The Real Meaning of Defensible Borders

A regional peace deal, including normalization, as promised by the Arab peace initiative, would confer more security than a few thousand dunams in the Jordan Valley.

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
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Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

History teaches that the country, or the nation, has no "historical borders." Borders, after all, "changed several times according to circumstances," Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion wrote in 1918.

Borders and their definition are a product of human interests. In response to the Peel Commission's proposals in 1937, the Jewish Agency, headed by Ben-Gurion, took into account long-term interests. It asked that the Jewish state receive defensible borders - borders that could be defended against rifles and machine guns, but also against "sophisticated weaponry, heavy artillery and airplanes." Though the agency wanted to give the country "strategic depth," its proposal envisioned about 10,000 square kilometers, just 40 percent of Israel's territory under the 1967 borders.

Settlers walk toward the West Bank town of Jericho, through the Jordan Valley, Aug. 10, 2010Credit: AP

The expansion of Israel's size by a factor of three after the Six-Day War did not deter the Egyptians from attacking Israel and exacting a steep price in terms of human life, as part of the concept "better Sharm el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm el-Sheikh." Saddam Hussein sent us all into sealed rooms in 1991, without moving a single tank westward. Over the past decade, Hamas and Hezbollah have regularly sent Israelis into secure rooms, and everyone knows that during the next war, more civilians than soldiers will be wounded, despite the Iron Dome and Arrow anti-missile systems.

The 21st century is different than the 20th, regarding limits on the use of force, as well as threats, technology and the legitimacy accorded to liberation struggles. As a result, the importance of technological capabilities and controlling territory, as parameters under the concept "defensible borders," has lessened. Or, as U.S. President Barack Obama put it, with technology alone, Israel will find it hard to defend itself in the absence of real peace. Thus the meaning of "defensible borders" should be expanded to include nonmilitary considerations.

Relying on UN Resolution 242, Israel has maintained a defensible border with Egypt based on a peace accord that mandated the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula and the deployment of American troops there. Benjamin Netanyahu, like Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin before him, proposed withdrawing from the entire Golan Heights in exchange for a peace agreement with Syria that would include demilitarization. The "open bridges" policy between Israel and Jordan stabilized relations between the two countries, long before they forged a peace agreement. A regional peace deal, including normalization, as promised by the Arab peace initiative, would confer more security than a few thousand dunams in the Jordan Valley.

The fact that the threats have changed, transforming from the threat of a ground attack in the 1970s and terror in the 1980s to missiles and nonconventional weapons in the 21st century, means little to Netanyahu. This is also true despite the peace accords with Egypt and Jordan. All these transformations and developments disappear when he considers the Palestinians.

The Palestinians agreed that their state would lack an army and heavy weapons, while NATO would deploy troops on their territory and Israel would use their air space. But Netanyahu keeps trying to obscure his basic opposition to a Palestinian state and continues to claim that only Israeli control of territory equivalent to at least 20 percent of the West Bank will give Israel security.

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