The issue of the settlements provided US President Barack Obama a way to signal
to the Muslim world that it has a friend in the White House. And it allows
American Jews to indulge their Jewish guilt over the failure to achieve peace,
which guilt itself reflects a particularly Jewish form of hubris – the belief
that everything depends on us and that if were only better, more magnanimous,
peace would be at hand.
But one thing settlements have nothing to do with
are our chances for achieving an agreement with the Palestinians, for even if
there were not a single settlement, Israel could not return to its pre-1967
NO MILITARY expert considered Israel’s pre-1967 borders capable
of being defended. Israel’s coastal plain, in which over 80% of its
industrial capacity and 70% of its population are located, is no more than 24
kilometers wide and it narrows to as little as 14 km. No less crucial is
Israel’s topographical vulnerability. Much of the central mountain range running
through Judea and Samaria is over 900 meters about sea level, and overlooks the
cities along the coastal plain. Not only is the entire coastal plain exposed,
but so is Ben- Gurion Airport and much of the Tel Aviv- Jerusalem
Abba Eban’s famous description of the de facto borders prior to
1967 as Israel’s “Auschwitz borders” expressed the national consensus. The
so-called Allon Plan developed by then foreign minister Yigal Allon, in the wake
of the Six Day War, reflected that consensus. Allon envisioned Israel retaining
the entire Jordan Rift Valley – the area from the Jordan River bed to the crest
of the eastern slope of the Judean and Samarian mountain ridge facing the
Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The judgment of Israeli military experts was
shared by those of the United States.
After the Six Day War, American
secretary of defense Robert McNamara, asked General Earl Wheeler, chairman of
the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for an assessment of what minimum territory Israel
would be justified in keeping. Wheeler replied that Israel would need to retain
captured territory to achieve militarily defensible borders, and a document
prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended “a boundary along the
commanding terrain overlooking the Jordan River.”
President Lyndon B.
Johnson echoed the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when he stated that an
Israeli return to its position as of June 4, 1967, would not be a “prescription
for peace, but for renewed hostilities.”
Accordingly, UN Security Council
Resolution 242, whose principal draftsmen were US ambassador to the UN Arthur
Goldberg and British ambassador Lord Carradon, deliberately refused to call on
Israel to withdraw from all captured territory as the Soviets demanded, and
referred to the right of every state in the area to live in “secure and
recognized boundaries.” The primary threat on the minds of military thinkers at
that time was that of combined Arab armies once again attacking, as they had in
1948 and 1967. Israel’s lack of strategic depth, coupled with the Arab
countries’ much larger standing armies, meant that Israeli ground forces might
be overrun before reserve units could be mobilized. That fear gave such
importance to Israel retaining the Jordan Valley high points, through which any
attack from the east would be far more difficult and time consuming, even
against a numerically smaller defense force.
TO THE pre-1967 fear of a
conventional ground attack, there has now been added that of a failed
Palestinian state becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups. Even today, Israel
security figures believe that it is only the IDF’s presence that prevents a
Hamas takeover of Judea and Samaria.
According to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Aharon
Ze’evi Farkash, former IDF intelligence chief, only the IDF presence has
prevented West Bank Palestinians from manufacturing short-range rockets, as in
the Gaza Strip.
The bitter experience of territory abandoned by Israel
being transformed into terrorist enclaves for Iranian proxies in southern
Lebanon and the Gaza Strip has greatly increased the fear of the West Bank
becoming a terrorist haven. The danger that keeps Israeli strategists up at
night is what former national security adviser Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland
calls the “three game-changers” – anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles,
and shortrange rockets – flooding the West Bank.
When Prime Minister
Netanyahu talks about a “demilitarized Palestinian state,” he means much more
than the conventional definition of the term – i.e., no tanks, no planes, no
military alliances, no stationing of foreign troops, and no defense industries
or industries with dualuse capacity. He means, says Farkash, no security threat
whatsoever, whether it be symmetrical or asymmetrical, military or terrorist –
that can disrupt daily life in Israel.
At a minimum, that would require
Israel to maintain control of the areas overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport, to
prevent commercial aircraft being vulnerable to shoulder- fired anti-aircraft
missiles. And it would require retention of the Jordan Rift Valley to prevent
the smuggling of the “game-changers” into the West Bank, as has happened in Gaza
via the Philadelphi Corridor.
In addition to the dramatic restrictions on
what territory could be given the Palestinians, even if there were no
settlements, there would have to be dramatic restrictions on Palestinian
sovereignty, which it is unlikely that any Palestinian government would ever
accept. For instance, Israel would have to maintain full control of Palestinian
air space. A fighter jet can traverse the 64 km.
between the Jordan River
and the Mediterranean in four minutes, and that between the Jordan River and
Jerusalem in two minutes. Thus Israel needs to maintain the ability to confront
an enemy aircraft as soon as it crosses the Jordan River.
of a 9/11 scenario means that no Palestinian airport could be located near
Jerusalem, and that Israel would have to maintain civilian air traffic
The Palestinian high ground would allow for advanced radar and
surveillance systems, and would also facilitate jamming of Israel’s
These threats too would have to be addressed,
and Israel would have to maintain control of a unified electro-magnetic
THE TRADITIONAL way to finesse the apparent contradiction
between Israel’s security concerns and the Palestinians’ demand for full
sovereignty and maximum territory is to pretend that multinational troops will
protect Israel from terrorism and prevent smuggling across the Jordan River.
That certainly was the approach of President Obama’s first national security
advisor General James Jones, and likely the president himself, as he has said
very little about Israel’s security needs.
Israel will never accept that
– and rightly so. At a conference last June on Israel’s minimum security needs,
Elliot Abrams, who served in the National Security Council under president
George W. Bush, pointed out that in prime minister Ariel Sharon’s eyes, the most
important clause in Bush’s April 14, 2004, letter to him, was that committing
the United States to strengthening “Israel’s capability to deter and defend
itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of
According to Abrams, that sentence was even more important to
Sharon than Bush’s recognition that Israel would retain the large settlement
blocs in any peace agreement. (The latter commitment, which was ratified by
resolutions in both houses of Congress, has already been reneged upon by the
Obama administration.) Israel’s experience with international peacekeepers has
been uniformly poor ever since UN secretary-general U Thant removed UN
peacekeepers from the Sinai prior to the Six Day War, prompting Abba Eban to
liken UN peacekeepers to an umbrella that folds up every time it
As new National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror puts it,
“International peacekeepers are going to risk their lives searching for weapons
in the Nablus casbah to protect Israelis.”
Experience has more than borne
out that conclusion. UNIFIL troops in southern Lebanon have never been willing
to risk irritating Hezbollah. UNIFIL filmed Hezbollah kidnapping three Israeli
soldiers from Israeli territory, for instance, and neither intervened nor
informed Israel. Even under a robust mandate under Security Council Resolution
1701 ending the Second Lebanon War, UNIFIL peacekeepers have not prevented
Hezbollah from amassing 50,00 rockets since the end of the fighting.
only would peacekeepers not protect Israel, they would likely prove a hindrance
if and when Israel has to enter Palestinian-held territory in response to
Palestinian attacks. The very worst nightmare for Israel would be the
involvement of American peacekeepers. If an American soldier were ever killed in
the course of an IDF retaliatory action against terrorists, the public opinion
fallout against Israel would be devastating.
BOTTOM LINE: Even if there
were not one settlement, Israel’s security needs cannot be reconciled with the
Palestinians’ current territorial demands and quest for full sovereignty. And
that’s why the settlements are ultimately irrelevant to peace.The writer
is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in
Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of
modern Jewish leaders.