Israel has historically been a small state surrounded by hostile countries, some of which are many times its size. In its first fifty years, it found itself engaged in five full-scale wars.
Israel has little strategic depth. Only 44 miles separate between the Jordan Valley and the Mediterranean Sea. A modern fighter bomber can cross this distance in three minutes.
After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel came under attack by four armies on three fronts, UN Security Council Resolution 242 declared that Israel had the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” It was not expected to withdraw fully to the fragile armistice lines from which it had been repeatedly attacked.
Prior to Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, President George W. Bush sent Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter of assurance about the West Bank in which he stated, “The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders.”
Both Houses of the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly approved the letter.
What are Israel’s defensible borders?
1. The Jordan Rift Valley
The Jordan Rift Valley, Israel’s eastern frontier, forms a natural barrier between Israel and Jordan, and beyond Jordan, Iraq, and Iran. The Jordan Valley and the mountains that dominate it create a steep 4,200-foot virtual wall opposite any force attacking from the east.
In the past, Israel faced numerically superior conventional armies. Though outnumbered, it succeeded in winning decisively by fully exploiting the principles of ground warfare.
Today, Israel faces mainly terror armies, like Hizbullah, Hamas, and ISIS. It must be stressed that as long as wars are fought and ultimately won by the maneuverability of land armies, the terrain and strategic depth will remain at the core of Israeli national security.
To defend itself from attacks from the east, Israel must retain control over the Jordan Valley and the western mountain ridge that dominates it. Israel cannot concede this vital area in any diplomatic arrangement. That was the position taken by the architects of Israel’s national security, like Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, and Yitzhak Rabin, and it remains as relevant today as it was back then.
2. Israel’s mountain ridge
Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, really the 1949 armistice lines, would be suicidal. The western slopes of the mountain ridge dominate Israel’s coastal plain, where more than 70% of its population, and 80% of its industrial capacity is located. All flights in and out of Israel’s main international airport, Ben-Gurion, would be threatened by shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Vital early-warning stations facing east would be lost.
With terror armies increasingly using low-flying drones in Syria and Yemen, Israel must protect its air defense assets all along this critical terrain.
With a full withdrawal, the country’s width would be reduced to a narrow nine-mile waistline and would be impossible to defend.
Therefore any future arrangement must include Israeli control over key parts of the mountain ridge, demilitarization of the West Bank, and continuing Israeli control of its air-space.
3. Defense from terror tunnels
In addition, Israel must protect itself against the kind of attack tunnels used in recent years by Hamas and Hizbullah along its southern and northern fronts. The attack tunnels are emerging as part of the news strategic landscape facing Israel on all its fronts. To preclude their use, Israel must retain over-riding security responsibility within the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
In the last two decades, it had been hoped that Israeli withdrawals from Gaza and Southern Lebanon would reduce the hostile intent of its adversaries. But the exact opposite occurred. The withdrawals only led to escalating threats along its borders. Moreover, the past notion that great powers would intervene in the Middle East to halt acts of aggression when red lines were crossed has been disproven. Increasingly, Middle East states are on their own.
In a volatile Middle East, where there is an explosive mix of resurgent jihadist movements, and regimes driven by hegemonial ambitions, uncertainty is rampant. More than ever, it is crucial to ensure defensible borders for Israel. So that Israel can defend itself by itself.