Through nearly four decades, the circumstances of its creation and existence have forced the modern state of Israel into a deep-seated preoccupation with security, the precondition for its survival. As the nature of the threats to its continued existence changed at various junctures between 1947 and the present, so have the military and security doctrines guiding national policy. Israel now stands at another turning point, and the time has come for a new security doctrine, a strategy resting upon long-standing principles, but significantly modified to meet the circumstances of 1985 and beyond.

At the start, Israel’s security doctrine was basically defensive. Firmly established by David Ben-Gurion, it reflected the lessons learned from the 1948-49 war for independence and the physical realities which existed thereafter. Security policy changed dramatically, however, in the wake of the triumphant 1967 war. Israel then confronted new borders, conquered territory, an emerging Palestinian nationalism and, within the country, the birth of a dangerous spirit of annexationism. The rise of Menachem Begin’s Likud government in 1977 and the elevation of Ariel Sharon to minister of defense in 1981 marked another sharp shift in the security concept of the state, a doctrine nakedly offensive in nature that would end in the creeping disaster of Lebanon.

My aim here is to propose a new security policy that suits the conditions of the late 1980s, that offers a pragmatic way to confront the Palestinian issue constructively while ensuring the security of Israel’s eastern frontier. It is a policy that draws upon concepts advanced (prematurely, as it turned out) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In brief, it calls for a unilateral withdrawal of Israels military and administrative occupation forces from the West Bank, coupled with boundary modifications to satisfy Israel’s security needs, and the establishment of an autonomy area by the local Palestinian population. The policy is incremental, dealing with the facts on the ground, uninhibited by the somnolent prospects for peace treaties with the surrounding Arab states.


The salient and unchanging fact of Israeli security is that Israel cannot survive the loss of a war. This is the basis of all Israeli security doctrines, beginning with the 1948-49 war for independence. For Ben-Gurion it meant that the next war would be fought in Arab territory. Indeed, territory has been the chief concern of Israel’s military and political planners since the foundation of the state.

In 1955, Moshe Dayan, then chief of staff, said the term "frontier security" had little meaning in the context of Israel’s geography. "The entire country is a frontier, and the whole rhythm of national life is affected by any hostile activity from the territory of neighboring states." Security for Israeli generals and military planners meant a strategy of tactical offense in order to preserve the strategic defense. The armed forces of the new state were pointedly named the "Israel Defense Forces" (IDF), and for close to two decades the military establishment lived up to its name.

The struggle for survival became a matter of territory and cease-fire lines, a fight for political and physical space. Ben-Gurion, after all, had accepted the partitioned state (as others, including Menachem Begin, had not) and sought only to dominate those parts of Palestine which were either unpopulated or already populated by a heavy Jewish majority.

The Six-Day War of June 1967 was consistent in its conduct with the Ben-Gurion strategy of the tactical offense. Its aftermath, however, altered Israeli security thinking in a massive way. The war radically changed the strategic map of the Middle East; Israel occupied the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Sinai—all of historic Palestine, and more. On June 10, 1967, a satisfied General Dayan called the new extended borders "ideal." Israel’s defense perimeter stretched from the Suez Canal to the Jordan River and the heights above the Sea of Galilee.

Dayan’s enthusiasm was premature, as he himself came to realize in his last years. The new borders presented a whole new set of problems, fraught with contradictions and dangers which were not immediately apparent.

The euphoria of the moment dictated a new defensive strategy which would no longer be even tactically offensive. There was no longer a need to penetrate Arab territory; there was no longer any need to defend internal strategic lines and targets, nor did the physical security of the Israeli populace seem threatened. For the first time, Israel had achieved physical and territorial security while allowing the IDF the space and use of external lines of defense. The entire country was no longer a frontier.

As in 1947, the political challenge was to implement a satisfactory territorial partition, to bring an end to the frontier mentality and conduct a foreign and defense policy built on the strength of a victorious war. Instead of taking the initiative to honor its long-standing commitment to a secure but partitioned state, the Labor Party government fumbled the opportunity.

