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Geography of Israel: Defensible Boundaries

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 On numerous occasions, Israel has withdrawn from these areas.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 It had already withdrawn from large parts of the desert area it captured in its War of Independence.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 than 250,000.

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 neighbors.

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 that land.

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 ground assault.

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 the Golan

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.