What are Defensible Borders for Israel?
On May 19, 2011, President Obama said in a speech that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines [pre-1967 borders, or 1949 armistice lines] with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.” Prime Minister Netanyahu responded that those borders are indefensible.
This report will analyze Israel’s geographic requirements for self-defense, for a conventional attack. It incorporates a historical perspective of the types and sources of attacks that Israel has faced in the past. It will first examine the neighboring threats in isolation (i.e. Egypt to the southwest, Jordan and the Palestinians to the south and the east, Syria to the northeast) before exploring the likelihood and consequences of joint attacks from multiple fronts. It concludes that should Israel return to its pre-1967 borders, it would be able to withstand attacks from any single front, but a joint attack would threaten Israel’s existence, as it did in 1973. This conclusion offers an explanation as to why the current American and Israeli administrations apparently disagree on the question of defensible borders, namely that the Israeli administration is understandably more risk averse regarding its own security and the possibility of its neighbors launching a joint attack.
This report will then view Israel and the greater Levant from a regional vista and consider the possibility of an attack from a non-neighboring great power, a threat that Israel has fallen prey to historically. As such, Israel must play its diplomatic chips carefully vis-a-vis its foreign supporters, namely the United States, for it cannot afford to alienate them in the possible but not likely event that regional non-neighboring entities, for example Turkey and Iran, join together and invade Israel.
The threat to the East
Before the advent and decline of colonialism, borders of states and empires mostly coalesced along natural boundaries that offered a hedge against neighboring aggression once the status quo is established via war. The Jordan Rift Valley and the Jordan River is one such natural boundary, for to the east lies a stretch of inhospitable desert from which is it virtually impossible to launch a land invasion. As such, the lands of Judea and Samaria east of Jerusalem, or as it is now commonly called, the West Bank, have traditionally formed Israel’s underbelly. Even at its zenith, the Davidic Kingdom in Antiquity did not stretch far into the Jordanian desert, where expansion is difficult and not cost efficient. An Israel in control of the West Bank would not need to worry about a land invasion from the east. Indeed, Jordanian occupation of the West Bank occurred only after the UN partition plan allotted the West Bank to a future Arab state and Israel did not occupy it prior to combat.
Constructed during the Second Intifada, the security barrier, running mostly along the pre-1967 lines, forms a de facto border between Israel proper and the West Bank. The IDF and other intelligence forces maintain a robust presence beyond the barrier, in the West Bank; this and the security barrier are the primary reasons that the levels of Palestinian violence directed against Israelis in the Territories have stabilized at pre-Intifada levels. There are approximately a quarter million Israelis who live in villages outside the security wall.
The withdrawal of Israel’s intelligence presence from the West Bank will prove problematic from a security standpoint. The exact dynamics as in to what degree the West Bank would turn into Gaza are up to debate and indeterminate; on one hand, for example, Jenin prior to IDF occupation in the Second Intifada would have made Hamas and even al Qaeda proud, while on the other hand the West Bank Palestinians as a whole have elected a more moderate government. Nonetheless, viewed in isolation, a Palestinian state comprising even of the entire West Bank cannot challenge Israel militarily; the open landscape makes guerrilla warfare virtually impossible and the Palestinians would not have a conventional military. Even a Hamas-style West Bank would be but a nuisance, a “thorn in the side” of Israel. The potential threat lies in the Palestinians opening up their land to and cooperating with a Syrian army, and this possibility will be elaborated on in a later section.
The threat to the South
Both the southwest (the Sinai and Egypt) and southeast (desert land beyond Eilat and the Negev) are historically stable. Israel has not traditionally occupied the Sinai, whether it was the Davidic kingdom or the later vassal state under Persia, and gave the Sinai to Egypt in the Camp David Accords. This is because, similar to the desert beyond the Jordan Rift Valley, the Sinai desert is inhospitable and a difficult stretch of land for armies to traverse. The Sinai itself has not attracted Egyptian development or settlement; Egypt has historically looked to expand in the opposite direction (south towards the Sudan and southwest). At the height of its power it did expand into modern-day Syria, but this, along with the buildup of Egyptian troops along Israel’s border in 1967, is an aberration of history. There is recent concern stemming from Egypt’s opening up its border with Gaza regarding weapons flow and potential increased terrorism rates, but these constitute a LIC, not conventional, threat.
The desert to the southeast are virtually impassable, like the Jordanian desert, and have formed a hedge. Traversing this route would be suicide for armies from the Arabian peninsula; this is perhaps the border that concerns Israel the least.
The threat from the Mediterranean and the North
Unless the Roman Empire is reborn, Israel does not face a naval threat. Lebanon is too unstable and weak, even with a resurgent and emboldened Hezbollah, to challenge Israel conventionally, and as such can only remain another thorn in Israel’s side.
The threat to the Northeast
Both historically and today, this border is Israel’s most serious concern. The Assyrians and Babylonians entered this route and conquered Israel, and the Syrians likely have similar ambitions today. Syria is a landlocked country and at an economic disadvantage: nations and empires from this region have traditionally attempted to conquer the Levant in order to secure a passage to trade routes in the Mediterranean. There are two main avenues – either through what is modern-day Lebanon, which Syria had heavily penetrated prior to 2005 and still maintains a shadowy influence over, or through Israel.