Indolent and unimaginative Labor leaders failed to establish peace with any Arab country, nor did they deliberately confront the issues raised by the suddenly acquired territory on the West Bank and Gaza. They were slow to recognize, and then failed to respond to, the emerging Palestinian nationalism embodied in a newly coherent Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1970, for instance, the cabinet of Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to consider a partial settlement with the new post-Nasser Egyptian government of Anwar Sadat that would have reopened the Suez Canal. Meir and her colleagues failed miserably to respond to the rising power and reputation of the PLO among the Arabs and on the international scene.

The Meir policy, and Israel itself, suffered a rude awakening in October 1973 when Egypt and Syria surprised the IDF, as well as Israel’s entire political elite, with a sudden and initially effective assault across the new borders of Israel. The lines drawn in 1967 were shown to be far from "ideal." But the central political and ideological conflicts between Israel and the Arab world were not altered by the 1973 war, nor did the aftermath of the fighting immediately change Israeli strategy toward the West Bank. The next fundamental change in security doctrine came only with the 1977 election.


The Likud coalition government which came to power in July 1977 was totally dedicated to the realization of historical Palestine in its entirety, uncontaminated by talk of any partition. The new prime minister, Menachem Begin, and his Likud supporters legitimized the strategy of annexation not only in the name of security, but in the name of national religious messianism.

Begin, a devout disciple of Revisionist Zionist founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky, wanted to fulfill his mentor’s two basic dreams: to extend Israel’s territorial boundaries to the Jordan River and eventually to claim sovereignty over the provinces of Judea and Samaria, known to others as the West Bank. More ominously, Begin was determined to delegitimize Palestinian nationalistic aims by extending the security doctrine of settlements, laid down by Labor, perverting it to aim toward an unvarnished, naked policy of annexation, and bring about a Palestinian exodus from the West Bank.

From the beginning, Begin sought peace with Egypt in order to be free to deal with the Palestinians living in the West Bank and the PLO in Lebanon. There is no question that Begin was sincere in his desire to have peace with Egypt; after all, such an accomplishment would loom large in the history books. He could claim that although Ben-Gurion may have built the state, he, Begin, made peace. The treaty was indeed a revolutionary event in Middle East history and it appealed to Begin’s sense of vanity. Thus, he was quite willing to surrender what turned out to be economically crucial Egyptian territory, especially the oil fields of the Sinai.

But on the Palestinian question, he would not budge. All the protracted, legalistic machinations which Begin practiced at Camp David were designed to dilute, confuse and complicate the controversial provisions known as the autonomy plan, which relegated the Palestinian question to solution at a future date.

The signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty on September 23, 1979, marked a new stability and security. The goals of historical Zionism and Israel seemed to have been fulfilled. The territory was now secured in the sense that Egypt, by signing the treaty, recognized the physical and political reality of Israel in formal writ—the first Arab nation to do so. In real terms, Israel’s southern borders were now secured by treaty. The long eastern borders with Jordan had been ipso facto pacified by a pragmatic and tacit understanding with Jordan.

The only prospect of a challenge to Israeli power came from the existence of the PLO and its state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon. It was a threat that could not be ignored. Ariel Sharon, once he became defense minister in 1981, defined a new offensive strategy, ambitious in both military and political terms. Starting in Lebanon, the military target was the destruction of the PLO state, but this would be geared to a far-reaching political objective: to make Lebanon a Christian, non-Arab state dominated by the Gemayel family, Israel’s shaky political allies. Once this was fulfilled, so the doctrine went, Israel would proceed to reconstitute Jordan as a Palestinian state, even to the point, if necessary, of supporting Yasir Arafat in overthrowing King Hussein.

Sharon’s plans were built on sand. The war he initiated in 1982 in Lebanon drew no new map, only the old divisive jumble of a Lebanon dominated by Syria. Bashir Gemayel was assassinated, while the Druze and Shi‘ite minorities, the latter especially anti-Israel, joined to fill the vacuum left by a declining Christian president. Lebanon once again became an Arab state wracked by civil war; the peace instrument, signed by Israel, Lebanon and the United States, was rescinded four months after it was signed. Israel’s pre-1982 security zone in the south of Lebanon was once again untenable. The offensive strategy was an abject failure.


The conventional wisdom in Israel and America still is that Israel is a frontier, and that the Arabs are capable of crippling, even destroying, the state. Extremists argue that if Israel were not occupying the West Bank it would become an outpost of the Soviet Union. Does this habitual viewpoint coincide with today’s realities?

Could it be that a state with one of the most modern and efficient armies in the world is an insecure frontier state? Does Israel really fear a threat coming from a PLO now torn asunder and virtually impotent? Does Israel really need an intermediary to settle its eastern frontiers and solve the Palestine problem? Does Israel need a formal peace treaty with Jordan, whose border with Israel has been pacified since 1967?

The actual circumstances of today suggest a basic, though perhaps unpopular, truth: whatever their ideological yearnings, however accustomed Israelis have become to their domain over Judea and Samaria, an occupied territory populated with a million Arabs is no strategic or ideological asset. Furthermore, Israel now is powerful enough to initiate political and military steps that will meet its security needs and purposes.

The focus of any future security policy for Israel must once again be the eastern front, the Jordan River and a solution to the Palestinian problem.

My proposal is a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank by the IDF military organization and occupation administration. In its place would be the establishment of an autonomy area administered by the local Palestinian population. Finally, Israel would declare the Jordan River to be its security frontier.

Seventeen years of military occupation have taken a heavy toll on Israeli society, and they have utterly failed to quell Arab aspirations. On the contrary, Israeli occupation only stimulated Palestinian Arab nationalism; it became a target for Palestinian anger and militancy. Israel stands to achieve greater security by ending a military occupation that only exacerbates Palestinian nationalist feelings; the termination of Israeli bureaucratic and military domination cannot help but lower the level of antagonism to Israel in the West Bank.

Removing the burden of governance would give Israel a sudden freedom to maneuver, freedom to establish its own security zone on the Jordan River, freedom from the pressure of public opinion at home and abroad that rightly denies the Jewish state the dubious luxury of maintaining an alien occupation. Withdrawal can be accomplished on Israel’s own initiative, for its own good reasons, even if there is no readiness to negotiate among the Arabs.

The next phase, an autonomous Arab administration, would be something different from the so-called Accord B of the Camp David arrangements, which became known as the "autonomy plan." This plan was cumbersome, verbose, unnecessarily legalistic and unrealistic. It required a four-party procedure for negotiation: Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Palestinian Arabs would all have to agree on the process. The negotiations already held on Accord B in 1979 and early 1980 lasted for less than a year—and they involved only two parties, Egypt and Israel.

My proposal, by contrast, means that local Arabs would simply replace the withdrawing Israeli administration with an administration of their own. Autonomy means freedom of political, economic and social actions; freedom to elect mayors and village councils. It does not mean a program for the establishment of a Palestinian government. An overall autonomy administration elected by the Palestinian population of the West Bank may indeed be the first stepping-stone toward political sovereignty, but no Israeli government in the forseeable future will have the capacity or willingness to accept Palestinian Arab sovereignty over a territory between Israel and Jordan.

This proposal may not sound all that new or novel, and in fact it is not. It is a considerably modified and updated version of a familiar concept known as the Allon Plan, proposed by the late Yigal Allon and refined with the mature wisdom of Moshe Dayan.


Yigal Allon, then deputy prime minister and minister of education in the Meir cabinet, conceived his security plan on July 13, 1967, almost immediately after the military victories of the Six-Day War. His strategy was rooted in the Labor movement’s traditional pragmatism, optimism and liberalism. The Allon Plan defined the Jordan River as Israel’s defensive eastern frontier. It sought to ensure Israel’s security by establishing a string of military settlements on the Jordan River, the Golan Heights and Gaza.

The cabinet approved the installation of military settlements stretching 15 kilometers along the unpopulated, arid desert areas of Judea and the Jordan Valley. Jerusalem and its environs were annexed outright and protected by new settlements, an Israeli fait accompli. The IDF position was moved forward to the Jordan River, backed by the strategic concept that the IDF henceforth would deter any Jordanian invasion and would be in a position to threaten the state of Jordan. Thus, the Israeli defense perimeter was brought from the older border close to the Mediterranean all the way to the Jordan River, ending the threat of a divided Israel as presented by the old pre-1967 borders.

The Allon Plan aimed to deal with the Arab states and the Palestinians from a position of strength, but it aimed to deal in the liberal tradition of the Labor Party. The plan called for "immediate negotiations with Arab leaders of the West Bank with the idea of forming an Arab autonomous district in all the area not included in the Jewish territory that would be linked economically with Israel and buttressed by a mutual security pact."

Even though the creation of military settlements in the occupied territories represented a form of annexation, Allon himself rejected annexation per se. His plan envisioned negotiations, albeit with a mailed fist. As Allon put it, "from the position of strength and reasonableness we will hopefully awaken the Arabs to meet the real world."

Dayan, by then one of Israel’s most imaginative strategists, seemed to sum up the attitude of the time by saying that: "We shall not go to Cairo nor to Beirut. We want to halt Palestinian terror anywhere in depth and in all the unexpected places. Above all the doctrine of IDF from now on must be ‘defensive,’ that is to defend the Jordan River. We must not return to the old map."

But Dayan’s thinking did not stop there. In an interview with The New York Times on June 21, 1969, he said that "Israel’s greatest problem is to find the means of being able to live with the Arabs. There are 2.5 million of us and 100 million of them. We can fight them, kill them, and they can kill us, but in the final analysis we will have to live with them. . . . Occupation is not the final word."

My current proposal, then, is a modification of the Allon-Dayan model of a unilateral withdrawal, linked to a local Palestinian autonomy and retention of an Israeli military primacy west of the Jordan River. It is a viable alternative to two other options for dealing with the Palestinian issue that have been tried and found wanting.

The Camp David model can now be dismissed. The principal actors in any sort of Camp David-style negotiations—Jordan and the PLO—possess neither the political power nor the kind of influence in the Arab world to make the courageous and daring political stand taken by Anwar Sadat. Nor, for that matter, are the PLO or Jordan stable political regimes or organizations whose leaders can take radical steps without Arab approval. They cannot defy the so-called Arab consensus against any political arrangement with Israel that leads to peace and recognition. The PLO, especially, is too weak and divided to make such a move.

The short-lived "peace" in Lebanon, where a pact was achieved primarily and temporarily under the guns of the IDF, is equally flawed: the key figures represented a divided, strife-torn political entity and state, bereft of a single unified governmental authority.

When the strategy of a unilateral withdrawal was conceived by Allon and Dayan between 1967 and 1977, domestic, regional and international politics were not ripe for its implementation. The government of Golda Meir was in no way prepared to attempt such a radical move as territorial withdrawal without gaining a formal peace treaty. The government of Yitzhak Rabin was ready for some incremental changes tied to bilateral arrangements with Egypt and Syria, but even the setbacks of the 1973 war did not make the broader concept acceptable to his government. Then, certainly, the Likud governments between 1977 and 1984 were in no way sympathetic to such an approach.

The conditions on the ground today are remarkably changed, both in the Arab world and within Israel. The Egyptian peace treaty has created a thaw of sorts in relations between Israel and the leading Arab state. The Israeli-Syrian troop separation arrangement of 1974 pacified the Golan Heights border between Israel and Syria. The PLO in southern Lebanon has been tremendously crippled and torn asunder by internal battles. The Iran-Iraq war took Iraq out of the confrontationist and rejectionist ranks. The Reagan Administration has a different approach to the Middle East, being unwilling to involve itself in protracted negotiations as Jimmy Carter did. It is also less sympathetic to the PLO than was Carter.

The political conditions in Israel and in the Arab world call for moderation and for lowering the level of their ambitious aspirations. Israel itself is politically divided, run by an interim caretaker government, exhausted politically and physically by the wrenching experience of Lebanon. In the Arab world, the oil weapon has been blunted and the Arab nations are divided over the Iran-Iraq war, over fundamentalism and secularism, Shi‘ism and Sunnism, moderate and rejectionist regimes.

