Substitute for the West Bank: Training Bloc'

Geography, not the lust for conquest and not the voracity for Palestinians, propelled Israel to expand.

It had already become a tradition no less sacred than the customs of the holiday itself, a gift the people receive from its army: "During the days of the holiday, the Israel Defense Forces' training areas will be open to visitors." For those with a discerning ear, this subtly confirms that many areas in the state are closed to its citizens.

The geographer Amiram Oren does not suffice with subtle hints. In an illuminating article ("The spatial `price' of security"), published this month by the Geostrategy Cathedra of University of Haifa, he describes in detail, with maps, the land allocated for security use in Israel. In his previous incarnation, as an officer in the IDF General Staff's Planning Division, Dr. Oren was involved in charting the military infrastructure and permanent deployment of units, bases and facilities.

According to his inventory, the security establishment controls nearly half of the territory within the Green Line. About half of the country is in the hands of the IDF and its partners (intelligence, police, industries). One-tenth of the area of Israel is built up. Of the remaining nine-tenths, a third is dedicated to training areas. Bases, facilities and industries take up another sixth, including areas where civilian use is restricted due to land, air or naval activities conducted on or near them.

In a state that fights over every scrap of land, as long as the land is located outside its borders, this constitutes terrible wastefulness. Every evacuation of a settlement, every change the width of a pencil tip in the path of the separation fence between the West Bank and Israel entails deliberations and agony, even when only 100 meters are involved.

And, at the same time, thousands of kilometers are handed over to be exploited in territory where there is no dispute over sovereignty. This territory, totaling about 6,000 square kilometers, could be called the "training bloc." It is the archipelago of the IDF, with a large central island in the Negev.

Six thousand square kilometers is also about the size of the West Bank. The formula is obvious: Israel within the Green Line is large enough to assimilate all of the future concessions in the West Bank. It has a southern bank, a military bank, which will absorb everything that is ejected from the east of the Green Line.

Ariel Sharon takes pride in succeeding last year to get President George W. Bush to affirm the need to consider the facts on the ground created by the West Bank settlement blocs. (To be more precise, Condoleezza Rice was the one to sign this affirmation, on behalf of Bush.) This does not include all of the blocs, and does not include Jerusalem, and requires land swaps. It is impossible to know what Israelis would say if they were presented with the choice of terraces in Judea or dunes in the Negev, but one can assume that, from monetary considerations alone, it would be best to seek such a deal in order to save the tens of billions required for building new communities and compensating the settlers.

Israel will not be able to avoid the question of where land can be taken to give to the nascent Palestinian state in exchange for the land populated by the settlers. Directly or indirectly, the land reserves will be found in the training areas. Directly, as in the example of the Halutza dunes, south of Gaza, or indirectly, if areas adjacent to Mount Hebron are evacuated and their civilian equivalent is taken from the training areas.

With proper and frugal management, the security establishment can already suffice with a much smaller area than it now controls.

With some effort, despite the problems of takeoff and landing paths, the air force and testing base in Palmahim could be evacuated and Israel's main international airport could be built there. Land forces could be hosted at naval and air bases, and redundant command centers could be cut, such as that of the Land Forces Command, which maintains offices at both the Kirya in Tel Aviv and Kastina, near Kiryat Malachi. There is no real need to maintain separate training grounds for the IDF and the industrial development and testing units. More intelligent operation of these areas (including civilian management) during the weekends, along the model of lending them to the American army for training in the Negev, would cram an identical amount of training into a smaller area. The development of computers and simulators also justifies cutting back the mania for real estate.

Geography, not the lust for conquest and not the voracity for Palestinians, propelled Israel to expand. Between the Kadesh operation [1956 Suez campaign] and the Six-Day War, the armies became better armed. The General Staff was horrified to discover in its calculations, and even more during war games, that the armies of Egypt and the Eastern Front (commanded in the war games by the head of the Southern Front, major general Abraham Yoffe) could defeat the IDF (commanded in the war games by the head of IDF operations, major general Yitzhak Rabin). The war games indicated that Israel needs two security belts: an inner one, without armor, in the Sinai, West Bank and Golan, and an outer one, with warnings provided by forces moving toward this belt (and Iraqi expeditionary forces approaching the Jordanian border). The collapse of these "red lines" generated the Six-Day War. The peace with Egypt and Jordan, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the weakening of Syria has changed the strategic reality into a tolerable one. With proper security arrangements, Israel could draw back to the armistice lines, and the land it loses could be returned to the IDF from Israel's internal reserves.