Israel must retain borders it can defend

July 24, 2005|By Dore Gold and Yaakov Amidror

JERUSALEM - Israeli supporters and critics of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Gaza disengagement plan found themselves totally confused after the news conference between President Bush and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in May.

The significance of clearing up this confusion has everything to do with the future of defensible Israeli borders after Gaza.

In a letter to Mr. Sharon on April 14, 2004, supporting the unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, Mr. Bush wrote, "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949." That was the formal term for the 1967 lines.

Mr. Bush also reiterated the "steadfast commitment" of the United States to Israel's security, including to "defensible borders."

Advocates of the Gaza disengagement could argue that Israel may not have obtained a quid pro quo from the Palestinians for withdrawal but rather from the United States. As such, the Bush letter was presented as part of a package addressed to the people of Israel that linked their Gaza pullout to new U.S. commitments with respect to the West Bank. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly backed the Bush letter to Mr. Sharon in June 2004.

Yet, standing with Mr. Abbas at the White House on May 26, Mr. Bush explained that "changes to the 1949 armistice lines must be mutually agreed to." Was this a retreat from the 2004 letter or just a restatement of the position that borders much be negotiated by the parties themselves?

Notably, at about the same time, support for the Gaza disengagement in the Israeli public has dropped dramatically, from 61 percent in April to just 50 percent at the end of May, according to the Israeli newspaper Maariv, as uncertainties mount about Israel's diplomatic and security situation in the post-disengagement period.

Multiple factors have contributed to this shift in Israeli opinion. But certainly the exact status of the April 2004 U.S.-Israeli understandings have been part of the present concern that has been mounting over the Gaza plan. What was the true U.S. position?

If Israeli and Palestinian negotiators meet again at Camp David, will the United States insist on the old 1949 lines becoming a future border, or will Washington state that it recognizes Israel's right to defensible borders and retention in the West Bank of large Israeli population centers?

When faced with similar dilemmas in the past, America has come down squarely on the side of defensible borders.

After the 1967 Six-Day War when Israel captured the West Bank, President Lyndon B. Johnson was firm about resisting Soviet calls for a full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-war lines and instructed his ambassador to the United Nations to see to it that what became U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 would call for an Israeli withdrawal from only "territories" and not "all the territories." Secretary of State George P. Shultz asserted this again in 1988: that Israel will never return to the 1967 borders.

From Israel's standpoint, the stakes in what happens in the West Bank, in particular, are huge. Its mountain ridge dominates the lowlands of the adjacent Israeli coastal plain, where 70 percent of Israel's population and 80 percent of its industrial capacity are situated.

For that reason, in October 1995, a month before he was assassinated, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told the Knesset, or parliament, that Israel must never return to the vulnerable 1949 armistice lines. He insisted that "the security border of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term."

True, since Mr. Rabin spoke there have been changes to Israel's east: Saddam Hussein's army has been crushed and Israel is at peace with Jordan. But strategic planning requires taking into account long-term trends, not merely a snapshot of current reality. What the situation to Israel's east will be in five or 10 years is a completely open question. Will Iraq become a radicalized satellite of Iran and then re-arm? What will happen to Jordan?

Moreover, were Israel to withdraw from the Jordan Valley to the vulnerable 1949 armistice lines, the weaponry and insurgent forces spread today from southern Syria to western Iraq would flow directly to the hills of the West Bank that dominate Israel's most vital infrastructure. Air traffic at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport would come within range of terrorists armed with old Soviet SA-7 missiles standing in West Bank territory near the old 1949 armistice lines. (Al-Qaida shot these missiles at an Israeli plane in Mombassa, Kenya, in 2002.)

It is important to remember that the Bush administration's road map for peace provides the Palestinians with a very tangible gain - a Palestinian state. As Israel makes concrete concessions in the months ahead, it equally needs its most tangible long-term goal addressed as well: the assurance that it will gain defensible borders.

For experience tells us the only peace that will endure is a peace that can be defended.

Dore Gold is Israel's former ambassador to the United Nations. Reserve Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror is the former head of assessment of Israeli military intelligence. They are co-authors of Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace.

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