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The Cartographic Crux of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

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Maps are incredibly powerful instruments. In addition to conveying geographical information, maps, ab aeterno, manifest political, philosophical, actual and imagined snapshots of time. And nowhere on Earth is the meaning of maps more powerful and more controversial than in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to Israel and its Arab neighbors.

A very public controversy with regard to a map of Israel erupted last month in London. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism placed an advertisement throughout the London Underground showing a map of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights in the same yellow color, giving the impression that Israel's vast geography did not include occupied Palestinian territory. Obviously misrepresentative, because a British tourist cannot sunbath on the pristine beaches of Gaza or shop the markets of Ramallah, all the while traveling from Eilat to Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to Haifa. After mass protests, the Israeli Ministry removed the posters, calling them a "professional mistake." However, Ministry officials most likely see the incident as a market miscalculation rather than an issue related to the borders of their country.

A similar incident occurred when I was traveling through Israel a few months ago. I noticed that my travel map, published by Hertz, all but erased the existence of the occupied Palestinian territory. After my short blog-piece on Huffington Post, Hertz management went through an internal process to adjust its map. Hertz, a U.S. based company, made the decision that its travel maps should represent as accurately as possible the geography of the state(s) in which it does business, and ignoring international legal realities of occupation was clearly not acceptable. Having been privy to the subsequent drafts, it was fascinating to see how Hertz's Israeli cartographer struggled to identify Palestinian areas, settlements roads, the Green Line that divides Israel proper from the occupied West Bank, the armistice line with Syria, and other important foundations for the yet to be agreed upon borders of the State of Israel. In the end, Hertz is now publishing a map that identifies all of the above.

Both these incidents are outgrowths of the most controversial cartographic event in the past century: the partition of Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel. For 60 years, Israel and her neighbors have been at war. For 40 years, the Palestinians have lived under occupation without self-determination and dignity, and without a map that gives them a state on their own. As President Obama prepares to seek a revival of the Middle East peace process, he should therefore turn his attention primarily to the map. With the Green Line as his guide, Obama can redraw the reality of the map of the Middle East -- wisely and accurately. Borders are important. We tend to forget that Israel has no permanent borders except those with Egypt and with Jordan -- and those came as the result of peace treaties that enshrined and legitimized the map of the Middle East that shows Israel.

Israel should thus publicly commit to permanent borders -- and then take necessary action, such as freezing all settlement activity, including natural growth (as called for by the Road Map), and launch permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians. In parallel, and in line with the Arab Peace Initiative launched in 2002, the Arab States and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference should revise their own maps to represent Israel adequately -- thus implying the recognition they have committed to bestow on Israel in exchange for decisive steps towards the two-state solution.

In recent months, Israel has downplayed the necessity to make peace with the Palestinians in deference to the concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions. With the ubiquitous statement by Iranian President Ahmadenijad in his desire to "wipe Israel off the map," the urgency is understandable. This, however, is a mistake. What better tool to combat the influence of Iran than to change the map. Imagine, Israeli daily newspapers including Palestine on its weather maps, or geography text books in Damascus referring to Israel as a legitimate state amongst its neighbors, finally recognizing the notion of two states, two peoples.

These are not mere cosmetic adjustments. The fraught political realities on the ground that are captured in the mapmaking process lie at the very heart of the problem. Combined, these (cartographic) steps would allow for a re-drawing of the political realities of the Middle East and set the stage for a comprehensive and lasting peace that would not only accord the Palestinians their state, but also provide Israel with permanent borders and the recognition, security and stability it justly deserves. Until the map is redrawn to reflect a genuine two state solution, we can anticipate further clashes about how the map of the region is drawn.