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Israel’s Quest for Security

On Principle, v10n1

February 2002

by David Foster

Of the more than 100 completely new nations created after World War II none is more successful—or more controversial—than Israel. In only 54 years Israel has created the only modern democratic state in the Middle East; but she has also had to fight five wars and lives under constant threat of terrorist attack. Even without oil, Israelis have by far the highest per capita income in the region, enjoying a standard of living almost equal to Canada’s. The nation should be a model of economic development; yet, to her much poorer neighbors, she is a hated interloper destined for destruction. And finally, although created partly by the international community, Israel is isolated diplomatically and frequently condemned in the United Nations.

Throughout the years, Israel’s most steadfast friend has been the United States. Often Israel’s only ally in international bodies, the United States gives Israel more aid than they give to all other countries combined, and probably more than any people has ever given another. For these and other reasons Americans have worked doggedly to settle Israel’s conflict with her neighbors. The best efforts have repeatedly failed, leaving many Americans frustrated and uncomprehending. Perhaps the best way to understand these failures—and the prospects for the future—is to glance at some recent history.

Zionism and Independence

Although Jews have maintained a link to the land of Israel since the times of Genesis, for centuries most Jews lived in exile where they suffered periodically from pogroms. It was only in 1896 that Zionism, or the idea that the Jewish people needs a secular state of its own, was articulated by the Austrian Theodor Herzl. Zionism’s great opportunity came in World War I, when the Ottoman Empire foolishly sided with Germany against Great Britain. The British, who had previously offered land for a Jewish state in East Africa, now began to favor land in the Ottoman province of Palestine. “His Majesty’s Government,” declared Lord Balfour in a famous letter in 1917,

views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…


When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, this British patronage was instrumental in realizing the Zionist dream.

But already, the crucial problems are visible. First, if the demise of the Ottoman Empire provided the opportunity for Israel, it also implied the emergence of Arab states whose national ambitions would often clash with Israel’s. Secondly, Lord Balfour’s coy reference to the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” is an allusion to the Arab inhabitants of the land upon which the Jewish “national home” was to be established. But the British did not specify what the boundaries of the Jewish area would be; nor did they specify how the “civil and religious rights” of non-Jews were to be protected. These two issues—boundaries and the rights of the Palestinian Arabs—would become the two main sources of conflict between Israel and the new Arab nations.

After the War, Britain received a Mandate from the League of Nations to govern Palestine. Following on the promise of the Balfour Declaration, Zionist groups intensified efforts to raise money, to encourage Jews to immigrate to Palestine, and to purchase land. Jewish immigration, while continuous, was fairly slow until the rise of Hitler and World War II. This was a decisive moment for Israel. The Holocaust produced a new wave of Jewish refugees to Palestine, but its other consequences were even more important.

The dreadful Nazi atrocities in the heart of Europe produced such horror, shame, and guilt in the West that public opinion inclined to do whatever the survivors of that tragedy wished: if they wanted a state in Palestine, then Western opinion deemed that all humanity should support that. The Holocaust also gave Zionists an exceptionally profound and urgent concern for security. It was no longer simply a matter of a “national home” to end persecution; what was needed was a refuge and a fortress, that is, a sovereign state. Accordingly, whereas Herzl planned only for a ceremonial military regiment, it was now clear that Israel would need a powerful army as well.

Hitler’s war had two other important consequences for Israel: it largely destroyed the Jewish community in Europe and it profoundly weakened the British Empire. The world’s largest and wealthiest Jewish community was now located in the United States, which, after the war, was also the world’s most powerful country. For both these reasons, Jews turned from Britain to the United States for external support. When Israel established a democracy and fired American imaginations with striking examples of courage and military prowess, the foundation for a long and unusually close relation was laid.

Palestine, though, was still governed by Britain. But she had been so gravely weakened in the war that she now withdrew without establishing a coherent plan for Palestine. The mandate had earlier been divided into two parts. In 1946 the part east of the Jordan River became the independent state of Jordan. The other part—that between the river and the Mediterranean—was partitioned in 1947 by the United Nations in one of its first acts. The intention was to create two states in this small territory, one Jewish and one Palestinian-Arab; Jerusalem, which was important to both, was designated an international city.

