Defensible Borders to Ensure Israel’s Future
Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan
Israel Has a Natural and Internationally Recognized Right to Defensible Borders
Israel’s fundamental right to defensible borders is grounded in the strategic and legal circumstances that emerged immediately after the Six-Day War, in which Israel captured the West Bank of the Jordan, Sinai, and the Golan Heights. The “Green Line” that was established in the 1949 Armistice Agreements was defined as a military border between the Israeli and Jordanian armies, not as a permanent political border. That situation provided the background for United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967, which did not call on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to withdraw completely to the armistice line, instead affirming that Israel required “secure and recognized boundaries” that were not identical to the indefensible prewar lines.
Today it is often forgotten how vulnerable Israel was in the past. Before 1967 Israel’s “narrow waist” – that is, the distance between the coastal cities of its central region and the West Bank under Jordanian occupation – was only about 8 miles (12 km.), not enough for minimal defensive depth in case of an invasion. Israel is a country about the size of New Jersey with a territory of only 16,100 square miles (25,900 sq. km.). Israel’s small size alone is not the basis for its claim to defensible borders, but rather the fact that it has been a repeated victim of aggression caused the international community to recognize that right in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.
Israel’s vulnerability is made all the more acute by the fact that 70 percent of the country’s population, 80 percent of its industrial capacity, and crucial infrastructure targets (Ben-Gurion Airport, the Trans-Israel Highway [Route 6], the National Water Carrier, and high-voltage electrical power lines) are squeezed into that narrow coastal strip between the Mediterranean Sea and the West Bank. Moreover, the adjacent hills of the West Bank topographically dominate the low-lying and exposed coastal plain, affording an attacker clear advantages in terms of observation, fire, and defensive capability against an Israeli counterattack.
Thus the 1949 armistice lines were indefensible, leading the architects of Israel’s national security doctrine, from Yigal Allon to Moshe Dayan to Yitzhak Rabin, to adamantly oppose a return to those lines, which they believed would invite aggression and endanger Israel’s future instead of paving a path to peace.
These Israeli leaders sought new borders that would enable Israel to defend itself. According to a broad consensus that emerged in the national security establishment, these would constitute “defensible borders” and Israel would have to insist on them in any future negotiations. In 2004, the United States gave Israel a letter of guarantees that recognized Israel’s right to “defensible borders.” The document was signed by President George W. Bush and supported by a bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress.
Since that time the need for defensible borders has only grown. To the Middle East’s already existing record of aggression toward Israel and chronic instability, recent years have added the following developments:
- The “Arab Spring,” which is already marked by unprecedented civil strife and bloodshed, has so far produced millions of refugees and displaced persons, and has imported global jihadist terror to the region, threatening regimes and intensifying the region’s fundamental uncertainty.
- Iran, which keeps marching resolutely toward nuclear weapons, is aggressively meddling in numerous conflicts and is continuing to create threats along Israel’s perimeter.
- The terror organizations’ involvement in national power struggles (Hizbullah in Syria and Lebanon, Hamas in Sinai), their growing rocket arsenals, the entry into the region of global jihadist terror, and the use Iran makes of terror have become a strategic threat that can cause warfare to erupt in the region.
- The renewed effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has brought the subject of borders to the negotiating table as one of the core issues of the conflict.
For borders to be defensible, they must provide an answer to four cardinal threats: a conventional attack, rocket and missile fire, terror, and a nonconventional attack.
A conventional attack – Unlike the armed forces of the Arab states that surround Israel, the IDF is composed mainly of reserve units that need about forty-eight hours to fully mobilize and reach the battlefield. Defensible borders are what gives the regular army the optimal topographical conditions for withstanding an offensive by numerically superior ground forces until the reserve mobilization is completed. After that mobilization, defensible borders must also give Israel the necessary operative depth to conduct a defensive battle. If Israel were to lack this defensive depth, its deterrent power would also decline and the temptation to subject it to a surprise attack, one that could rapidly defeat the IDF before the reserves could arrive, would increase.
