This is the second installment of the series, addressing the defense value of Israel’s West Bank settlements.
The West Bank Settlements: Either-Or
In the wake of the 1967 War, Israeli military commanders determined that to hold the pre-1967 armistice line defining eastern Israel, it was essential for Israel to hold key terrain in the West Bank. Three main military necessities drive the identification of terrain:
1. Preventing occupation of the summits in Samaria and Judea east of the “Green Line” (essentially, the 1949 armistice line) by enemies who could use the summits to launch rockets or missiles at Israel’s core territory.
2. Control of the east-west lines of communication (in this case, roads) between the Jordan River and the Green Line, for two purposes: ensuring Israeli forces can rapidly deploy to the Jordan River to defend Israel forward, and holding the LOCs against enemies attacking from the east.
3. Using the peaks in Samaria and Judea to position radar and signals intelligence sites for early warning, a defense requirement that applies also to the Golan Heights to the north.
Israel’s core territory west of the Green Line is a coastal plain: the mountains of Samaria and Judea, rising at some place to over 3000 feet, look down on it, including the pocket into which Jerusalem is tucked. (See the topographic map, on which the higher elevations show as dark brown to gray.) The heights of the West Bank command the entire coastal plain in which more than 70% of Israel’s population lives.
For security behind the Green Line, Israel requires a buffer with the West Bank (on the assumption that portions of it will someday be governed independently by a Palestinian authority), and access through the West Bank territory to the Jordan River. The access routes must be securely held, meaning in part that the peaks commanding valleys and passes must be secured against hostile overrun. The capital in Jerusalem must also be secured against attack from the hills that look down on it from three directions.
To secure these features of Israel’s defensive requirements – again, on the tacit assumption that there will be an independently-governed Palestinian state in some form, in the West Bank – the Israelis are building the security fence, and have in mind a short list of strategically-located West Bank settlements that they do not intend to abandon. The security fence, of course, includes checkpoints on major roadways, which are essential to Israel maintaining control of how the roadways are used. The fence is planned to extend in “fingers” or “pockets” into the territory of the West Bank, as shown on the map. And the settlements Israel will not negotiate away – and which she will defend and guarantee secure access to – operate in conjunction with the security fence to keep Israelis occupying or patrolling the most important access points from the east: the Trans Samaria Highway through central Samaria, and the approaches to Jerusalem from north, east, and south, including the Judean areas of Bethlehem and Hebron.
The non-negotiable settlements, as referred to by Ariel Sharon here and here, are the major enclaves of Ariel, Ma’aleh Adimum, and Gush Etzion, the smaller settlement complexes Givat Ze’ev and Kiryat Arba, and a handful of small settlements in Hebron. As shown on the map, Ariel occupies key terrain in central Samaria, at a unique juncture where the Wadi al-Qana valley cuts through the mountains between Nablus and Ramallah, and creates the swath through western Samaria on which runs Highway 5, or the Trans Samaria Highway: the major east-west artery that continues east to the Jordan River Valley. Keeping this area occupied and under Israeli control is essential to controlling use of the Trans Samaria Highway, and holding Mount Ephraim, the main summit commanding the roadway.
Further south, Givat Ze’ev sits on the slope facing Jerusalem, south of the major Palestinian city of Ramallah. Ma’aleh Adimum, one of the largest and best-known settlements, commands Jerusalem from the east, as well as the major east-west highway to Jericho. The Gush Etzion, Kiryat Arba, and Hebron settlements seat Israelis in key terrain south of Jerusalem, including some of the areas most affected by the second Intifada. They surround Highway 60, the major north-south artery into Jerusalem, giving Israelis continuing control of the “Tunnels Highway” portion that skirts Bethlehem to the west. They represent summit areas facing Jerusalem, including Mt. Hebron itself, less than 20 miles from the heart of the capital city. Of particular significance for military mobility, they preserve Israeli control of the western approach to a planned “Trans-Etzion Road” across Judea to the shore of the Dead Sea, where it would link up with Highway 90 running north-south along the Jordan River.
The security fence and the settlements take on a different character when viewed through the lens of military necessity rather than ethnic politics. No military planner could look at the terrain of the West Bank and come to a conclusion different from that of the IDF. (Indeed, American military analysts have reviewed the West Bank situation at least twice and reached the same conclusions Israeli commanders have.) Israel is indefensible if the first line of defense to the east does not start at the Jordan River; and therefore Israel must have secure east-west LOCs from her core territory to the river’s western bank. She must hold the summits commanding those LOCs in the mountains of Samaria and Judea; she must have early warning detection sites facing east as well as north and northeast (into Lebanon and across the Golan Heights); and she must control access to, and protect, her capital city, Jerusalem.
The so-called “Allon Plan,” floated in 1967 by Israeli soldier and politician Yigal Allon, was drawn up with most of these requirements for Israel’s defense in mind. As the map shows, it envisioned Israel permanently holding the sparsely populated area of the “Jordan Rift,” immediately west of the river, and ceding most of the interior of Samaria, and a portion of Judea, to the Palestinians, retaining only a minimal number of secure east-west transit routes. Versions of the Allon Plan that include buffer zones along the Green Line formed the basis of many Israeli leaders’ thinking for 30 years afterward; Netanyahu’s signature proposal from the late 1990s was announced under the moniker “Allon-Plus.”
