Outdated security thinking

It is surprising Netanyahu reinserted defensible border concept into discourse.

netanyahu 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
netanyahu 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's comments lastweek to foreign journalists that whatever the final outcome of a peacesolution (assuming there is ever one), Israel would insist on retainingcontrol of the border between a Palestinian state and Jordan signaled areturn to a way of thinking about the future borders of the countrythought to have disappeared over a decade ago.

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

The idea of retaining control over the border with Jordan is athrowback to the period immediately following the Six Day War. Theunofficial government response to the new situation was to create astrategy which would allow for much of the conquered West Bank to behanded back to Jordan as part of an autonomous Palestinian region,while at the same time ensuring that the border between the West Bankand Jordan remain under direct Israeli military control. ThePalestinian autonomous region was to be linked to Jordan through aterritorial corridor which would run from Ramallah, via Jericho andover the Allenby Bridge. The entire autonomous region (most of the WestBank) would be closed to Jewish settlement so as to ensure that whenthe day came for such an agreement to be implemented, there would be noproblem 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 bedescribed as a pragmatic security plan. Recognizing the demographicimplications of long-term control of the region, Allon did not wantIsrael to retain such control over the interior mountainous areas ofthe West Bank, densely occupied even then by Palestinians. At the sametime, he wanted to ensure that the autonomous region remain isolatedfrom direct contact with its Arab neighbors to the east.

With the exception of Jericho, to be located in theterritorial corridor, the entire Jordan Valley was sparsely populatedowing to the difficult arid climate. Allon proposed that the JordanValley be populated by Jewish settlements - agricultural kibbutzim andmoshavim. This was part of a general policy which had been favored byall Israeli governments prior to 1967, namely that the establishment ofcivilian settlements were an integral part of the country's defensivestrategy.

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 combinemilitary service with time spent establishing new agriculturalsettlements in remote border locations, with the intention thatfollowing the completion of their army service they would remain asfull-time residents of these new communities.

In a famous article published in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs in1976, Allon laid out his plan under the title of "Israel: The Case forDefensible Borders." Allon's plan remained the unofficialsecurity-settlement plan for the West Bank for 10 years, until theLabor governments were displaced by the Likud government of MenachemBegin. It was Begin, and his settlement planners, such as MatityahuDrobless and Ariel Sharon, who gave the green light for the Gush Emunimmovement (founded some years previously and developing a settlementplan which contested Allon's limited concept) and sought to establishsettlements throughout the region, including - and especially - inareas 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 securityexperts agreed that the Jordan Valley would have to remain thedefensive border well into the future. This only began to change afterthe mid-1990s, as negotiators in the post-Oslo Accords period realizedthat there could be no political or territorial solution with thePalestinians if Israel insisted on retaining control of such a hugearea, effectively isolating a Palestinian state from its easternneighbors.

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

WITH THE firing of rockets from Iraq into the heart of Israelduring the first Gulf War, and more recently from south Lebanon andGaza, security experts began to question the defensive significance ofborders in general, and of the Jordan Valley in particular. Thesechanges in technology, the removal of the eastern threat following thepeace agreement with Jordan (in which the introduction of any foreigntroops into the territory of Jordan would be seen by Israel as alegitimate cassus belli) and, more recently, the neutralizationof any immediate military threat from Iraq, meant that for the firsttime in almost 40 years the Jordan Valley did not figure so prominentlyin Israel's security demands.

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

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

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