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Peace and Defensible Borders

With the February 10 Israeli election approaching, Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted in the Jerusalem Post yesterday as saying he was committed to maintaining “defensible borders” for Israel.  Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, on the other hand, was quoted as saying the election is a choice between “those who want peace and those who don’t.”

Portraying the peace process as a choice between “peace” and retaining sufficient land for “defensible borders” reflects a fundamental misconception of the foundational document of the process — UN Resolution 242 — and the commitment to Israel the U.S. has made on multiple occasions.

Resolution 242 is commonly thought to stand for the principle of “land for peace,” but the resolution in fact states the guiding principle differently.  The formula in the resolution is a withdrawal from an unspecified portion of “territories” in return for “secure and recognized” borders.  The reference to borders that are not only “recognized” but “secure” reflects the fact that no one considered the June 1967 borders “secure.”  Abba Eban memorably referred to them as “Auschwitz” borders.

In a January 16, 1997 letter from Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in connection with Israel’s redeployment from Hebron, the U.S. reiterated its position that “Israel is entitled to secure and defensible borders.”  The commitment was repeated in the April 14, 2004 letter from George W. Bush to Ariel Sharon, in connection with the Gaza disengagement.  In that letter the U.S. reiterated its “steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.”

In the January 16, 2009 “Memorandum of Understanding” between the United States and Israel that led to Israel’s termination of its Gaza operation, the very first clause, contained a reaffirmation of the “steadfast [U.S.] commitment” to “secure, defensible borders” for Israel — using precisely the above words from the Bush letter.

The commitment to “secure and defensible” borders reflects not only an Israeli interest but an American one.  The last thing the U.S. should want is a “peace agreement” that establishes borders Israel cannot defend on its own.  That is the surest way to a new Middle East war.



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