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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region
Regional Overview: How Defensible Borders Remain Vital for Israel

Regional Overview: How Defensible Borders Remain Vital for Israel

Amb. Dore Gold
Libyan jihadist with SA-7 shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missile. These missiles from the Libyan arsenal proliferated across the Middle East and reached the Gaza Strip.

Libyan jihadist with SA-7 shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missile. These missiles from the Libyan arsenal proliferated
across the Middle East and reached the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s long-standing diplomatic goal of obtaining defensible borders in any future peace settlement has become even more compelling in recent years. Historically, since the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli governments have repeatedly insisted that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would not withdraw to the pre-war lines with the West Bank, from which Israel was attacked. In any case, these were formally only armistice lines from 1949, designating where the armies stopped in Israel’s War of Independence, so that any new international political boundary, it was felt, still needed to be negotiated.

Moreover, according to the carefully drafted language of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was adopted five months after the Six-Day War, Israel was not expected to fully pull out from all the territories it captured. Basing themselves on Israel’s legal rights, the architects of Israeli national security doctrine, from Yigal Allon and Moshe Dayan to Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, insisted that Israel needed defensible borders in the West Bank to protect itself against the plethora of threats it faced in the Middle East.

Pulling back to the 1967 lines would strip Israel of the territorial defenses that have provided for its security for over forty years and leave it only nine miles wide at one point on the map, leaving the Jewish state in a far more precarious position. This applied particularly to the loss of its formidable eastern barrier in the Jordan Valley, which to this day is viewed by Israel’s security establishment as the front line for its defense in the east.

This traditional Israeli position has acquired new salience against the background of three important recent developments. First, there was Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005. It left in its wake an enormous military buildup on the part of Hamas and other Islamist groups, which benefited from their ability to fully exploit the Sinai-Gaza boundary area through which they smuggled far larger quantities of rockets and other weaponry. As a result, these groups could significantly escalate the rate of rocket fire, as well as its range, against Israeli population centers. Clearly, this has raised the question of how to avert the same process from repeating itself in the West Bank, in the event of any further Israeli withdrawals.

Second, what was initially called the Arab Spring – and later labeled the Islamist Winter – has erased much of the certainty that once existed about the stability of the Arab regimes that were part of Israel’s strategic environment. The Arab-Israeli peace process had been predicated upon Israel assuming risks by its withdrawal from territories it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, while being able to rely on neighboring regimes to assume responsibility for security in any area that Israel vacated.

Now it is no longer clear to what extent the new regimes emerging in the Middle East will either have the will or the capacity to play this role in the future. Indeed, vast tracts of land in Libya, Syria, and Iraq appeared to be beyond the reach of their central governments, creating a vacuum that al-Qaeda affiliates were prepared to fill.

Third, despite the growth of these Israeli concerns, the U.S. and its European allies have increasingly made known their view that another effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be attempted, in which the territorial dimension be addressed up front. As a result, this has placed pressure on Israel to accept the notion of a withdrawal based on the 1967 lines. Israel has had to counter this with a position that would allow for a peace settlement that would be defensible – allowing Israel to defend itself by itself – but at the same time provide some diplomatic flexibility that could bring the parties closer to an agreement. Under these circumstances, the concept of defensible borders has become more important than ever.

The Impact of Gaza Disengagement

Israel’s decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip in September 2005 resulted in far-reaching military developments that have come to serve as a warning of what could happen in the West Bank if appropriate security arrangements and defensible borders are not in place. There are those who argued that the Gaza pullout could not serve as an example for a withdrawal from the West Bank, since the Gaza withdrawal was strictly unilateral, while any future withdrawal from West Bank territory would be the result of an agreement in which Palestinian security responsibilities would be spelled out.

But that distinction ignores the fact that Israel coordinated its Gaza withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority. The PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, actually dispatched a close military aide, Gen. Nasser Yusuf, to oversee the Israeli withdrawal in order to assure that it would not be interrupted by Palestinian rocket fire.

Israeli planners might have expected that the rate of Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip would diminish after Israel’s withdrawal.

Israeli planners might have expected that the rate of Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip would diminish after Israel’s withdrawal. After all, by pulling out its civilian settlement presence as well as its army positions, Israel was removing one of the principal grievances raised by Palestinian spokesmen.

There had been a steady escalation of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israeli targets since 2001, when four short-range Kassam rockets were fired on Israel. This number increased to 179 attacks in 2005 – the year of the Gaza disengagement. But in 2006, in the aftermath of Israel’s withdrawal, the number of rocket attacks did not go down, as might have been expected, but actually went up dramatically: there were 946 rockets launched at Israel, amounting to a more than 500 percent increase in the rate of rocket fire (see chart above).1

Another dimension of the post-Gaza withdrawal environment that stood out was the qualitative improvement of Palestinian rockets, especially with respect to their range. Prior to 2005, Palestinian organizations were using a domestically-produced rocket, the Kassam, that had a range of only seven kilometers. But in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal, the Palestinians began attacking a much wider belt around Gaza, striking the city of Ashkelon for the first time on March 28, 2006. During November 14-21, 2012, Palestinians fired 1,506 rockets at Israel, nearly reaching Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Newly imported rockets were entering the arsenals of Hamas and other organizations including the 120 mm Grad rocket, supplied by Iran, which came in different versions that had ranges of between 20 and 40 kilometers. Eventually, the Iranians exported the Fajr-5rocket (range 75 kilometers or 46.8 miles) to the Gaza Strip.

Other significant weapons systems were easily smuggled into the Gaza Strip after the Gaza disengagement. Russian armor-piercing missiles like the “Konkurs” also entered the Hamas arsenal. In 2011, Hamas fired a Russian-manufactured “Kornet,” an advanced laser-guided, anti-tank missile, at a yellow Israeli school bus in southern Israel, killing a 16-year-old boy.

Finally, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles like the SA-7 “Strella” were also smuggled into the Gaza Strip, which now had to be taken into account by Israeli pilots flying within Israeli airspace adjacent to Gaza. A new wave of shoulder-fired missiles came into Gaza through the smuggling tunnels in 2011 from Libya, after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. In the meantime, many Hamas operatives also exited the Gaza Strip though the tunnel system, reaching Egypt and then flying to Syria and on to Iran for advanced military training.

The key to understanding these developments in the weaponry deployed by Hamas and other organizations is to look at what happened on the outer perimeter of the Gaza Strip along its border with Egyptian Sinai. The original Gaza-Jericho Agreement between Israel and the PLO that was signed in 1994 as the first implementation agreement under the Oslo Accords created a very narrow strip along the border area that continued to be under Israeli military control. It was formally designated on the maps as the “Military Installation Area,” but was code named by the IDF as the “Philadelphi Route.”

When Palestinian organizations began to dig smuggling tunnels underneath the Philadelphi Route, the IDF waged a difficult counter-insurgency campaign along this strip of land in order to identify the location of the tunnels and eliminate them. Palestinians and Egyptians with no other livelihood also had a strong economic incentive to support the tunnel industry, beyond the ideological motivation of the organizations that used the smuggled arms to wage war on Israel.

After the Gaza disengagement in 2005, Israel was no longer able to send in forces to try to close down the tunnels, so their number mushroomed. Hundreds of smuggling tunnels were opened and the amount of weaponry reaching Gaza increased accordingly. As a result,Israel was forced to conduct military campaigns like Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008-January 18, 2009) and Operation Pillar of Defense (November 14-21, 2012) to suppress Hamas rocket fire, while Hamas maintained an external line of supply for new weaponry through the tunnels along Gaza’s outer perimeter. In this period, Hamas also developed a domestic production capability for longer-range rockets as well.

In contrast, when Israel conducted Operation Defensive Shield (March 29-May 3, 2002) in the West Bank to halt a wave of suicide bombing attacks on its cities, it was able to seal off the territory from any external reinforcement, leading to a far more decisive result than in the case of Gaza. Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles may have entered the Gaza Strip, but no such weaponry reached the West Bank, where the strategic consequences of their arrival would be enormous, given the proximity of Ben-Gurion International Airport to the pre-1967 line.

