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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

What Happened to Secure Borders for Israel? The U.S., Israel, and the Strategic Jordan Valley

Filed under: Israel, Israeli Security, Palestinians, Peace Process, U.S. Policy
Publication: Dore Gold Articles

Project for the New American Century

For three decades, Israeli foreign ministers from Abba Eban through Ariel Sharon have insisted before the international community that Israel could not withdraw in the West Bank to the vulnerable 1967 lines from which it was attacked at the start of the Six-Day War. The great diplomatic victory of November 1967 was the language of UN Security Council Resolution 242 that legitimized Israel’s call for “secure borders.”

It was Israel’s foreign minister under the first Rabin government, Yigal Allon, who specified what “secure borders” meant in the pages of Foreign Affairs in October 1976. Allon, one of Israel’s greatest military minds, argued that Israel would need to preserve a strategic zone in the eastern West Bank running up from the Jordan Valley to the eastern slopes of the West Bank hill ridge.

This area would allow Israel’s small standing army to hold off an assault from a combination of Arab states to Israel’s east for enough time for Israel to mobilize and deploy its reserve forces, which constitute the bulk of Israel’s military power. For “secure borders” Allon envisioned that Israel would need some 700 square miles of the 2100 square miles that make up the West Bank (about one-third). Allon’s thinking guided the peace plans of both Labor and Likud governemnts: Rabin described his goals before the Knesset in 1995 in terms that closely resembled the ideas of Allon, who was both his mentor and his former commander in 1948; while Benjamin Netanyahu described, in 1997, his ideas on the final status of the territory to be divided between Israel and the Palestinians as “Allon-Plus.”

The “Allon Plan” was originally conceived when Middle Eastern armies were relatively small and consisted of largely slow infantry formations. All this has changed, of course. The forces Israel may have to face in the field are now larger and mechanized. In addition, states such as Iraq or Syria, by utilizing ballistic missiles against Israel’s civilian rear, could seriously delay Israel’s ability to mobilize its critical reserve forces. This only increases the importance of superior topographical conditions and secure borders for Israel’s small standing army.

But indications are that this cornerstone of Israeli policy and diplomacy is about to go down the drain, as the current U.S. administration attempts to organize a three-way summit between Prime Minister Ehud Barak, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and President Clinton in Washington in the weeks ahead. According to authoritative leaks from the negotiations that have taken place over the past weeks, amplified recently by Interior Minister Natan Sharansky in a letter to Prime Minister Barak, Israel is about to concede the strategic barrier of the Jordan Valley in order to close a deal with the PLO. Instead of seeking at least a third of the West Bank, Israel may settle for less than 10 percent.

Why? Well, it appears that Israel is considering an alternative strategic concept, by which its valuable territorial defenses are being exchanged not for peace (few trust Arafat’s intentions), but for the promise of more U.S. foreign aid and advanced American technology to put in place an array of high-tech sensors and military systems for ensuring Israel’s security. Instead of “land for peace,” the new model for Israel’s security could be called “land for cash.”

This new concept is flawed for a number of reasons. FIrst, terrain, topography, and strategic depth are constants of national strength, like population and national resources. This constant is being exchanged for a temporary strategic advantage in technology. Yet Israel has gone down this road once before when, in 1979, it gave up the Sinai in exchange for access to high-tech American weaponry – but then witnessed advanced U.S. sales of virtually the same equipment to Egypt a few years later.

Second, if Israel is going to move to a “high-tech, high maintenance” defense posture as a substitute for the Jordan Valley, who is going to pay for it? The Cold War has ended, and with that has come a growing reluctance on the part of the United States to support large foreign aid budgets. Even if, for the sake of argument, one believed that advanced technology could replace the security provided by the Jordan Valley over the long term, is it safe to assume that the U.S. Congress will be interested in providing the substantial aid necessary to erect and maintain this high-tech system of defenses in the years ahead, long after the tables and chairs on the White House lawn have been folded and the signing ceremonies forgotten?

Third, Israel needs advanced American technology, regardless of the peace process. Missile proliferation is accelerating in Iran and probably in Iraq. The U.S. and Israel should be working together on ballistic missile defense, whether through the Arrow program, the anti-Katyusha laser, or boost-phase options. Neutralizing the missile threat is in both nations’ strategic interests and should not be tied to the peace process. Nor should the costs associated with implementing a peace agreement drain resources away from these other critical defense programs.

What should then be done? Peace is important to all Israelis. But Israel needs a secure peace. And what Israel needs more than extra cash is firm U.S. diplomatic support for its long-held territorial positions. What Israel needs is secure borders. It is important to remember that while the U.S. sometimes positions itself as a neutral facilitator of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, ultimately, the U.S. is Israel’s ally. But when the parties are in the tunnel of negotiations, American diplomats may believe that it is imperative to get the parties to modify their positions to ensure the continuation of the negotiating process and to bolster hopes for a final accord.

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, Israel has adjusted its positions to Palestinian needs. What is needed in this last push to a “final status” agreement is a Palestinian adjustment to Israeli needs. More important than any peace agreement is an arrangement on the ground that leaves Israel confident about its own security, both today and in the years ahead. An agreement that falls short of that goal is likely to produce an Israel that is more dependent on the United States, more concerned with the slightest change in the policies of neighboring states and, in turn, less confident about its own future.

Of course, Israel is ultimately responsible for the diplomatic positions that it adopts. But should the Clinton Administration get into the business of presenting proposals to bridge differences between the parties and assuring the Barak government of huge multi-year aid packages (that it cannot guarantee), then it is also taking an active part in shaping Israel’s future. It would then share responsibility for the outcome that is finally reached.