Israel's Borders and National Security

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

No one should fault the Israelis for their preoccupation with national security. Indeed, the Jewish historical experience speaks for itself: centuries of persecution, expulsion, anti-Semitism and segregation culminating with the Holocaust and followed by incessant, violent confrontations with Arab states and the Palestinians. Such things have created a major psychological barrier that places national security concerns at the front and center of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy.  For this reason, any agreement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must take into full account Israel’s legitimate national security concerns, which are deeply embedded in the mind and soul of every Israeli. Regardless of how exaggerated Israel’s sense of vulnerability may seem to its detractors, the Palestinians cannot afford to dismiss Israel’s concerns and hope to strike a peace agreement. Although the Israelis and the Palestinians differ about the kind of measures needed to alleviate Israel’s security concerns, only if the Palestinians appreciate the psychological underpinnings behind Israel’s national security and agree on the security measures needed will both sides reach an enduring peace.

But Israel’s national security strategy in the current technological environment (one with sustained, exponential growth in the social and economic connectedness on the world stage) must be recalibrated. Instead of reaching out and demonstrating its willingness to achieve an equitable peace, Israel is becoming a garrison state, building fences and walls, isolating itself not only from its neighbors but also from the international community. Surely there will always be risks involved in making territorial and political concessions but as long as such risks are calculated and can be mitigated should they come to pass, seeking absolute security becomes a liability as it offers no room for the concessions necessary to make peace. That said, there are many voices in Israel that rightfully argue that given the continuing antagonism and hatred toward Israel by extremists groups like Hamas and states like Iran, Israel cannot settle on a peace agreement at face value. For this reason, whereas real peace provides Israel the ultimate security it seeks other security measures as a part of any peace agreement that must be in place not only to guarantee such peace but also further enhance it over time and make it irreversible.

Borders and National Security

Israel has legitimate national security concerns that can be satisfied only through multiple security measures. Unfortunately, those Israelis supporting the notion of a “Greater Israel” often promote territorial ambition in the guise of enhancing Israel’s security.  Yet the Israeli’s national and personal security can never, and will never, be ensured by obtaining more land to establish so-called “defensible borders.” After all, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea hardly exceeds 42 miles, a short distance by any standards.  Territorial depth will not guarantee Israel’s security, especially in the age of rockets and missiles but strategic depth can.  Other than the annexation of larger chunks of territory in the West Bank, the only way to effectively protect Israel’s security is through a lasting peace agreement made possible by a genuine, effective security regime and cooperation alongside an equitable “land-for-peace” formula. Such a formula must be based on Israel retaining the major settlement blocs along the “Green Line” while the Palestinians establish their own state on historic Palestine consisting of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

Every American administration since President Carter has supported the idea that the 1967 borders provide the baseline for negotiations. In every negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians since the Oslo Accords in 1993, each side has agreed to the same principle: a land swap to accommodate the Palestinians for the land on which Israel’s three major settlement blocs are situated. Indeed, every Israeli government, regardless of its political leanings has, and will continue, to insist on incorporating these blocs of settlements into Israel-proper under any peace agreement. For most Palestinians and Israelis, this formulation has become a given. There will be other territorial disputes in connection with the Ariel settlement, for example, which is located deep in the West Bank, and Silwan near Jerusalem. But both sides know that any agreement would entail a land swap, albeit they will argue about the quality, contiguity and equivalence of the land to be swapped. That said, there is no question that these and many other, even more intractable issues, including the continuance of Israelis living in Palestinian territories, can be resolved if Israel’s national security concerns are satisfied and both parties are genuinely committed to peace.

However modified the borders will be to accommodate both sides, the contours of the final borders will not substantially enhance or severely undermine Israel’s national security. The annexation of more lands two or three kilometers deep into the West Bank will make little difference from a security perspective. A mutually acceptable land swap, required because of demographic necessity, where more than 70 percent of the settlers reside along the 1967 borders is one thing. To go beyond that is a simple land grab in the guise of national security. What those who promote the notion of a “Greater Israel” have in mind is to surround the Palestinians from the east, west, north and south, which theoretically enhances Israel’s security while isolating the Palestinians completely and denying them contiguity. This would not only be rejected off-hand by the Palestinians, but would also deny Israel even a semblance of real peace with security. This is the imperative that both sides must recognize and thereby must carefully consider the real security measures needed that can satisfy Israel’s requirements without humiliating the Palestinians.

