Commentary Magazine


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The Return of “Defensible Borders”?

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told foreign journalists last week that under any peace agreement, Israel would insist on maintaining a presence along the Palestinian-Jordanian border to thwart arms smuggling, he provoked some predictably negative responses. Writing in the Jerusalem Post this week, for instance, Ben-Gurion University Professor David Newman termed this “a return to a way of thinking … thought to have disappeared over a decade ago.” Claiming that “most generals” no longer consider this necessary, he accused Netanyahu of simply trying “to hammer the nails even more strongly into the coffin of peace.”

In fact, Newman is almost entirely wrong but through no fault of his own — because the one thing he’s right about is that Netanyahu’s statement “reinserted the defensible border concept into public discourse,” whence it had virtually disappeared. And since Israeli premiers stopped talking about it more than a decade ago, how was anyone to know that every prime minister, and the defense establishment, continued to insist on defensible borders in practice?

Two weeks ago, Haaretz’s veteran diplomatic correspondent Aluf Benn detailed the security demands that Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert received from the defense establishment, which Olmert approved, forwarded to then president George Bush, and later asked Bush to pass on to Barack Obama. These demands included “the rights to supervise Palestine’s border crossings, to fly in Palestinian airspace, to regulate radio frequencies and to build hilltop warning stations.”

And Olmert is the prime minister who offered the most far-reaching concessions in Israel’s history, including the equivalent of 100 percent of the West Bank and international Muslim control over the Temple Mount.

Indeed, as Benn noted yesterday, “Netanyahu’s political positions, which call for annexing the major West Bank settlement blocs and maintaining military control over the Jordan Valley, are no different from those of his predecessors, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.”

This invites an obvious question: if all Israeli prime ministers agreed that Israel needs defensible borders under any agreement, why did they stop saying so — thereby leading the world, and their own citizens, to assume that this demand had been dropped and that the security issue could thus be easily resolved, whereas in fact, as one veteran negotiator told Benn, it’s the hardest of all, the one on which “the agreement will stand or fall”? Did they assume the world would oppose these demands and want to avoid opening yet another front of international criticism of Israel? Or did they simply consider it irrelevant, given that Israeli-Palestinian disagreements on other issues show no signs of being resolved anytime soon?

Whatever the reason, it was a disastrous negotiating tactic. If Israel is to have any hope of achieving these demands, it cannot spring them as a surprise at the last minute, when an agreement is otherwise at hand; it must state them upfront — clearly, forcefully, and consistently — both to prepare international public opinion and to make it clear that Israel deems this issue critical.

It is therefore encouraging that Netanyahu has finally started reviving the “defensible borders” concept. Now he must ensure that it remains on the public agenda.