Given all the attention focused on Israeli settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines (known colloquially and erroneously as the 1967 borders), one would never know how irrelevant they are to Israeli withdrawal from land captured in 1967. From his first day in office, President Obama seized on the settlements as the crucial issue in Palestinian-Israel peace process, as a means of signaling to the larger Muslim world that they have a friend in the White House. In so doing, he only succeeded in hardening Palestinian positions and convincing them that there was no need to negotiate with Israel because the United States will pressure Israel into withdrawal to the "1967 borders" with minor adjustments.
For many American Jews too, the settlements have taken on a role far out of proportion to any actual impact on peace. The settlements allow American Jews to indulge their Jewish guilt over the failure to achieve peace and to engage in a particularly Jewish form of hubris – the feeling that everything depends on us and that if were only better, more magnanimous, peace would be at hand.
No Israeli government will ever be able to evacuate a quarter of a million Jews from their homes beyond the 1949 armistice lines and an almost equal number from homes in new neighborhoods of so-called east Jerusalem without provoking a civil war. But even if there were not a single settlement, Israel could not return to the 1967 lines. That is a point that cannot be sufficiently emphasized.
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 is located, is no more than 15 miles wide and it narrows to as little as nine miles. No less crucial is Israel's topographical vulnerability. Much of the central mountain range running through Judea and Samaria is over 3,000 feet about sea level, and thus overlooks the cities along the coastal plane. Not only is the entire coastal plane exposed, but so is Ben Gurion Airport and 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 former Palmach commander and 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. In the aftermath of 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. 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, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, whose principal draftsmen were U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. 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 highpoints, 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 the IDF's presence that prevents a Hamas takeover of Judea and Samaria. According to Gen. 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 increased the fear of the West Bank becoming a terrorist haven exponentially. The danger that keeps Israeli strategists up at night, is what former national security advisor Gen. Giora Eiland calls the "three game-changers" – anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and short-range rockets -- flooding the West Bank, as they have Gaza.
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 dual use 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 downed by 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 40 miles 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 multi-national troops will protect Israel versus 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 the most important clause in Bush's April 14 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon, in Sharon's eyes, 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, was also reneged upon by the Obama administration.)
Israel's experience with international peacekeepers has been uniformly poor ever since U.N. Secretary-General U Thant removed U.N. peacekeepers from the Sinai prior to the Six Day War, prompting Abba Eban to liken U.N. peacekeepers to an umbrella that folds up every time it rains.
As new National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror puts it, "International peacekeepers are not going risk their lives going into 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 Hizbullah. UNIFIL filmed Hizbullah 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 Hizbullah 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 had to enter Palestinian held territory in response to Palestinian attacks. The very worse 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 can not be reconciled with the Palestinians' current territorial demands and quest for full sovereignty. And that's why the settlements are ultimately irrelevant to peace.