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Boaz Atzili

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The 1967 Borders: No Legal Basis, No Power Basis, but Permanent

Posted: 05/25/11 05:10 PM ET

Released from the hospital as a newborn baby, I returned not to my family's home but to a bomb shelter in the heavily entrenched Kibbutz on Israel's border with Egyptian controlled Gaza. It was May 1967 and the Middle East was about to erupt in a war that would dramatically change the geopolitics of the region and the life of its residents. One thing that war did not change, ironically, are those borders. Today, when much of the territories taken by Israel in that war are still under its control, this statement might sound ridiculous, but in fact it is not.

In his recent speeches President Obama has anchored his Middle East policy to the 1967 borders, and this policy is widely supported in Europe. The Arab Peace Plan of 2002 is based on the same lines, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is launching a United Nations initiative to recognize Palestine as a sovereign nation on the basis of the 1967 borders. While Prime Minister Netanyahu does not accept these principles, Israel's former governments came much closer to such acceptance, and peace is unlikely to be achieved with large deviations from 1967. We should ask ourselves, then, why did the 1967 line become the basis for future recognized borders?

What is commonly called the 1967 border is, in fact, the temporary border stipulated in the 1949 armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors. As such, it certainly represented the balance of power of the time, but it does not represent it in today's Middle East, in which Israel is by far the strongest power. Nevertheless, despite this power discrepancy, Israel cannot erase this borderline. The allure of the 1967 line is not based on legal considerations either. The 1949 armistice agreements were temporary ceasefire lines that reflected a military, rather than legal, reality. If anything, from the perspective of international law, Israel's borders should have been those of the 1947 Partition Plan, which included significantly less land.

What happened, then, between 1949 and 1967, which made the conquests of the Israeli War of Independence seem today as a legitimate basis for its borders, but not those of the Six Days War? During these years a new and powerful international norm that made existing de facto borders almost sacrosanct was established. Since the 1950s there have been very few cases in which one existing state conquered and annexed another's territory. In the only such clear case in the last 35 years, Iraq's attempt to annex Kuwait faced a decisive rebuke by the international community. The right of conquest, in other words, has ceased to exist. For Israel, neither military advancement nor settlement establishment -- both methods that worked well before 1949 -- can change this reality. Any arrangement that will not use the 1967 border as a basis is unlikely to gain the seal of legitimacy from the international community.

This might not be such a bad thing for Israel. Before the Six Days War, Israel had sought to make the armistice agreements into the officially recognized and legitimate borders of the state. It refused to negotiate territorial concessions. Why, then, should an arrangement that would have been embraced by Israel on the eve of the 1967 war be seen as a bad one today?

President Obama hailed the 1967 border as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Now he should take a step further and support Abbas's UN initiative, not as a vehicle to de-legitimize Israel, but as a tool to establish its -- as well as its Palestinian neighbor's -- legitimate borders. If the UN resolution will explicitly proclaim these borders as those of both Israel and Palestine, all those who will vote for an independent Palestine will, by definition, vote also for accepting Israel within the 1967 lines as a legitimate member of the international community. Such a UN resolution, of course, should not, and could not, replace direct negotiation between the two sides. It does not, for instance, preclude territorial exchanges, but these would have to be done by consensus and on an equitable basis. It does not solve the problem of the Palestinian refugees or of Jerusalem either, but it sets strict parameters through which creative solutions to these problems may gain mutual consent.

The borders of 1967 are not set in stone legally or in balance of power terms. Yet these borders are here to stay. Both Israelis and Palestinians should take Abbas's UN initiative as an opportunity to gain, for the first time in their history, an international recognition of their borders, as should President Obama. We cannot turn time back and save that baby from his first war. We can, however, use this opportunity to prevent war from becoming the reality for yet another generation of Israeli and Palestinian babies.

Boaz Atzili is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of a forthcoming book titled Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict.