the Old City must be left alone for now, arguing that believers and tourists have free access to it, unlike before 1967. But even moderate Palestinians, let alone religious extremists, reject this proposal.

Four million refugees

Palestinian refugees, who fled what is now Israel during the first military campaign in 1948, present an even more difficult problem than Jerusalem. Some of them were forced to leave by the Israeli army because they sided with the five Arab countries that had initiated the war and were armed; Israel could not allow a fifth column on its territory.

They were also encouraged to flee by Arab countries, which recommended that Palestinians leave their homes for the duration of hostilities. They thought that the refugees would return home after Israel was defeated within days. When these expectations did not materialize, Israel refused to allow the Arabs back.

Arab countries were not ready to integrate the refugees in their own countries, forcing half of them into camps surrounded by barbed wire fences. Only Jordan gradually granted them citizenship, whereas Egypt, Syria and Lebanon refused to do so. They wanted the refugees to remain poor, angry and ready to fight Israel at a moment's notice.

As long as the West Bank and East Jerusalem were held by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt, the Arabs living there did not demand a state of their own. They only insisted that Israel take back all Arab refugees willing to return and their descendants. Given the high birth rate, there could be more than 4 million descendants by now, compared to an approximate 500,000 initial refugees in 1948 and 1949.

There have been many plans and UN resolutions regarding the Palestinian refugees in the past 60 years. Israel proposed financial compensation in exchange for officially renouncing claims to Israeli land, but this proposal was rejected. Meanwhile, Israel will never agree to take back four million refugees, as this would be a suicide for the Israeli nation.

The Palestinian nation is still taking shape and is united more by a desire to destroy Israel than a desire to establish an independent state next to it.

Palestinians have been controlling Gaza and the West Bank for more than a decade now, but their leaders spend most of their funds on war rather than on developing an economy and other foundations of a state. The few politicians who think differently quickly fall out of favor.

Obama certainly knows that the problems of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees cannot be resolved quickly or easily. This is why he did not mention them. He only said that the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps should be the foundation for negotiations on a two-state solution.

This is a formula everyone seems to accept, but so far no one has been able to offer a workable plan to achieve peace.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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