When Israel conducted Operation Defensive Shield (March 29-May 3, 2002) in the West Bank to halt a wave of suicide bombing attacks on its cities, it was able to seal the territory from any external reinforcement, leading to a far more decisive result than in the case of Gaza. Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles may have entered the Gaza Strip, but no such weaponry reached the West Bank.

Jordan has acted responsibly to prevent smuggling into Israel or the West Bank from its territory. But it, too, faces a growing smuggling challenge which it has openly admitted. In December 2013, the commander of the Jordanian Border Guard, Brig.-Gen. Hussein Zayoud, disclosed that smuggling over the Syrian-Jordanian border had more than tripled during 2013.2 At some point, when the situation within Syria stabilizes, this smuggling industry could be re-directed westward and involve itself in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Thus, Israeli concerns with the Egyptian scenario replicating itself along the Jordan-West Bank border are no exaggeration.

The lesson for Israel in planning West Bank security was clear. The equivalent of the Philadelphi Route in the West Bank was the Jordan Valley. Beyond the utility of the Jordan Valley as a strategic barrier in the event that Israel was drawn into conventional warfare, the area has acquired new importance in Israel’s public debate, since no one wanted to replicate the errors of the Gaza disengagement on a much greater scale in the West Bank. Continuing to seal the West Bank from external reinforcement remained critical, and Israel could only trust it own forces – rather than international troops – to carry out that task.

An additional major lesson from the Gaza disengagement had to do with how costly it would be for Israel to try to correct any errors from any failures emanating from a poorly executed withdrawal. In 1993, in presenting the Oslo Accords to his Labor Party faction in the Knesset, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin remarked that if it all goes wrong, “there is always the IDF.” An underlying assumption from the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 was that, after having pulled out, Israel would have far more international legitimacy if it was required to use force in the future. Undoubtedly, a similar calculus existed with the Gaza disengagement five years later.

But when this thesis was tested, it turned out to be terribly wrong. Thus, even though Israeli civilian population centers had been repeatedly struck by escalating rocket attacks by Hamas, the moment Israel used its armed forces and re-invaded large parts of the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead, it faced severe international condemnation, including a well-publicized investigation of its military actions by the UN Human Right Council, the results of which came to be known as the Goldstone Report.

As a result, while Israel possessed the military power to re-invade territory from which it withdrew, if severe threats to its security reappeared, the price of doing so made reliance on this option largely prohibitive. What made more sense was to make sure Israel had defensible borders, through which it could prevent any territory it evacuated from turning into a base for attacking the people of Israel.

The Arab Spring and the Fragmentation of the Arab State System

One underlying assumption of the Arab-Israeli peace process since 1967 was that if Israel withdrew from any territory it captured in the Six-Day War, there would be a responsible Arab government on the other side to assure the security of the vacated area out of its own self-interest. Even in the separate case of southern Lebanon, which saw IDF ground action in 1978 for the first time, UN Resolution 425, which Israel came to support, specifically called for the restoration of the authority of the Lebanese government as part of any future Israeli withdrawal.

However, the Arab Spring beginning in 2011 presented new factors in the Arab world that will have to become part of Israel’s calculus in the future if it contemplates withdrawal from any part of the West Bank. First, the central governments of many Arab states have been badly weakened, if not entirely replaced. That meant that they were in no position to exert control over large parts of their sovereign territory.

For example, in Libya, the central government in Tripoli lost control over the western part of the Libyan state, known as Cyrenaica. In Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula increasingly appeared to be beyond the control of the Egyptian government in Cairo. In Syria, by 2013 there were large portions of the Syrian state that were no longer governed by the Assad regime from Damascus as a result of the armed rebellion against it. This fragmentation was fueled by sectarianism, like the region-wide struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as tribalism in other cases.

Notably, Jordan remained an island of stability a midst this regional turmoil. Perhaps its internal situation had been strengthened by what was transpiring around it; after all, who in Jordan would want to import the bloodbath in Syria or Egypt into the kingdom, after its population had witnessed on their television screens the scale of the disaster that was occurring among their neighbors.

