Israel: Why Land Matters, Part I
By Yedidya Atlas
In the years that followed the 1967 Six Day War a prevailing conventional wisdom developed among Western policy makers – especially in Washington — that simultaneously contends that a “strong and secure Israel” should have, as per UN Resolution 242, “secure and recognized boundaries” or simply “defensible borders,” yet nonetheless calls on Israel to make unilateral territorial concessions (today’s PC term is a return to the pre-’67 lines with “mutually agreed land swaps”) as part of an ultimate peace settlement with its Arab neighbors.
Strangely few perceive the inherent contradiction between the call for a “strong and secure Israel” and the call to give up the very territory that would – at minimum – comprise said strength and security.
This was the case with Egypt, for example. More than 30 years ago, Israel gave up the entire Sinai Peninsula, including its vast strategic depths and bottleneck passes as well as the Abu Rodeis oil fields, which supplied Israel more than half its energy needs and would have made Israel energy independent within a few short years more than 30 years ago. And this is also the case today with the Palestinian Arabs. As long as there are Palestinian Arabs willing to take territory from Israel even without any quid pro quo from their side, Israel is expected to unilaterally give up its most strategically critical territory.
Israel, without the administered territories, is a strategically crippled country. These areas, known historically as Judea and Samaria and labeled “the West Bank” following the Jordanian occupation of said territories in 1949, are the key to Israel’s strategic strength against any attack from the east (Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, et al.). An Israel with control of these territories is a strategic asset to the West in defense against radical Islamic expansionism no less, if not more, than during the Cold War period when Israel was the West’s reliable bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the Middle East.
Up until the late 1980s, following the outbreak of the so-called “Palestinian uprising” or “first intifada,” everyone viewed the security threat to Israel to be solely by conventional Arab armies who, to quote the late Egyptian President Nasser, wished to “drive the Jews into the sea.” In the following two decades, with the vast increase of terrorist attacks and the introduction to the missile age, it appeared that conventional war no longer threatened Israel’s existence per se. And if the threat was primarily terrorism and missiles fired from afar, territory with its high ground and strategic depth no longer seemed as important. From the standpoint of Israel’s national security, however, this is a misconception. Territory is not only still vital for national defense, it is even more so than previously.
There is a basic premise: Israel’s security can be discussed only in terms of national survival. It is necessary to understand the price Israel pays if she unilaterally gives up more of these territories and what she benefits by their retention.
Given the three potential threats of missile attacks, terrorism, and conventional warfare, Israel must retain a safety zone with the aforementioned high ground and strategic depth to deal with any potential future threats — even if political agreements are signed with its Arab neighbors. Israel cannot afford to bet its survival on signed agreements while giving up critical tangible physical strategic assets. Israel needs to maintain the ability to defend itself under any and all possible circumstances. (Given the Muslim/Arab history for not keeping agreements with non-Muslims, this is not mere whimsy.)
The key question Israeli policy makers must ask themselves: If Israel were attacked by a combination of a conventional Arab army, ballistic missiles, and terrorist bands, would a truncated border with its lack of strategic depth be sufficient for the IDF’s small standing army to successfully repel the invaders and do so with minor damage to Israel’s national infrastructure? Or to be blunt: Could Israel survive such an attack in the event of an all-out war?
Let’s review the potential threats. First, the recent upheaval in the Arab countries that surround Israel – both the inside and outside strategic circles – has brought back the high potential of conventional warfare involving armored units, mobile artillery, and fighter/bomber planes. (Witness for example, the recent IDF emergency reserve call-ups to deal with potential incursions from Egypt and Syria.) Second, either separately or as an extension of said conventional warfare, the threat of long-range missiles – with both conventional and non-conventional warheads. And third, the expansion of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombers, shoulder-launched missiles, and ground-to-ground fire (mortars, short-range rockets and medium-range missiles) that use a steep trajectory (meaning it is fired from beyond and over a border defensive line towards internal targets – e.g. from inside Lebanon to hit Haifa).
It must be understood that the determination of what are “strong and secure” or simply “defensible borders” is predicated on what potential long-term strategic threats Israel faces. And even though the last 20 years have seen an expansion of missiles and non-conventional weapons by Israel’s Arab neighbors, they also continued procurement of conventional weapons for their armies.
Some of those who want Israel to give up parts or all of Judea and Samaria attempt to neutralize the still existent threat of conventional Arab invasion forces by proffering “advanced technology” as a strategic solution to lack of territory with its commensurate strategic advantages. They claim that the IDF can employ advanced technological capabilities, including precision-guided weapons systems, to replace any loss of territorial superiority by Israel after conceding control of the aforementioned administered territories.
The fallacy in that argument is the fact that Israel’s enemies will inevitably also equip themselves with similarly advanced technological capabilities. Moreover, topography is directly relevant for the use of precision-guided weapons systems that require ground-based laser indicators. The old infantry saying regarding the importance of holding the high ground in battle – “it is easier to shoot down than to shoot up” – is even more critical in regards to the employment of high-tech weaponry.
The concept of strategic depth is not an advantage to national defense; it is imperative, and as weapons systems improve, it becomes even more so. With the advent of new military technologies the range of effective fire has increased considerably. US Army planners, for example, have doubled the distance of their definition of required minimal defensive depth. In Germany, during the Cold War, NATO planners defined their required defensive depth to be 125 miles (or three times what Israel has even with Judea and Samaria included). In a defensive battle, this distance would allow an area for retreat, permitting a line of containment to be stabilized closer to the border.
Israel’s post-disengagement-from-Gaza experience has established that the terrorists’ weapons of choice for attacking Israel from their own territory are weapons with curved-trajectory fire (mortars, rockets, etc.). Why? Because it is impossible to stop the attacks without Israeli forces striking the territory from where the terrorists’ weapons were fired. So the only limiting factor preventing significant harm to Israeli population centers is sufficient distance – or strategic depth. And if a terrorist has penetrated a security fence, the greater the distance he has to cover before carrying out his intended attack, the greater the chances of stopping him.