Israel’s borders are only partially set. When Israel’s war of independence ended in 1949, the Armistice Lines surrounding the territory that was under Israeli control at that time were its de facto borders. But between 1949 and 1967, neither Israel nor the surrounding Arab states recognized those borders. The 1967 war saw Israel capture more territory beyond those lines.
Since then, peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have defined the borders between those countries and Israel. A United Nations Security Council Resolution adopted in 2000 demarcated most of the border between Lebanon and Israel, a border commonly referred to as the Blue Line, and save for an area of dispute between Lebanon, Israel and Syria, that border has been accepted by all sides.
Israel’s border with the Palestinian Territories and with Syria, however, are in dispute. In 1981, Israel annexed the Golan Heights, which it captured in 1967. But no country has recognized the annexation, so the Golan is still internationally regarded as occupied Syrian territory.
On the West Bank, the border between that territory and Jordan is clear. But whether and how far Israeli territory extends into the West Bank is one of the primary subjects of dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. According to international law, specifically the principle of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force, Israel is not entitled to any of the West Bank. Unless it can negotiate some other arrangement, its legitimate territory is recognized only up to the Green Line, the de facto border as of the end of hostilities in Israel’s War of Independence.
Based on that understanding of international law, Palestinians expect Israel to negotiate a two-state solution based on the Armistice Lines, often referred to as the 1967 borders. Israel, on the other hand, maintains that negotiations should be based on the realities on the ground today, and that reality, whether it is recognized by the international community or not, is that Israel controls the entire West Bank and has security concerns that must be the first thing addressed. Thus, where the Palestinians see the division of the land as a question of how much they are willing to cede to Israel in a swap, Israel claims that any land they grant the Palestinians for a state as a concession, and indeed a risk, on their part.
Israel’s view was strengthened when, in 2003, US President George W. Bush presented a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in which he stated: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949…It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
This has been understood since that time to mean that Israel could expect to keep the three largest settlement blocs (Ariel, Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumim) in the West Bank. Israel has therefore argued that they should be able to build within the areas of these settlements, even though the Palestinians have never agreed to any such condition, nor have they received any guarantee of compensation for that territory.
Two of those settlement blocs, Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim, are deep inside the West Bank. As a result those settlements severely compromise the contiguity of any potential Palestinian state.
Israel argues that a return to the 1967 borders, either entirely or with only minor changes, would make it unacceptably vulnerable to attack. On this basis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rebuked US President Barack Obama when Obama said that “…the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” While this has always been official US policy, as well as a reflection of the international consensus, it has rarely been stated clearly by an American President. It is important to note, such a policy does not necessarily preclude the conditions President Bush laid out in his letter; it merely says that the Palestinian state would have to be fairly compensated for sacrificing any land to Israel that was not Israeli before the 1967 war and that the Palestinians would have to freely agree to such a swap.
The Palestinians see their willingness to discuss altering the borders at all from the status quo ante before 1967 as a significant concession. In their view, Israel should be expected, and is required by UN Security Council Resolution 242, to evacuate all territory it captured in 1967.
Israelis tend to see altered borders as an established fact, as well as an indispensible security need. They interpret UNSC 242 as saying they should withdraw from some of the territories they capture, framed by the need for secure borders. In the Israeli view, negotiations should proceed based on the realities on the ground. In that framework, Israel will be understood to be keeping the settlement blocs and talks should focus on what land Israel will cede, both in exchange for what they’re keeping and any other land they would give up to create the proposed Palestinian state.