Land for peace with the Palestinians:
Essential or suicidal?
Amid familiar and fresh challenges in an unstable Middle East, two former senior officers differ utterly over the dangers, the benefits and the contours of a possible Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank
The facts, like a violent confluence of waves, clash into one another. Of the five armies that attacked Israel in 1948 — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — only Egypt, a country that has kept the peace with Israel for 34 years, has retained a formidable fighting force. The threat of full-scale war has never been lower.
And yet religious strife, economic hardship, environmental woe and foreign invasions have eroded the central control over each of those states. The Sinai Peninsula, the Syrian Golan, and the southern parts of Lebanon are all governed by terrorist entities. Iraq, stripped of its military by the 2003 US invasion — perhaps the true spark that lit the fire of the Arab uprisings — has come under prevailing Iranian influence. And to a greater degree than ever since 1970, uneasy lies the crown on the head of the Hashemite King of Jordan. Guerrilla warfare, on all four fronts simultaneously, with applause from Tehran and backing from Gaza, is far from unthinkable.
As the clock ticks down on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month time frame for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, The Times of Israel spoke with two former army men, a general and a colonel, both intimately acquainted with the territory, and asked whether Israel, as Yehonatan Geffen suggested in his 1977 song, can “parcel the view into theirs and ours” — whether, that is, the notion of “land for peace” is viable. Or have the instability of the region, combined with the lessons of Gaza and Lebanon (where unilateral withdrawal from territory did not yield abiding tranquility), and the naturally vulnerable contours of a state that has set 70 percent of its population and 80 percent of its infrastructure along the Coastal Plain, negated, at this point in time, any realistic exchange of land for peace.
There are other Israeli-Palestinian “final status” issues that merit substantial debate. Among them, it is assuredly important to discuss Palestinian refugees and their “right to return”; the emotional and religious importance of the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif, which the secular, Laborite prime minister Ehud Barak referred to as “the anchor of the Zionist enterprise” at Camp David in 2000; Israel’s ability, at this stage, to uproot settlers; the implications of a potential rise of Hamas in the West Bank; and the lethargic Palestinian response in the face of prime minister Ehud Olmert’s unprecedented May 2008 offer, which included the internationalization of the holy sites.
From the Palestinian perspective, there is the unremitting march of settlement expansion — there were 116,000 settlers in the West Bank (not including East Jerusalem) in 1993, when the Oslo Accords were signed; today, on that same patch of land, there are 341,000. There is the ballooning size of Jerusalem, which in 1967 was a total of 38 square kilometers in the western part of the city and six square kilometers in the east, and today is unified — in the lingua franca of Israel’s mainstream — across 126.4 square kilometers, threatening the territorial contiguity of a future Palestine and anointing an enormous swath of territory with the sanctity of the ancient Jewish capital.
But this article will focus squarely on one single issue: defensible borders. Are they attainable within the framework of a reasonable peace offer?
Maj. Gen. (ret) Uzi Dayan
A former deputy chief of the General Staff and commander of the Central Command — which includes the West Bank — Uzi Dayan, the only son of Moshe Dayan’s brother Zorik, who was killed during the War of Independence, suggested that the most pivotal directions in which to gaze, in assessing the matter of defensible borders, are east, toward Jordan and Iraq, and back, toward history.
So, first, a quick look back. In March 1949, as Israel began to emerge victorious from the war and prepared to sign an armistice agreement with Transjordan, former Palmach commander and IDF general Yigal Allon sent a letter to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, imploring him not to sign an agreement just yet with Israel’s neighbor to the east. Although Israel had secured control over 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine, Allon, the commander of the Southern Front during the war, wanted to push more Palestinian villagers out of biblical Israel. He wrote to Ben-Gurion, “We must aspire to reasonable depth… one cannot describe a stronger border than the line of the Jordan along the length of the land.” Ben-Gurion refused and signed the agreement, marking what are often misleadingly labeled as the 1967 lines.
In July 1967, six weeks after Israel secured the territory east to the Jordan River, Allon revised his position. There were too many Arabs within the West Bank. Israel would be a colonial power if it held the land. Instead, he re-drew the map with an emphasis on the Jordan River, which he regarded “not as a river, but simply as an anti-tank canal,” according to Gershom Gorenberg’s quote from prime minister Levi Eshkol in “The Accidental Empire.”
Hawkish doves and dovish hawks have long clung to the contours of Allon’s suggestions. In October 1995, one month before his murder, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke before the Knesset plenum and stated that, in his vision of a peace deal, “The security border, for the defense of the state of Israel, will be set in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” Rabin, like Allon, intended to demand control of a swath of territory running the length of the western bank of the Jordan River in order to buffer a slender and highly threatened country, Dayan noted.
Just last month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that statement. The security arrangements in a possible deal with the Palestinians, he said, “will no doubt include many things, but first among them will be that the state of Israel’s security border remains along the Jordan [River].”
Dayan agrees. He asserted that, despite the decimation of the armies surrounding Israel, a withdrawal from the Jordan Valley at this time would be a colossal error. “Uncertainty has returned to the Middle East, big time,” Dayan said. “What do you notdo in a time of uncertainty? Well, the first thing is, you don’t give up strategic assets.”
Imagine what would have happened, he suggested, had Israel agreed to a [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan-brokered peace deal with Syria and left its posts along the Golan Heights — a realistic possibility as recently as four years ago. “We’d have Sunni terrorists all along the Sea of Galilee.”
In the south, Dayan said, the Muslim Brotherhood could still emerge victorious in Egypt and the Egyptian army could well tire of its fight against the terrorists stationed in the vast Sinai desert. Israeli planes flying into, and out of, Eilat are susceptible to anti-aircraft fire, and the downing of a passenger plane could markedly alter the security situation in the area. “But as long as Sinai remains demilitarized,” he said, “we have the necessary depth.” The same is true of the Golan Heights, but not of the still-undrawn eastern border. “To the east, we only have 40 kilometers, and that’s including the Jordan Valley,” he continued.
Without it, there are spots where Israel is less than a dozen miles wide, even slimming to nine at one point. Ben Gurion International Airport is six miles from the Green Line. The altitude gain from the bottom of Allon’s anti-tank canal to the top of Nebi Samuel or some of the other high ridges along the West Bank is, at some points, over 4,000 feet (1,220 meters). For Dayan, even after the US obliterated Iraq’s army, and despite Jordan’s vigilance in observing the peace treaty with Israel, drawing a map of Palestine that does not include an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley; military control over the east-west passes; and three settlement blocs buffering the capital to the south, east and north, would be a terrible mistake.
Jordan, continued Dayan, “could be Palestinian” in the near future. But even if the kingdom doesn’t fall, a withdrawal from the Israeli positions along the western flank of the river would be akin to Israel’s 2005 abandonment of the Philadelphi Corridor, he suggested. Once Israel left that slim buffer zone — created during the Oslo Accords and partitioning between Egypt and Gaza — the flow of arms into both Egypt and Gaza increased. An Israeli withdrawal would draw jihadi fighters and weapons into Jordan, destabilizing that country, and the flow of arms to a demilitarized Palestine would increase. “Without the Jordan Valley,” he claimed, “Judea and Samaria would be Gaza.”
The terror attacks that would likely follow any yielding of strategic territory, he said, “could trigger a war.” For this reason, Israel must insist on a map that keeps the Etzion Bloc (south of Jerusalem), the city of Ma’aleh Adumim (east) and the Givat Ze’ev bloc (north) in Israeli hands, along with the early-warning stations along the ridgeline and military control of the east-west passes, especially those that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.
“In times like this, you judge your competitors by their capabilities and not their intentions,” Dayan said. To not do so, he indicated, would be an opening of the gate to terror, would mean a ceding of the high ground — making it harder to stop enemy rocket and rifle fire toward the coast and the capital — and would present a challenge to Israel’s long-term survival.
“We cannot sign an agreement based on wishful thinking,” he continued. “The notion that peace will bring security is wishful thinking. Strategic pressure is what brings peace.”
Col. (res) Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli, a native of Ashkelon, the youngest of seven children of Iranian parents, an officer in the paratroops who was wounded in the Lebanon War and went on to command the Northern Brigade of the Gaza division — and more recently to serve as one of the engineers behind the Geneva Initiative — rejected any connection between the shape of the borders and the security of Israel.
“There is no linkage, none at all, between the [position of] the border line and national security,” he said, seconds after this reporter sat down. “Nothing has bearing on the position of the border line except for one thing — and that is the entirely legitimate matter of deciding the number of Israelis who stay in their homes and are annexed to Israel…. That is the single, and exclusive, factor that influences the Israeli position. Everything else is a fairytale.
“Listen,” he continued, “the idea is not to scare ourselves when it comes to security.” Instead, he said, the West Bank would, in an end-of-claims agreement, be given to the Palestinians on condition that it was demilitarized. This is what happened in Egypt. This is what would have happened in the Golan Heights, according to all four prime ministers engaged in negotiations over that piece of territory.
And that, he said, noting the language of UN Resolution 242, is what will happen with the Palestinians. “No army,” he said. “No air force, no tanks, no navy. Not just one part of the country, but across the whole thing. As soon as that is the reality, there is no real, true existential threat to the state of Israel.”
“If they [the Palestinians] had an army,” he continued, “let’s say a small one — six divisions.. four divisions… even four divisions in Judea and Samaria — they could pull off a fast move against Israel. And that would force us to have the conscripted army on alert all the time and to call up reserves all the time. But that is not the situation.”
Instead, he said, the very notion of conventional war coming from the east — a threat that loomed over Israel from November 1947 to March 2003 — has dissipated.
