By Mitchell Bard
The boundaries of Middle East countries were
arbitrarily fixed by the Western powers after Turkey was defeated in
World War I and the French and British mandates were set up. The areas allotted to Israel under the UN
partition plan had all been under the control of the Ottomans,
who had ruled Palestine from 1517 until 1917.
When Turkey was defeated in World War I, the French
took over the area now known as Lebanon and Syria. The British got
Palestine and Iraq. In 1926, the borders were redrawn and Lebanon was
separated from Syria.
Britain installed the Emir Faisal, who had been
deposed by the French in Syria, as ruler of the new kingdom of Iraq.
In 1922, the British created the emirate of Transjordan, which
incorporated all of Palestine east of the Jordan River. This was done
so that the Emir Abdullah, whose family had been defeated in tribal
warfare that had taken place on the Arabian peninsula, would have a
Kingdom to rule. None of the countries that border Israel became
independent until this century. Many other Arab nations became
independent after Israel.
Land for Peace and Security
Israel's boundaries were determined by the United
Nations when it adopted the partition
resolution in 1947. In a series of defensive wars, Israel captured
additional territory. On numerous occasions, Israel has withdrawn from
these areas. As part of the 1974
disengagement agreement, Israel returned territories captured in
the 1967 and 1973 wars to Syria. Under the terms of
the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian
peace treaty, Israel withdrew from the Sinai peninsula for the
third time. It had already withdrawn from large parts of the desert
area it captured in its War of
Independence. After capturing the entire Sinai in the 1956
Suez conflict, Israel relinquished the peninsula to Egypt a year
later. In September 1983, Israel withdrew
from large areas of Lebanon to positions south of the Awali River.
In 1985, it completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, except for a narrow
security zone just north of the Israeli border. After signing peace
agreements with the Palestinians, and a treaty
with Jordan, Israel agreed to withdraw from most of the territory
in the West Bank captured from
Jordan in 1967. A small area was returned to Jordan, the rest was
ceded to the Palestinian Authority.
The agreement with the Palestinians also involved Israel's withdrawal
in 1994 from most of the Gaza
Strip, which had been captured from Egypt in 1973.
Negotiations continue regarding the final
disposition of the remaining disputed territories in Israel's
possession. Israel's willingness to make territorial concessions in
exchange for security proves its goal is peace, not expansion.
Israel cannot withdraw from all the territories it
captured, however, as the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded in a
June 29, 1967, memorandum for the Secretary of Defense. "From a
strictly military point of view, the Joint Chiefs wrote, "Israel
would require the retention of some captured Arab territory in order
to provide militarily defensible borders."
When Israel does take the risk of conceding
territory for peace, it does so only after negotiating safeguards to
minimize any future danger. For example, several pages of Israel's
peace treaty with Egypt are devoted to security arrangements. Article
III of the treaty's annex concerns the areas where reconnaissance
flights are permitted, and Article V allows the establishment of
early-warning systems in specific zones.
The security guarantees, which were required to
give Israel the confidence to withdraw, were only possible because the
Sinai was demilitarized. They provide Israel a large buffer zone of
more than 100 miles. Today, the Egyptian border is 60 miles from Tel
Aviv and 70 from Jerusalem, the nearest major Israeli cities. The
Sinai remains sparsely populated desert, with a population of less
The situation in the territories is entirely
different. Roughly one million Arabs live in the West Bank, many in
crowded cities and refugee camps. Most of them are located close to
Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It is important for
Israel that the West Bank not fall into the hands of hostile
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Thomas Kelly, director of
operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War observed:
It is impossible to defend Jerusalem unless you
hold the high ground....An aircraft that takes off from an airport in
Amman is going to be over Jerusalem in two-and-a-half minutes, so it's
utterly impossible for me to defend the whole country unless I hold
Territory is Still Vital
in the Missile Age
Saddam Hussein's ability to lob missiles into
Israel during the Gulf War has led to suggestions that Israel's
demands for defensible borders are unrealistic. History shows,
however, that aerial attacks have never defeated a nation. Countries
are conquered by troop occupation of land. A recent example of this
was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, in which the latter nation was overrun
and occupied in a matter of hours. Though the multinational force
bombed Iraq for close to six weeks, Kuwait was not liberated until the
Allied troops marched into that country in the war's final days.
Defensible borders are those that would prevent or impede such a
Israel's return to its pre1967 borders, which the
Arab states want to reimpose, would sorely tempt potential aggressors
to launch attacks on the Jewish State-as they did routinely before
1967. Israel would lose the extensive system of early-warning radars
it has set up in the hills of Judea and Samaria. Were a hostile
neighbor then to seize control of these mountains, its army could
split Israel in two: From there, it is only about 15 miles-without any
major geographic obstacles-to the Mediterranean.
At their narrowest point, these 1967 lines are
within 9 miles of the Israeli coast, 11 miles from Tel Aviv, 10 from
Beersheba, 21 from Haifa and one foot from Jerusalem.
In 1989, the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies,
an Israeli think tank, published a study that noted:
The introduction of surface-to-surface missiles
into the arena sometimes gives rise to the question of whether the
concepts of strategic depth and security arrangements remain
meaningful in this new era. The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Early-warning stations and the deployment of surface-to-air missile
batteries can provide the time needed to sound an air-raid alert, and
warn the population to take shelter from a missile attack. They might
even allow enemy missiles to be intercepted in mid-flight.
The study concluded: "As long as such missiles
are armed with conventional warheads, they may cause painful losses
and damage, but they cannot decide the outcome of a war."
The Strategic Heights of
From the western Golan, it is only about 60
miles-without major terrain obstacles-to Haifa and Acre, Israel's
industrial heartland. The Golan Heights-rising from 400 to 1700 feet
in the western section bordering on pre1967 Israel-overlooks the Huleh
Valley, Israel's richest agricultural area. In the hands of a
friendly neighbor, the escarpment has little military importance. If
controlled by a hostile country, however, the Golan has the potential
to again become a strategic nightmare for Israel.
For Israel, relinquishing the Golan to a hostile
Syria could jeopardize its early-warning system against surprise
attack. Israel has built radars on Mt. Hermon, the highest point in
the region. If Israel withdrew from the Golan and had to relocate
these facilities to the lowlands of the Galilee, they would lose much
of their strategic effectiveness.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began
negotiations with Syrian President Hafez Assad regarding the
possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from part of the Golan Heights in
exchange for peace. Rabin's successors have also suggested that
territorial compromise is an option. Assad, however, remained
unwilling to settle for anything less than the total return of the
area, while offering only vague hints of an improvement in relations
with Israel in exchange. Assad died in June 2000 and no further talks
have been held as Assad's son and successor, Bashar has moved to
consolidate his power. Rhetorically, Bashar has not indicated any
shift in Syria's position on the Golan.