The Golan Heights is a critical asset for Israel, for that is the entrance point (a roughly 30-mile stretch north of the Sea of Galilee), of past and potential future land invasions. This is also where the plains of Megiddo, or Armageddon, is located. A Syrian army in control of the Golan could see the exposed underbelly of Israel and its military operations and move in with a height advantage; Israel’s repelling of Syrian tanks in 1967 is a military miracle that Israel would not care to attempt to revisit.
Israel would likely be able to thwart an all-out Syrian invasion, even should it have given the Golan Heights to Syria, if it devotes its entire military to the effort. Grave troubles would arise if it should simultaneously face an assault from Egypt, or guerrilla warfare from the Palestinians, Iranian assistance, or such an army, with the permission and aid of a Palestinian state along pre-1967 borders, traversing the West Bank. This latter is the “nightmare scenario” in which enemy forces would only need to race down 9 miles to the Mediterranean coast before Israel is divided into two and forced to negotiate its endgame. The likelihood and ramifications of these scenarios will be discussed in the following section.
The threat of a multi-front attack
This is the ultimate wild card. Should a multi-front attack take place with the pre-1967 borders, Israel’s existence would be in grave danger. Even though Israel recorded a stunning victory in 1967, it was immeasurably bolstered by a pre-emptive surprise attack on Egypt. Indeed, Israel thwarted the 1973 surprise invasion and joint attack by Egypt and Syria only by the skin of its teeth, and this was despite Israel’s holding the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights beforehand. Giving the Golan Heights to Syria would be a strategic error unless there is absolute guarantee of Syrian non-aggression. The additional factor of a complicit Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank that shares intelligence and allows access of its territory would make Israeli defense all but impossible.
It is only in the realm of approximation, the task of ascertaining the possibility of these nations banding together and coordinating an attack on Israel. Egypt and Syria are not natural allies and have been rivals and enemies historically; military coordination and extensive diplomacy are outside the norm. However, they have banded several times since Israel’s founding in 1948. Jordan’s track record is more pragmatic and less inclined to rejectionist rhetoric, but the foreign relations and ideology of a nascent Palestinian state in the West Bank (and its relations with Gaza) can only be the stuff of conjectures. Furthermore, political developments stemming from the Arab Spring are underway and constantly in flux, although the neighboring friendly authoritarian regimes of Egypt and Jordan were indeed a stabilizing factor vis-a-vis the variable of land invasion of Israel. The ouster of Mubarak, then, was understandably met with a somber, almost funeral-esque atmosphere, in some Israeli circles. The addition of uncertainty lowers the risk-aversion threshold, and as such Israel has watched these developments with a mixture of caution and alarm.
The American administration’s strategic calculus seems more heavily weighted towards the positives – Syrian rapprochement, a moderate Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, continued GCC cooperation and stability, Hezbollah’s transformation away from terrorism and into a political entity, and a Hamas that can be moderated via a mix of carrots and sticks. There is the hope that Israeli-Palestinian peace would moderate the surrounding states rather than move them to attack a weaker Israel. This is understandable, for the United States is further removed from the region and can take a more rational, cost-benefit approach to its foreign relations. Indeed, there is a substantial body of arguments supporting the current direction of American foreign policy in the Near East.
Israel on the other hand has no tolerance for the worst case scenario of a joint, coordinated attack; even if it is indeed unlikely, if it took place it would probably result in Israel’s extermination. The four Arab-Israeli wars are fresh in Israel’s consciousness, while suicide bombers and Qassam rockets continue to enervate the coping mechanisms of the Israeli people. The stresses that this places on policy makers necessitate that they operate on different threshold assumptions and risk curves than non-Israeli policy makers. This is also the reason that Israel is more alarmed than the rest of the world regarding Iran’s nuclear program. This – different levels of risk aversion – is essentially the reason that the United States and Israel diverge regarding defensible borders, even though both are looking at roughly the same pieces of information and intelligence. Pre-1967 borders are probably secure, but probably is not good enough for Israel.
Situating Israel’s geopolitics and security in the Near East and beyond
Netanyahu and the Israeli defense and foreign policy makers have a difficult task of balancing immediate and long-term security needs. In an era of few friends in the international community, where Canada’s approval and support is a welcome and highly sought after, Israel looks through the corridors of history and sees the possibility of another regional hegemon subduing and conquering its people, as the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans have done. For all the talk of defensible borders, even under the impossible hypothetical where the Palestinians refugees relocate to Jordan, such a scenario is beyond the capacity of Israeli self-defense. The subjugation of the Levant has been a highly sought after prize for countries to the northeast – today they would be Turkey and Iran. A nuclear Iran, and the threat of political self-implosion under international pressure, are other dynamic, non-conventional threats that can only be addressed through diplomacy and international relations, not via military and defensive means. Aside from continued international opprobrium, current trends in the region do not suggest these scenarios to occur in the near future, and therefore these constitute the arena of Israel’s longer-term political strategy.
As such, Israel cannot afford to get overly intractable and bogged down in the details of land swaps and its West Bank border as it negotiates a Palestinian state in the near-term, if this comes at the cost of alienating the United States and its allies. Israel relies on the implicit security umbrella and therefore must walk that diplomatic fine line; for example, it lost France’s patronage and support following the 1967 war. Should a resurgent great power seek to control territory from Central Asia to the Mediterranean coast, the minutia of a few miles of land by the Sea of Galilee could not be further from the minds of an Israel bracing for the Samson option – and Armageddon.