What did this region-wide trend mean for Israel? There were those who greeted the disintegration of these Arab nation-states as a security windfall for Israel. True, with the collapse of the Arab states, it would become extremely difficult for them to maintain the kinds of large force structures that were so prevalent for much of the Cold War. Israel originally conceived of defensible borders as a strategy that would allow its relatively small standing army to withstand and contain quantitatively superior Arab armies until the IDF completed its reserve mobilization and reached full strength. That scenario did not appear to be relevant in a Middle East enmeshed in internal revolts, leading some to suggest that Israel was facing a more benign strategic environment. Yet that sort of conclusion was mistaken.

Long-term planning cannot be based on a snapshot of reality in a given year, but has to take into account different possible ways the military balance in the Middle East can evolve over time.

Israel will be operating in the years ahead with a large degree of uncertainty. As a result, long-term planning cannot be based on a snapshot of reality in a given year, but has to take into account different possible ways the military balance in the Middle East can evolve over time. Unquestionably, some of the Arab states will inevitably rearm after they become more stable. Iraq has already begun the long road to rebuild its ground forces with the acquisition of U.S. M1A1 Abrams tanks, as well as older Soviet military hardware like the T-72 main battle tank with which the Iraqis are more familiar. Armor remains a significant component of overall military power for many Middle Eastern states.

Certainly external powers will have a strong interest in making arms sales, not only to help sustain their defense industries, but also to retain influence in the Middle East. For the Middle Eastern states themselves, rebuilding their ground forces will be a prerequisite for acquiring the capability to hold together multi-ethnic states with rebellious provinces. In short, the eventual recovery of Arab armies must be taken into account and the security dilemmas that Israel faced in the past can easily return.

Moreover, in the near term, the conventional military threat was being superseded by a new global jihadist challenge. Across the Middle East, the vacuum within the Arab states was being filled by jihadist movements that do not recognize the international borders of the Middle East state system. In Egyptian Sinai, these include organizations like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which made war against Israel one of their main goals and took credit for Grad rocket attacks on Eilat from Egyptian Sinai. In early 2014, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis took credit for bombing attacks on Egyptian security headquarters in the Nile Delta and in the heart of Cairo. While the group appeared to be an al-Qaeda affiliate, Egypt’s Interior Ministry charged that they sought the support of Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The Syrian organization Jabhat al-Nusra was another al-Qaeda affiliate whose power grew with the rebellion against the Assad regime. It published a book outlining its plan of action, stressing that “Syria is the key to change in the Levant, including in occupied Palestine.” Another Syrian jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (the Levant) or ISIS, operated in both the Sunni-populated areas of Syria as well as Iraq, where they seized cities like Ramadi and Fallujah in 2014.

The revival of al-Qaeda in Iraq was indicative of the fact that the jihadist organizations demonstrated a robust ability to recover, even if they were defeated at a certain point. After all, Iraqi al-Qaeda appeared to have been destroyed as a result of the surge of U.S.forces there in 2007. Across the Middle East, the jihadist threat followed a pattern of ebb and flow along with its battlefield fortunes.

In July 2013, the head of IDF military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, warned that in the “immediate future” the dangers to Israel were increasing. He focused on the al-Qaeda presence in Syria:

Syria is the most disturbing example, drawing thousands of global jihad activists and radical Islamists from the region and beyond. They are establishing themselves in Syria, not only to oust Assad, but to promote their vision of a Sharia state. In plain sight, on our doorstep, a global jihad stronghold of great magnitude is being established. This reality could potentially affect not only Syria and the border with Israel but Lebanon, Jordan, Sinai and the entire region as well.3

The head of IDF operations, Maj.-Gen. Yoav Har-Even, noted in early 2014 that the jihadi presence in Syria was becoming more consolidated and they had a broader mission: “The moment they finish dealing with Assad, we’re next in line. They are not coming only to fight in Syria.”4 He added: “They are already in the southern Golan Heights, in the area of Dar’a, and this deeply disturbs us, the Americans and the Jordanians.” It was notable that at this time, al-Qaeda was also seeking to gain a foothold in the West Bank. Clearly, the stability of all of Israel’s neighbors could be put at risk if this phenomenon were to grow.

