Outdated security thinking

It is surprising Netanyahu reinserted defensible border concept into discourse.

January 25, 2010 23:24
4 minute read.
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netanyahu 298 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's comments last week to foreign journalists that whatever the final outcome of a peace solution (assuming there is ever one), Israel would insist on retaining control of the border between a Palestinian state and Jordan signaled a return to a way of thinking about the future borders of the country thought to have disappeared over a decade ago.

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Netanyahu argued that it would be essential for Israel to control this border as a means of ensuring that no weapons or rockets were transported from Jordan (or from places further afield such as Iran or Syria) into the new Palestinian state where they could be used against Israel - much in the same way as rockets have been fired from both South Lebanon and the Gaza Strip following the withdrawal from these areas.

The idea of retaining control over the border with Jordan is a throwback to the period immediately following the Six Day War. The unofficial government response to the new situation was to create a strategy which would allow for much of the conquered West Bank to be handed back to Jordan as part of an autonomous Palestinian region, while at the same time ensuring that the border between the West Bank and Jordan remain under direct Israeli military control. The Palestinian autonomous region was to be linked to Jordan through a territorial corridor which would run from Ramallah, via Jericho and over the Allenby Bridge. The entire autonomous region (most of the West Bank) would be closed to Jewish settlement so as to ensure that when the day came for such an agreement to be implemented, there would be no problem of Jewish residents within the Palestinian autonomy.

THE ALLON Plan, after its author, former Palmah commander, foreign minister and deputy prime minister Yigal Allon, could best be described as a pragmatic security plan. Recognizing the demographic implications of long-term control of the region, Allon did not want Israel to retain such control over the interior mountainous areas of the West Bank, densely occupied even then by Palestinians. At the same time, he wanted to ensure that the autonomous region remain isolated from direct contact with its Arab neighbors to the east.

With the exception of Jericho, to be located in the territorial corridor, the entire Jordan Valley was sparsely populated owing to the difficult arid climate. Allon proposed that the Jordan Valley be populated by Jewish settlements - agricultural kibbutzim and moshavim. This was part of a general policy which had been favored by all Israeli governments prior to 1967, namely that the establishment of civilian settlements were an integral part of the country's defensive strategy.

It was this thinking that led, in the early days of the state, to the setting up of the Nahal program, in which soldiers would combine military service with time spent establishing new agricultural settlements in remote border locations, with the intention that following the completion of their army service they would remain as full-time residents of these new communities.

In a famous article published in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs in 1976, Allon laid out his plan under the title of "Israel: The Case for Defensible Borders." Allon's plan remained the unofficial security-settlement plan for the West Bank for 10 years, until the Labor governments were displaced by the Likud government of Menachem Begin. It was Begin, and his settlement planners, such as Matityahu Drobless and Ariel Sharon, who gave the green light for the Gush Emunim movement (founded some years previously and developing a settlement plan which contested Allon's limited concept) and sought to establish settlements throughout the region, including - and especially - in areas which had been declared free of settlements by Allon.

This change of plan eventually gave rise to the settlement network of some 300,000 people which exists in the West Bank today.

But even during the 1980s and 1990s, most Israeli security experts agreed that the Jordan Valley would have to remain the defensive border well into the future. This only began to change after the mid-1990s, as negotiators in the post-Oslo Accords period realized that there could be no political or territorial solution with the Palestinians if Israel insisted on retaining control of such a huge area, effectively isolating a Palestinian state from its eastern neighbors.

Moreover, given the already densely populated region, the projections of even more rapid demographic growth in the future and the potential return of a large number of Palestinian refugees to the new state, the Jordan Valley offered the one area where new settlement and residential projects could take place.

WITH THE firing of rockets from Iraq into the heart of Israel during the first Gulf War, and more recently from south Lebanon and Gaza, security experts began to question the defensive significance of borders in general, and of the Jordan Valley in particular. These changes in technology, the removal of the eastern threat following the peace agreement with Jordan (in which the introduction of any foreign troops into the territory of Jordan would be seen by Israel as a legitimate cassus belli) and, more recently, the neutralization of any immediate military threat from Iraq, meant that for the first time in almost 40 years the Jordan Valley did not figure so prominently in Israel's security demands.

It is therefore surprising that Netanyahu has reinserted the defensible border concept into public discourse. If most generals agree that this is no longer a prerequisite for reaching a peace agreement, it can only be interpreted as yet another hard-line statement which turns the clock back to a period and a policy which are no longer relevant. If there is to be any return to the negotiating table (which at present seems highly unlikely), the Palestinians will not accept any territorial arrangements which prevent them from gaining territorial contiguity from the border in the west (the Green Line or thereabouts) to Jordan in the east.

Did Netanyahu make his statement based on real security expertise, or was it just another attempt to hammer the nails even more strongly into the coffin of peace?

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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