Courtesy Reuters

The Myth of Defensible Borders

How a Regional Security Initiative Can Promote Middle East Peace

In her December 10 Middle East policy speech, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the United States' commitment to a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians, calling for an agreement that would enable Palestinian leaders "to show their people that the occupation will be over" while allowing Israeli leaders to "demonstrate to their people that the compromises needed to make peace will not leave Israel vulnerable."

Although Clinton suggested that these aims are compatible, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed a different view. Demanding the establishment of what Israeli officials call "defensible borders," Netanyahu's government seeks to annex or exercise security control over large blocs of West Bank territory -- along the Jordan River in the east and along Israel's border in the west, from the north-central settlement of Ariel to the Gush Etzion settlements south of Bethlehem.

In addition, it seeks to operate early-warning stations on high ground near the Palestinian cities of Nablus, Ramallah, and Hebron and maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley for decades to come. This package of arrangements would create, in the words of Israeli negotiators, a "protection envelope" surrounding the new Palestinian state.

Such arrangements, however, will do little to respond to the real security challenges faced by Israelis, the Palestinians, and others in the region. As WikiLeaks recently revealed, other governments in the region are no less concerned than Israel about nuclear proliferation, the destabilizing role of nonstate actors, and the threat of cross-border missile attacks.

A U.S. peace plan built on the notion of defensible borders will neither address the threats perceived by Israel's neighbors nor win the support of their domestic constituencies, who demand faithful implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative. A different approach is needed, one that situates Israeli-Palestinian security arrangements within a regional security framework -- involving the Arab states, Turkey, and eventually Iran -- that can facilitate durable responses to the threats faced by the peoples of the Middle East.

Israeli security orthodoxy has long been built on two related premises: first, that Arab and Muslim hostility toward Israel is both inexorable and irrational -- so neither withdrawal nor peace is likely to offer Israelis major security dividends -- and second, that foreign powers and international institutions cannot be trusted to protect Israel.

To be sure, Israel's leaders have at times questioned the continuing relevance of these premises. Indeed, when seeking the Knesset's support for the Oslo agreement in 1993, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared, "No longer are we necessarily 'a people that dwells alone,' and no longer is it true that 'the whole world is against us.'"

Over the last decade, however, widespread disillusionment with the Oslo process, and the sense that their unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip served to embolden, rather than placate, enemies such as Hezbollah and Hamas, have led many Israelis to conclude that genuine peace is an elusive dream. Moreover, they cite the perceived failure of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon and the European Union Border Assistance Mission in Gaza to prevent rocket attacks on Israel as evidence that when the going gets tough, Israelis can rely only on themselves for security. Presented with this bleak security picture, many Israelis see the retention of West Bank territory -- i.e., the concept of defensible borders -- as not only politically desirable but also a strategic necessity.

Israelis have learned the wrong lessons from the wars of the last decade. Although defensible borders would preserve Israel's latitude to act independently in the short run, it would undermine, rather than promote, its long-term security. Israel's refusal to relinquish territory occupied in 1967 would give its enemies increased motivation to attack -- and bolster the perceived legitimacy of violence among Arabs disillusioned with the international community's failure to make good on the promise to deliver land for peace. And it would only marginally limit the capacity of Israel's enemies to inflict damage: Israel's efforts to shift its population away from its crowded coastline, along with steady advances in the range of missiles and rockets possessed by militant groups and nearby states, will leave Israelis vulnerable regardless of where the state's borders are drawn. And as the international community presses further toward accountability for war crimes, Israel will find it increasingly costly, legally and politically, to use overwhelming military force to deter attacks.

A policy of defensible borders would also perpetuate the current sources of Palestinian insecurity, further delegitimizing an agreement in the public's eyes. Israel would retain the discretion to impose arbitrary and crippling constraints on the movement of people and goods, and Palestinians would remain vulnerable to harassment by Israeli extremists and attacks by the Israel Defense Forces, whether unprovoked or in retaliation for the acts of Palestinian militants. For these reasons, Palestinians are likely to regard defensible borders as little more than occupation by another name.

