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Defensible Borders in the Age of IS

What does the upheaval in the Middle East mean for Israel’s territorial needs?

An excerpt of a map showing threats to Israeli population centers from the West Bank. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

An excerpt of a map showing threats to Israeli population centers from the West Bank. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Observation
Oct. 22 2014
About the author

Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, is a former ambassador of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999) and the author of, among other books , Hatred’s Kingdom, The Fight for Jerusalem, and The Rise of Nuclear Iran.


How has the tumult in the Middle East affected the debate over Israel’s territorial requirements? For an answer, Mosaic approached Dore Gold, head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who has long promoted the concept of defensible borders primarily as a means of meeting Israel’s security needs in the West Bank. Our exchange was conducted by email. 

Q. Before we get to the idea of “defensible borders” itself, can you begin by telling us about your involvement in it?  

A: I became immersed in this issue when I was serving as foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term in the late 1990s. I was tasked with converting the IDF’s “Interests Map” for the West Bank into a form that could be presented to President Bill Clinton; I joined the prime minister for that presentation in the White House Map Room. Four years later, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked me to condense the work for his meeting in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush.

This formed the nucleus of what, starting in 2005, would become a series of monographs on the subject published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Copiously illustrated with maps and photographs, they featured essays by such prominent authors as Moshe Yaalon, now Israel’s defense minister, Yaakov Amidror, until recently Israel’s national security adviser, and Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan. The latest edition in the series was released this year, by coincidence just prior to the Gaza war. [Mosaic linked to a number of chapters here Eds.]

Q. What was the original idea, and has it changed at all in light of regional developments over the years?

A: The idea was first put forward by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon after the Six-Day War of 1967. As commander of the pre-state Palmah, Allon was one of the architects of Israel’s national-security doctrine, and had also been a mentor of Yitzhak Rabin. His essential point was, and is, simple enough: Israel must retain certain territories on the West Bank for its security.

Q: What about the Palestinians? That land, after all, is increasingly referred to as occupied Palestinian territory.

A: Let’s back up a bit. At present, no one has sovereignty over the West Bank. The last sovereign power there was the Ottoman Empire, which formally renounced its claim after World War I. The West Bank then became a part of British Mandatory Palestine, which was designated to become the Jewish national home. The 1948 Arab war to annihilate the newly established state of Israel ended with the West Bank in Jordanian hands, and there it remained until 1967. In June of that year, Jordan joined an Arab war coalition, led by Egypt, that was aimed explicitly at finishing the job begun in 1948. That war ended with Israel in control of territory on several fronts, one of which was the West Bank.

Because Israel had acted in self-defense in 1967, noted scholars of international law, including Stephen Schwebel, who later served as president of the International Court of Justice, and Eugene Rostow, a former dean of Yale Law School and Under Secretary of State in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, recognized its claims as stronger than those of any other party. Indeed, UN Security Council Resolution 242, adopted in the aftermath of the June 1967 war, affirmed that Israel was not required to withdraw fully from the West Bank or return to the pre-1967 lines, but rather was entitled to “secure and recognized boundaries” that were still to be determined through negotiation.

In short, the West Bank remains disputed territory to which both Israel and the Palestinians have claims. The West Bank is not “Palestinian” territory; there was no Palestinian state there prior to 1967, and the Palestinians never had sovereignty there. For its part, Israel has legal rights that need to be acknowledged, and security concerns that must be incorporated into any understanding of where the final borders will lie. One thing that Israeli prime ministers from Golda Meir to Benjamin Netanyahu have made clear is that Israel cannot withdraw to the pre-June 1967 lines, which were a permanent invitation to attack—in a word, indefensible.

A: Are there Israeli experts who disagree with you? And have recent events, including in Gaza, strengthened their position or yours?

A: In the internal Israeli debate, some have argued that the whole concept of defensible borders has become outdated. In 1967, they remind us, the threat to Israel along its eastern front came from the combined strength of the armored and infantry formations of Syria and Jordan, plus an expeditionary force from Iraq. The IDF at the time was built around a small standing army that only gained full strength after the mobilization of reserves–which is why, if Israel were again to face a surprise attack, strategic depth was critical. It was in this environment that Yigal Allon put forward his plan.

And today? Israel remains a small country with a limited population base—certainly in comparison with its much larger neighbors—and there also remain real and persistent constraints on its ability to disperse its military capabilities. Critics of defensible borders like to point out that the constellation of hostile forces has changed markedly. The Syrian army has been badly degraded, the Iraqi army has been battered by war and domestic chaos, and Egypt and Jordan are at peace with Israel. Thus, they conclude, the danger of attack by large conventional armies is no longer. Of course there is terrorism, but that’s a different matter, and besides, the critics say, it’s not on the same scale as the previous threats faced by Israel.