The rise of these international terrorist organizations along Israel’s borders is becoming much more militarily significant than in the past. Prior to the 1990s, the threat of terrorist organizations was usually seen in Israel as tactical, while the threat of conventional armies was perceived as strategic. Yet these distinctions no longer make sense. International terrorist organizations are proving to be far more militarily potent than in the past with the introduction of more advanced military technologies. Already in 1983, a militant Shiite cell in Lebanon used a truck bomb against the barracks of the U.S. Marines in Beirut, in what was called the largest non-nuclear explosion since the Second World War. By 2006, the Shiite militia Hizbullah had acquired from Iran more long-range rockets than most states possess.

The robust capabilities of jihadist forces in combating conventional armies were also demonstrated by al-Qaeda’s offshoots in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda in Iraq extensively used improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against coalition forces in Iraq; in 2007, the Washington Post reported that 63 percent of U.S. combat deaths had been caused by IEDs.5 Islamist insurgents in Syria succeeded in defeating entire units of the Syrian army and effectively used anti-tank weapons against Syrian armor.

The robust capabilities of jihadist forces in combating conventional armies were demonstrated by al-Qaeda’s offshoots in the Middle East. Islamist insurgents in Syria succeeded in defeating entire units of the Syrian army and effectively used anti-tank weapons against Syrian armor.

Jihadists demonstrate capability to subdue Syrian conventional units. Pictured here is  a captured Syrian T-72V-AT tank (with reactive armor) flying the Jabhat al-Nusra flag

Jihadists demonstrate capability to subdue Syrian conventional units. Pictured here is a captured Syrian T-72V-AT
tank (with reactive armor) flying the Jabhat al-Nusra flag.

It was well known that al-Qaeda’s leadership in Afghanistan back in 2001 was actively seeking out Pakistani atomic scientists, which meant that the organization and its affiliates were thinking about posing a far greater terror threat in the future than the world had previously witnessed. The stakes involved in thwarting terrorist smuggling efforts are growing, as are the costs of failing to do so.6

Another consideration that must be taken into account with the revival of al-Qaeda affiliates to Israel’s east is the implications of their presence for any peacekeeping forces that the West is considering to deploy in support of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Presumably, a NATO force in the Jordan Valley would be more acceptable to the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, than a continuing Israeli presence.7

But from the Islamists’ perspective a Western force is no less troubling. Indeed, from its inception, al-Qaeda established the goal of evicting the West from the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East more generally. A revived al-Qaeda would undoubtedly seek to attack any peacekeeping force that would be a lightening rod for the jihadists in surrounding countries. Therefore, a robust al-Qaeda presence in Syria or Iraq not only poses a threat to Israel, but also (and even to a greater degree) to a Western force conceived to be an integral part of any security arrangements to which the parties might be asked to agree.

Finally, Iran was becoming a new and uncertain factor along Israel’s eastern front, largely due to its role in Iraq, which behaves increasingly like an Iranian satellite state. Despite Washington’s repeated requests that Iraq not persist with this behavior, Baghdad permitted Iranian aircraft to use its air space in order to ship reinforcements to President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime in Damascus. The Iraqi regime also supplied Iraqi Shiite militia forces to fight alongside those of Lebanese Hizbullah in Syria against the rebel Sunni forces fighting Assad.

The weakness of the Arab state system has allowed Iran to intervene in a host of internal conflicts, from Yemen to Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria. For over a decade, Iranian weapons deliveries bound for Lebanon or the Gaza Strip have been repeatedly thwarted by the Israeli Navy, in ships like the Karine A (January 3, 2002), the Francop (November 4, 2009), or the Klos C (March 5, 2014). Iranian smugglers, backed by the Qods Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, have been active in shipping weapons to aid the pro-Shiite insurgency in Yemen as well.

In December 2013, Bahrain intercepted yet another Iranian weapons ship bringing explosives and weapons to Shiite insurgents. Unfortunately, much of the international community has become accustomed to the deployment of Iranian forces in various combat zones, like Syria. Assuming that Iran invests in upgrading its armed forces, Israel might very well witness the regular deployment of Iranian units in parts of Iraq or Syria in the future, thereby reviving, in part, Israel’s eastern front.

