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Israeli Security: Reality and Myth

By David Newman, Palestine-Israel Journal

 

The writer is professor of political geography and director of the Humphrey Institute for Social Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

In the ongoing discourse concerning the ultimate territorial configuration of separate Israeli and Palestinian entities/states, two sets of issues are continually raised. The two themes--- security and historical attachment--- are often used by proponents of one to reinforce the other. Supporters of a Greater Israel will always attempt to strengthen their irredentist arguments with the security component, thus making it more acceptable to those groups for whom security remains a keyword, but for whom religious and historical factors do not play any major role in their decision making.

The Security Factor

The notion of security has always been the common denominator which carries the weight of "consensus" amongst much of Israel's Jewish population. This is continually evidenced in the clamor for, and popularity of, army generals within the political system. It was highlighted most strongly in the last elections when the perceived "security" message of Binyamin Netanyahu took precedence over the peace emphasis of Shimon Peres. And, of course, Netanyahu has resorted continuously to the security argument ever since coming to power. The suicide bombings have played into his hands in this respect, while the constant emphasis on security, rather than peace, has proved a useful means by which to cover up his government's failures, be it the Bar-On affair or, most recently, the ill-considered Mossad operation inside Jordan.

Highlighting the existential threat that faces the state, the desire of the Arab countries to "push Israel into the sea," and the continued use of "terrorism" as a means of struggle, all these are used as a means of maintaining the perpetual feelings of fear and threat emanating from the "other" side and, as such, preventing the Israeli populace from believing that peace, or conflict resolution at the least, is a tangible and realistic possibility.

Retaining control of territory is, for many, the most tangible means by which security is achieved. The creation of a cordon sanitaire, well away from the major [Israeli] population centers, controlling the strategic high ground, such as in the Golan Heights, and maintaining strong and "defensible" boundaries, is a traditional territorial concept of security. This takes precedence over all other factors. Thus, whether or not most Israelis desire to control some two million Palestinians is often considered an irrelevant argument, if the implications of handing over control would bring about a withdrawal from areas deemed as important for "security."

 

Defensible Boundaries

From this perspective, the Allon Plan does not differ greatly from the Oslo II map, or for that matter from many other proposals aimed at bringing about the final territorial configurations. The Jordan Valley continues to be perceived as a security asset; controlling the slopes overlooking the Israeli towns is perceived as a strategic imperative, as is retaining control of the Golan Heights. Yet the major territorial security asset held by Israel, the Sinai Peninsula, was returned to Egypt as part of the Camp David Accords. A solution to the security problem was found in the guise of a multinational force. The desire to reach an agreement enabled the appropriate arrangements guaranteeing physical security to be put into effect. Notwithstanding, the perception of Egypt as a potential security threat remains uppermost in the minds of many Israelis, not least because the practical implementation of conflict resolution has not been followed up by any real normalization of relations between the two countries.

The traditional security discourse has held that if a state has strong and "defensible" boundaries, then any threat to the major population centers can be geographically removed from the towns themselves to the front line. This classic line of thinking was best expressed in the Allon Plan doctrine, where Yigal Allon believed it necessary that Israel establish its security boundary along the line of the Jordan River as a means of pushing the perceived military threat to the state away from the Green Line boundary which existed prior to 1967 and which, in the public discourse, symbolized the "suicide" boundaries of the state. In the traditional mold of Israeli security thinking, Allon proposed the establishment of civilian settlements along the Jordan Valley as a means of maintaining Israeli security control.

 

Forgotten Failures

Despite Israel's military victories, it is conveniently forgotten that many of the classic Israeli security solutions have proved to be major failures during the past 30 years. The Bar-Lev Line collapsed at the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The role of civilian settlements as a means of enhancing regional security also proved to be outdated as Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights were overrun by Syrian troops and had to be evacuated as a means of ensuring the safety of the residents. The so-called security zone in Southern Lebanon has proved to be ineffective in the face of even the simplest of Katyusha rockets carried on a person's back, such that it has been termed the "(in)security zone." And the prolonged years of Intifada violence claimed many lives ---both Israeli and Palestinian--- despite the Israeli declared intention of retaining direct control throughout the West Bank for reasons of security and ensuring the safety of Israeli civilians.

