Against the backdrop of a possible Palestinian bid for independence at the United Nations this September and thus far unsuccessful deliberations within the Quartet regarding terms of reference for restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the issue of defensible borders merits renewed attention.
Former foreign minister Yigal Allon was one of the clearest and most authoritative exponents of the case for Israel’s need for defensible borders. In an October 1976 article in Foreign Affairs, Allon noted that whereas Israel’s rivals seek to “isolate, strangle and erase Israel from the world’s map,” Israel’s strategic aims have been focused on its “imperative to survive.”
Thus, even if peace agreements are reached, border and security arrangements must ensure Israel’s ability to defend itself in the event that such agreements are breached. As the recent upheavals in the Middle East have clearly demonstrated, this guiding principle has not lost its salience.
Allon contended with a number of claims raised to counter Israel’s argument for defensible borders. Then, as now, technological advances such as missile technology were pointed to as obviating the need for strategic depth and topographical assets. Then, as now, international guarantees were pointed to as constituting a satisfactory substitute for physical control of defensible ground.
Then, as now, such arguments did not coincide with anecdotal experience,
drawn, as noted by Allon, from historical cases such as the German air
‘blitz’ against Great Britain, or the American air-strikes against North
Vietnam, which demonstrated the limitations of air-launched attacks and
continuing importance of having “boots on the ground.”
Then, as now, such arguments failed to account for the resounding
failure of international guarantees to ensure Israel’s security, as
evidenced, for example, in UNEF’s withdrawal from Sinai in May 1967.
Yet even beyond cases such as these, today we have the benefit of
quantitative research which has shed a great deal of light on numerous
international relations phenomena.
Two research findings are of particular relevance in this regard: the
strong correlation between extant territorial claims and violent
international conflict and the positive association between conflict
durability and insurgents’ access to an international boundary.
The first indicates Israel has considerable grounds to expect security
threats to persist, even subsequent to an agreement, as long as
substantial Palestinian territorial claims to pre-1967 Israel persist.
Thus, the fundamental source of potential conflict – the willingness –
will in all likelihood continue.
The second underscores the fact that access to an international border
would provide Palestinian militants with the opportunity to continue –
and expand – violent activities against Israel. As many scholars and
observers of international relations have long understood, a conjunction
of willingness and opportunity is an almost certain formula for violent
Thus, forcing Israel into indefensible borders, such as those of June 4, 1967, is unlikely to lead to a stable regional order.
On the contrary, insofar as comparative, empirical research can serve as
a guide, relinquishing an Israeli presence along some of the borders of
a Palestinian state will severely diminish the chances of resolving the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will probably exacerbate it. A cursory
glance at developments in Gaza since Israel relinquished control of the
Gaza-Sinai border in 2005 provides a rather stark confirmation of this
Territorial claims and conflict Over the past several decades, a very
large, empirical literature has emerged which demonstrates the key role
of territorial claims as a source of international conflict. Numerous
studies, employing different research designs, varied spatial and
temporal domains and independently conceived theoretical frameworks,
have produced robust findings pointing in essentially the same
direction, permitting a very decisive conclusion: territorial
revisionism leads to violent international conflict.
The particular value of this body of research is that the above
conclusion has retained its validity, notwithstanding the numerous
controls that have been imposed in different studies over the years.
Irrespective of whether or not rivals sign treaties or commence their
relations violently or peacefully, notwithstanding the variance in
rivals’ cultural and historical background, or configuration of relative
power, regardless of the rivals’ institutional structure (democratic or
not) and level of economic development and taking into account the
numerous other caveats that have been explored in the literature, the
basic finding remains intact.
While different factors have been shown to exert a mitigating effect on
conflict, none appears capable of entirely vitiating the basic
association between territorial revisionism and war.
While it may appear trivial in some sense, the finding actually bears
non-trivial policy implications. What it says, in effect, is that in
instances where territorial claims cannot realistically be resolved,
either through a negotiated or non-negotiated redistribution of land,
violent conflict is likely to persist. This remains true, in particular,
whether or not a formal treaty is signed between rivals. Indeed,
empirical work on treaties has largely shown that while they are not
mere “scraps of paper,” in the words of one of the prominent scholars in
this field, they don’t generally appear to be capable of resolving
disputed issues. At best, they may be able to manage them, primarily by
affecting the incentives and degree of uncertainty facing potential
The ramifications in the Israeli- Palestinian context should be clear,
with regard to what can be realistically expected from a political
settlement, at least at the present time. There can be no doubt that
political forces such as Hamas and numerous fundamentalist affiliates
would continue to harbor territorial claims regarding the pre-1967
territory of Israel, even were a peace treaty to be signed between
Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The problem is further underscored by the positions of the Palestinian Authority.
Its refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, its objections to
formulas such as “two states for two peoples” and its continuing
commitment to the idea of having descendants of Palestinian refugees
settle in Israel with the explicit goal of gaining demographic, and
eventually political, control within it, reflect an ongoing nurturing of
ultimately territorial demands for pre-1967 Israel. The extent to which
Palestinian schools and popular culture venerate the idea of a “right
of return,” and the consistency with which Palestinian leaders affirm
support of it, reflect a firm commitment within a broad Palestinian
constituency to these ethnically-based territorial claims.
