By Gilead Sher
Isaac and Mildred Brochstein Fellow in Middle East Peace and Security in Honor of Yitzhak Rabin,
Professor Emeritus, Department of Geography and Human Environment, Tel Aviv University
Once the Covid-19 pandemic has subsided, all of the geopolitical challenges that the Middle East faces will resurface, amplified. Hence, whatever its composition, the new Israeli government will undoubtedly face serious flaws in, among other things, the territorial dimensions of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” — namely, the drawing of borders, the enclaves, the territorial exchanges and the annexation of large parts of the West Bank.
The deal offers a provision that people and communities, Jews and Arabs alike, will not be evacuated from their homes. It entails highly entangled and complex borders, ensuring that most of the largest Jewish settlements in the West Bank and another approximately 150 smaller settlements will be territorially connected to Israel. This is a sharp turn from the agreed-upon notion of annexing only a one-digit West Bank percentage to Israel, i.e., the large “settlement blocs” adjacent to the June 1967 lines. Annexation of these blocs that house approximately 75% of the settlers’ community — against Israeli land swaps — was tacitly agreed upon in previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and explicitly reflected in the respective visions of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Conversely, Trump’s plan creates a winding and complicated friction area due to the division of the future Palestinian state into six disconnected “cantons,” a series of enclaves connected by routes and vulnerable boundaries.
Trump’s deal will leave out 15 settlements that could not be attached to the main Israeli territory under any boundary line. These enclaves are supposed to remain within the Palestinian state once established. All that would link them to Israel will be roads that pass through the territories of the Palestinian state.
The idea of enclaves, in a permanent agreement only, was raised by us more than six years ago in the article “Jewish Enclaves in a Palestinian State in Permanent Status,” published by the Institute for National Security Studies. At the time, we suggested that large Israeli settlements located deep within the Palestinian Authority territory could be possibly converted into enclaves.
Under the “Deal of the Century,” all the settlements that we proposed for consideration as enclaves will be physically connected to Israel by a winding, problematic, dangerous and very complex borderline. Instead, Trump’s team proposes to create enclaves from relatively small settlements, totaling about 15,000 residents.
Our theoretical enclave proposal for a long-term peace arrangement presented in the 2013 research paper was recapped by the National Security Council in Israel, and subsequently landed on the desk of Trump’s peace team. However, it has become almost unrecognizable.
The map attached to Trump’s plan raises more than a few questions: Are these boundaries supposed to serve as open borders — allowing free passage of tens and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to Israel — or closed borders, allowing passage only through controlled crossings from one state to another? Will a fence be erected along a tangled, 1,400 km-plus border? Will military and police forces be posted to safeguard against illegal crossings?
Trump’s vision allocates two areas of the western Negev desert, encompassing approximately 590 square kilometers, as enclaves compensating for the area that Israel will annex. A narrow corridor all along this swapped territory, about 2 km wide from the Egyptian border, remains Israeli, thus separating Egypt and the Palestinian state. For this arrangement, will Israel Defense Forces have to face Egypt and turn their backs to the Palestinian state or vice versa? It seems that in this case, too, a map was drawn without thinking through the consequences.
The total area proposed for the Palestinian state in the West Bank is about 4,200 square kilometers. According to the map, there are about 180 square kilometers in southern Mount Hebron, making the total Palestinian territory cover about 4,970 square kilometers. This is one-sixth smaller than the West Bank. Put another way, it has about 1,000 fewer square kilometers than the 5,878 square kilometers of the West Bank. In addition, the Trump deal offers a very problematic proposition of swapping populated areas of the current Israeli Arab towns (The Triangle, Wadi Ara) to the Palestinian state, adding 200 square kilometers, still far from a 1:1 ratio territorial exchange.
The “Deal of the Century” proposes annexation to Israel of the Jordan Valley’s 359 square kilometers, thus circumventing the future Palestinian state from the east as well and adding 900 kilometers to the borders of Israel.
This is a very complex border for the state of Israel. The challenges associated with its 60 km border with the Gaza Strip, which comprises only 365 square kilometers, are well-known. Consequently, how will Israel deal with a tangled border of more than 1,400 kilometers?
According to reliable sources, annexation – known after language laundering as “Application of Sovereignty” — has been at the epicenter of the negotiations between outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset member Benjamin Gantz. At the last phase of the negotiations, which to date has not produced a joint government, Gantz reportedly agreed to at least annexation of the Jordan Valley.
This article only discusses certain territorial aspects and does not tackle either the severe repercussions of annexation or its enormous detriment to the fundamental vision of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure and moral state, with recognized and secure borders and enjoying international legitimacy.
Thus, it seems that the architects of the deal may have consulted many experts but, regrettably, border and security specialists were not given a proper place in their discussions.