Neither Jew nor Arab was satisfied by the UN plan. Territorially, each nation was to consist of three separate sections impossibly intertwined with those of the other. The Jewish part—a little bigger than Connecticut—was mostly in the Negev desert and excluded Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland. On the other hand, the Jewish part did include some of the best agricultural land in the mandate. More importantly, the UN plan created an entity with a Jewish majority (approximately 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs), and it was the first international recognition of a Jewish state. Accordingly, the Jews accepted it. The Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, rejected the two-state plan entirely, their first important rejection of Israel’s right to exist. In creating Israel, the Arab population in Mandated Palestine had been divided rendering almost half of it a minority in Israel. Furthermore, much of the land that was designated for the Jewish state was inhabited or owned by Arabs, who wondered why they should lose control of the land to pay for a Holocaust they did not perpetrate.

Conflict began almost immediately, and on May 15, 1948, one day after Israel proclaimed independence, the regular armed forces of Jordan, Egypt, Syria and other Arab countries attacked to prevent the partition. Although the Arab states were not strongly unified (Jordan, for instance, had a secret non-aggression pact with Israel), Israel was under attack on at least two fronts by much larger forces, and was in mortal danger. Fighting with legendary resourcefulness and courage, the Jews defeated the Arab armies and preserved their new country. They also expanded its boundaries by conquering territory that the UN had designated for the Palestinian state. The Partition plan had allotted 56% of Palestine to Israel; after the war she possessed 77%. Jordan absorbed the rest. Thus were Palestinian Arab hopes for an independent state frustrated from the beginning. Even more significantly, some 85% of the Arabs who had once inhabited territory now possessed by Israel fled: a substantial majority of Palestinian Arabs became refugees.

The War of 1948 considerably strengthened the fledgling nation, for it had soundly defeated its enemies in a war they started. On the other hand, the war intensified the territorial dispute and raised a new question—what to do about the Palestinian refugees? These refugees lost a great deal and have suffered much in squalid refugee camps. Their fate is important for Israel’s security because it is perhaps the most fertile source of anti-Israeli emotion in the Arab world. The refugees claim that they (and their descendants) have a right to return to the lands and property they left. Israel, however, does not recognize this right, and soon after the war most of the abandoned Arab villages were replaced by Jewish settlements.

A highly emotional debate has ensued, ranging over complex questions of international law, why the Arabs fled, the expulsion of Jews from Arab states, and what actions are justified in war. For Israel, there are two main considerations. First, most of the areas from which the Arabs fled are vital for the defense of Israel. Secondly, to admit the refugees and their descendants would so transform the demography of Israel that she would eventually cease to be a Jewish state. The right of Palestinian return is thus bound up with the issue of Israel’s capacity to sustain itself. It is ultimately the necessity for a secure Jewish state—the fundamental reason for Israel’s very existence—that prevents Israel from recognizing the right of return.

The Six Day War of 1967

After 1948, Israel lived in tension with her Arab neighbors. Against the background of the Cold War, both sides prepared for war, Israel being armed and supported by the United States, Egypt and Syria by the Soviet Union. Tension became war in 1956 (the Suez War) and then again in 1967 (the Six Day War). Being a very small country surrounded by much larger, more populous enemies, Israel lacks the strategic depth to fight a war on her own territory. Her military strategy has always been to strike decisively at the enemy on his territory before he can mount an invasion. Therefore, when Egypt challenged Israeli sovereignty by illegally closing the Strait of Tiran, Israel mounted a surprise, pre-emptive strike against her and her allies. In just a few hours on the morning of June 5, 1967 Israel annihilated the air forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Without air protection, Arab land forces were completely exposed and Israel won one of the most decisive victories in the annals of warfare.