Israel’s ultimate national security requirements rest on seven pillars over which every politically, non-biased Israeli defense and security expert agreed upon. Israel’s national defense institutions and think tanks, along with current and future American administrations, should begin to articulate these requirements to demonstrate that Israel’s genuine national security cannot be met by a mere annexation of more swaths of land in the West Bank. Indeed, Israel’s national security must rest, first and foremost, with peace augmented by other measures to alleviate Israel’s long-term security concerns.

First Pillar: Maintaining Credible Deterrence

Since there is – and will continue to be for the foreseeable future – a lingering distrust between the two sides, Israel must maintain a credible military deterrence that will make it abundantly clear to all those who now or in the future harbor ill intent against Israel and pose a real threat to Israel’s existence that they will suffer utter devastation should they attempt to actualize their threats. Israel’s enemies should know that aiming for Israel’s destruction will bring about their own destruction first. Simply put, Israel will not die alone; the “Never Again” mindset (in reference to the Holocaust) should be taken very seriously by Israel’s adversaries, lest they are determined to commit national suicide. 

In this regard, Israel and the United States can make sure, as they have in the past, that no single country or combination of states can overwhelm Israel militarily, backed with America’s continued guarantee for Israel’s national security. As such, no Arab or Persian nation or other terror group would dare challenge Israel militarily. That is why any agreement must ensure that Israel’s qualitative military edge is maintained, as well as its right to defend its citizens from unprovoked attacks of terrorism and war. From a psychological perspective, preserving a military edge will give Israel the sense of comfort it needs, which has proven to be decisive in the past and has certainly inhibited Israel’s enemies, be they groups or states, from challenging Israel militarily.

Second Pillar: An International Peacekeeping Force


The alleviation of Israel’s concerns over the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists from the Jordan Valley cannot be achieved by maintaining Israeli residual forces along the Jordan River as Israel has been demanding. Israel’s insistence on maintaining such force does not foster trust and increases resentment as for many Palestinians it will be tantamount to continued occupation. Instead, an international peacekeeping force (perhaps with symbolic Israeli and Palestinian participation) will have to be stationed along the Jordan River. The force should be assembled from specific countries that have a vested interest in maintaining peace, including Arab states such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, EU nations like Britain, France and Germany, all the while including the Israelis and Palestinians and operating under the command of the United States. The Palestinians have agreed to the stationing of such an international peacekeeping force and they, as I understand, may well agree to include a small Israeli contingency as a part of the international force. 

Such a robust force should be empowered by the United Nations Security Council to act as it sees fit to maintain calm, foster close relations with all neighboring states and of course prevent the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists. To ensure durability and cultivate confidence such a force cannot be removed without an explicit UNSC resolution where the US enjoys a veto power. Here too, although Israel as a matter of principle does not place any of its national security concerns in the hands of other parties, the participation of small units of the Israeli army with the international force will alleviate some of these concerns, which would also help engender long-term confidence between Israelis and Palestinians. 

Third Pillar: A Demilitarized Palestinian State 

The newly-established Palestinian state must be demilitarized, with its security assured by the same peacekeeping forces. The Palestinians should accept the fact that they will never be in a position to challenge Israel militarily. Moreover, no country, including Israel, will ever threaten a Palestinian state that lives in peace and harmony with its neighbors. Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will not be based on military equation. Any Palestinian military buildup will run contrary to the spirit of peace while providing the Palestinians no decisive advantage under any scenario of armed conflict with Israel. There are several countries that do not have any military forces including Costa Rica, Samoa, Grenada, and the Solomon Islands.


The idea here is to lessen Israel’s national security concerns in order to allow it to make important political and territorial concessions to the Palestinians. That is, the Palestinians can increasingly benefit as long as Israel feels increasingly more secure. The past three years have demonstrated this fact as the security collaboration between Israel and the Palestinian authority in the West Bank clearly benefited both sides. For this reason, instead of wasting hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars on military hardware, presumably to boost its national pride, future Palestinian governments should respond to the yearning of the people by investing in economic development, education, health care, infrastructure and democratic institutions that will enable them to take pride in their achievements. This is what the Arab Spring is all about and this is what the Arab youth demands from their governments throughout the Arab world. The Palestinian people are no exception. 