Traditional notions of security, worldwide, are undergoing change. The conventional role of territory as a provider of physical security is nowhere near as relevant as it was 20 years ago. The boundaries of a state have become less and less efficient as barriers with the passing of time. New technologies spurred on by the use of satellites and cyberspace have meant that boundaries no longer prevent the dissemination of information and/or propaganda from one side of a boundary to another. Equally, state boundaries are becoming less significant in their traditional role of preventing the movement of warfare from one side to the other.

The introduction of modern warfare technologies has meant that the strategic role of territories has changed significantly. For Israel, it has changed in two somewhat paradoxical ways--- at one and the same time pushing the security boundary farther away from the safe border, while at the same time bringing it closer to the population centers.

Boundaries--- Nearer and Farther

Both peace treaties which have been signed between Israel and her neighbors--- with Egypt and Jordan--- have, in effect, pushed the security boundary farther away from the population centers than ever before. Part of the respective peace treaties forbids the other side to introduce troops into the adjacent territories. Egypt is forbidden to introduce any major troops into the Sinai Peninsula, while Jordan is forbidden to allow any foreign troops to enter its own state territory. As such, the security boundary has, in effect, been pushed farther south and farther east than ever before,

giving Israel an extended cordon sanitaire. The introduction of troops into these areas in contravention of the terms of the peace agreements would, for Israel, be a sufficient casus bellum.

But while the peace treaties have pushed the security boundary farther away, new warfare technologies have brought the boundary into the heart of the Israeli cities. Not only did the Gulf War change the way we think about boundaries, but it also brought a new component into the security discourse, namely the fact that no one is safe from missiles, even in the heart of the country. In his book on the "New Middle East," Shimon Peres argues that in an age of ballistic missiles which can fly over distances of hundreds of kilometers, paying scant regard to the land boundaries and anti-missile systems on the way, territory no longer has a major role to play in the modern era of warfare and security doctrine.

It was this new reality that led to the outward flow of people from the cities, especially Tel Aviv, during the Gulf War, and the subsequent creation of a new army command--- the Oref or hinterland command--- as a means of dealing with the new security threats facing the population centers during a potential future conflagration. Prior to this, the army commands were focused exclusively on the border regions and frontier zones.

In the wake of the Gulf War, the Israeli government attempted to use this changed security perspective to promote population decentralization, away from the center of the country into the peripheral regions, in much the same way as the Barlow Report in Britain during the Second World War attempted to use the strategic concerns of over-centralization as a means of population dispersal away from the southeast region and the growing metropolis of London. In neither case has the security factor played a long-term role in changing the population distribution of these or other countries. Economic incentives of residing in and around the urban core have proved to be much stronger than the quickly forgotten dangers of ballistic missiles in an overcrowded urban metropolis.

 

Paradoxes

One of the great paradoxes of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been the symmetry by which both sides have completely failed to understand or comprehend the security fears of the "other" side. Israel argues that the Arab states pose an existential threat to the State of Israel by virtue of their relatively large size--- both territorial and demographic. For many Israelis, the notion that the ultimate intention of the Palestinians is simply to destroy Israel and push her citizens into the sea, has not dissipated as a result of the Oslo peace process. The suicide bombings and other acts of violence have only served to strengthen this feeling of insecurity.

For the Arab nations, Israel is perceived as a security threat, whose intention it is to continue its policies of military expansion and territorial aggrandizement. The military might of Israel, as evidenced in the June 1967 war, is seen as being no more than one stage on the way to Israeli expansionism, resulting in the occupation of territory and the creation of even more refugees. The expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the construction activity at Har Homa (Jabal Abu Ghneim), only serve to strengthen the Arab fears that the Palestinians will be left with very little land on which to establish an independent state. Retaining sufficient land is, for the Palestinians, an essential component of their own security discourse, as are issues of military balance and the retention of strategic superiority within the Israeli discourse.

Israelis fail to understand the fear that the Arab nations have of Israeli military power, not least because the internal Israeli discourse focuses around the concepts of defense, rather than offense, and because the role of the armed forces is seen as being one which has to prevent any potential "invasion" by the "other." For their part, the Arab states fail to understand Israeli fears that they will be "pushed into the sea." "How," they ask, "is that possible when the military deterrent is in Israel's favor and when Israel continues to hold a clear strategic superiority?"