This victory, while reassuringly decisive, also created the main problems that bedevil Israel today. One was territory. In 1948 Israel had taken land that was to have been allocated to the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. But in the 1967 war, which tripled the territory under Israeli control, the new land was conquered from existing Arab states: the Golan Heights from Syria; the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip from Egypt; and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. These Arab states now had direct territorial disputes with Israel. Moreover, whereas in 1948 the majority of Arabs left the land that was incorporated into Israel, in 1967, the vast majority stayed put.

The international community has approached Israel’s conquests largely on the basis of the principle, “land for peace.” As the crucial document, UN Resolution 242, puts it, in return for Israeli withdrawal “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” all “claims or states of belligerency” are to be terminated, and there is to be “respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area.” Israel offered to negotiate this tradeoff – except for East Jerusalem and some adjoining land, which she formally annexed days after the war ended. This call for negotiation was, however, met with the famous “Three No’s” issued by all the Arab states in Khartoum: “No peace, no recognition, no negotiations.” In light of the decisive defeat they had just suffered, this Arab intransigence was very foolish. For given her military superiority, Israel could afford to wait.

Each of the territories has been handled differently. After yet another war (1973, the Yom Kippur War), the Sinai Peninsula was returned after Egypt recognized Israel in the Camp David Accords of 1978. The Golan Heights, which is strategically important and which also contains the headwaters of the Jordan River, a vital consideration in this semi-arid land, has proved a more difficult problem. Some 90% of the Syrian population fled during the war; Israel subsequently established Jewish settlements in the Golan and it was effectively annexed in 1981. It continues to be a point of contention and conflict between Syria and Israel.

By far the most difficult problem concerns the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli opinion strongly favored keeping the West Bank, that is, Judea and Samaria, the biblical heartland of Israel. The problem was that these areas also contained the largest centers of Palestinian Arab population. Before 1967, the population of Israel was largely Jewish, Israeli Arabs making up some 20% of the total. The war added another one million Arabs, substantially altering the demographic balance. If Israel chose to integrate the Arab population, it would eventually (due to higher Arab birthrates) have to become a dual Arab-Jewish state or deny full political rights to the Arab population. In the former case, Israel would lose her Jewish character; in the latter, her democratic character. 1967 seemed to mean that Israel could not remain both Jewish and fully democratic.

The most attractive option would have been to return the West Bank to Jordan, with due provisions for security. This would have meant giving up Judea and Samaria, but it would have solved the demographic problem. But King Hussein was never strong enough for this, and in 1988 Jordan formally renounced any claim to the territory. As for Gaza, Egypt had no interest in its densely packed, impoverished, and angry population. Having no one to give the territories to, and being unwilling to integrate their populations, Israel has maintained the status quo—military occupation—for the past 34 years.

Israel’s maintenance of the status quo has, however, been anything but static. After the 1967 war, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) under Yassir Arafat began much more aggressively to seek a Palestinian state. With money donated from the Arab states, the PLO began organizing social services (clinics, schools, etc.) and seeking diplomatic support, especially in the United Nations. Above all, it began a war of terrorism against Israel. Refusing to negotiate with the PLO unless it renounced violence and recognized her right to exist, Israel did everything in her power to combat terrorism and, more broadly, to stifle Palestinian nationalism. As the struggle grew increasingly violent, Israel’s measures to control the occupied territories necessarily became harsher. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, which had become the PLO’s base after it was expelled from Jordan in 1970 and from which it was launching terrorist attacks on Galilee in northern Israel.

The war in Lebanon was only a partial success. It did bring peace to Galilee by uprooting the terrorist bases in Lebanon, but at a very high price. The war dragged on for 18 years; it was extremely expensive; and almost 600 Israeli soldiers died. Many Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were also killed or uprooted, which experiences contributed to the emergence of Hezbollah, a dangerous new kind of guerilla organization rooted not in nationalist aspirations, but in radical Islam. The massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps also harmed Israel. Although carried out by Christian Lebanese militiamen allied with Israel, and not by Israelis, the massacre nevertheless divided and demoralized Israelis and contributed further to Israel’s international isolation. Above all, while the PLO’s infrastructure in Lebanon was destroyed, the PLO itself was not. After an international outcry, the United States and France saved Arafat and his guerillas. They regrouped in Tunisia with an even more radicalized sense of Palestinian nationalism.

A second way in which Israel’s policy has been anything but static concerns the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. After the 1967 war, Israel analyzed her security needs and devised a plan (the Allon plan) to keep the Jordan River valley and certain areas around Jerusalem, but to return the central highlands (where the Palestinian Arabs were concentrated) to Jordan. The transfer of course never occurred, and the government soon began establishing Jewish settlements in the areas of greatest strategic importance. Settlements were subsequently established also in the West Bank highlands and, most recently, in the suburban areas of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. These settlements are connected to one another and to the original settlements in the Jordan valley by roads controlled by the Israeli army and reserved for the use of Israelis.

The settlements and the land they control greatly enhanced Israel’s ability to defend itself against potential attack from the north and east. Consider Israel’s strategic vulnerability. The majority of Israelis and Israel’s industrial base are located in a narrow strip of land (only 10 miles wide) between the West Bank and the Sea. From this core of Israel’s national existence, Syrian fighter jets are only 5 minutes away, Iraqi tanks only 250 miles. A secure presence in the West Bank is essential for reducing this extreme vulnerability.

But the West Bank is also important politically, and the settlements transformed its character. In the first place, the number of Israelis living in the West Bank increased substantially, from very few in 1967 to about 120,000 in 1996. The settlements plainly aimed to infuse a Jewish population into the West Bank, in hopes thereby of drawing it gradually into Israel proper. This has happened in certain areas adjacent to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but the policy has limits. Only so many Israelis want to live in isolated settlements surrounded by a hostile population, and higher Palestinian birthrates have in any case more than offset the Jewish increase. Of far greater significance than numbers of people is the location of the settlements. Their distribution breaks up and separates the main centers of Palestinian population into pockets surrounded by territory and roads controlled by Israel. In this way, although the settlements themselves are small, Israel can control, and if need be, restrict all significant Palestinian movement and trade. This obviously helps to control terrorism. But it has also fueled Palestinian suspicions that Israel’s long term intention is to drive them out and permanently occupy the West Bank.

One reason for the Palestinian intifada (or uprising) of 1987 was growing awareness of the implications of the settlements. The intifada also made evident that Israel’s attempt to secure herself by subduing or subverting Palestinian nationalism had so far failed. And in 1988, when the Palestinian National Council issued a “Declaration of Independence for the State of Palestine” and met the conditions that the U.S. had laid down for talks with the Palestinians, it became increasingly difficult to deny the Palestinians a state.

The Oslo Accords and the “Peace Process”

Even to consider allowing the Palestinians a state was a dramatic departure from all previous Israeli policy. Several developments in the late 1980s and early 1990s made this new approach possible. One was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which deprived Syria, one of Israel’s most intransigent enemies, of a patron, while leaving the United States, Israel’s chief ally, the dominant world power. Moreover, at just this moment, Yassir Arafat shot himself in the foot by supporting Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War. Israel’s position was stronger than it had been for many years, and some Israelis began to wonder whether it might not be possible to rid themselves of the problems of occupation by granting the Palestinians at least some degree of autonomy.

And it had become apparent that occupation was problematic even from the point of view of security. Scattered and isolated Jewish settlements stretched the resources of the Israeli army, which had to protect them. Moreover, the intifada required the army to control hostile civilians, distracting it from its primary mission and reducing combat readiness, and the harsh measures necessary to subdue an increasingly hostile population had a demoralizing effect on civilians and soldiers alike.

Finally, a settlement with the Palestinians might help contain the growing problem of radical Islam. During the Cold War Islam made common cause with the West against atheistic Communism. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran and Saudi Arabia began competing for leadership of the Muslim world. Islam became increasingly radical and its latent enmity to the West and Israel became increasingly aggressive. Israel had failed to uproot such Islamicist terrorist groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the intifada; perhaps, the thinking was, the secular Arafat would have more success if were he given some autonomy.

Such considerations made possible the Oslo “peace process.” The idea, initiated in Israel by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, was to grant the Palestinians autonomy over as much of the West Bank and Gaza as was compatible with Israel’s security, in return for a recognition of the legitimacy of the state of Israel and a pledge to renounce violence. Occupation had not worked, and both absorption and an all out war of expulsion were unacceptable. Israel now sought to separate Arab and Jew. Peres hoped that this separation would lead to a “New Middle East” of friendly relations and mutually beneficial trade. The less sanguine Rabin expected only that an effective separation would provide the framework for some real fences behind which Israelis could live relatively normal lives.

Oslo was not only a plan but also a “process.” The idea was to deal first with the easiest issues and implement them in stages; that would establish trust and then the harder issues could be addressed. At first the process seemed to work. There was the unprecedented handshake on the White House lawn. Arafat moved back, gained control of the Palestinian population and acquired a territorial base in Gaza and the West Bank; as leader of the new “Palestinian Authority” (PA), he even began building up the infrastructure of government, including a large police force. So strong was the momentum that even Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce critic of Oslo, was compelled to go along, despite being elected Prime Minister on a promise to reverse the process.

As the harder issues were faced in subsequent stages, however, the process began to bog down. They collapsed at Camp David in 2000. According to most accounts of what happened, Israeli Prime Minister Barak offered Chairman Arafat unquestioned statehood, the Gaza Strip, almost total control over the West Bank, means to connect the two areas (which are separated by Israeli territory), possession of some parts of Jerusalem, and a reasonable role in those areas of the city with common historical and religious significance. This was more than any Israeli had ever dreamed of offering and probably more than Barak was authorized to give. It was, however, curtly turned down without even a counter offer; indeed, Arafat seemed suddenly to make the whole process hinge on Israel’s acknowledgment of the right of Palestinian return to Israel. The parties returned home and the Palestinians soon began another intifada.

This second intifada made Arafat look very different than he had in the warm glow of peace euphoria. His broken promises were now remembered. For example, the PA has more “policemen” than Oslo permitted, and they are better armed. Far from being prepared for peaceful coexistence, Palestinian children are still taught that to die killing Israelis is glorious martyrdom. Again, Oslo anticipated movement towards a peaceful democratic state in Palestine, but the PA is notoriously corrupt and elections always seem to be postponed. And finally, after the PA began formally cooperating with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a devastating wave of suicide attacks took place in Israel. These can not have taken place without Arafat’s knowledge or tacit approval.

The Oslo process thus made Israel not more but much less secure, and even Israeli doves concluded that the Palestinian leopard had not changed its spots. Far from renouncing violence and acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, Arafat appears to have used Oslo to gain a territorial foothold in Palestine with the intention of renewing the war on Israel. While using the language of peace, he appears to be pursuing the strategy laid out in Cairo in 1974, which calls for the destruction of Israel in phases.

Even if Arafat had been sincerely seeking peaceful coexistence, however, Oslo is deeply flawed. In the first place, it requires Israel to make concessions of tangible things like land in return for promises that are easily broken later. Secondly, Barak made extraordinary concessions, particularly on Jerusalem. But he also insisted on the security of Israel and the unity of the Israeli people, and these goals require measures incompatible with Palestinian aspirations for a sovereign state. Under Oslo the PA would indeed have controlled over 99% of the Palestinian population and some 91-94% of the land of Gaza and the West Bank. But, because of the settlements, whose necessity was discussed above, Palestinian territory would not have been contiguous. Even in the generous Camp David 2000 offer it would have been a discontinuous entity, comprised of four main parts, each of which was separated from the others by Israeli territory. Palestine would have had borders with no nation but Israel, and to move from one part of their territory to another, Palestinians would have had to pass through Israel. The amount of land to be incorporated into Israel was small, but it would have been enough to deny the PA control over transportation, trade, borders, and water resources.