This would allow Iran to project its military power towards Jordan, Israel’s immediate neighbor to the east. Iran has made multiple efforts to build a bridgehead to the Hashemite Kingdom. Since 2012, Iran has sought to reach an agreement with Jordan allowing it to vastly expand Shiite tourism to shrines that are regarded as sacred to Iranian religious pilgrims, particularly near al-Karak in southern Jordan. Today, there is also a substantial Iraqi Shiite refugee population in Jordan. Though not known for religious extremism, this population nevertheless may be targeted by Iranian propaganda. Finally, radical Palestinian organizations like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which have been allied with Tehran, might be used to build up centers of influence for Iran in the Jordanian state. Israel’s policy of regarding any foreign invasion of Jordan as a “red line” that would trigger its own intervention has provided a certain degree of security for Jordan in the past and has effectively deterred expansionist powers. Were Israel to concede the Jordan Valley and withdraw its forces, then its ability to play this role in regional stability would be much more constrained precisely at a time at which Iranian activism is expected to increase.8

The Revival of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and the Question of the 1967 Lines

Just as the signs of growing regional chaos began to spread across the Middle East in what was initially called the Arab Spring, the Western powers undertook another initiative to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israel had agreed to a ten-month settlement freeze in 2009-10, which was intended to set the stage for the Palestinian side to agree to new negotiations, but that effort had not worked. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, began to speak about going to the UN to gain admission for a Palestinian state or to upgrade the PLO observer mission.

In this environment, Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, stated in a March 2011 address at Chatham House that the UK, France, and Germany were pressing the U.S. and the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the EU, and the UN Secretariat) to set out clear principles for negotiations that would presumably draw the Palestinians back to the table and avert their turning to the UN. The territorial component of this European proposal called for a solution based “on the 1967 borders with equivalent land swaps.”

It was Britain that helped draft UN Security Council Resolution 242 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War. In fact, the British ambassador to the UN in 1967, Lord Caradon, admitted on PBS:“We did not say there should be a withdrawal to the ‘67 line….We all knew – the boundaries of ‘67 were not drawn as permanent frontiers.”

There was a certain irony in Hague’s proposal. It was Britain that helped draft UN Security Council Resolution 242 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, when Israel captured the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. According to its famous territorial clause, Israel was not expected to fully withdraw from all the territory that it captured, but rather was entitled to new, secure boundaries instead.

In fact, the British ambassador to the UN in 1967, Lord Caradon, admitted on PBS:“We did not say there should be a withdrawal to the ‘67 line….We all knew – the boundaries of ‘67 were not drawn as permanent frontiers.” Resolution 242 became the basis for all Arab-Israeli agreements with Egypt, Jordan, and even the PLO. It was also the basis of the invitation issued by the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the participants in the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Israel has multiple difficulties with proposals for making the 1967 lines – even with the caveat of land swaps – the basis for negotiations. The very idea of using the 1967 lines as a basis prejudged the outcome of any future negotiations. It used the Palestinian goal of the outcome of negotiations as the price Israel needed to pay for entering the negotiating room.

Land swaps were not even mentioned in the original terms of reference for the peace process, like Resolution 242. They later became an innovation introduced in academic channels between Israel and the Palestinians. Finally, the size of the land swap that Mahmoud Abbas was actually willing to consider involved only 1.9 percent of the West Bank, according to a 2011 interview, which meant that the land swap idea did not vary considerably from the 1967 lines.9

At first, Israelis were surprised when President Obama appeared to be adopting a similar position on the 1967 lines. On May 19, 2011, Obama delivered an address on the Arab Spring at the State Department at the end of which he stated: “The borders of Israel andPalestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” This language appeared to be at variance with the content of the April 14, 2004, letter of assurances that Israel received from the previous Bush administration – with the backing of Congress – which stated: “It is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Two days later, on May 21, 2011, President Obama clarified in greater detail what his new position meant: “It means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967.” Obama added that the parties would have to take into account changes that had occurred since 1967, “including the new demographic realities on the ground.” This addition was interpreted in Israel to mean that Obama believed that new borders would have to take into account the existence of settlement blocs in the West Bank, where there was a significant concentration of Israelis that could not be ignored. President Obama’s formulation created more flexibility than the British position articulated by Foreign Secretary Hague.

