A Return to Defensible Borders

By Dan Diker

Time to revive the classic security concept.

A week after his historic White House summit with United States President George W. Bush in April, 2004, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stood before a packed Knesset plenum. A sense of triumph could be heard in his voice as he presented a list of American assurances that he had secured in a letter from the president. The letter was offered as a quid pro quo for Sharon’s promise to withdraw all Israeli troops and civilians from the Gaza Strip, known as the “disengagement plan.” Sharon recited the key components of the Bush letter: (i) U.S. support for the repatriation of Palestinian refugees to a future Palestinian state only, and not to Israel; (ii) an American commitment that Israel would retain large population centers in the West Bank and would therefore not be asked to return to the 1949 armistice lines, Israel’s de facto border until June 1967; (iii) a U.S. promise that there would be no other peace plan put forward except the previously agreed-upon “roadmap,” which made Israeli concessions contingent upon a complete halt to Palestinian terror and incitement.
This was a crucial moment for Sharon. Since he first announced his disengagement plan in December 2003 at a speech to the Herzliya Conference, he had been sharply criticized by opponents both within his Likud party and among the more hard-line Knesset factions who accused him of giving up tangible assets in exchange for nothing, not even a commitment to peaceful coexistence, from the Palestinian side. By presenting these American commitments, Sharon was making the case that he had in fact gained something momentous: Assurances from the world’s most powerful nation that Israel’s vital interests would be maintained.
The ensuing debate focused on the merits of such a deal—how much stock could one place in American commitments, and would they be worth giving up the economic, strategic, and civilian assets of the Gaza Strip. Yet perhaps the letter’s most important achievement, and a key element of Sharon’s address that day, went largely unnoticed. For the first time since the collapse of the 1993 Oslo accords in September 2000, an American president had formally committed to the idea that Israel must have “secure and recognized borders”—a signifier for the central strategic doctrine that, until the Oslo accords, had governed Israel’s own perception of its minimal defense requirements, and that had formed the basis of the prevailing doctrine governing UN Security Council resolutions concerning Israel in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars: The doctrine of defensible borders. Sharon himself invoked this doctrine in its original English form from the podium of the Knesset, both to underscore its importance as a central component of the Bush assurances, and to emphasize its firm foundation in international law.
According to the doctrine of defensible borders, Israel’s 1949 armistice lines presented the Jewish state with critical vulnerabilities, and therefore could not be sustained as permanent borders. Yigal Allon, Israel’s then-foreign minister and the architect of the defensible borders doctrine, put it this way in a 1976 essay in Foreign Affairs:
One does not have to be a military expert to easily identify the critical defects of the armistice lines that existed until June 4, 1967…. The gravest problem is on the eastern boundary, where the entire width of the coastal plain varies between 10 and 15 miles, where the main centers of Israel’s population, including Tel Aviv and its suburbs, are situated, and where the situation of Jerusalem is especially perilous. Within these lines a single successful first strike by the Arab armies would be sufficient to dissect Israel at more than one point, to sever its essential living arteries, and to confront it with dangers that no other state would be prepared to face. The purpose of defensible borders is thus to correct this weakness, to provide Israel with the requisite minimal strategic depth, as well as lines which have topographical strategic significance.1
In Allon’s view, Israel was founded in order to allow the Jewish people to live without relying for their security upon the benevolence of foreign powers. The defensible borders doctrine insisted that Israel, as a sovereign state, had a right to maintain borders that provided for its citizens’ minimal security needs—and that therefore any final-status agreements concerning the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai Peninsula, and Golan Heights would necessarily have to involve the annexation of at least some territory as a correction to the extremely unstable 1949 armistice lines, whose very vulnerability had invited Arab aggression and led to the perpetuation of conflict. Immediately after the Six Day War in 1967, Allon proposed a series of territorial adjustments that would incorporate into Israel key tracts of largely unpopulated land, especially in the Jordan Valley, while maintaining territorial contiguity between the Palestinian population centers and the Kingdom of Jordan, which had held the West Bank until 1967 (see map on p. 60). In effect, what became known as the Allon Plan was meant as the antidote to a 1949 armistice whose frontiers were so perilous for the Jewish state as to move Israel’s venerable dovish diplomat, Abba Eban, to dub them “Auschwitz borders.”
The quest for defensible borders was the central axiom of Israeli policy in the West Bank through successive Israeli governments, and was recognized in international law through UN Security Council Resolution 242, which acknowledged Israel’s right to “secure and recognized” boundaries and the adjustment of the 1949 lines. Yet beginning with the Oslo accords of 1993, and culminating in the Camp David and Taba talks of 2000 and 2001, the doctrine of defensible borders was gradually eroded and ultimately replaced with a different way of thinking. The “security arrangements” school maintained that sovereign territory was no longer the crucial element in defensive requirements, now that long-range missiles, radar, and sophisticated aircraft easily crossed any boundary. Instead, security could be maintained through arrangements between previously warring parties, using demilitarized zones, early-warning stations, third-party security assurances, and the positioning of troops on territory that was formally under another country’s sovereignty. Most notably under the leadership of Ehud Barak, between 1999 and 2001 Israel abandoned the belief that its basic security needs necessitate the adjustment of borders beyond the 1949 armistice lines.
But the collapse of the Oslo agreements in September of 2000, and the hostilities that have raged since then, represent a major challenge to, if not an outright implosion of, the security arrangements doctrine as applied to the Palestinian issue. When Barak put on the table the handover of virtually the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip in exchange for such arrangements, the Palestinians rejected any proposal that would be perceived as an infringement on their sovereignty, including demilitarization, the limitation of airspace, or the presence of Israeli troops anywhere in their territory, and at the same time insisted on a full Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 armistice lines. Refusing to accept either defensible borders or security arrangements to assure Israeli security, the Palestinians broke off talks and launched a campaign of violence that has cost the lives of thousands on both sides.
Although both Sharon and Bush have conditionally endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, their words and actions represent, at the same time, a return to the doctrine of defensible borders. Some might argue that these two positions are irreconcilable—that because it rejects the 1949 armistice lines, a return to the doctrine of defensible borders necessarily involves an end to Palestinian aspirations to statehood. Yet there is reason to think the reverse may be true. That is to say, Israel’s commitment to defensible borders, entailing the annexation of some of the land captured in the 1967 war, may well make the possibility of Palestinian independence and a peaceful resolution to the conflict more, rather than less, likely. Paradoxically, it may be the case thatonly through the creation of full Israeli sovereignty in some of the sparsely populated parts of the West Bank, particularly the Jordan Valley and other strategically vital areas, is it possible to envision Israeli territorial compromise.
Regardless of one’s position on the merits of Sharon’s present disengagement strategy, the return to the defensible borders doctrine is a development of considerable moment. For only through the achievement of defensible borders will Israel be able to maintain an effective defense of its own citizens without positioning itself physically within the territory of a future Palestinian state or other entity that might eventually be federated with Jordan. Only through defensible borders, that is, is there hope for an elusive but still achievable peace.

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