Might the Palestinian Authority disclaim these positions in the context
of future negotiations? Perhaps, though it has revealed no indication of
willingness to do so in eighteen years of talks. Recent revelations of
internal, classified documents pertaining to Palestinian negotiating
positions during the past decade, including on the question of refugees,
have been extremely edifying in this regard, illustrating the very
tangible, concrete nature of the Palestinian Authority’s ambitions with
regard to the refugee question.
Commissioning classified demographic studies that explored alternative
scenarios for the influx of hundreds of thousands and potentially
millions of Palestinians into Israel over a number of years, while
contemplating the open-ended negotiation of additional migrations,
presumably into perpetuity, these documents reveal a calculated,
remarkably matter-of-fact vision for using the refugee issue as a means
of acquiring demographic (and ultimately political) control of Israel.
Yet, even if the Palestinian leadership were to renounce their call for
“return,” would such a renunciation resonate with popular sentiments
among Palestinians, sentiments that have been meticulously cultivated
over decades? It seems unlikely.
Would it reflect the views of millions of Palestinians kept in “refugee”
status in neighboring states since 1948? It seems rather whimsical to
suppose that it might.
A sober analysis cannot but lead to the conclusion that very significant
followings within Palestinian public opinion will continue to harbor
territorial claims with respect to pre-1967 Israel, even subsequent to a
possible Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
The empirical literature on territorial claims – particularly those with
an ethnic component – presents us, in turn, with the unfortunate
conclusion that such claims can be expected to continue fueling violent
Such conclusions are sometimes erroneously taken to imply a sense of
determinism or inevitability as to the likely trajectory of the
conflict. This is not, however, the case. Territorial claims to pre-
1967 Israel and tolerance for violence can be expected to persist in
Palestinian society at least partly because they have been, and continue
to be, deliberately cultivated by Palestinian elites, as has been
extensively documented by organizations that monitor Palestinian society
Just as such motifs have been promoted over the years, so too can
others, including those which may ultimately assist in fostering a
culture of tolerance, territorial compromise and rejection of violence.
The continuing salience of borders as a component of security As argued
above, there is little reason to doubt that significant Palestinian
territorial revisionism will persist, with its attendant potential for
violence, whatever political arrangement emerges between Israel and the
Palestinian leadership. A question may nevertheless be posed as to
whether the location and topographical features of Israel’s borders will
play a significant role in determining its security in such a context.
Here too, as in the case of territorial claims, the theoretical and
empirical literature is able to shed some light. It has long been argued
by globalization theorists that geographical boundaries have been
losing significance in the international arena. This trend is typically
noted to be related to processes of transnational economic integration,
alongside tremendous advances in communication and transportation
The value of territory as a military asset has also been argued to be
diminishing, inter alia, due to advances in missile and
intelligence-gathering technologies. The significant decline in
large-scale inter-state war in recent decades appears to corroborate
Yet, as noted by some scholars, borders do not generally seem to be losing in importance so much as changing their role.
As Peter Andreas phrased it in his 2003 article in International
Security: “In many cases, more intensive border law enforcement is
accompanying the demilitarization and economic liberalization of
The struggle against ‘clandestine transnational actors’ (CTAs), whether
they come in the guise of organized crime or terrorist organizations, is
becoming a growing concern for states concerned with safeguarding their
borders against the infiltration of narcotics, weapons or illegal
migrants. The post-9/11 focus on homeland security is symptomatic of
this general trend.
It is, therefore, not surprising that in recent empirical work on the
subject of geography and rebel capability, covering civil conflict
duration across the globe for much of the post-WWII period, it has been
shown that “conflicts where rebels have access to an international
border are twice as durable as other conflicts” (Halvard Buhaug, Scott
Gates and Päivi Lujala [August 2009] “Geography, Rebel Capability, and
the Duration of Civil Conflict.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 53(4):
The reasons are clear: such access serves as a life-line for the supply
of weapons, funds, personnel, training, and, if need be, a safe haven,
all of which can significantly enhance the relative capabilities of the
insurgents and thus underpin protracted conflict.
COUPLED WITH the inherent instability of the Middle East, vividly
underscored in recent months, a realistic appraisal of Israel’s
geopolitical situation behooves caution. In such circumstances, the
importance of maintaining defensible borders is all the more plain,
notwithstanding the general global trend towards a reduction in
large-scale interstate war. Once again, empirical research is
instructive in this regard: where territorial revisionism persists, so
too does war.
Some have argued that international guarantees and UN peacekeeping
troops can serve as a substitute for direct border control by a
concerned state. While findings have been reported revealing such
measures to be capable of mitigating conflict, it has yet to be shown
that they can decisively end it, where significant territorial claims
Tellingly, “identity” conflicts – those involving religious and ethnic
aspects – prove significantly less susceptible to the irenic effects
which treaties and international involvement may otherwise display.