Obama was less explicit when it came to how security considerations would influence the designation of new borders. Significantly, Obama established the principle: “Every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat.” Whether he envisioned that this principle was linked to borders was unclear. The same was true for another point he explained: “Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.” This goal could either be accomplished by border modifications or by extra-territorial security arrangements.

During his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in May 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that Israel could not withdraw to the 1967 lines: “Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.” He laid out Israeli security needs beyond those lines, stressing the importance of the Jordan Valley, in particular: “It is vital that Israel maintain a long-term military presence along the Jordan River.” He also included in the strategic map he was outlining “places of critical strategic and national importance.”Immediately following his address, Netanyahu was interviewed on Fox News by Sean Hannity and further amplified his position, explaining that Israel had been only nine miles wide in 1967. He added that there was “agreement between Israel and the U.S. that Israel must have defensible borders.”

Negotiating Defensible Borders

Since 1967, the traditional view in Israel on how it should negotiate its final boundaries has been based on the idea that where Israel has vital security interests in the West Bank, it should seek sovereignty over those areas in order to safeguard them. Yigal Allon, who was known as one of Israel’s greatest military minds, commanded the Palmach strike force of the Haganah during Israel’s War of Independence when he served as a mentor to one of his senior officers, Yitzhak Rabin. During the 1967 Six-Day War, Allon was Israel’s deputy prime minister and in its aftermath he proposed a plan for “territorial compromise” in the West Bank based on Israel retaining 700 square miles (out of 2,100 square miles).

This involved the largely arid eastern zone in the Jordan Valley that would not add any substantial Palestinian population to Israel. By revising the pre-war boundaries this way, Allon concluded that Israel would obtain “defensible borders” at the end of the day. Heunveiled the Allon Plan in Foreign Affairs in 1976, in his capacity as Prime Minister Rabin’s foreign minister.10 Allon explained that any part of the West Bank from which Israel withdrew would have to be demilitarized. The only way to guarantee demilitarization was for Israel to extend its sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.

An alternative way of implementing defensible borders is to insist that an Israeli military presence be maintained in those specific areas in which Israel has vital interests, even if they are not under formal Israeli sovereignty. In a forthcoming concession to the Palestinian side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only demanded Israeli forces along the Jordan River, rather than stating up front that the area on which they are to be deployed must be annexed by Israel.

Presumably, the security arrangements model would be easier for the Palestinian side to accept in negotiations as opposed to outright Israeli annexation of the area. However, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership were vocally resistant to this model as well, preferring international forces over any Israeli military presence. At the end of the day, Israel will have to seek arrangements for the Jordan Valley that best protect its vital security interests.

Regardless of the question of sovereignty, in the Jordan Valley, Israel must obtain exclusive security control over a specified area, which will allow it to operate effectively against the threats that are likely to emerge in that area. Israel has always based its security in the Jordan Valley on preserving a right of reinforcement in the event that a new scale of threat emerges to the east. This requires that Israel hold on to deployment areas which it may need in the event that those scenarios occur. In an address to the Knesset in October 1995, just before he was assassinated, Rabin stressed that the security border of Israel should be in the Jordan Valley, “in the widest sense of that term.”

One of the main questions posed to Israel, if it is only seeking a military presence but not Israeli sovereignty, is: How long will it need this military presence in the Jordan Valley – three years, ten years, or forty years? The answer to this question is not a function of time but rather of performance. First, there is the question of the Palestinian security forces and whether they will fulfill their commitments as outlined in any agreement.

Second, West Bank security is not only a function of what the Palestinians do, but also what is happening in the surrounding states: Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Will these states continue to be afflicted with jihadi movements seeking to join their counterpartson the West Bank, or not? Will revived military forces in these areas remain focused elsewhere, or will they coalesce to challenge Israel?

Israel has always based its security in the Jordan Valley on preserving a right of reinforcement in the event that a new scale of threat emerges to the east. This requires that Israel hold on to deployment areas which it may need in the event that those scenarios occur.

