The land for peace formula was born as legal terminology when Resolution 242 was adopted by the United Nations Security Council in November 1967. Yet, that was only the first step in developing an overall concept to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict. It described a kind of "just" exchange in which the two parties to the conflict gain something of strategic value in order to achieve goals of historic magnitude.
In theory, the resolution was to provide Jews with a country they had fought hard for and the Arabs with territory and hard-fought rights. Operationally, it has had three meanings: an exchange of Arab land occupied by Israel in the June 1967 war for recognition of Israel as a sovereign country; a two-state solution for the Palestinian question in which Israel and Palestine live side by side in peace along the June 4, 1967, lines; and an overall relationship between Arabs and Israelis of recognition and normalization following Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, in other words the Arab peace initiative.
As clear and as positive as it seems, the land for peace formula has always encountered doubters in both the Arab and Israeli camps. In the Arab world there were those who thought that an aggressive society like Israel should not be granted an expanded state that went even beyond the 1947 partition resolution. A Palestinian state extending over only 22 percent of original Palestine represented anything but justice in a conflict mired in blood and violations of human rights. For some Israelis, giving up the West Bank in such an exchange is to deprive Zionism of its religious depth in addition to the strategic depth needed in a confrontation with a deeply hostile regional environment.
As the conflict evolved over the years since 1967, there was no shortage on both sides of references to the inevitability of returning "historic land" to its "rightful owners," and in Israel to changing the formula to "peace for peace" or "land for peace and security" and similar word combinations. Nor has the experience of 40 years been very encouraging for both parties. Despite rays of hope for peace, despair has been the norm in a region beset by the demons of fear and the nightmares of doubt.
Yet there is no substitute for the land for peace formula to resolve the Arab-Israel conflict. The concept has informed every step of progress in this long and bloody confrontation. It was behind the Egyptian-Israeli and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties. In a way, it was the doctrine that changed an existential Arab-Israel conflict into one about how the two sides can live with each other and created the foundations for resolving the hard core of the conflict within the Palestinian historical space. It was the guiding principle behind the Oslo process, the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000, the Clinton parameters and all negotiations that followed. It set the standard for the exchange of territories that has paved the way to a solution to the obstacle presented by the Israeli settlements. Finally, it was the concept that made it possible to start negotiations under the Madrid and Annapolis umbrellas.
In fact, any attempt to revise the concept would mean the destruction of four decades of hard work by diplomats and politicians. Starting over with a new concept, whatever that might be, would mean embarking on a new path with no guarantee of improved performance. Moreover, the land for peace formula is the only game in town for the recently restarted Israeli-Syrian negotiations and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and is the concept without which the Arab peace initiative would lose all meaning. Indeed, eliminating the concept would wipe out an entire bargaining framework and base future negotiations strictly on the balance of power.
That the concept of land for peace guarantees the success of these peace endeavors between Arabs and Israelis is a fanciful proposition. Never in history has a legal, political or even moral concept proved sufficient to lead warring states or communities to peace. Concepts can only create a framework, an initial understanding, define the issue and probably the bargaining steps; but they cannot substitute for the political will of the parties or the hard work of diplomacy in translating words into substantive meaning.
Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter publishing views of Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs.