A Return to Defensible Borders

By Dan Diker

Time to revive the classic security concept.


The concept of defensible borders is not foreign to international diplomacy. Its roots date back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which introduced the modern notions of sovereignty, clearly defined borders, and the inalienable right of a state to defend itself through force. Following both World War I and World War II, significant frontier changes were made that generally entailed improving the security of states that had been repeated victims of aggression.2
The UN charter signed in 1945, together with previous international conventions, sought to prohibit wars of aggression or territorial aggrandizement. Israel has no exceptional rights in this regard: Small states are capable of acting aggressively towards larger neighbors, and for this reason small states hold no inherent right to seize land under the pretext of reducing their vulnerability to attack. In the absence of Arab hostility, Israel’s narrow width within its pre-1967 boundaries would not in itself have been sufficient grounds for the capture of the territories in the Six Day War. Indeed, for this reason, jurists have distinguished between aggressive and defensive conquest.3 In 1970 Stephen Schwebel, who would become the legal adviser to the U.S. State Department and later president of the International Court of Justice in the Hague, specifically noted this idea with regard to Israel’s legal position following its capture of territories from which the Jewish state had been attacked in the Six Day War. In a path-breaking 1970 essay in the American Journal of International Law, Schwebel noted that,
A state acting in lawful exercise of its right of self-defense may seize and occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary to its self-defense…. [W]here the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title.4
Israel was forced to enter the West Bank only after coming under attack by Jordan, which in turn had conquered the very same territory in 1948 in what then-UN secretary general Trygve Lie termed “the first armed aggression which the world has seen since the end of the [Second World] War.”5 Israel, Schwebel concluded, had an internationally sanctioned right to seek modification of its borders with respect to the territories from which it was attacked.
Israel’s right to territorial modification was especially significant given the status of the West Bank and Gaza, which were taken from states which had no right under international law to hold them. (Egypt, like Jordan with respect to the West Bank, had taken the Gaza Strip by force during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.) This was clearly understood by the Security Council in the drafting of Resolution 242, which was approved in November 1967. There had not been a legal sovereign over these areas since the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, Israel was lawfully asserting its territorial claims to create defensible boundaries in lands in which there was an internationally recognized vacuum of legal state ownership. The language of Resolution 242, painstakingly drafted by its British sponsors, purposefully calls for Israel to pull back from “territories,” and specifically not from “the” territories, or “all the territories,” captured in the Six Day War. This point was made clearly by the principal author of Resolution 242, Great Britain’s UN representative at the time, Lord Caradon, who noted in 1974 that, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967…. That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them and I think we were right not to.”6
Indeed, former U.S. under secretary of state Eugene Rostow, a primary drafter of 242, emphasized Israel’s legal administrative rights in the territories until it obtained “secure and recognized boundaries” and a mutually acceptable solution was negotiated between the parties.7 Rostow also noted that Israel should not be considered an “occupier” of the territories, because there had been no legal sovereign over either the West Bank or Gaza at the time. This position was also adopted by former Israeli Supreme Court President Meir Shamgar, who noted following the Six Day War that there is no de jure application of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 in the case of Israel because the territories had been taken from Jordan, which was not a legal sovereign but rather an occupier itself.8 In fact, the Palestinians, whose legal claims to the West Bank have long been supported by many third world states, were not even mentioned as a party to Resolution 242.

Israel’s international legal right, as well as its pressing defense requirement to modify its borders, would not be lost on Yigal Allon, one of Israel’s heroic pre-state commanders who served as Israel’s deputy prime minister beginning in the months following the Six Day War, and as foreign minister under the first government of Yitzhak Rabin. Within a month of the cessation of hostilities of the Six Day War, Allon provided the first coherent conceptualization of how to draw defensible borders for Israel using the territories that the Israeli army had captured in the war. Allon, who had commanded the pre-state Palmah strike force, and during the 1948 War of Independence successfully led Israeli army operations in the eastern Galilee and on Israel’s central and southern fronts, understood from firsthand experience that it would be impossible for Israel to return to the June 4, 1967, lines. In defending his proposal, Allon cited the comments of United States ambassador to the UN Arthur Goldberg to the UN Security Council preceding the adoption of Resolution 242. Goldberg had explained that the 1949 armistice lines were defined as provisional military boundaries by both Jordan and Israel, and therefore did not constitute the “secure and recognized boundaries” called for in Resolution 242.9
Allon emphasized Israel’s need to retain a topographical barrier to defend itself from attacks from the east, a move that would also provide an additional defensive measure beyond the proposed demilitarization of Palestinian areas.10 He was particularly concerned by the prospect of hostile forces seizing the West Bank mountain ridge that overlooks Israel’s narrow coastal plain, which holds 70 percent of the country’s residents and 80 percent of its industrial capacity. Allon determined that Israel should retain the eastern slopes of the hilly terrain, facing Jordan, and almost the entire Jordan Valley.11 Specifically, he said that Israel’s new defensible borders would mean “retaining absolute control of the 700-square-mile strategic Jordan Rift Valley east of the major Arab population centers,” a zone that lies between the Jordan River to the east and the eastern slopes of the Samarian and Judean mountains to the west, as well as greater Jerusalem and certain relatively unpopulated sections of the Judean Desert.12 Allon’s recommendation for annexing the Jordan Valley was supported by the fact that this area was—and continues to be—largely unpopulated, aside from the approximately thirty thousand Arab residents of Jericho, which would not be part of the annexed territory.13 This demographic reality would remain true over the following 38 years, thereby, as Sharon has noted in recent interviews, preserving the plan’s relevance for 2005.14 All told, the Allon Plan, which underwent several revisions between 1967 and his presentation of the plan in Foreign Affairs in 1976, envisioned Israel retaining about one-third of the West Bank’s 2,100 square miles.
Allon dismissed claims that in a new era of border-defying technologies, territorial depth had no meaning. “With all the heavy damage that warheads and bombs can inflict,” he wrote, “they alone cannot be decisive in war, as long as the other side is resolved to fight back.” Recent precedents in military history reinforced the lesson:
The German air “blitz” did not knock England out of World War II, nor did the heavy Allied air bombardments bring Germany to its knees. This happened only when the last bunker in Berlin fell. Even the massive American air bombardments did not defeat North Vietnam, which, in the final analysis, proved to be the victor in the war. At least as far as conventional wars are concerned, the following basic truth remains: Without an attack by ground forces that physically overrun the country involved, no war can be decisive.15
Allon also called for new Jewish settlements to be built in the territories that would be annexed to Israel in any peace agreement, plus the addition of permanent military bases according to security needs.16 In handwritten explanations of his original defensible borders plan he first presented to the government on July 13, 1967, Allon noted that “Israel’s refraining from establishing settlements… in the territories beyond Israel’s borders can only be interpreted in the rest of the world as if we are reconciling ourselves to giving up these territories…. And this would be the worst option for Israel.”17
But Allon opposed retaining the entire area of Judea and Samaria, including its one million Arab inhabitants, whom he feared would create the demographic conditions that might result in a bi-national state.18 Allon assumed, rather, that Israel would reach an agreement with Palestinian leaders and neighboring Jordan over the final status of the West Bank that would be a contiguous, autonomous, demilitarized Palestinian entity within the Hashemite Kingdom, rather than a fully empowered independent Palestinian state.19

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