Those were the main considerations favoring defensible borders vis-à-vis the Arab war coalitions that formed in 1948, 1967, and 1973, which also included Iraqi contingents. After the First Gulf War in 1991 and the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty in 1994, this danger abated. Today, after years of upheaval in the Arab world, uncertainty continues to prevail in the Middle East and the danger has returned in full force. There is no way to know what the future holds for Iraq and Jordan, or what alliances and alignments will emerge in the Arab world over the coming years. Current trends in Iraq and Jordan, along with the civil war in Syria that threatens to spread to its neighbors, require Israel, in planning its security policy, to take perilous scenarios into account as Middle Eastern history has already demonstrated.
Even in the era of rockets and missiles, it is military offensives by ground forces – not aerial strikes and rocket attacks – that ultimately decide the course of wars. As long as ground forces remain the critical element, factors that affect a ground war – such as territorial depth, topography, and the size and nature of forces – will remain essential to Israel’s national security.
It is important to emphasize that when it comes to Israel’s security policy, the ability to provide security in case of a massive conventional attack remains the cardinal criterion. Even in the era of rockets and missiles, it is military offensives by ground forces – not aerial strikes and rocket attacks – that ultimately decide the course of wars. As long as ground forces remain the critical element, factors that affect a ground war – such as territorial depth, topography, and the size and nature of forces – will remain essential to Israel’s national security.
Rockets and missiles – If terrorist forces were to fire rockets and mortars from the West Bank as they are now doing from Gaza, the entire Israeli home front would be exposed to this threat. The West Bank overlooks Israel’s main cities from a distance of a few miles, and rockets, mortars, and antiaircraft missiles must be kept out of this territory. This is not a theoretical concern or “worst-case” scenario, but a very tangible threat. For example, near Mombassa, Kenya, in 2002, al-Qaeda terrorists fired an SA-7 shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli civilian plane. Hamas is now making a determined effort to smuggle anti-aircraft missiles into Gaza.
Short-range rockets are a special challenge for Israel, making the little territory that Israel possesses a vital and irreplaceable defensive barrier. Ironically, longer-range rockets and missiles, including those with more powerful warheads, pose less of a problem than short-range rockets. Whereas longer-range rockets require launchers that can be identified and attacked (even if it is after the launch), short-range rockets are very hard to stop and there is nothing to hit once they are launched, especially if they are fired from the midst of a civilian population and are numerous because of their low cost. For Israel to prevent the deployment of such rockets in places that are close to vital and vulnerable strategic sites, it has to be present on the ground in those places. Even the interception of longer-range missiles and rockets requires the stationing of warning, detection, and interception systems at locations that give them enough time to function.
Terror – Since its establishment, Israel has had to fight terror backed by states throughout the region, and today this threat is more relevant than ever. It is Israel’s military presence on the eastern perimeter of the West Bank, in the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert, that has prevented arms smuggling and the infiltration of hostile forces. It is this presence that has kept global jihadists from turning the West Bank into a battlefield like those they have created in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria. One of the main preconditions for a terror-fighting strategy is to isolate the area of conflict and thwart the influx of hostile forces with their weapons and equipment. As Israel has learned from direct experience in Lebanon and Gaza, the inability to prevent such an influx turns an area into a source of rocket and mortar fire along with other attacks, leading to instability, diplomatic difficulties, and even wars.
The nonconventional threat – Defensible borders remain relevant even at a time of growing concern about nonconventional weapons, and especially nuclear weapons, in the Middle East. Israel is a country so small that it needs to disperse its population, armed forces, and defensive assets (enabling warning and interception) as widely as possible. Otherwise the enemy will try to gain a decisive military advantage by carrying out a first strike without fear of an Israeli counterattack. The greater Israel’s geographic vulnerability, the greater the threat to it, both from a conventional attack by Middle Eastern military forces and from nonconventional terror.
The Jordan Valley
In the southern theater (because of the demilitarization of Sinai) and in the northern theater (because Israel has resisted handing over the Golan Heights), Israel has defensible borders.
In the eastern theater there is no substitute for the Jordan Valley; its location and unique topographical features make it the only feasible eastern border for the State of Israel.