Fourth Pillar: Development of Bilateral Relations—People to People


 The uprisings of the Arab Spring of 2011 ushered in a new chapter of empowerment for the citizenry of the Arab world.  With the masses increasingly sharing their voice and having it heard, people-to-people dialogue, which seeks to counter and overcome the mistrust and animosity on both sides, must be employed.  As the Arab masses seek their independence from the oppressive rule of despots, Palestinians too must eventually obtain their voice and their independence. As the Arab states begin to succeed in meeting the needs of their people, they will again return to their concern for the Palestinian plight, only this time armed with the legitimate support of the millions of Arabs who have taken to the streets demanding justice.  

Israel’s security as a Jewish and democratic state is inextricably linked to its ability to forge the kind of people-to-people relations that can develop a foundation for peace in the region rather than even greater, inflamed conflict. To be sure, one of the principle requirements to mitigate the psychological security hang-ups inherent within the Israeli’s experience is the expansion of the day-to-day cooperation and collaboration between the two sides. Indeed, trust cannot be established by agreements. It must be nurtured over a long period of time when each side lives up to the promises and commitments they make. This is particularly important when trust hardly existed before and when it has been betrayed time and time again. For this reason, increasing trade and tourism between the two sides is fundamental to the development of trust and the fostering of mutually beneficial relations. It is those kinds of day-to-day exchanges of people and commodities that would reveal and enhance the humanity of both sides, especially since coexistence is inadvertent under any circumstances.

Fifth Pillar: A Comprehensive Peace

All security measures, however elaborate and sophisticated, cannot guarantee Israel’s national security unless they are accompanied by a peace agreement. For this reason, every effort must first focus on achieving a peace agreement negotiated to accommodate Israel’s legitimate national security and demographic requirements while providing the Palestinians the right to live freely on a contiguous land mass in their own independent state alongside Israel with dignity. In the final analysis, only a genuine peace that meets the aspirations of both peoples and fosters the acceptance of one another as partners and neighbors will endure and offer Israel the real security it seeks.
  
In this regard, the Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for normalized relations between Israel and all members of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference upon the establishment of an end-of-conflict agreement with a Palestinian state, provides a historic opportunity to ensure Israel’s future through an agreed resolution of the core issues at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

Sixth Pillar: Maintaining Full Security Cooperation and Collaboration


By virtue of the Israeli’s and the Palestinian’s past experiences, full security cooperation between the two sides in advance of, and subsequent to, any peace agreement remains a central prerequisite. To prevent the West Bank from becoming a launching ground for rockets, as was the case following the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005, future Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank must be implemented in full coordination with the Palestinian security forces. Progress made between Israel and the Palestinian Authority under the sponsorship of the United States Security Coordinator, with assistance from Jordan, Egypt and the European Union indicates that effective security cooperation is possible, even in an atmosphere of tension. 

The success of this cooperation was built on the Palestinian Authority’s ability to show tremendous professionalism and commitment, as well as Israel’s removing roadblocks and expanding their zones of operation as they proved their ability to succeed. Even if the current cooperation breaks down, future cooperation will need to be prerequisite to the implementation of any peace agreement. Such ironclad security mechanisms have been, and will always be, Israel’s chief concern. To encourage further Israeli withdrawal from Area B, which is partly controlled by Israel and Area C which is under Israel’s complete control, the Palestinians must fully adhere to any and all security arrangements while Israel engages in a phased withdrawal within a mutually agreed upon timeframe.  

Seventh Pillar: A Regional Security Umbrella

Once a peace agreement is achieved and all security measures are in place, the United States could offer a security umbrella, along the lines of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed in June of 2009, under which all nations in the region at peace with Israel (and with each other) could belong. Such a regional security umbrella could also serve as a major deterrence against Iran to prevent it from intimidating or threatening any state in the area.  However, such an arrangement could only be implemented following the establishment of an end-of-conflict agreement based on the two-state solution as outlined by the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, the Arab Peace Initiative could serve as an important precedent of normalization that could lead to the kind of regional security umbrella that would strengthen US and Israeli relations with the Arab world while advancing their shared interests of deterring Iran from obtaining and/or deploying nuclear weaponry through terrorist proxies. 

The issues of borders and security are deeply interconnected. A borders agreement is not possible without the kind of ironclad security guarantees Israel will need to redeploy its forces with confidence. Similarly an agreement on security arrangements is impossible as long as the territorial dispute regarding the adjustment to the 1967 Green Line are formulated, agreed upon, and implemented.  However, despite the considerable challenges to such an agreement, the ideas  (as outlined above) provide an achievable solution to these contentious issues that respect Palestinian aspirations for a state with territorial integrity while meeting Israel’s short and long-term legitimate national security imperatives.

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