It says much about this conflict, that Barak’s plan was truly a generous offer. Given the actual options available, no Israeli prime minister could responsibly have offered more to a dictatorial entity like the PA, which has yet to prove itself genuinely interested in peace. At the same time, it is hard to see how the Palestinians could have lived with it. In other words, even had it been accepted, the Barak plan could not have been final. It would most likely soon have degenerated into another war, this time worse for Israel because launched from the nearby West Bank. Right now, Israel’s legitimate security needs cannot be satisfied without frustrating Palestinian aspirations.

Prospects for the Future

Where does all this leave us? After Camp David 2000, Barak was discredited in Israel and replaced by Ariel Sharon, a tough old-fashioned hawk, who became Prime Minister with the largest majority in Israeli history. Yet Sharon has not lived up to his reputation and even he now accepts the fundamental premise of Oslo, which is that the Palestinians must have some form of autonomy or statehood. In general, Israel seems strangely passive as it considers what to do next. There seem to be two broad paths. One is to continue pursuing a settlement. Oslo was the first serious direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiation and it was unreasonable to expect a quick or easy solution; further negotiations may prove more successful, particularly if more moderate leaders emerge among the Palestinians.

But more moderate leaders are unlikely to emerge on their own. And if the Palestinians continue to attack Israel at every opportunity, she will have to consider more seriously the war of which the election of Sharon seemed the harbinger. In one plausible scenario, the leadership of the PA, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad would be defeated militarily, and a territory largely acceptable to Palestinians would be set up, which would require uprooting at least some settlements. Israel would then withdraw, build a fence, and wait for a new generation and new leaders with democratic sentiments to replace the current dictatorial and radical ones. This would certainly improve Israel’s security in the short term, but it is wishful thinking to expect peaceful democratic sentiments to spring up on their own in the soil that is the West Bank and Gaza.

This approach would also greatly intensify the hatred of the surrounding states for Israel. And it is in fact those states that are in the long run the key to Israel’s security. Not only do they pose the primary military threat, but they also nourish and sustain Palestinian intransigence as part of their own enmity to Israel. Israel can do little to change these nations, but broader forces now at work in the world may. There are already signs that the display of American resolve and power in Afghanistan is changing minds about the use of terror, particularly in the service of militant Islam. And if, as the President has promised, Afghanistan is only the beginning, Israel may be a primary beneficiary. But genuine change depends on two related developments. First, in the aftermath of 9/11, Americans became aware that militant Islam has important roots in the Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia, whose interpretation of Islam is officially promoted around the world by the Saudi government. So far the U.S. has turned a blind eye to this fact, but a serious approach to terrorism will sooner or later have to tackle this problem. If that happens, an important Islamic justification for anti-Israeli terror will also be undermined.

Militant Islam will not weaken, however, until there is some attractive alternative to it. This could be provided by the modern professional class that exists in every Arab country and among the Palestinians. This class has been cowed by generations nourished on hatred of Israel and now by a fanatically anti-Western interpretation of Islam. It is high time for the United States to support these people in their wish to reform their own countries. For the truth is that there will never be genuine peace in the region until the Arab states and Iran become more modern and more democratic. Moderate Muslims could then reclaim their countries and begin to reap the political and economic benefits of modern life. The main sources of money, weapons, and political support for radical Palestinian demands would then dry up, and a reasonable settlement with Israel would become possible.

Such broad changes will not happen overnight, if they happen at all. In the meantime, Israel will need leaders who possess qualities not always found together: military toughness, political flexibility, and a belief in free market economics. Those leaders must be able to perceive small openings for change in the neighboring countries and then patiently nudge them forward, all the while ruthlessly fighting terrorism and deterring such states as Iraq. The stick of military action and the carrot of economic growth through freer trade are both necessary; but each must be used flexibly and without compromising the other. One man in public life today who possesses these qualities is Benjamin Netanyahu.

David Foster is an Associate Professor of History and Political Science at Ashland University and an Adjunct Fellow with the Ashbrook Center.

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