A report co-authored by senior Israeli defense officials argues that Israel doesn't need to control West Bank territory to keep Israel secure
Israeli soldiers walk towards the northern Gaza / Reuters
When President Barack Obama declared that the "basis for negotiations" on borders between Israelis and Palestinians should be "the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states," he ignited an intense debate about what exactly constitutes defensible borders for Israel. "While Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines -- these lines are indefensible," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the next day at the White House, misrepresenting Obama's words but sending a clear message about his position on the relationship between borders and security.
Netanyahu appears to have been intentionally vague on his vision for an actual border, except for his demand that in any peace agreement Israel must retain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected this demand, proposing instead an international force headed by NATO to do the job.
This idea that Israel needs to control large swathes of territory in the West Bank in order to protect itself -- which is described as "territorial strategic depth" in the Security chapter of "Is Peace Possible?" -- has been most prominently advocated by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, run by Netanyahu advisor Dore Gold, in a report entitled "Israel's Critical Security Requirements for Defensible Borders." Its authors have made numerous trips to Washington to propagate their perspective (particularly on Capitol Hill), and their arguments have gone largely unaddressed.
This void is filled by a new report by the Council for Peace and Security, an Israeli organization that includes over a thousand former high-ranking officials in Israel's national security establishment, including the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad, and Shin Beth security services. The group provides a sober alternative (with unimpeachable security credentials) to those who seek to use security arguments to justify political goals -- particularly goals that are incompatible with a two-state solution. Their new report, "Defensible Borders and Strategic Depth," (recently this
week in English; click here for the Hebrew version) is written by three former major generals and three brigadier generals.
The paper cuts to the heart of the argument made by Netanyahu and his surrogates about defensible borders:
The formula of an agreement based on the 1967 lines with agreed upon land swaps is defensible in face of the relevant threats facing Israel today and in the future and that control of the Jordan Valley and the West Bank does not constitute a response to these threats.
The report points out that the Israeli need for control of the Jordan Valley is based on an outdated assessment of Israeli threats:
The central threat Israel faced in the past was that of a massive ground attack with air power support from a coalition of Arab states. Clearly, the current reality of the military balance in the Middle East renders this threat nearly irrelevant due to the collapse of the pan-Arab movement, the peace agreements Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan, and the eradication of Iraqi military forces.
They also explain about how the regional assessment has changed due to the Arab Peace Initiative and Israel's undisputed military advantage in the region.
Controlling territory in the West Bank, they argue, is "irrelevant" to today's main threats to Israel: "asymmetrical warfare vis-à-vis non state actors, terrorist and guerilla tactics" and "strategic threats -- mainly the use of ballistic missiles and means of mass destruction."
Even if the conventional threat were to return, "the crucial area for force deployment is the slopes leading up to the Judean and Samarian mountains. Force deployment on the slopes turn the entire Jordan Valley into a 'killing zone' of the attacking ground forces ... and in constant threat of encirclement." Besides, current Israeli military capacity allows for them to "destroy expeditionary forces within Jordanian territory long before they reach the Jordan River line." The report minces no words in dismantling the "strategic depth" argument for controlling territory in the West Bank:
"Strategic depth" with regard to the Jordan Valley and the West Bank makes a mockery of the term. With or without the Jordan Valley, Israel does not have strategic depth; it is only about 40 km across, including that valley. Thus, regardless of control of the valley, this threat must also be countered with other responses.
The report also makes the important point that not only does controlling territory in the West Bank not address Israeli security concerns, but it also prevents the establishment of a Palestinian state, which itself would improve Israel's security situation and address many threats:
Peace agreements are meant to serve as an adequate alternative to control of the territory by the former adversary, both by reducing the motivation to use violence in pursuit of goals and by creating security arrangements, such as those put in place as a result of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, in case the state of peace is undermined.
They propose numerous parameters to accomplish this, such as a demilitarized Palestinian state, restrictions on Palestinian alliances, Palestinian obligations to combat terrorism, a multinational force, and strong oversight mechanisms for all of these.
These Israeli generals are no Pollyannas. The report is firmly grounded in the reality of even worst-case scenarios:
The peace agreement itself will provide Israel with numerous security advantages, but it bears asking what would happen in the event of the collapse of the peace agreement and the diplomatic assumptions on which it rests. Would the peace agreement's security arrangements and Israel's military capabilities provide a suitable response to the threats in such a situation?
The authors explore how the changing nature of modern warfare would dictate the execution of a ground attack on Israel, and how Israel could defend itself post-withdrawal. They also highlight the security value of international support and legitimacy -- which is directly correlated to the emergence of a viable Palestinian state. The authors also make the case that the establishment of a Palestinian state will strengthen Israel's strategic alliance with Jordan since both will have an interest in preventing a Palestinian state from becoming a security threat.
The "Defensible Borders and Strategic Depth" report is well-worth a read in full. It is a powerful rebuke against those who seek to justify Israel's presence in the West Bank on security grounds.