The Military Perils of Ceding Israeli Control of the West Bank

April 24 2019

In the years since the second intifada ended, no small number of retired high-ranking IDF officers and intelligence officials have argued that complete separation from the Palestinians is a strategic necessity for Israel. Gershon Hacohen, analyzing the geography, the changes in warfare—and Middle Eastern warfare in particular—since the 1990s, and recent history, argues that they are wrong:

The withdrawal of IDF forces from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state in these territories will constitute an existential threat to Israel. The absence of an Israeli military presence in the West Bank, especially along the Jordan River, will enable the creation of a terrorist entity, à la the Gaza Strip, a stone’s throw from the Israeli hinterland. This withdrawal will box Israel into indefensible borders, especially in light of the major changes in the nature of war in recent decades that have made the astounding achievements of 1967 impossible to replicate, not to mention the stark international response [that would follow Israel’s] takeover of a sovereign state.

The deployment of international forces in the West Bank will not, [contrary to what some have argued], ensure the demilitarization of the prospective Palestinian state, let alone prevent the entry of Arab forces into its territory (with or without its consent) and/or its transformation into a springboard for terrorist attacks against Israel. . . .

Israel [now] maintains control of some 60 percent of the West Bank’s territory, . . . which is mostly empty of Palestinian population but includes all of the West Bank’s Jewish communities and IDF bases, as well as main highways, vital topographic areas, and open spaces descending eastward to the Jordan Valley. The retention of this territory constitutes the absolute minimum required for the preservation of defensible borders and meets two conditions necessary for Israel’s security: the Jordan Valley buffer zone, without which it will be impossible to prevent the rapid arming of Palestinian terrorist groups throughout the West Bank; and control of intersecting transportation arteries, which, together with control of strategic topographical sites, enables rapid deployment of IDF forces deep inside Palestinian areas.

It is the surrender of such conditions in Gaza that has transformed the Strip into an ineradicable terrorist entity. Uprooting the West Bank’s Jewish communities will also make it difficult for the IDF to operate in the depth of the Palestinian state, especially if it is forced to fight simultaneously on a number of fronts, [since] simultaneous fighting in Gaza, which will be an integral part of the future Palestinian state, is a foregone conclusion.

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More about: Israeli grand strategy, Israeli Security, Palestinian statehood, West Bank

A Better Syria Strategy Can Help Achieve the U.S. Goal of Countering Iran

While the Trump administration has reversed much of its predecessor’s effort to realign Washington with Tehran, and has effectively used sanctions to exert economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, Omar Hassino argues that these measures might not be enough:

Iran and its militias control more territory and natural resources in Syria and Iraq than before President Trump took office. . . . The U.S. should back the low-cost insurgency approach that has already shown potential in southwest Syria to bleed the Iranian forces and increase the costs of their expansion and [of Tehran’s] support for the Assad regime. It makes no sense that Iran can fund low-cost insurgencies to bleed American allies in the region, but the United States cannot counter with the same. The administration should also consider expanding support to the proxy forces that it currently works with—such as the Revolution Commandos near the [U.S.] al-Tanf garrison in southwest Syria—for the purpose of fighting and eliminating Iranian-backed militias. This limited escalation can curb Iranian expansion and put pressure on the Assad regime in the long term.

Furthermore, in this vein, the U.S. should empower peaceful Syrian civil-society groups and local councils operating outside Assad-regime control. Last year, the Trump administration eliminated assistance for stabilization in Syria, including funding going to secular anti-Assad civil-society groups that were also combating al-Qaeda’s ideology, as well as the Syrian [medical and civil-defense group known as] the White Helmets, before quickly [restoring] some of this funding. Yet the funding has still not completely been resumed, and if this administration takes an approach similar to its predecessor’s in relying on regional powers such as Turkey, these powers will instead fund groups aligned ideologically with Muslim Brotherhood. This is already happening in Idlib.

The United States must [also] jettison the Obama-era [strategy of establishing] “de-escalation zones.” These zones were from the start largely a Russian ruse to help the Assad regime conquer opposition areas, and they succeeded. Now that the regime controls most of Syria and Iranian proxies are dominant within the regime side, support for de-escalation is tantamount to support for Iranian expansion. The United States must [instead] prevent further expansion by the Assad regime and Iran in parts of the country that they still do not control.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy