Reshaping territory: The story of Israel's shifting borders
Does this country have an underlying strategy of expansion, or are its widening borders a natural consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict? 'Borderline Choices' takes readers on a tour of some of the seminal decisions that have affected Israel's de facto map.
(Borderline Choices), by Uri Neeman and David Arbel. Yedioth Books (Hebrew) 271 pages, NIS 118.
This is an intriguing book about Israel’s borders. To be more precise, about the decisions about peace and security that led to the determination of its elastic and still shifting borders.
The Zionist movement and, afterward, the State of Israel, persistently refrained from setting definitive borders, and its de facto borders were born of wars and of Israel’s withdrawal from, and return of, territory. But if you’re expecting to see a pattern here, think again. Yes, the authors write, one would have thought that “the shaping of Israel’s borders, a process still taking place today, was influenced by basic aspirations, political processes and of course the worldviews and decisions of leaders who planned their actions with a view to the end result.” But in fact that often isn’t what happened, with Israel’s borders being shaped by changing opportunities rather than grand schemes or, even worse, conspiracies.
For example, the decision by Levi Eshkol’s government to go to war in June 1967 does not appear to have been intended to influence Israel’s borders, but in retrospect, it clearly had a decisive influence on them. Since the Six-Day War, Israel has returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty and withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, but it continues to hold onto the West Bank and the Golan Heights.
In “Borderline Choices,” David Arbel and Uri Neeman, both Mossad veterans, analyze eight situations in which Israeli leaders were required to deal with the issue of the state’s borders. They begin with David Ben-Gurion’s decision to adopt the partition plan accepted by the UN General Assembly in November 1947, and move on to the decisions to annex the land captured in the War of Independence (which was meant to be part of a Palestinian state) and to start a preemptive war in 1967 but not in 1973. They also cover the peace agreement with Egypt and Israel’s 1982 withdrawal from Sinai (in return for continued control of the West Bank and Gaza) and the decision the following year to destroy the semblance of a Palestinian state in Lebanon and to remove Fatah from there in order to ensure continued control of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the 1993 Oslo Accords, that document Israel’s willingness to return to a division of the land. The final topic is Ariel Sharon’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, in 2005.
Some of the authors’ opinions can be expected to generate controversy. For example, Neeman and Arbel claim that Menachem Begin was a full partner who knew about and sanctioned Sharon’s plan to invade Lebanon in 1982, in order to force the Palestinians to move from Lebanon into Jordan and encourage the establishment of a Palestinian state there. Another argument, taken from the field of conspiracy theory, says that on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, the military and political leadership hoped to exploit the Arab attack to perpetuate Israeli control of the territories captured in the 1967 war. And another of the book’s claims, although not particularly original, is that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin lacked sufficient information when he agreed to the open-ended Oslo process.
The book is written clearly and concisely. An entire chapter is devoted to each of the decisions under consideration, and a map makes it easier for readers to distinguish among the changes in Israel’s borders since the time of the partition plan. Most of the source material for the book comes from public sources. This is a pity. Because of the sensitivity of the subject under consideration, and since the writers are intelligence specialists practiced in the gathering of information, one might have expected that they would make a greater effort to locate primary sources, especially in the chapter on Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem.
Deciding on their own
The authors describe how some of the military and political decisions intended to shape Israel’s borders were made by premiers working with only a few select cabinet ministers and no in-depth discussion. In some cases the prime ministers decided on their own, as Rabin did when he accepted the Oslo map cooked up by aides to Shimon Peres, and Sharon did when he decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
In the book’s closing words, the authors quote from Ben-Gurion’s exhortation to exclude any mention of borders from Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which was being drafted at the time: “Since ancient times, the borders of the Jewish people’s autonomy have retreated and advanced in accordance with the permutations of history.” And indeed, the War of Independence, in the first days of the state, left borders that were different from those apportioned by the partition plan. And the situation continues to change.
Arab scholars and intellectuals see Ben-Gurion’s words, and the decisions about land and borders that have been made since, as proof that Israel always intended to expand. But mainstream Zionist historiographers disagree and see Israel as merely taking advantage of the opportunities created by historical processes to repeatedly reshape the country’s borders. It would have been better if the authors had devoted some attention to this issue and expressed an opinion on whether Israel has always had an underlying strategy of expansion or its widening borders are simply a natural consequence of the never-ending Arab-Israeli conflict.
The authors do, however, consider the question of whether Israel can continue to rule over the West Bank. The answer is no.
Reality dictates that the Land of Israel must be divided into two sovereign countries between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The principle of such a division is acceptable to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as well as to most Arab nations and the international community. There is some doubt, however, about whether the leaders of Israel and Palestine will display statesmanship and gather the political courage needed to agree on where to draw the border between them. The alternative to such a decision, the authors say, is a bloody clash that will in any case send both sides back to the starting line − the division of the Land of Israel into two nation-states.
Yossi Melman reports and comments on security and intelligence issues for Haaretz. His new book, “Running: An Autobiography,” was published last month (in Hebrew) by Yedioth Books.