Think Again: The irrelevance of the settlements to peace

Even if there weren't 1 settlement, Israel’s security needs can't be reconciled with Palestinians’ territorial demands, quest for sovereignty.

Betar Illit 311 (photo credit: Bet Hashalom/WikiCommons)
Betar Illit 311
(photo credit: Bet Hashalom/WikiCommons)
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 borders.
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 highway.
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.
The possibility 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 control.
The Palestinian high ground would allow for advanced radar and surveillance systems, and would also facilitate jamming of Israel’s communications networks.
These threats too would have to be addressed, and Israel would have to maintain control of a unified electro-magnetic spectrum.
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 threats.”
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 rains.
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.
Not 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 The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.