Today, Israel is badly in need of an end to national division and the reestablishment of a security strategy that conforms with its capabilities. The political, domestic, regional and international dynamics which exist today ought to affect the behavior of Israel’s political and military elite and re-anchor them in the old wisdom. Israel after Lebanon must take the initiative. It would be to its advantage to do so.


The concept of administrative withdrawal, autonomy and an Israeli security line along the Jordan would be an excellent start. It has most of the ingredients for Israel to protect its strategic and security interests while provisionally quelling PLO aspirations for an independent Palestinian state.

The first imperative for a successful Israeli withdrawal is an assured demilitarization of the West Bank. In fact, Israel must announce that a return of radical Palestinians to the territory would be an open declaration of war against Israel. Of course there will always be a danger of guerrilla and terrorist activities in the wake of the departing military occupation. Yet the West Bank population has quickly learned that the price of terror is high. The ever-present risk of terrorist activities cannot be allowed to determine the course of Israeli security policy.

Autonomy for the Palestinians could over time evolve in three different ways. It could become the basis for an independent Palestinian state; this idea is utopian and unrealistic, and would be taken as tantamount to a declaration of war.

A second possible evolution would be a Palestinian confederation with Jordan, and this makes more sense than any alternative. The relationship between the Jordanians and Palestinians goes back to 1950, when Jordan established its rule over Arab Palestine after the partition begun by the United Nations. Jordanian political and economic involvement is deeply rooted in the West Bank. Many Palestinian officials are even now on the payroll of the Jordanian government. For all intents and purposes, there already exists an Israeli-Jordanian condominium over the area.

The third option, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, is further in the future, and realizable only upon the prior foundation of the second option.

Why should the Palestinians accept an autonomy hemmed in by an Israeli cordon sanitaire? In fact, they are already hemmed in. The 17 years of occupation and settlement changed the physical map of the West Bank. Israeli settlements already encircle major Arab cities. The Allon Highway cut and isolated major Arab population centers like Hebron and Schechem (Nablus). Israeli military and settlement planners tore asunder the contiguity between the northern part, Samaria, and the southern part, Judea.

The choice for the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank is indeed very meager, squeezed as they are between expanding Israel and invigorated Jordan. But would they accept a unilateral Israeli withdrawal as the last word on the political partition of Palestine? Certainly not. Yet relief from a military government could create new conditions, new opportunities, a new mood.

What is there in the plan for Jordan? Jordan stands to gain enormously from an end to Israeli occupation, and becomes critical for a moderate solution of the Palestinian problem. The Rabat diktat that the PLO is the master of the Palestinian destiny is practically dead; Arafat’s total defeat in Beirut and Tripoli strengthened the hand of King Hussein. Buoyed by Egypt, Iraq and the Gulf states, Jordan becomes Arab nationalism’s linchpin. A Jordanian-Palestinian confederation would considerably enhance Jordanian influence in the West Bank and in the Arab world.

What would happen if, after an Israeli withdrawal, a PLO state or other hostile arrangements were unilaterally proclaimed? The IDF stationed on the Jordan River would be the best protection against a radical Palestinian military force.

What would an autonomous West Bank look like after an Israeli withdrawal? Israel would end its policy of settling Jews in and around Palestinian urban centers. The Arabs living in these communities would see their future tied to the concept of Palestinian autonomy. Instead of settling the heart of Judea and Samaria, Israel could thicken its security presence eastward along the Sharon Valley and around the Jerusalem environs. No government of Israel could survive on a policy of total withdrawal or abandonment of these political and strategic strongholds.

In this area—the Jerusalem concentric circle, Mount Hebron, the mountains of Samaria and the strategic strip from Beisan to the Dead Sea on the Jordan River—no political sovereignty or military power could be surrendered to the Palestinians. The western part of Palestine, a 600-kilometer front along the Jordan River to the Red Sea, is a strategic cordon sanitaire for Israel.

