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Hard Questions and Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher- May 31, 2011

MapWithGreenLine186x140.jpgAlpher answers questions about the defensibility of Israel's borders, and the security necessity of a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River. 

Q. Prime Minister Netanyahu insists the 1967 lines are dangerous for Israel from a security standpoint. Everyone likes to quote the late Abba Eban describing them as "Auschwitz borders". What's your view regarding defensible borders for Israel?

A. It's important to recognize that while Netanyahu denigrates the 1967 lines, he himself has agreed to territorial arrangements that build on them by attaching West Bank settlement blocs that are adjacent to them but, by implication, leaving the rest of the 1967 line as a border or conceivably even ceding land on the Israeli side of the 1967 lines as part of land swaps. Hence there is an internal contradiction in Netanyahu's own position.

In discussing the 1967 borders with the Palestinians, history is relevant. In the 1948-49 armistice talks in Rhodes with the Jordanians, who with Iraqi troops occupied the West Bank, Israel indeed sought to expand the West Bank border toward the east in order to place it on the foothills of the mountain ridge or spine where (from north to south) Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron lie, and to take possession of the key Wadi Ara road that links the coastal strip to the Galilee. In so doing, it was prepared to absorb additional Palestinian Arabs and make them Israeli citizens. In view of the nature of warfare at the time and the proximity of enemy armies, geography trumped demography. 

The Gaza Strip was the object of similar bargaining: David Ben-Gurion was ready to repatriate 200,000 Palestinian refugees if Egypt would only yield control of the Strip to Israel so it could better rebuff an Egyptian armored column moving north along the coastal strip toward Tel Aviv. Israel was of course preparing to fight the previous (1948) war; that was the only warfare it knew.

Today, demography trumps geography. The last thing Israelis want is to possess the Gaza Strip with its 1.5 million residents. An Egyptian armored column heading for Tel Aviv is not in the cards. Israelis can travel to the Galilee by superhighway and even a tunnel under Mt. Carmel. Israel's "narrow waist", from which it successfully defended itself in several wars, no longer symbolizes siege and isolation. "Auschwitz borders" was never an appropriate phrase because it denigrated the Holocaust; today it is meaningless.

Note, too, that the 1967 lines are not international borders. They are armistice lines that were supposed to pave the way for agreed international borders more than 60 years ago. This fine distinction is generally lost in the discussion of an Israeli-Palestinian border agreement. 

Today, in contemplating a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel insists justifiably that a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza be demilitarized or "non-militarized". It needs strong security arrangements along the Jordan River. Further to the east lies Jordan, a strategic ally of Israel when it comes to the Palestinians. Beyond Gaza lies demilitarized Sinai. Given these circumstances, the 1967 lines have nothing to do with any sort of future war, which would be fought well to the east. 

The only argument Netanyahu can make for the 1967 lines constituting a security risk is that their proximity to population centers in Israel would enable hostile Palestinians to fire rockets at Israeli civilians and at Ben-Gurion airport and planes landing there. The problem with this argument is that, based on Israel's experience with Hamas in Gaza, it is fair to assume that hostile forces in the West Bank who are somehow capable of smuggling weapons in or assembling them there, will quickly possess long-range rockets and missiles that can hit choice Israeli targets even if launched from 10 or 20 kms east of the green line/1967 border. If this situation arises, Israel or some other force (international? Jordanian?) would have to reoccupy the entire West Bank; from a military standpoint, the location of the international border would be irrelevant. It is certainly irrelevant to the question of Israel defending itself against enemies from the east.

Incidentally, one additional glitch in the Netanyahu concept of Israel's border with the West Bank is that, at least in some places, it will be determined by the need to attach settlement blocs to Israel. These large Israeli civilian population concentrations will then sit just across the border in Israel. If Netanyahu is worried about terrorist attacks from a Palestinian state, the settlement blocs will become the new frontier and the new target.

So what are "defensible" borders for Israel? Borders grounded in peace agreements, with (to be on the safe side in a highly voluble Middle East) demilitarized zones on the Arab side, close security cooperation agreements with neighbors (Egypt and Jordan have set an example, as have Palestinian security forces trained by the US in the last two years), a strong Israeli military deterrent and a highly mobile and treaty-sanctioned capability to move forces to strategic locations at times of genuine military emergency. All this, with strong American guarantees for Israel's security. 

Q. How about Netanyahu's insistence on a long-term Israeli military presence along the Jordan River? Is this a security necessity?