Each side sees the security arguments of the "other" as being no more than a ploy designed to attract world sympathy and support for their respective case. Neither believes that the security discourse of the other is grounded in reality as perceived by them. Israelis do not understand that Palestinians feel threatened ("we just want to live in peace with our neighbors in our Jewish homeland"), just as Palestinians do not understand the continued perceived existential threat felt by many Israelis ("we just want to exercise our rights as an independent and self-governing nation").

 

Land and National Symbolism

This symmetrical lack of understanding has been evident with respect to the reported discussions between Syria and Israel. Syria has argued that any form of demilitarization which takes place on the Golan Heights, or even within Syria, thus creating another cordon sanitaire for Israel, will have to be reciprocated with Israeli demilitarization within Israel itself. But Israel argues that the "only" security threat is from Syria, not from Israel, and that only they (Israel) therefore are entitled to a cordon sanitaire. It is unthinkable, they retort, that Israel's territorial sovereignty will be dictated by an external power, despite the fact that this is precisely what Israel demands from the neighboring countries as part of the conflict resolution.

It is against this continual mutual mistrust that each small piece of territory remains important in the defensive strategies of both sides. One should not dismiss the ideological role of territory within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Land is a central feature of national symbolism. Land/territory must not be given up under any circumstances to the "other" side. The core of the struggle is in the competition for land in what is a small and insufficient piece of real estate. This has been evidenced in the publicity surrounding the issue of land sales. Palestinian land agents have been killed as reprisal for selling land to Jews, while attempts

to privatize land within Israel have traditionally been rejected, despite the economic sense of such a move, because of the fear that land will be sold to Arab purchasers.

But territory continues to fulfill a perceptual role relating to security. Despite the impact of the ballistic missiles, territory is still perceived as the ensurer of a more secure country. The farther the boundary from the place of residence and the stronger the armed forces lined up along that boundary, the greater the sense of security on each side.

Away from the political rhetoric, the pragmatics of conflict resolution focus on the removal of threat, both perceived and real, by each side. This necessitates the withdrawal from territory on the one hand, and the creation of appropriate security arrangements on the other. If successful in finding the right security equation, then the religious and historical arguments are of little significance in influencing decision-makers (with the exception of those for whom the religious arguments are an integral part of their belief systems).

If security arrangements can be achieved to the satisfaction of all parties, then they will not resort to religious or historical arguments as a means of preventing the agreement from being implemented, unlike the reverse case. If, on the other hand, the right equation is not found, then it is always convenient to display sympathy towards the "historical and religious attachments to the ancient land," not least because it is the religiously inspired groups which have best demonstrated their ability to provide the civilian troops necessary to actively oppose any form of planned territorial withdrawal.

 

The Military Establishment

Neither can one ignore the role of leaders--- both political and military--- in perpetuating the security fears. Israel remains a society in which the discourse of security and defense is central to public debate and discussion. It is supposed to be "above party politics"and, yet, it provides an important springboard for potential politicians. The military establishment has vested interests, both economic and political, in ensuring that this security discourse remains the number one issue around which scarce national resources are allocated. Defense spending is the single issue around which Knesset members from virtually across the Jewish political spectrum join together in opposing budget cuts.

It is difficult to imagine a post-conflict Israel in which the role of the army within Israeli society would be significantly reduced, perhaps even relegated to secondary importance after the critical social and welfare issues facing Israeli society. Perhaps a vision of a post-conflict Israel would be one in which there were two houses of parliament, but instead of a British House of Lords, Israel would have a House of Generals. They would be honored for their past contributions to Israel's security, but would not have any real role in molding state policy or determining national priorities. The continued preeminence of the security arguments, the refusal to recognize that the security discourse has changed, would suggest that the post-conflict area remains a distant aspiration.




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Further reading

Allon, Y. (1976). "The Case for Defensible Borders," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 55, pp. 38--53.

Falah, G. & D. Newman (1995). "The Spatial Manifestation of Threat: Israelis and Palestinians Seek a 'God' Border," Political Geography, Vol. 14 (8), 689--706.

Norton, A. R. & J. Schwedler (1993). "(In)security Zones in South Lebanon," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 32 (1), 61--79.

Peres, S. (1994). The New Middle East. New York: Henry Holt.

Sayigh, Y. (1995). "Redefining the Basics: Sovereignty and Security of the Palestinian State," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 24 (4), 5--19.




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