Mind Eraser: Israel Forgets Its Own Border

I stood on the silent street that circles a hilltop industrial park called Har Hotzvim in Jerusalem. The name means Stonecutter Mountain, but nothing as loud or low-tech as cutting stones happens there. Intel has a plant in the park, and the giant Israeli pharmaceutical company, Teva, has two. Software and biotech firms fill office buildings. I turned my back to the buildings and looked at the steep slope descending to the north. Below the street, unmarked on the hillside, runs the Green Line, the pre-1967 border of Israel. The City of Jerusalem's veterinary institute, hidden by trees in the valley below, is past that border, in land Israel conquered in June 1967. The tech companies and Teva's pharma factories are within pre-1967 Israel.

Keep this in mind: dog doctors over the Green Line; pill production inside. It's not difficult if you have a map that shows the line, but the government of Israel got it wrong—top government agencies are accusing each other of publicly labeling the industrial park as being in occupied territory. The incident shows that 46 years of Israeli efforts to convince the world that the Green Line is no longer the country's border have failed—but at home those efforts have succeeded so well that the line has become a vague memory, if not a deeply repressed one. More subtly, the affair suggests that the government's refusal to accept the pre-1967 border as the baseline for peace negotiations could have unexpected consequences.

Here's what happened: Last week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a meeting with senior cabinet members to discuss the European Union's new guidelines on economic cooperation. The EU rules bar funding for Israeli activities "in the territories occupied … since June 1967," and require future agreements with Israel to state this limitation. Netanyahu's government needed to decide on its response before the start of negotiations on Israel's participation in the European Union's next seven-year research and development program, Horizon 2020. The program is expected to channel hundreds of millions of euros into Israeli universities and tech companies—if Israel takes part.

But the statement issued after the meeting said Israel "cannot sign any agreements based on these guidelines." In wording so similar that it was clear the reporters took dictation from the same "senior official," two national newspapers reported on the problems with EU rules that were presented at the ministerial meeting. Had these guidelines been in force in the past, the unnamed official said, Teva would not have been able to get a major loan from the EU because it has a plant in Har Hotzvim, beyond the Green Line.  


University of Texas Library

A Foreign Ministry source who spoke to me this week wasn't certain who gave the background briefing at the meeting, but said that the National Security Council (NSC) and the Foreign Ministry legal department were blaming each other for getting the politically fraught geography wrong. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is responsible for the recently resumed peace negotiations with the Palestinians, was at that meeting, as was Science Minister Yaakov Perry, the ex-head of the Shin Bet security agency, and Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, who's running the Foreign Ministry right now because the ex-minister is on trial. None of them, it seems, noticed a problem in the briefing. Non-government experts on peace negotiations, not the cabinet members, contacted the newspapers to put them right. A Teva representative who spoke to me this week was at pains (and sounded like he was in great pain) to explain that Teva's plants are inside the Green Line, and that "Teva has nothing to do with this story."

Let's put aside the Israeli response to the European Union, effectively a threat of self-inflicted economic injury. (By Wednesday, when the Horizon negotiations began, a Foreign Ministry statement softened the tone slightly.)  The professionals of either the Foreign Ministry or the NSC, along with the government figures responsible for security and diplomacy and the staff of two prominent daily newspapers, didn't know where the border was, and didn't think to check a map to find out.

It's taken many years of hard work to achieve this. Immediately after its June 1967 war with its Arab neighbors, Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem and some land around it, incorporating both into the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem. Later that year, Labor Minister Yigal Allon gave instructions to the Survey Department of his ministry to print maps of Israel without the Green Line, showing the post-war ceasefire lines instead. (The very act of erasing the border was kept quiet at the time; I found the previously unpublicized memo in Allon's private archive.) The government's reasoning was that the pre-1967 border had been an armistice line, and the Arab countries had violated the armistice, so the line was void.

Israeli jurist Yoram Dinstein, an expert on international law, warned early on that this was a dangerous argument. Before the armistice agreements, he noted, the previous internationally accepted statement of Israel's borders was the UN partition decision of 1947, which gave the Jewish state considerably less territory. The cities of Jaffa and Acre, for instance, weren't assigned to the Jewish state in the partition plan. By asserting that the Green Line was null, Dinstein wrote, Israel was creating doubt about its claim to land that it held before 1967. The government ignored Dinstein, but the international community graciously ignored Israel's argument and continued to regard the Green Line as Israel's border.

But the Survey Department held a near-monopoly on cartography in Israel, so the Green Line vanished locally. The steady spread of Israeli settlements made it harder to remember where the line was. It also vanished from schoolbooks, except as a historical detail. This week I dropped by a shop to look at the newest editions (in Israel, parents have to buy their children's textbooks.) Two salesclerks in their twenties brought me school atlases and a middle school geography book. The latter had a page on Israel's borders, showing the West Bank and Gaza as part of the country. One of the clerks asked me why I was chuckling. "Because these aren't Israel's borders," I said.

She looked at the page and said, "They're not?"

She's not unusual. In 2005, two geographers published a study in which they asked university students to draw the Green Line on a map. At Hebrew University, 37.4 percent could sketch the border between Israel and the West Bank; at Bar-Ilan University, 26.5 percent succeeded.

I really do think that Tzipi Livni, Yaakov Perry, and the experts of the Foreign Ministry and National Security Council would have drawn a good enough sketch to pass the geographers' test. (Don't ask me to bet on Netanyahu, Elkin, or Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the glib ex-talk show host.) But for a policy decision they needed a precise map. It wouldn't have been so hard to find. Google Maps shows where the Green Line runs at Har Hotzvim. If they didn't want to rely on Google, they could have looked at the U.S. government maps available at the University of Texas site. If they didn't have any pre-1967 official Israeli topographical maps in their file cabinets, the National Library in Jerusalem has a fine collection, and the librarian is friendly. But after so many years of denying that the Green Line still matters, after decades in which the standard Israeli maps don't show it, they just forgot to look for one.

Beyond the embarrassment, there's a weightier problem with self-persuasion that the Green Line is history. The government's original response to the EU guidelines was that Israel's borders will be set by "negotiations between the concerned parties," and the European Union shouldn't "coerce" adhering to the Green Line. And in the run-up to the present peace talks, which resumed this week, Israel insisted that the pre-1967 border should not be the baseline for negotiations.

As the law professor warned many years ago, recognizing the armistice lines also protects Israel. If the Green Line isn't the baseline, the Palestinians can lay as reasonable a claim to land on the Israeli side as the Israel can to real estate on the Palestinian side. I'm not expecting the government to cut border markers into the stones on the slopes of Har Hotzvim. But it would be a good idea to come to negotiations—and to meetings at the prime minister's office—with a large and detailed map of the Green Line. 

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