A. Israel has a legitimate concern that, at some point following a peace agreement with the Palestinians, it will be threatened by hostile forces from the east: Iran, Iraq, even a hostile revolutionary regime in Jordan. This was the pattern of the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973. Since 1973, this contingency has become exceedingly unlikely, as peace agreements have been signed and Arab warfare against Israel has become primarily non-state and asymmetrical, focusing on terror and guerilla rocket attacks rather than the movement of thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of troops.

But let's assume that, in a worst-case scenario, Israel is threatened from the east by conventional forces. It would indeed wish to engage them either on their own territory or by using the Jordan Valley and the steep escarpment to its west to rebuff them. That is precisely why a Palestinian state would be non-militarized: so it could not possibly contribute to this war effort by attacking Israel or delaying its forces as they take up positions in the Jordan Valley area. But does this extreme contingency require that Israel maintain a permanent military deployment in the Valley? 

We are talking about exceedingly short distances. The Jordan River is only 80 kms from the Mediterranean coast. Israel would maintain ready forces in the Beit Shean Valley north of the Jordan Valley and at Maaleh Adummim just east of Jerusalem. They could deploy along the river or, better, on the escarpment, in minutes. Forces could also be brought in vertically, by helicopter. All of this would be possible under the conditions of a peace treaty that creates a Palestinian state.

Q. But Israel needs security forces along the Jordan to interdict terrorists.

A. This is the least persuasive of the arguments proffered for maintaining an Israeli force in the Valley. Jordan has every interest in preventing terrorist incursions across the river; it has done that superbly since it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, and even before. In this regard, Netanyahu's demand that the IDF intercept terrorists in the Valley after peace is an affront to the Hashemite Kingdom. A Jordanian-Israeli-Palestinian security agreement dealing with tactical border security issues and linked in with an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would be a highly effective means of ensuring a quiet Jordan River border. If necessary, an international contingent could be added.

Q. Finally, and still on border security issues, last weekend Egypt announced the official reopening of the Rafah border crossing between Hamas-ruled Gaza and Egyptian Sinai. Some Israelis argue that this, too, poses a security risk. What's your view?

A. I have been informed by very knowledgeable sources that Israeli-Egyptian military cooperation today, under the military junta in Egypt, is even better than it was under deposed president Hosni Mubarak. Hence, the IDF is not particularly concerned about this border opening, even if Israeli politicians are sounding an alarm. 

Put differently, if the fear is that the Egyptian military will allow the smuggling of ordnance and terrorists into Gaza through the Rafah border crossing, then Israel has a far bigger problem with Egypt in general, not just with Gaza. This is not the case. The IDF appears to be satisfied that the border opening is a political measure, and that the Egyptians will continue to take reasonable security precautions.

Egypt, incidentally, was never a signatory to the 2005 agreement regarding security arrangements for the Rafah crossing. That agreement was signed by Israel with the PLO and the European Union, which undertook to deploy a border security force, EUBAM, at the crossing, where Israel would have video access to the identity of those seeking to cross. Those arrangements were scuttled in 2007 when Hamas took over the Strip. Remnants of EUBAM have been cooling their heels in the Mediterranean at Ashkelon ever since. Hamas will now operate the Palestinian side of the crossing; needless to say, Israel will have no involvement at all.

Thus Egypt is not violating any agreements it is party to in opening the crossing. The Egyptian move does, however, have political and conceivably even strategic ramifications. Egypt's temporary army rulers have in recent months made a consistent effort to cultivate better ties with Hamas in Gaza, in parallel with legalizing Hamas' parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt itself. The Hamas-Fateh reconciliation agreement is one fruit of this effort; the Rafah border opening is another. Currently, Cairo is pushing for the reconciliation agreement to go forward, despite protests from Israel and three-quarters of the Quartet (US, UN, EU but not Russia) concerning Hamas' militant policies. Parliamentary elections in Egypt in September are likely to institutionalize the Brotherhood's influence on Egypt's regional outlook. Israel is legitimately concerned.

On the other hand, by opening the Rafah crossing Egypt could conceivably, and inadvertently, relieve Israel of some of the international pressure to further relax its border and import restrictions on Gaza. Some Israeli strategic thinkers see the Rafah move as an opportunity for Israel to "complete" its 2005 Gaza withdrawal by sealing Israel-Gaza land borders and opening Gaza's naval border and airspace. Precisely because the Egyptians are aware of this and have no intention of making Gaza their problem rather than Israel's, considerable restrictions are likely to remain on the Rafah crossing (young men require visas; numbers of daily travelers are limited; few goods are allowed in), thereby minimizing the entire issue.