Jordan is a special factor in Israeli considerations. Any negotiation over the sensitive Jordan Valley requires close consultation with the Jordanian leadership. In the past, there was a concern in Amman with Palestinian irredentism, which could lead to Palestinian claims to Jordan itself from a West Bank Palestinian state. Moreover, the Sinai precedent must be uppermost in the minds of Jordanian planners. When it became clear that the outer perimeter of the Gaza Strip was completely open through the Philadelphi Route, hosts ofjihadi movements relocated to Egyptian Sinai, creating a direct security threat to Egypt itself. Some of the most lethal al-Qaeda affiliates in Sinai relied on Gaza connections.

Ironically, Israeli vulnerability undermined the internal security of Israel’s largest Arab neighbor. That is a process that Israel cannot allow again in the Jordanian case. For that reason, Israel’s continuing control of the Jordan Valley is not only important for its security, but for regional security more broadly.

* * *


1. “Terrorism from the Gaza Strip Since Operation Cast Lead: Data, Type and Trends,” The Meir Amit Intelligence and -Terrorism Information Center, March 17, 2011.

2. Mohamed Al-Daameh, “Arms Smuggling Along Syria-Jordan Border Triples: Jordanian Official,” Asharq Al-Awsat, December 7, 2013.

3. IDF Blog, July 23, 2013.

4. Alex Fishman, “IDF: ‘The Moment They Finish Dealing with Assad, Israel Is Next in Line,’” Yediot Ahronot (Hebrew), January 3, 2014.


6. Graham Allison, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2005).

7. Jodi Rudoren, “Palestinian Leader Sees NATO Force in Future State,” New York Times, February 2, 2014.

8. Khalid Sindawi, “Jordan’s Encounter with Shiism,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Vol. 10, August 2013, pp.102-114,; Osama Al Sharif, “Jordan- Iran Ties May Show Early Signs of Thaw,” Al-Monitor, January 19, 2014,; Ron Tira, “The Status of the Jordan Valley in an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement” (in Hebrew), Strategic Update, Vol. 17, No. 1, April 2014, pp. 27-38.

9. Bernard Avishai, “A Plan for Peace that Still Could Be,” New York Times Magazine, February 7, 2011.

10. Yigal Allon, “Israel: The Case for Defensible Borders,” Foreign Affairs, October 1976.

Executive Summary
Introduction: Restoring a Security-First Peace Policy
by Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Moshe Yaalon
Regional Overview: How Defensible Borders Remain Vital for Israel
by Amb. Dore Gold
Defensible Borders to Ensure Israel’s Future
by Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan
The Risks of Foreign Peacekeeping Forces in the West Bank
by Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror
A Long-Term Perspective on Israel’s Security Needs
by Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser
Key Principles of a Demilitarized Palestinian State
by Major-General Aharon Ze'evi Farkash
Control of Territorial Airspace and the Electromagnetic Spectrum
by Brig.-Gen. (ret) Udi Dekel
Understanding UN Security Council Resolution 242
by Amb. Meir Rosenne
The U.S. and Israel’s Struggle Against the 1967 Lines
by Amb. Dore Gold
Israel’s Return to Security-Based Diplomacy
by Dr. Dan Diker
About the Authors
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UNSCR 242 (1967)
UNSCR 338 (1973)
President Bush's Letter to Prime Minister Sharon (2004)
Congress Approves President Bush's Commitment to Israel (2004)
Prime Minister Netanyahu's Speech at Bar-Ilan (2009)
Prime Minister Netanyahu's Speech to a Joint Session of Congress (2011)
Israel and the Middle East
Israel within the 1949 Armistice Lines (pre-1967 Lines)
Israel’s Strategic Vulnerability from the West Bank
Gaza “Hamastan” in the West Bank: Threats to Israeli Population Centers
Israel’s Defense Line: The Jordan Rift Valley with the Steep Eastern Slopes of the West Bank
Israel’s Airspace Vulnerabilities: The Limited Time for Interdicting Hostile Aircraft
Defensible Borders on the Golan Heights
Implications of a Palestinian Corridor Across Israel
Israel's Right to Secure Boundaries