Back to basics on Israel’s security

A former top US official argues that those who back away from the idea of defensible borders for Israel are making a mistake.

Islamic Jihad 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Islamic Jihad 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Bush letter and the Gaza withdrawal In the letter from president George W. Bush to prime minister Ariel Sharon of April 14, 2004, there was one new element, and the rest was a return to the key elements of US policy since 1967 – elements that were developed under president Lyndon Johnson – the idea that there would be no return to the situation before June 1967. The April 14 letter was a document carefully negotiated between the United States and Israel at great length, line by line.
The occasion was in response to Sharon’s announcement in December 2003 of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank. Sharon was then involved in a political battle inside his own Likud party. He was receiving no compensation from the Palestinians for this unilateral move, but he needed compensation, not least for Israeli political purposes, that was to come from the US in the form of solidarity with Israel, and the policies expressed in that letter were then endorsed by the US Congress.
Traditional US policy: Israel has the right to defend itself The heart of the approach is that Israel has the right to defend itself, a phrase that was heard many times from Bush after various incidents of violence. As the letter put it: The US reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.
What is critical here is that in this letter there is no talk about international guarantees or international forces. We are all familiar with the experience of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. UNIFIL was strengthened and enlarged in 2006 after the Second Lebanon War and it has now presided over a massive rearmament of Hizbullah.
What are the key elements in the Bush approach to Israel defending itself? The first is the continuation of the US-Israel alliance, including military aid from the US. The second element relates to Israel’s borders. There were plenty of comments from president Johnson, secretary of state George Shultz and many others about how the so-called ’67 borders were incapable of providing Israel with adequate defense and would change. The April 14 letter makes no reference to the ’67 borders. It refers to “the armistice lines of 1949,” which was another effort to show that these were not borders and that they would need to be adjusted. This idea was first raised by Johnson in 1967.
A new focus on change on the Palestinian side What was new from Bush was the clear statement that developments on the Palestinian side were central, namely the replacement of a corrupt, terrorist leadership with the capability and willpower “to fight terrorism, and cut off all forms of assistance to individuals and groups engaged in terrorism.”
The language of the 2003 road map was even stronger; it didn’t say “fight terrorism,” it said “dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.”
Bush stated US policy in a speech in the Rose Garden on June 24, 2002, where he called for “new Palestinian leadership. I call upon them [the Palestinians] to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty... If the Palestinian people meet these goals, they will be able to reach agreement with Israel and Egypt and Jordan on security and other arrangements for independence.
“And when the Palestinian people have new leaders, new institutions and new security arrangements with their neighbors, the United States of America will support the creation of a Palestinian state whose borders and certain aspects of its sovereignty will be provisional until resolved as part of a final settlement in the Middle East.
“A Palestinian state will never be created by terror – it will be built through reform.”
That was new: the understanding that peace was not going to be made as it had been made with Jordan and Egypt, because Israel and the Palestinians were more deeply intertwined.
Security for Israel depended also on what happened inside Palestinian society.
That is why we are required to be concerned about whether the PA arrests Hamas or Fatah terrorists and whether they broadcast vicious libels of Israel and Jews on Palestinian radio and TV.
Incitement is a security issue This issue, what we’ve come to call “incitement,” is not trivial or marginal.
To use a historical analogy, England and France didn’t make peace with Germany at the end of World War I because that was a Germany with which only a false peace could be made. Only after the changes in German society after World War II could a real and lasting peace be made. The same was true for the United States and Japan. In the case of Israel and the Palestinians, the location of the border and what is on the other side of that border are equally important.
It is a phony argument to claim that this is an attempt to impose American political institutions on the Palestinians, or that it is a demand that perfect democracy must arise in the Palestinian territories before any negotiation is possible. That is a caricature. All that Bush said was that the Palestinians needed institutions of statehood that carry on a serious political and ideological struggle against extremism and terrorism, not any particular constitution or basic law, but a decent political system where the terrorists and their supporters are not in control, where those who are in charge of education policy are not nursing ancient hatreds. And in some of these areas there has been progress, but Israel should not back away from the incitement issue because it is a security issue.
Are defensible borders too much to ask for? Similarly, those who back away from the idea of defensible borders are making a huge mistake. Presumably they do so because they think defensible borders are too much to ask for, and that we need to promote peace. But there will be no peace with the ’67 lines, as has been understood since 1967. Clarity about the fact that those lines will change actually promotes peace. The point is to reflect the reality on the ground and establish the basis for a peace that can last.
As I’ve said, the Bush policy was mostly a return to the policy that the US has had since 1967. I therefore think that American policy today is a departure. We need to stick to the basics and what is most basic is security.
Most of those basic elements are found in that 2004 letter endorsed by both houses of Congress.
When it comes to negotiations with the Palestinians, I think Israel should insist on negotiations with the Palestinians alone, without US Middle East envoy George Mitchell. We had several rounds of tripartite negotiations in the Bush administration and they failed. In addition, there cannot be a time limit on negotiations.
The problem with the Obama administration has been its policy, not its explanations of policy, and I think the situation with Israel has been the exact opposite. Often the policy has been serious and admirable, and the explanations have been poor, as if somehow many in Israel were embarrassed to be staking out tough, clear, unshakable positions to defend Israeli security. Israel will make it far easier to find supporters when its own positions are clear and its friends can understand that these were positions taken by all Israeli governments in the past, and supported by American presidents for decades. Israel should go back to the basics, and with no apologies.
The writer is former senior director for the Near East on the US National Security Council, and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at a conference on “Israel’s Critical Security Needs for a Viable Peace,” held in Jerusalem this summer at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs