Commentary Magazine


Can Israel Withdraw?

To the Editor:

The articles by Mitchell Bard and David Bar-Illan debating a unilateral withdrawal by Israel [“Can Israel Withdraw?,” April] are very instructive. Mr. Bard’s “yes” is reasonable and optimistic, while Mr. Bar-Illan’s “no” is dour and pessimistic. However, it is Mr. Bard’s article that is thoroughly depressing.

Mr. Bard is not hostile to Israel, like so many who wish to “save Israel in spite of herself.” On the contrary, he understands Israel’s unique geography and enumerates all of Israel’s apprehensions as well as its legal, historical, religious, strategic, and moral claims to Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Like many of Israel’s supporters, however, he has grown weary of the conflict and he wants Israel to “do something.” The “something” he presents as his argument is nothing more than a recycled version of the old, shopworn, Rogers Plan, dusted off, adjusted a bit, and delivered as an upbeat do-it-yourself peace kit. The Rogers Plan, and all its clones proffered by pundits, “peaceniks,” statesmen, think-tankers, and analysts, over and over again, is based on a delusion of Arab stability and moderation. As such, it is a prescription for suicide. Mr. Bar-Illan chooses life, albeit a harsh, painful, and compromised life.

In the last paragraph of Mr. Bard’s article he states that there is comfort to be had in the fact that Israelis are free to ignore what he suggests. I suspect, although I cannot prove it, that Mr. Bard hopes, as all of Israel’s real friends do, that the Israelis will listen to Mr. Bar-Illan.

Ruth S. King
New York City

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To the Editor:

In propounding the virtues of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza, Mitchell Bard discounts the dangers to Israel’s existence . . . of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. Even if extreme Palestinian irredentist elements were to gain control of such a state, he writes, “it need not be considered an unmanageable threat to Israeli security.” Mr. Bard is correct in his assessment that a Palestinian state per se would not be sufficiently strong to endanger Israel’s security. But the flaws in his argument are exposed when he ignores the dangers posed to Israel by the potentially fatal combination of a Palestinian state plus a Pan-Arab coalition in case of war.

Israel was attacked by varied coalitions of Arab states in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Currently, the worst-case scenario envisaged by the Israeli general staff consists of an attack by the combined forces of Syria, Jordan, and Iran with over 20 divisions comprised of 4,500 tanks and 230,000 men. Faced with such an attack, Israel would have no chance of successfully defending itself without prior possession of the West Bank. The Judean and Samarian mountains which run through the West Bank provide tremendous tactical-defensive advantages against any attack from the east. This is doubly important in the case of a nation like Israel which has only a small standing army and relies on reserve formations for most of its military strength.

In the event of such a war, the Palestinians would not be strong enough to prevent the movement of the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] into defensive positions in the West Bank, but they would certainly engage in hit-and-run attacks and delaying tactics designed to impede the Israeli advance as much as possible. I would advise Mr. Bard to refresh his memory about the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1976. In mountainous terrain markedly similar to that of the West Bank, PLO fighters armed with RPG bazookas were able to delay an entire Syrian armored division for three full days. For Israel, in the event of a large-scale Arab attack, a delay of even a few hours could be fatal.

The military significance of the West Bank is clear from any perusal of a topographical map of the area. The average distance from the present Israeli frontier along the Jordan River to the Mediterranean is only 45 miles. Mr. Bard fails to understand that the “secure and defensible borders” he supports and territorial withdrawal are contradictions in terms.

Mr. Bard’s assumption that Israel’s survival for nineteen years within its pre-1967 borders proves that the West Bank is not vital for Israel’s defense is inherently flawed. He cites the victory in the 1967 war as proof of Israel’s ability to defend itself from within truncated borders. Evidently, Mr. Bard is not sufficiently acquainted with the history of the Six-Day War. To a large extent, Israel owes its survival to the equivocation demonstrated by Jordan’s King Hussein during the initial stages of the war. When fighting erupted on June 5, almost the entire strength of the IDF was employed on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. The Israeli general staff had gambled that Jordan would not enter the war. A single armored brigade equipped with 50 or so obsolescent, World War II vintage Sherman tanks was deployed in defensive positions along the narrow, vulnerable border between the West Bank and the Mediterranean. The Jordanian forces stationed in the West Bank, however, were equipped with over 100 modern Patton tanks. Had King Hussein ordered his forces to launch a decisive attack, the thinly spread Israelis would have stood little chance of stopping them. The resulting bisection of Israel would probably have been the first act in the tragedy of its destruction.

Fortunately, the Jordanian monarch exhibited marked qualities of irresolution and indecisiveness. He limited Jordan’s initial participation in the war to artillery and air bombardments. The IDF utilized the time given them to transfer several additional brigades from other fronts to the West Bank. This transfer of forces was the true key to the Israeli victory over Jordan and Syria in the 1967 war: rapid movement to attain local superiority. Its prerequisite was an outstanding display of incompetence by King Hussein as a military commander. Does Mr. Bard realize that what he is proposing is a situation where Israel’s survival will depend on similar displays of incompetence by any further enemies?

[Captain] Theodore Lapkin
[IDF, Reserves]
Haifa, Israel

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To the Editor:

The ongoing violence in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza is disturbing, . . . but far more disturbing are some of the naive assumptions one has been hearing of late, Mitchell Bard’s among them. A careful examination of a map of the Middle East—something far too many fail to undertake before prescribing their cures for the region’s ills—clearly reveals the reason for Israel’s intense security concerns: Israel has no defensive depth. For a nation with virtually its entire army made up of civilian reserves (which can require up to forty-eight hours to be called up) to give up an area in such close proximity to its population centers is tantamount to suicide. “Secure, defensible borders” also means obtaining assurances that there would be enough time to mobilize those reserves before Israeli cities were overrun. At the very least, continued occupation of the Jordan River valley is a must to prevent the infiltration of fighters and weapons from the East Bank. Unimpeded, Jordanian tanks are only hours from Israel’s capital. Israel simply cannot afford to gamble its survival on the chance that the Arabs will suddenly accept Israel’s right to exist.

Even more disturbing is Mr. Bard’s statement that, “At worst, Israel would have to retake the territories by force.” While I accept the sincerity of Mr. Bard’s concern for Israel’s well-being, all too often those who justify demands for unilateral Israeli concessions on these grounds do not care how many more Jews would die in the process. Mr. Bard also presumes that the United States can always be counted on to provide Israel with any support necessary. . . . But it would take only one administration hostile to Israel to withhold aid at a critical juncture, costing the lives of thousands of Jews, if not the very existence of Israel. Israel must be able to defend itself against its foes.

I do not advocate nonaction, but calls for unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria are misplaced. Saul Cohen’s The Geopolitics of Israel’s Border Question, which was published by Tel Aviv’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is one proposal toward the kind of territorial compromise that might be possible. A period of Palestinian autonomy, perhaps in confederation with Jordan, would give the Palestinians a chance to demonstrate their willingness to coexist peacefully with Israel. But the decision as to actual steps that should be taken is best left to those who will have to live with them on a day-to-day basis, and the Palestinian Arabs have yet to prove their readiness for such an arrangement. . . .

John Blow
Grawn, Michigan

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To the Editor:

Whether Mitchell Bard or David Bar-Illan is right about the consequences of an Israeli withdrawal from the territories may be subject to experimental verification. The geographic separation of Gaza from the West Bank permits a test, with Gaza serving as the laboratory. Whatever forces are acting among the Palestinians would play themselves out in a Gazan mini-state.

Israel should retain a corridor about two miles wide at the southern end of Gaza to cut it off from Egypt. The resulting area would be completely indefensible by virtue of its size and topography, and thus easy to reoccupy if that became necessary. Its economy, at least initially, would become dependent on cooperation with Israel. Both of these factors would provide whatever government came into power with ample reason to be cautious.

Because Israel would act unilaterally, it would not be possible to impose any conditions on the new entity. Nevertheless, it could be made very clear that certain actions would lead to reoccupation: introduction of foreign troops, missiles, or other heavy weapons; granting of basing rights to foreign forces; and support for guerrilla attacks into Israel. Civil warfare, as in Lebanon, would be a domestic affair, as long as it did not spill over into Israel.

If the experiment were a success, and a credible government with which Israel could feel comfortable were firmly established, a similar unilateral Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank could be contemplated. The government in Gaza, which would be a known quantity by then, would have some substantial advantages in competing for control of the West Bank. First, it would have the prestige of being an established government, the regime whose policies finally succeeded in achieving both Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian statehood. Second, as an established government, it would have greater organizational, financial, and personnel resources than any competing movement(s). Major changes in orientation would be difficult because precedents would have been set, standard procedures put into place, and expectations about the future brought into some relationship with reality.

Descent into chaos, however, would demonstrate that Palestinian self-rule is not a viable option. Since King Hussein does not want any more Palestinians in his kingdom, and demographics preclude incorporating them into Israel, that would lead to continued occupation as the only viable alternative. The failure of such an experiment might thus reveal that occupation is the best solution available at this time.

Yale M. Zussman
North Quincy, Massachusetts

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To the Editor:

. . . Mitchell Bard states that in withdrawing unilaterally from the occupied territories, Israel could establish boundaries that would protect as many settlers as possible. But on the basis of past experience, and given the radical influences pervading the Arab world, what in the world makes him believe this would satisfy the Palestinians? To them every inch of Judea and Samaria . . . is theirs and theirs alone. Mr. Bard’s plan would require the same number of Israeli forces to defend the area as are required now to police it. . . .

Until such time as the Palestinians show a desire to live in peace with the people of Israel, no plan or solution will be worth attempting. . . .

Abe Breslauer
Bay Harbor Islands, Florida

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To the Editor:

I am neither Arab nor Jew and definitely not an “expert” on Middle East affairs. But I read quite a bit and understand a goodly portion of what I read.

As between Mitchell Bard’s “yes” and David Bar-Illan’s “no,” there is no real contest. Mitchell Bard’s style is the style of the ivory-tower expert. . . . I’ll put my nickel on David Bar-Illan’s “no.” To my plebeian ear, he sounds much closer to the grass roots.

Tom Humble
Lockeport, Nova Scotia
Canada

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Mitchell Bard writes:

As I expected, my critics are vigorous in their defense of Israel’s security, but seem unaware of the fact that their views contradict the position successive Israeli governments have held for more than two decades. That position, expressed in government statements and publications, is that Israel must have “secure and defensible borders.” Moreover, by endorsing UN Resolution 242, Israel accepted the principle of territorial withdrawal. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has recently suggested that 242 does not apply to Judea and Samaria, but this interpretation contradicts the understanding of all the parties, including Israel. Thus, Theodore Lapkin’s view that “secure and defensible borders” and withdrawal are a contradiction in terms is not shared by the Israeli government.

The principal criticism is that I discount Israel’s security needs. I do not; rather, I rely on the authority of Israel’s top defense officials, including the current defense minister who is on record as saying that Israel can withdraw from 60 percent of Judea and Samaria. A committee calling for territorial withdrawal was recently formed in Israel that includes 11 ex-generals and senior officers, including former chief of Military Intelligence, Aharon Yariv; former Air Force commander, Motti Hod; and former Mossad chief, Yitzhak Hofi. “I, like others, am anxious about a Palestinian state,” Yariv has said, “but I believe we can deal with it. If the area is demilitarized, or if there is only a token force for ceremonial purposes—who should be afraid of whom? People say, ‘They don’t only want Nablus, they want Jaffa and Haifa, too.’ But they’ve wanted all that for forty years now. We didn’t give [Jaffa or Haifa] to them then, and we won’t in the future.” Exactly.