Some key facts about the Jordan Valley:
- Israel’s width from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River is only 40 miles (64 km.) on average. This provides minimal strategic depth, and taking the risk of further reducing this strategic depth is out of the question.
- The Jordan Valley is only 4.2 to 9 miles (6.8-14.5 km.) wide. The Jordan River lies 1,300 feet (396 m.) below sea level, but it is adjacent to the steep eastern slope of the West Bank’s mountain spine – which, at its highest point (Baal Hatzor), stands 3,609 feet (1,011 m.) above sea level. Hence, the Jordan Valley constitutes a physical barrier with a height of 3,000 to 4,600 feet (914-1,402 m.).
- The Jordan Valley is an arid area with a small and sparse Palestinian population.
- For an attacking army to advance westward from the Jordan Valley, it must make its way through only five mountain passages that can be relatively easily defended, even by the limited regular-army force of the IDF.
In light of the Jordan Valley’s strategic importance for Israel’s security, the IDF has continued – even since the successful peace treaty with Jordan – to carry out routine security measures there with the help of an active security fence, while also deploying brigade-level forces there that can readily be reinforced by the reserves, along with the necessary equipment, in case a ground threat should materialize from the east. The Israeli force in the Jordan Valley is also a tripwire, since an attack on it would trigger a reserve call-up; and in all negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel has also insisted on the right to transport additional forces to the valley via strategic roads.
Why Can’t Israel Rely on Early-Warning Capabilities Instead of Having a Physical Presence?
The question keeps coming up from time to time: why can’t Israel rely on advanced technological means to warn of an impending attack, so that it could mobilize the reserves in time to contain any potential ground offensive and thus make a forward deployment in the Jordan Valley unnecessary?
The answer is that in 1973 the IDF maintained insufficient forces on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts because it was confident that, in any event, it would get sufficient prior intelligence warning in order to reinforce these fronts in a timely manner. In retrospect, after Egypt and Syria had succeeded in carrying out surprise attacks, this emerged as a critical error.
The Second Lebanon War in 2006 highlighted an additional failure stemming from excessive reliance on advanced technology. Many commanders preferred to remain at the rear of the battlefield, where they thought they could adequately observe the fighting on plasma screens and direct their forces via advanced teleprocessing systems. Such commanders in fact suffered a total failure of command and control over their battlefield troops.
Map 5 – Israel’s Defense Line: The Jordan Rift Valley with the Steep Eastern Slopes of the West Bank Mountain Ridge
The painful lesson of the Yom Kippur War and the Second Lebanon War is that Israel must not relinquish the Jordan Valley and rely instead on advanced technological systems. The history of warfare indeed shows that technological advantages are eventually eroded and even neutralized and can hardly be relied upon as permanent; over the last century, offense and defense were in constant competition. Israel’s advantage in air power in 1967 was altered by 1973 with the introduction of advanced Soviet air-defense systems.
Looking to the future, there are Western analysts who predict that the electromagnetic spectrum will become one of the main targets of future weapons, stripping away the advantages in surveillance that military commanders have recently enjoyed by using drones and even satellites. Iran began investing in cyber-warfare several years ago and its Hizbullah proxy has reportedly begun to do so as well. Should cyber-warfare capabilities indeed proliferate in the decades ahead, then Israeli commanders relying on their plasma screens in their rear command centers, in order to wage a military campaign, will have to contend with the prospect that their picture of the battlefield will go blank as their electronic sensors become blinded.1
Western analysts predict that the electromagnetic spectrum will become one of the main targets of future weapons, stripping away the advantages in surveillance that military commanders have recently enjoyed.
Finally, if the forces in place are insufficient to protect the state, then the burden of decision-making during a military crisis will fall entirely on the political echelon to mobilize reserves or even consider a pre-emptive strike. In 1973, Israel’s political leadership was reluctant to take either step, due to international political considerations. In short, there is no substitute for a deployed and active force in the territory that Israel controls.
Are Israel’s Territorial Considerations Still Relevant in the Missile Age?