Iraq, he said, has no army. “They have 24 planes. That’s their whole story.” Syria’s military is in tatters. Jordan’s army, he declared, is “a silly” four divisions-strong. The ground threat from Iran “does not exist.” And the Israel-Jordan peace treaty states specifically in Article 4 that “the entry, stationing and operating” of “military forces, personnel or material of a third party” is prohibited. The threat of conventional war “is a scare tactic with nothing backing it,” he explained.
Nor did he accept the notion that the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan might soon fall. “They’ve been saying that for 60 years,” continued Arieli. Moreover, if the Hussein family were finally ousted from Jordan — following in the footsteps of the first Jordanian king’s brother, Faisal, who was pushed out of Syria — the Palestinians would not take over, he said. It is the Bedouins who control the army and the government institutions in Jordan, he asserted. In the past decade, Jordan has absorbed one million Arab refugees from Iraq and another 800,000 from Syria. “And you think the Palestinians will take over? You think the US will support them? The EU will support them? Do you know that in Amman they don’t get running water more than once every two weeks? What will they live off? What are we talking about?”
But for the sake of argument, this reporter said, let’s take the worst-case scenario. The Hashemite Kingdom fell. The country went to the Palestinians. It was governed by a Muslim Brotherhood ideology. The peace treaty was ripped to shreds. Foreign investment declined. Central control receded. Terror routes, as in Sinai, began to flow across the country and through the unoccupied Jordan Valley to the unoccupied West Bank. Snipers clustered beneath the ridgelines leading to the capital. Missile squads entrenched in the hills above Ben Gurion airport.
“Forget the Ben Gurion International Airport,” he said. That kind of concern stems from a mindset “that belongs to the War of Independence. To the Six-Day War. It’s a [mindset] that relates to mortars. But today, when you can fire a Grad [rocket] from Gaza and hit anywhere in Tel Aviv… that’s less important? The fact that you can fire a Grad from the Jordan Valley and hit the petrochemical plants in Haifa… that’s less important?”
Today, he continued, “if you fire a missile from Tehran, you can hit the antenna in the Kirya [IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv]… Dominant topography is completely irrelevant to the missile threat.”
Missiles are often used by states, this reporter suggested, and states such as Syria are more readily deterred. Terrorists, however, assembling homemade rockets and acquiring shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles, present a far greater problem. What’s more, the last two withdrawals, from South Lebanon and from Gaza, brought terror to the Israeli side of the border.
Arieli rejected the notion of terror as a strategic threat, calling it merely “fatiguing,” however painful, so long as the terror group does not possess nuclear or chemical weapons. And he banished both the notion that terror was difficult to deter and that Israeli withdrawals automatically trigger new onslaughts against Israel.
Hezbollah, he said, has been deterred in South Lebanon. The same holds true for Hamas. As in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 and the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Arieli suggested, Israel has proven that it can both deter and, if necessary, quash a terror uprising. “We could take the entire West Bank with one division,” he said.
And the reason rockets have followed withdrawal is because Israel withdrew without agreements. “Was there a landlord? Did we give the keys to the Palestinian Authority? To Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]?” he asked. “No, we tossed them and left.”
Arieli, who said that today Israel’s security situation was “inconceivably better than it was in ’67 or ’73,” did not dismiss the risks entirely. He conceded that perhaps it would be nice to hold the east-west access routes, but said that the practical implications of that were a partitioning of a future Palestine into four cantons. If you do that, he said, “It’s over. It’s the end of a Palestinian state.”
He agreed that an Israeli presence along the Jordan River would effectively thwart weapons trafficking. “Is there a chance that the future Palestine state won’t rear up on its hind legs and fight against that?” he asked. “Yes. I am not dismissing that. I am just weighing the dangers. And this risk is worth taking. It’s in our interest to take it.”
In Arieli’s analysis, a permanent agreement with the Palestinians — which would include international monitors in the Jordan Valley, full demilitarization, the Israeli Air Forces’ use of Palestinian airspace and two early-warning stations in the West Bank — deflates Israel’s two biggest foes, Iran and the international delegitimization movement, at a cost that Israel can afford to pay. “It’s not that there are no dangers in a final-status agreement with the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s that the dangers in a permanent agreement are far, far lesser than the status quo.”
Several days after our conversation, Arieli led one of the hundreds of tours he conducts along the length of the seam line dividing Israel and the West Bank. In the past few months alone, he and the Geneva Initiative have taken members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Likud Central Committee members and Israel Navy officers out into the field. On this day, he showed a busload of mostly blond, sun-loving diplomats the vulnerability of Israel’s Coastal Plain and the manner in which Jerusalem sits in the palm of anyone’s hand on the top of Nebi Samuel — the 3,000-foot-high (915-meter) burial site of the prophet Samuel and the peak from which the Crusaders, coming from the sea, first glimpsed the holy city of Jerusalem.
Then he turned to this reporter and said Israel had to make a decision. “You cannot get a permanent resolution and cling to territory as though you were at war,” he said. “The two simply do not go together.”