In Mr. Lapkin’s enthusiasm to teach me a history lesson about the 1967 war, he neglects the most salient fact: Israel was prepared to give up most of the territories after the war. A more valid concern is the potential of a Pan-Arab coalition attacking Israel; however, Mr. Lapkin makes no case as to why possession of the West Bank would be an effective deterrent to such a possibility. It did not prevent Syria and Egypt from attacking in 1973. Did it deter Jordan? No. Hussein was deterred by what happened to him in 1967.

There is little incentive now for Hussein to join any coalition and there would be even less if a Palestinian state were to exist. In that case, he would be more interested in absorbing the West Bank than in challenging Israel. Mr. Lapkin is correct in saying that the Palestinians would not be able to prevent the IDF from moving into defensive positions. They might well engage in “hit-and-run attacks and delaying tactics,” but it is doubtful they could be very effective. In addition, if they know that they cannot prevent the IDF from retaking the area, what incentive do they have to join a coalition where they will suffer the brunt of the losses? Apparently, I have more faith in the IDF than do some of Israel’s most vigorous supporters.

Mr. Lapkin suggests that Jordan could easily have bisected Israel in what “would probably have been the first act in the tragedy of [Israel's] destruction.” In 1967 Israel warned Hussein to stay out of the fighting; therefore, to say that Israel was unprepared for his assault is misleading. Could Hussein have made the war more difficult for Israel if he were not an “incompetent”? Perhaps, but Mr. Lapkin is in a decided minority in questioning Israel’s ability to defeat the Arabs in 1967. Most American officials did not have much doubt about the outcome.

John Blow raises the issue of “defensive depth,” but there is a serious question as to the relevance of this concept in the age of missile warfare when Israel’s enemies can leapfrog the West Bank. In any case, I am willing to accept the word of Israel’s defense ministers who have consistently said that Israel can withdraw.

The U.S. cannot always be counted on to assist Israel, as was evident in Israel’s first three wars. The situation has changed dramatically, however, as U.S.-Israel relations have evolved from friendship to a de-facto alliance. The U.S. can be counted on to deter the Soviets.

Mr. Blow suggests that a hostile administration could take actions that would threaten Israel. True, but if a U.S. administration is hostile, the least of Israel’s worries would be the West Bank A fundamental change in U.S.-Israel relations would have a catastrophic impact on Israeli security, but I see no reason to expect such a reversal in U.S. policy. Moreover, I believe Congress will continue to constrain the White House’s freedom to take actions detrimental to Israel.

Mr. Blow and others consider only the worst-case scenario if a Palestinian state were to be created, but what about the worst-case scenario of his (and Israel’s and the U.S.’s) preferred solution: a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation? In this scenario, the PLO overthrows Hussein. Then the “Jordan is Palestine” proponents would finally have their way and Israel would face a PLO state encompassing both the East and West Banks. This, I submit, would be far more threatening than a West Bank state wedged between Jordan’s Arab Legion and the IDF.

Yale M. Zussman’s suggestion that Gaza be used as a laboratory is appealing because it offers a means of moving the process along and is a logical way to proceed in what would necessarily be a multistage process. Gaza would certainly be easier to deal with than the West Bank since there would not be the same problems of drawing boundaries, uprooting settlers, or devising early-warning defenses. The problem is that it is only a half-measure and would not solve the Israeli problem. All of the debilitating effects of occupation on Israelis would still result from the administration of Judea and Samaria. In addition, giving Gazans freedom would be likely to stimulate greater unrest among impatient Palestinians on the West Bank who would remain skeptical that Israel ever planned to withdraw (unless there was a fixed timetable). Mr. Zussman leaves this open-ended by saying the experiment’s success would come only after Israel felt comfortable with the Gaza government. Palestinians would probably see the Gaza action as a substitute rather than as a prelude to withdrawal from the West Bank.