If the Obama administration is genuinely committed to achieving a Middle East peace agreement that provides effective and durable responses to the risks and threats confronting both Israelis and Palestinians, it should pursue peace within a regional security framework that is built upon four pillars: the establishment of a regional security apparatus; the deployment of a multinational peace-implementation mission in Palestine; the integration of Hamas into Palestine's national political and security institutions; and Israel's full withdrawal behind the 1967 line, as revised pursuant to equitable, mutually agreed-upon land exchanges.

The first pillar -- a new regional security apparatus coordinated initially by the United States -- could integrate existing early-warning and missile-defense infrastructure in Israel and the Gulf and link it with future systems in eastern Turkey and Jordan, permitting more effective detection, tracking, and disabling of long-range missiles from the east. In addition, such an apparatus could provide a vehicle for intelligence sharing among the governments in the region. It could also help deter Iranian nuclear ambitions and provide a forum for arms control negotiations, allowing contentious nuclear proliferation issues to be addressed in tandem with conventional arms reductions.

Israel's participation in such a regime would enable it to strengthen its cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, rebuild its relationship with Turkey, and develop formal security relations with the Gulf states, rather than the tenuous and unofficial contacts it currently maintains. Embedding Israeli-Palestinian security relations within a regional framework could also help resolve issues that have divided the parties in the past. Israel could achieve far greater strategic depth by partnering with Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf states in the realms of air security, early warning, and missile defense than it ever could by installing radar stations and a standing force in the West Bank.

Second, a multinational peace-implementation mission could be deployed to continue the process of training Palestinian security forces, supervise the withdrawal of Israeli forces, mobilize rapid-reaction forces in areas of strategic importance, and monitor and verify compliance with security provisions of a peace agreement. An international mission would complement the regional security apparatus by bolstering the Palestinians' growing capacity to prevent smuggling, infiltration, and short-range rocket fire.

Several features would differentiate such a mission from the failed efforts of the past. It would be charged with reinforcing and facilitating the implementation of a peace agreement, rather than stabilizing the situation in the absence of one; it would have the authority and capacity to use force to implement its mandate, which would expire only with the consent of both Israel and Palestine; and it would operate under U.S. leadership while also drawing on the assistance of other nations. The unblemished record of the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai makes clear that international missions can be successful even in the Middle East if they have the proper mandate, the right force composition, and the support of both sides.

Third, integrating Hamas into Palestine's political and security institutions would bolster the durability of a peace agreement, reduce the risk of conflict, and substantially strengthen Israel's security. Israeli analysts have acknowledged that it is far easier to deter governments than militant groups -- a lesson that Israel recently learned in both Gaza and Lebanon -- while the continuing isolation of Hamas would give it every incentive to undermine political progress, making reaching a peace agreement difficult and implementing one impossible.

Hamas officials have dismissed the Quartet's call to recognize Israel. But Hamas has demonstrated that it will not be forced off the scene by either Israel or the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. And in a series of recent statements, the movement's Gaza leadership has made clear that it would accept an agreement embraced by the Palestinian public. If Hamas leaders are convinced that a peace agreement establishing a Palestinian state on the territory occupied by Israel since 1967 is imminent, they are more likely to seek a role in implementing it than to risk estranging public opinion by standing in its way.

Fourth, Israel's full withdrawal of its armed forces behind the 1967 line -- with minor and mutually agreed upon territorial exchanges -- would establish the political legitimacy of a peace deal across the Arab world, ensuring that the agreement can actually be implemented.

Securing the agreement of all relevant stakeholders to a framework of this kind will obviously present many challenges. However, the fragility of the current situation and the proven inadequacy of piecemeal approaches suggest that a regional approach is vital. The foundation for such a regime is already in place. The United States is pursuing a missile shield in eastern Turkey under the auspices of NATO and has invested heavily in early-warning and missile-defense systems in the Gulf states, and its allies in the area are seeking both to upgrade their own systems with U.S. technology and establish stronger cooperation. The United States can also draw on the important lessons learned by peacekeeping missions over the last decade by immediately convening a planning forum to ensure that an international mission can be operational the day after a peace agreement is signed.

Discarding the dead-end concept of defensible borders and pursuing a regional security strategy would give the next phase of the Obama administration's Israeli-Palestinian peace effort much-needed focus and credibility. And it would give the United States a leadership role in erecting a security framework that is good not only for Israel but also for the Palestinians and other U.S. allies in the Middle East.

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