Moreover, relying on a timely, rapid reserve call-up to reinforce Israel’s eastern front will become more and more dangerous. As already noted, historically, Israel’s neighbors have had the advantage of larger regular armies, with only a secondary role for their reserves. This feature of the Arab-Israeli military balance is likely to return once the Arab states achieve a modicum of internal stability in the future. Under such conditions, Israel’s adversaries will have an interest in retarding an Israeli reserve call-up for as long as possible, thereby retaining their quantitative superiority in the balance of forces for a longer period of time.
Such a slowdown can be achieved by firing missiles at assembly points and equipment-distribution centers. Neighboring hostile entities, then, can be expected to use their large arsenals of ballistic missiles and rockets for just that purpose – to prevent the arrival of sufficient reinforcements to all of Israel’s fronts, including the Jordan Valley. Those who assert that the essentials of land warfare, like terrain and strategic depth, are no longer relevant in the age of ballistic missiles are simply wrong. Indeed, the incorporation of ballistic missiles into the battle plans of Israel’s adversaries only magnifies the importance of defensible borders, which will allow Israel’s standing army to contain an attack for much longer periods of time.
Why Can’t Israel Give Up Optimal Defensive Territory and Rely Instead on its Air Power to Stop any Attacking Army?
In any future battlefield the Israel air force initially will be given tasks of greater importance than providing air support for the deployment of ground forces. It will first have to achieve air superiority by destroying enemy anti-aircraft systems and neutralizing ballistic-missile fire at Israeli cities. Hence, the entry of ballistic missiles and rockets into the arena of warfare has only increased the importance of territory and strategic depth for Israel. With the reserve forces’ arrival likely to be delayed by rocket fire, the small regular army will need more time to hold off a ground offensive. Moreover, the regular army may well have to operate for a considerable time without massive air support as the air force is busy striking missile and rocket launchers.
For these reasons there is no substitute for the Jordan Valley as an Israeli defensive buffer. As Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, discussing future peace treaties, affirmed in his last speech to the Knesset in October 1995: “The security border of the State of Israel will belocated in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.”
The Jordan Valley’s critical importance for Israel’s security also emerges clearly from the Israeli experience in Gaza. In implementing the Oslo accords in Gaza in 1994, Israel created a security strip between southern Gaza and Egyptian territory. This narrow strip, no more than 330 feet (or about 100 m.) wide (!) at some crucial points, was known as the Philadelphi Route. Palestinian groups in Gaza made the most of its narrow size by digging tunnels under it to the Egyptian side of the town of Rafah, located in Sinai, and using these passageways to bring rockets and other weapons into Gaza.
Israel fought the tunnels with partial success until 2005, when it withdrew completely from Gaza – including from the Philadelphi Route. After that, arms smuggling grew rapidly and Gaza became a zone for firing rockets of increasing range and destructive capability at Israeli population centers. Hamas and other terror groups ramped up their smuggling activities, bringing in weapons from Iran, Yemen, and Sudan. Hamas operatives were able to leave Gaza and travel to Iran, where they were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps before returning to help build the Palestinian forces. In many regards the Jordan Valley is the Philadelphi Route of the West Bank, forming Israel’s security belt. The only way to ensure that any future Palestinian state is demilitarized, as Israel demands, and will not become another Iranian stronghold, is to maintain full Israeli control of the Jordan Valley.
Can’t Powerful Israel Rely on its Deterrent Capability?
Deterrence is an important component of the balance of forces between states and also of fighting terror. Basically, deterrence entails presenting a threat that leads opponents to avoid aggressive actions by persuading them that such actions will be more harmful than advantageous to them.
States having military power can be deterred from direct attacks and, specifically, from territorial invasions. It would be very difficult, however, to deter a third state, with which Israel did not share a border, from transferring its forces into a Palestinian state if it was invited in.
Over the years, efforts to deter terror organizations have only partly succeeded. Effectively deterring a terror group requires confronting it with a threat that is existential. A punitive operation that lacks the element of an existential threat causes escalation instead of deterrence. Deterrence does not work against terror organizations that control no territory or population, and have no organizational mechanism or logistical infrastructure that can be hit. The proliferation of such groups, along with the growing power of rocket terror, increasingly means that these groups can only be deterred by preventing them from succeeding (known as deterrence by denial).