Another informative view of the problem is a topographic side-view of Israel, from the Jordan River and West Bank through the coastal plain to the sea. (See graphic). As the topographic view shows, the steep eastern slopes of the Samarian and Judean mountains plummet to the Jordan, making a narrow strip of flat land directly adjacent to the river. This is where any force attacking from the east must be stalled. It is an area advantageous for the defender; whereas if the attacker gets past it and into the West Bank mountains, through the valley passes, he has to take very little territory cross-country in order to command the heights looking down on the rest of the West Bank, Jerusalem, and all the rest of Israel. Scaling the summits from the east is a matter of climbing steeply; but the distances are short – and they are short from the West Bank summits to the Green Line, in most cases a matter of less than 30 miles. Israel must not let an attacker establish himself west of the Jordan and scale these heights. She must defend at the Jordan.
Why have I spent so much time on this point? Because it is essential to understand that Israel’s position on the security fence, settlements, secure roads, and checkpoints is about military necessity. A number of West Bank settlements are in parts of the West Bank Israel does not need to hold or control, to remain secure; and Israeli leaders have signaled their willingness to negotiate away some or all of the settlements that do not serve real defense functions. (This, of course, is a posture not universally approved by their own constituents.) But the record is clear and consistent: Israel has predicated her activities in the West Bank most fundamentally on defensive military calculations.
Forcing Israel entirely out of the West Bank amounts to making Israel completely vulnerable to invasion from the east – and this is not only a matter of conventional military invasion, with armor and infantry formations. Even a buffer east of the Green Line would afford no real protection against rocket or missile attacks from the higher ground of the West Bank, nor would Israel have any means to prevent either the supplying of hostile guerrillas in the West Bank, or the securing of its mountain passes against Israeli counterattack. The bottom line is that if Israel does not hold territory in the West Bank, Israel can be disrupted economically, softened up through systematic projectile barrage, and overrun from the east by any enemy with the force depth and determination to press the attack.
Therefore – and we might as well make this point explicitly – if Israel is to give up the positions in the West Bank she requires for her defense, she will be relying on the promises of her neighbors that they will not exploit the vulnerable situation she will, perforce, be reverting to.
This is an either-or condition. It cannot be finessed or obfuscated. Geographically, there is no such condition as Israel withdrawing from the West Bank and retaining defensible borders. That is why Bush’s reference to defensible borders in the 2004 letter to Sharon was particularly significant: it tacitly acknowledged that agreements on the status of settlements are a national defense matter for Israel. Not all the Israeli settlements affect Israel’s defensibility; but some do. Israel cannot cede any blanket veto to an outside power – either the US, the UN, or the Palestinians – over her settlement activities; at least, she cannot do that and retain a viable defensive posture.
This is why it is equally significant that Obama is now pressing Netanyahu to halt expansion within settlement boundaries, without any qualifying affirmation that Israel requires defensible borders. Obama’s stance effectively demands a blanket veto over Israel’s settlement activities – and not only that, it does so without expressly naming what authority is to have that veto, or precisely which activities are to be subsumed in the concept of “settlement expansion.” There should be no surprise in any quarter that Israel, as a sovereign nation, cannot accede to such a demand.
Israel might view it from a slightly different aspect if the demand from Obama came with an endorsement of her need for defensible borders; and perhaps would see an opportunity to float a counter-offer or negotiating position. But the demand is being expressed from Washington as categorical and intractable – and surrounded with simultaneous threats, but with no incentives, or prospect of guarantees.
The other nations of the Middle East are well aware of the topography of the West Bank, and the fact that it is either a fatal vulnerability for Israel, if held against her, or a defensible eastern buffer if she holds it herself. Obama’s unbending posture on the settlements, in appearing to dismiss the national defense aspect of the settlements for Israel, sends a powerful signal – intentional or otherwise – about US firmness regarding the integrity of Israel.
If Obama has been sending this signal as a means of appealing to the Arab nations, which he is addressing this week from Cairo, this rhetorical gambit seems short-sighted, and indeed foolish, to a remarkable degree. The situation to which he is lighting a match is not a 4th of July picnic, and his rhetorical bursts are not fireworks lighting up a pastoral night sky. He is, rather, lobbing grenades into a Middle East where the Arab nations are already jockeying against Iran to avert an unfavorable dominance situation, and ultimately to beat Iran to Jerusalem – as we will discuss in the next installment.
Recommended for further reading:
Israel’s Requirement for Defensible Borders – a military analysis by Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amridor, IDF
Israeli Interests in Judea and Samaria – Dr. Haim Gvirtzman for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Addresses something I did not mention here – water supply for Israel – as well as military requirements. Useful but low-res map (Map 2: Defense Interests) showing high-value east-west LOCs through the West Bank.
“What the Settlements Have Achieved” – Hillel Halkin, Commentary, December 2007. Abstract. (Full article free to Commentary subscribers, for purchase to others)