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A Map Is Worth a Thousand Words

A think-tank fantasy depicts a real-life impasse

Marc Tracy
January 25, 2011
Land-swaps around Jerusalem in Makovsky’s “Option 1.”(Washington Institute for Near East Peace)
Land-swaps around Jerusalem in Makovsky’s “Option 1.”(Washington Institute for Near East Peace)

Does anyone have less lucky timing this week than David Makovsky? The respected Mideast expert (he has appeared on The Scroll in this capacity) and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy late last week released three maps for what the boundaries of two future states, Israel and Palestine, could be. The rules under which he came up with them, he is at pains to stress, are “principles that the parties themselves have apparently discussed with each other”: Specifically, that land-swaps should involve a one-for-one exchange of territory in terms of area; that land on the Palestinian side of the Green Line containing somewhere between roughly 70 to 80 percent of Israeli West Bank settlers would end up in the final Israel; that Israeli security concerns are addressed; and that the Palestinian state would be contiguous.

Put another way: In 2008, both sides proposed maps based on these principles, and where they couldn’t agree was on how much of the West Bank the swaps would involve Israel annexing (Olmert wanted a little over six percent, Abbas wanted a little under two percent). So we are quibbling over details, not first principles. The point of this exercise? To convey to everyone that, as the map-makers put it, “ The impossible is indeed achievable.” Italics theirs.

Of course, if last week we already knew this, this week, with the release of the Palestine Papers, we really know this. (Although, truly, we did know it all last week: I actually wrote the bulk of this blogpost Sunday in the hours before the Papers were published). Among the Papers’ revelations, after all, is that the Palestinians agreed to land-swaps that would have given Israel most of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel turned this down but remained open to negotiating.

Yet if the only obstacle were that the two sides were quibbling over small percentages of land and the settler population, it really would seem weird that a deal hadn’t yet been reached. But of course, that isn’t the obstacle at all.

And as all good maps do, they reveal what is. Look closely: See he swap that would take place around Gaza? Isn’t that weird—considering that the authority in Gaza, Hamas, was not at all involved in and in fact actively opposed the negotiations on which Makovsky’s maps are based? The reason a deal hasn’t been reached, as the maps inadvertantly demonstrate, is not the question of borders, but a political climate—including instransigent actors on both sides—that is extremely infertile to a deal acceptable to the majorities of both sides.

Which, actually, is the key takeaway from the Palestine Papers. Maybe Makovsky’s timing wasn’t so bad after all.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.