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Defensible borders in the Middle East

For Israel, the most critical feature of defensible borders is their capability to fend off realistic (i.e., worst-case) scenarios.

IDF tanks stationed near the Gaza border on May 6, 2019. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90.
IDF tanks stationed near the Gaza border on May 6, 2019. Photo by Aharon Krohn/Flash90.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

Defensible borders’ key feature in the Middle East must be the capability to confront the region’s shifty, volcanic and violent reality, which has been top-heavy on worst-case scenarios, highlighting clear and present lethal threats.

For Israel, defensible borders should not be based on well-meaning, peaceful coexistence (best-case) scenarios—cushioned by eloquent statements, agreements, assurances and guarantees—which have been detached from the blustery Middle East inter-Arab and inter-Muslim reality since the seventh century.

No, the most critical feature of defensible borders in the Middle East is their capability to fend off realistic (i.e., worst-case) scenarios.

The most critical goal of defensible borders for Israel is long-term survival and security in the turbulent, unpredictable Middle East, rather than advancing peace accords in a region which has yet to experience long-term, inter-Arab peaceful coexistence.

Defensible borders must be drawn on the basis of Middle East reality, which accentuates the inherently tenuous nature of Arab and Islamic regimes, and therefore the unstable nature of their policies and accords, including peace agreements. The latter can rarely be more durable than the regimes which conclude them.

Israel’s defensible borders must provide for an effective response to—or better yet, deter—conventional and non-conventional attacks, as well as assaults by regular military forces and terrorist organizations.

Israel’s defensible borders must reflect the realization that military high-tech today may be military low-tech tomorrow, but high ground today will remain high ground tomorrow, playing a most crucial role in delaying potential invasions, providing time for the deployment of reservists, which constitute 75 percent of the Israel Defense Forces.

Israel’s defensible borders should be war-restraining (a bolstered posture of deterrence) rather than war-enticing (a slackened posture of deterrence).

Israel’s defensible borders should enhance its status as a national security producer, rather than a national security consumer; as a geostrategic asset—not a liability—for the United States and the pro-American Arab regimes, extending the strategic reach of the United States while minimizing the number of American troops in the region.

Israel’s defensible borders must reinforce its determination to avoid reliance on non-Israeli soldiers—a critical component of U.S.-Israel cooperation and a prerequisite for Israel’s survival and stature in the Middle East.

A reference to the indefensibility of the pre-1967 borders was made by the late Abba Eban, then one of Israel’s leading doves, in a Nov. 5, 1969 interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel:

“The map will never be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and principles. The June [1967] map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger.  I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz. We shudder when we think of what would have awaited us in the circumstances of June, 1967, if we had been defeated; with Syrians on the [Golan Heights] mountain and us in the valley, with the Jordanian military in sight of the [Mediterranean] sea, with the Egyptians in Gaza. This is a situation which will never be repeated in history … ”

The critical role played by the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria—the “Golan Heights” of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion Airport and most of Israel’s population, transportation and industrial infrastructures—in forging defensible borders was documented on July 29, 1991 (Congressional Record-Senate: “Forcing Israel to give up land for peace is wrong”) by the late U.S. Navy Admiral James Wilson “Bud” Nance, who served as Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

“The West Bank is the prime strategic defensive real estate in the area. Without the West Bank, most of the major population and industrial centers of Israel are easily within artillery [and terrorism] range. … [The West Bank] is a natural barrier to any attack on Israel from the east. The Judean mountains and Samarian Ridge that run down the north-south axis of the West Bank afford complete domination of the area … Any attacking army would have to climb from the lowest point on earth (the Dead Sea) to the 3,000-foot elevation of the West Bank Mountains. … With the West Bank, the Israelis have one of the world’s best natural tank and armored vehicle traps. … The western slopes fall gently down to the heart of Israel.

“Without the West Bank, Israel is only 9 miles across at its center close to Tel Aviv. … This is scarcely more than the distance from the Pentagon to Mount Vernon. A modern tank can traverse this distance in about 15 minutes. … With the West Bank, Israel is approximately 40 miles across at its mid-point. … In this thin strip, we have 2/3 of Israel’s Jewish population and 3/4 of their industry. … If Israel were to move out of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, it would (1) increase the instability in the area; (2) increase the possibility of war; (3) increase the necessity for Israel to preempt in war; (4) increase the possibility nuclear weapons would have to be used to prevent an Israeli loss; (5) and increase the possibility of U.S. involvement in a war in the area. … It is not in the U.S.’ best interest to have Israel leave the disputed areas.”

On June 29, 1967, General Earl Wheeler, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, submitted to then President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara a memorandum on Israel’s minimum territorial security requirements. In it, he wrote:

“Control of the high ground [in the West Bank] … would provide Israel with a militarily defensible border. … The high ground running north-south through the middle of West Jordan overlooks Israel’s narrow midsection and offers a route for a thrust to the [Mediterranean] sea which would split Israel in two parts. … [The West Bank is] an area where launching of saboteurs and terrorists into Israel was relatively easy. … Israel must hold the commanding terrain east of the boundary of June 4, 1967 [the Golan Heights] which overlooks the Galilee area … extending from the border of Lebanon to the border of Jordan. … Occupation of the [Gaza] Strip by Israel would reduce the hostile border by a factor of five and eliminate a source for raids and training of [terrorists].”

The 2019 global and Middle East reality is much more explosive, threatening and tenuous than it was in 1967, including the unprecedented proliferation of Islamic terrorist organizations, equipped with conventional and non-conventional military systems, which has intensified lethal threats to the relatively moderate Arab regimes (e.g., Egypt and Jordan).

In 2019, the world and the Middle East face turbulent multi-polarization—intensified by the unprecedented proliferation of military hardware among rogue regimes and terrorist groups—rather than the relatively manageable bi-polar world of 1967. This has dramatically destabilized the world, thus enhancing the critical importance of defensible borders, especially in the Middle East, which has been a role model pg instability, unpredictability and temporary regimes, policies and accords.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This column was originally published at The Ettinger Report.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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