What Is So Shocking About the 1967 Borders?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raged that, despite President Barack Obama's suggestion that the 1967 borders serve as the basis for negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel can never do so because they are so insecure and don't fit with his conception of Israeli identity.

Following on this, many have played up the shocking nature of the idea -- that Israel should put itself at risk while at the same time agreeing to the equivalent of cutting off a piece of itself to satisfy someone else's demands. Indeed, see Gary Rosenblatt's, of The Jewish Week, description of the AIPAC policy conference, of the "fear and anger" conference-goers felt about Obama's reference to the '67 lines.

But those who make this argument have it backwards. What is shocking is that the 1967 borders are not so obviously the basis for an eventual agreement. Quite simply, regional and global developments have changed the calculus of moral, political, and strategic power so that it's just plain fantasy to continue that line of argument.

The moral balance has shifted against Israel because, whatever effective arguments there might be for maintaining the occupation, the actions of Israelis on the state's behalf have been blatantly immoral -- and most of the world today shares that assessment. The emergence of Israeli human rights groups, like B'Tselem, Breaking the Silence, and Machsom [Checkpoint] Watch, was not in response to one or two isolated incidents, but to pervasive dreadful actions by Israelis against the Palestinians.

In political terms, where the world in 1966 did not think in terms of a Palestinian people who deserved self-determination, today every country does so. If, as seems likely, the Palestinians bring their case to the General Assembly in the fall, it will almost certainly vote to recognize an independent state of Palestine -- in the same manner that it voted to recognize Israel in 1949. Given that Israel consistently refers to that legal birth certificate as a cornerstone of the legitimacy of its existence, it cannot then refuse to abide by its decisions on other states.

Strategically, in light of both the relative decline of America's weight in world politics and the Arab Spring that has changed the dynamics of Arab politics -- threatening what Israel perceived of as a stable regional order under the control of repressive Arab regimes -- Israel is fast becoming tied to an antiquated perception of the structure of international relations. The staunch support of Stephen Harper's Canada and Iran's continued belligerency notwithstanding, Israel is increasingly the odd country out when it comes to sharing in the construction of a new global politics.

Even more important, though, the notion of the 1967 borders as the basis for discussion was there at the beginning. Shortly after the June War, when the Israeli government publicly contemplated returning territory in return for peace, it had in mind the borders as a starting point -- after all, the Green Line had been an international border for almost 20 years. The government voted to give back the Sinai and the Golan. It did not mention Gaza or the West Bank (WB) in this decision, and indeed it proceeded to unofficially annex parts of Jerusalem conquered in the war and expand the municipality's boundaries to encompass more of the surrounding West Bank.

But it did not move to incorporate the bulk of the West Bank into Israel. It left the payment of WB civil servants' salaries, the management of the Noble Sanctuary (which includes the Dome of the Rock), citizenship, and the education curriculum in Jordanian hands. The subsequent various ideas proposed for sharing governance of the WB with Jordan only underscores the fact that Israel understood it would not, could not, and should not establish its complete sovereignty over the territory.

The 1967 borders were the crux of the Clinton parameters, and both Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert agreed to them. And Bibi himself agreed to them in November 2010, when in a joint statement with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton he agreed on negotiations toward a Palestinian state "based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps."

Those who insist that there can be no return to the 1967 borders are misunderstanding the point. They are being disingenuous, or they are being purposely obtuse. Or they believe this is a necessary bargaining position in order to make the most out of what they know is an increasingly weaker hand.

Everybody else in the media, in politics, in the blogosphere needs to stop acting as though something utterly new and drastic has been suggested. If we don't, we will lose focus on the more important issue of moving the peace process forward (assuming we can).