Nevertheless, Israel could abandon the Begin-Sharon commitment to the political and territorial annexation of the West Bank. The territory in question must be considered purely on strategic and pragmatic grounds. The ideology of the Land of Israel must die a national, and hopefully a natural, death. Conversely, the Palestinians themselves must abandon the notion that the United States, their Arab brethren or their own military power could persuade Israel to abandon its strategic requirements along the Jordan River.

Disengaged from Arab urban centers, Israel would have to withdraw the occupation bureaucracy and bury the tacit policy, so forcefully conducted by the Likud government, of forced or encouraged Arab emigration from the West Bank. As the Israeli administration withdrew, the local Palestinian police structure already in existence could move in. Local and municipal Palestinian leaders have been freely elected for the first time under Israeli occupation. They are the leaders of the West Bank Palestinians and are, therefore, the natural inheritors of the political destiny of the West Bank.


It should be obvious that the Palestinian problem is the most pressing issue facing Israel. It is not just an Arab problem, not just an international problem, but rather Israel’s major strategic, political and territorial problem.

Israel’s political and military requirements need careful redefinition. A new Israeli security policy must be comprehensive and take into consideration the following points:

—Israel must secure and stabilize its eastern frontiers;

—Israel must end its rule over the Palestinians and deploy its political and diplomatic efforts to help establish some form of political autonomy for an alien population;

—Israel must restore its own national consensus, a consensus dangerously disrupted by the Lebanon experience.

To achieve consensus, an Israeli government must exclude both extreme positions: territorial annexation and an independent Palestinian state. Both positions are ideological and uncompromising; neither the PLO’s nor the Likud’s political aspirations can be fulfilled. Implementing ideological rather than realistic foreign policy goals will only lead to a political stagnation reminiscent of that which existed in 1982—and led to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. After the Lebanon debacle, both Arafat and the Begin-Sharon-Shamir team were forced to lower their unrealistic aspirations and rhetoric.

Yet in order for a new policy of unilateral withdrawal to be seriously considered or to succeed, the domestic political alignment in Israel must be altered. The time may be approaching for a post-Lebanon referendum on future security doctrine; security policy can no longer be the province of a few military and political elites. This means another national election.

One can hope that the Lebanon disaster has resulted in a decline in the religious messianism and radical nationalism kindled by the second Begin-Sharon government. Another Likud victory, not to be altogether excluded as a possibility, would turn back the clock and deepen the division of the nation. There can be no unilateral withdrawal under the auspices of a Likud government. Thus, unless a rejuvenated and reinvigorated Labor Party can achieve a sufficient victory to replace today’s badly glued government, Israel’s security policy will remain paralyzed and regressive.

The party that claims the legacies of Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Allon, that was committed throughout to the compromise of the partition of Palestine, to pragmatism and to security unadorned by ideology, is capable of addressing Israel’s real security needs. In order to regain the confidence of the Israeli electorate, however, the Labor Party must abandon elitism and pioneer arrogance and integrate the Sephardim within its ranks of leadership. It must put an end to the neo-Menshevik and doctrinaire unionist practices that have alienated the younger generations.

Perhaps the party leader, Shimon Peres, is perceived as colorless, but he and Defense Minister Rabin are in the Allon-Dayan mold and tradition. It is not difficult for them to understand the need for a policy of unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. The Labor Party has traditionally rejected the fanaticism of the Land of Israel movement and the concepts of Zionist Revisionism espoused by Begin and Sharon. Labor is not committed ideologically to a bankrupt offensive and annexationist strategy, as was Begin’s Likud government. But as long as Labor is linked to Likud in government, it cannot begin to make a fundamental change in the facts on the ground.

Unilateral withdrawal, especially considering the political complexion of Israel, is no quick cure-all that can be effected within a year or two. This has to be an incremental policy, although an ambitious one. But the time has come to bury the old Likud offensive strategy. It is time to return to the concept of the partitioned state. In the coming years only a change in perception, a willingness to take a bold political step while maintaining an effective security stance, can bring about a solution to Israel’s long quest for national security.

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  • Amos Perlmutter is Professor of Political Science and Sociology at American University, and Editor of the Journal of Strategic Studies. He is the author of numerous books on the Middle East, including the recently published Israel: The Partitioned State 1900-1984.
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