Therefore, exercising effective deterrence against a military invasion or terror on Israel’s eastern front mandates Israeli military control of the Jordan Valley.
Israeli control of the Jordan Valley also has important implications for Jordan’s security. If the IDF evacuates the valley, preventing smuggling will mainly become the Jordanian army’s responsibility. As soon as Israel withdraws, however, a plethora of regional terror groups that want to infiltrate the West Bank, thereby bolstering Hamas and joining its war on Israel, will exploit the new situation by seeking a springboard in Jordan. The Jordan Valley’s attractiveness as an infiltration route will probably also spark the emergence of terror groups within the Kingdom of Jordan itself. That will undoubtedly add to Jordan’s security burden and possibly produce greater risks, as occurred in the late 1960s and led King Hussein in 1970 to finally crush the PLO’s extensive terror network, which threatened a civil war and the kingdom’s collapse.
Israeli control of the Jordan Valley also has important implications for Jordan’s security. If the IDF evacuates the valley, a plethora of regional terror groups that want to infiltrate the West Bank, thereby bolstering Hamas and joining its war on Israel, will exploit the new situation by seeking a springboard in Jordan.
What about Alternative Security Arrangements Involving Foreign Forces?
Another idea sometimes raised is that of “alternative security arrangements,” meaning a combination of a limited Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley with warning stations in sovereign Palestinian territory and the deployment of foreign (international, UN, or NATO) forces in the area.
Israel must not agree to such “solutions.” Israel’s national security doctrine is firmly based on self-reliance, and for good reasons beyond the vital importance of its ethos of self-defense.
Israel’s security concerns in the Jordan Valley cannot possibly be met if the territory is transferred to the Palestinians and if any sort of foreign forces are stationed there. International observers can only ensure that arrangements are implemented if all sides want to uphold them. No state will accept having its soldiers endanger their lives in place of Israeli soldiers. Indeed, Israel’s experience with international forces or monitors under such conditions is hardly encouraging. In Lebanon, UNIFIL has not met Israel’s expectations since the 2006 Second Lebanon War with regard to preventing the rearming of Hizbullah. Similarly, European Union observers at the Rafah Crossing in Gaza abandoned their posts in 2006 when they were threatened by rioters, and UN forces on the Golan Heights have similarly fled the dangers of Syria’s civil war.
The Israeli deployment in the Jordan Valley enables the continuous information-gathering that can provide rapid warning when necessary, the maintenance of a regular defensive force that operates in the territory and knows it well, defensive depth to ensure that sudden attacks can be contained, control of that defensive depth and the ability to fortify and barricade it at very short notice, and control over assembly areas for reinforcements and the axes for transporting them. Any Israeli deployment that does not meet all these requirements will be insufficient and will fail the test in the hour of need.
Israel has a natural right and a historically proven and internationally recognized need for defensible borders that enable it to defend itself with its own forces.
An analysis of the four main threats (conventional attacks, rocket and missile fire, terror, and nonconventional attacks), and a consideration of how they can be dealt with, demonstrates that neither the 1967 lines nor the security-fence line can serve as a defensible border for Israel, and that only full Israeli sovereignty over all of the Jordan Valley as a security zone running along the Jordan River, serving as a border, can give Israel security.
Israel must make a transition from a policy of “security based on political agreements and diplomatic guarantees” to one of “agreements based on the provision of security by Israeli forces positioned in defensible zones.”
In negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, Israel must insist on sovereignty over all areas having vital security importance, even as part of a settlement that includes a territorial compromise, and must not seek extraterritorial solutions that will prove inadequate.
Such defensible borders will not only enable Israel to provide its residents with the security they need, but also will ensure that a future peace treaty is sustainable.
* * *
1. Thomas Ricks, “The Future of War,” Foreign Policy, April 18, 2014. See also Statement of Frank J. Cilluffo, Associate Vice President and Director, Homeland Security Policy Institute, George Washington University, Joint Hearing before the Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection, and Security Technologies of the Committee on Homeland Security, U.S. House of Representatives, April 26, 2012.