My response is that, for at least the short term, the terrorist threat to Israel from the east is unlike anything we have seen before in terms of scale and character. Terror used to be conducted by small squads of three to five men who penetrated Israel’s borders in order to seize hostages or place explosive devices under vehicles or in public places. Today, organizations like the Islamic State (IS), in possession of robust weaponry that includes sophisticated anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, have defeated whole divisions of the Iraqi army and confiscated vast amounts of equipment and money.

This year, operating with battalion-size formations, IS and its ideological cousin the al-Nusra Front have defeated Syrian armored forces and made deep inroads into the heart of Iraq. Despite recent setbacks thanks to American-led airstrikes, this is no mere tactical nuisance.

As for the longer term, no one can speak with any certainty. It’s true that, for the moment, a conventional assault by an existing state is unlikely. But the Middle East region is changing so dramatically before our eyes that Israel needs to be prepared for any eventuality. 

Q: Even without an army like IS’s, Hamas was able to smuggle weapons into Gaza and tunnel its way into Israel itself. Doesn’t that call into question the idea of defensible borders on the West Bank?

A: To the contrary. The war this summer disclosed the sheer size of the arsenal that Hamas had managed to build up over the years. But how did most of those weapons arrive? In withdrawing from Gaza in 2005, Israel gave up a strip of land on the perimeter, called the Philadelphi Route, which had served to separate Gaza from the Egyptian Sinai. Thereafter, the number of tunnels under this route mushroomed, as did the quantity and quality of the weapons passing through them to Hamas and other groups.

On the West Bank, our outer perimeter is the Jordan Valley, which Israel controls. If Israel were to withdraw from the valley, weapons would flow to areas adjacent to Israeli cities.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Shoulder-fired missiles that can take down aircraft were found among the items smuggled into Gaza. No such weapons have been brought into the West Bank—yet. If they did get in, the security of Ben-Gurion airport would be placed at severe risk. To guarantee a demilitarized West Bank, then, Israel must retain the Jordan Valley, the functional equivalent of Gaza’s Philadelphi Route.

Q: Many commentators insist that, since Israel has such a strong army, it can afford to be more forthcoming with concessions and take greater risks for peace. 

A: We’ve just gone through the third Gaza war. The first time we withdrew from Gaza, it was said reassuringly that if Hamas failed to keep the peace, we could just re-invade and resume our control of the territory; what’s more, if attacked by even a single rocket, we would have international legitimacy to retaliate with the full power of the IDF.

We learned, painfully, that this was not the case. Israeli towns came under attack by Hamas rockets that were embedded in Palestinian civilian areas, making the effective use of Israel’s superior power much more difficult. Not only that, but after finally taking action in Operation Cast Lead in 2009, Israel was pilloried by the Goldstone Report and faced international condemnation at the UN Human Rights Council. The same thing is happening now, in a diplomatic atmosphere that if anything is more hostile, and more solidly stacked against Israel, than before.

My conclusion: it’s far better for Israel not to put itself in a position in which its vulnerabilities invite aggression but it is unable to respond with power. Once again, strategic depth makes a difference.

Q: A final question. You argue that the Jordan Valley must be kept under Israeli control. Why can’t Israel agree to international peacekeeping teams instead of the IDF, as is often proposed?

A: Israel has always been reluctant to base its defense on international forces, and when it’s agreed to them it has suffered. Under challenge, such forces invariably back down or collapse. During the lead-up to the 1967 Six-Day War, President Nasser of Egypt demanded that the UN withdraw its peacekeeping force in Sinai. UN Secretary-General U Thant agreed to Nasser’s demand, thereby removing the lone buffer between Israel’s southern border and 90,000 massed Egyptian troops.

It used to be said that no one would ever dare attack international peacekeepers; the thought was just too outrageous to be entertained. That illusion has likewise been put to rest over the years. Overt acts of aggression can force UN peacekeepers to leave, while the mere threat of aggression has demonstrably compromised their neutrality or led to their being co-opted by enemy forces like Hizballah. Only the other week, on Israel’s Golan Heights border with Syria, the al-Nusra front captured a contingent of Fijian soldiers from the UN Disengagement Observer Force and successfully held them for ransom. For all of these reasons, Israel’s position has always been that it cannot leave itself exposed, and must defend itself by itself.

As for the Jordan Valley, it’s worth remembering that, a month before his assassination in November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin declared in the Knesset that the future security border of Israel would be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that geographical term.

This is what’s meant by defensible borders. Until the lion lies down with the lamb, there is simply no alternative to them, and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact.

More about: Dore Gold, interview, Israel, West Bank