Also, multi-national troop deployments prove especially ineffective
against groups determined to funnel illicit goods across a poorly
This general observation gains very clear, specific expression in the Israeli-Arab arena.
Hezbollah, with unhindered access to the Lebanese-Syrian border, has for
years enjoyed a massive influx of missiles and other weaponry, supplied
by Iran and Syria.
Notwithstanding the efforts of an enhanced UNIFIL since 2006, Hezbollah
has succeeded in increasing its arsenal to over 40,000 rockets,
distributed throughout some 270 south Lebanese villages. The threat
thereby posed to Israel, demonstrated as recently as 2006, when over
4,000 rockets were fired on densely populated areas in Israel, can
scarcely be questioned.
Hamas has similarly benefited from the fact that Israel no longer
controls the border between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, transferring
many thousands of rockets, mortars and other weaponry through tunnels
burrowed under the border.
Whereas the IDF presence on the Philadelphi Route in the 1967-2005
period could not prevent all weapons-smuggling efforts, the sheer
magnitude of the weapons-smuggling operations since 2005, in terms of
both quantity and quality of the armaments, belies any notion that
control of the boundary has no military significance. The more than 9000
rockets and mortars that have struck Israeli territory since 2000
similarly illustrate the very tangible security threat thereby
Moreover, the pattern of rocket and mortar fire serves to illustrate the
key role of border control. As documented in a March 2011 study by the
Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Center, in the five years
subsequent to the Israeli withdrawal, the number of rockets and mortars
that struck Israel increased by more than 150% to 6,535 compared with
the 2,535 in the five year period prior to the withdrawal.
Tellingly, whereas rockets, which are relatively sophisticated and
effective, made up only 26% of fired projectiles in the earlier period,
they accounted for 73% in the later period, reflecting the enhanced
smuggling capacity of Hamas following the Israeli withdrawal.
THUS, TO prevent the emergence of a heavily armed, hostile Palestinian
state dominating Israel’s 15 kilometer wide heartland – precisely as has
transpired pursuant to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and relinquishing
of control over Gaza’s southern boundary – Israel will have to maintain a
perimeter presence along the borders of a Palestinian state. This
implies a continuing Israeli presence on the eastern boundary, that is,
along the Jordan Valley.
The viability of a Palestinian state Contrary to certain claims,
maintaining an Israeli presence along the Jordan Valley is entirely
compatible with the establishment of a contiguous, viable Palestinian
state in Judea and Samaria.
According to Palestinian statistics, based on a 2007 census,
approximately 10,000 Palestinians reside in those parts of the Jordan
Valley that were not already passed over to Palestinian civilian control
under the Oslo Accords. This amounts to less than a half of a percent
of the Palestinian population of Judea and Samaria, as documented by the
Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. Moreover, the area lies
exclusively to the east of the main Palestinian population centers, such
that its omission would not interfere with the contiguity of a
Palestinian state. Thus, excluding the Jordan Valley from the territory
of a Palestinian state would have negligible demographic implications.
By contrast, as argued above, the security implications would be weighty
indeed, and probably critical with respect to the durability of a
The stated Palestinian position is clearly incompatible with such a
territorial division. Palestinian claims to the Jordan Valley form part
of their claims to Judea and Samaria in its entirety, claims which
compete with those of Israel to the same territory. Reflecting an
appreciation for these conflicting claims, the terms of reference of the
peace process, as expressed in the Oslo Accords as well as relevant
United Nations resolutions, from Security Council Resolution 242 (1967)
through to Security Council Resolution 1850 (2008), have consistently
required that the borders, along with other disputed issues, be agreed
upon between the parties. A priori rejection of the possibility that
Israel will retain a presence in the Jordan Valley in a final status
settlement is flatly inconsistent with the principle of mutual agreement
and negotiations, which has underpinned every peace breakthrough thus
far achieved between Israel and its neighbors.
Thus, Palestinian opposition to a territorial division that would leave
an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley should not be confused with a
claim as to its inherent infeasibility. Not only is such a division
consistent with the implementation of a two-state solution, there are
strong grounds, based on an analysis of the security reality which can
be expected to emerge, suggesting the necessity of such a solution.
THIS ANALYSIS does not imply that a stable, two-state solution to the
Israeli- Palestinian conflict cannot be achieved. It simply underscores
what such a solution would have to look like if it were to be genuinely
stable. Contrary to views which regard the 1967 boundary as a
sine-quanon for such a solution, empirical research suggests that a
relinquishment by Israel of perimeter control of Judea and Samaria would
be highly destabilizing.
Such findings belie the idea that the mere presence of a signed
agreement, or peacekeeping deployment, would obviate the need for Israel
to retain tangible strategic assets as a component of its national
security. Whereas this is a conclusion many observers of the conflict
have intuitively understood for some time, today we have the benefit of
quantitative empirical findings which serve to corroborate it.The writer serves as policy adviser to the minister of foreign affairs
and lectures on game theory and territorial conflict at the Herzliya