Contrary to Ruth S. King’s belief, I have not “grown weary of the conflict.” I believe the Arab-Israeli, Jewish-Islamic conflict will last so long as a Jewish state exists. What I am weary of is the limited thinking of some of the observers of the Middle East scene, and I find it depressing that none of the writers expresses any concern for the Israeli problem.

For more than twenty years there has been a stalemate because of the position represented by Mr. Blow and others; that is, the Arabs must demonstrate they are ready to live in peace before there can be any change in the status quo, but the Arabs have no such inclination. This reveals another of the contradictions in Israeli policy. Israelis say that they are ready to make concessions if the Arabs will negotiate, but they insist that the Arabs will never negotiate. I agree. It is unlikely, though possible, that another Sadat will emerge. He was unique, both as an individual and because he was Egyptian. It would be far more difficult for another Arab leader to act as boldly, especially after seeing the violent end Sadat met as a consequence. Israel cannot allow itself to remain paralyzed by Arab intransigence.

I find Mr. Blow’s suggestion that I do not care how many Jews would die in an effort to reconquer the West Bank slanderous. The death of even one Israeli is too many. I also object to Ruth S. King’s suggestion that I am not a “real” friend of Israel because she disagrees with me. It is unfortunate that disputants in a common cause should be seen in such Manichean terms.

I agree with Mr. Blow that the decision is best left to those who live in Israel, which is what I said at the conclusion of my article. I disagree, however, with Tom Humble’s suggestion that David Bar-Illan’s proximity to the conflict necessarily makes his argument more persuasive. There are advantages to being close to the situation, but there are also benefits in distance, which sometimes confers a degree of objectivity.

Mrs. King says David Bar-Illan chooses life while. I recommend suicide, but I believe that, in any case, she has it backward. My analysis is not based on “a delusion of Arab stability and moderation,” or on a belief, as Abe Breslauer suggests, that the Palestinians would be satisfied after Israel’s withdrawal. I stated explicitly that I have no such delusions. My position is based on the need to solve the Israeli problem and my confidence in the IDF’s ability to continue to defend the country against Arab threats as it has for the last forty years.

The real choice is between the potential threat to Israel’s existence posed by external forces after unilateral withdrawal and the certain destruction of the Zionist dream by internal forces. Much as they, like me, want to avoid it, my fear is that the course implicitly urged by Messrs. Blow and Lapkin, and by Mrs. King, will help lead to the latter result.

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David Bar-Illan writes:

Yale M. Zussman’s proposal for an independent Arab ministate in Gaza deserves consideration. Unlike Judea and Samaria, Gaza is not situated on a mountain ridge dominating Israel’s major population centers. It constitutes less than 10 percent of the “territories,” yet it contains almost half of their Arab inhabitants. Relinquishing it would not only resolve half the demographic problem but rid Israel of a hotbed of terrorism and Islamic fanaticism.

However, one of Mr. Zussman’s stipulations points to the danger inherent in this “experiment.” Referring to the predictable Arab fragmentation after Israel’s withdrawal, he says, “Civil warfare, as in Lebanon, would be a domestic affair, as long as it did not spill over into Israel.” But, as the Lebanon experience has shown, such spillovers are inevitable. The bloodletting in Lebanon between Amal Shiites supported by Syria and Hizbullah Shiites supported by Syria’s ally Iran, and the constant battles among PLO groups, would have been merely tragic, savage sideshows had they remained a “domestic affair.” Instead, they are invariably accompanied by terrorist forays into Israel, increased Syrian involvement, and Israeli preemptive incursions into Lebanon. To add another such front less than 40 miles from Tel Aviv may be too high a price for ridding Israel of the Gaza scourge. Nor is it quite that “easy to reoccupy” a mostly urban area containing a population of 700,000—by then thoroughly infested with armed Islamic fundamentalists and PLO gunmen—without heavy Israeli casualties.

Mr. Zussman is right, of course, in stating that Gaza’s size and topography and economic dependence on Israel “would provide whatever government came into power with ample reason to be cautious.” But reason has little to do with the Arab war against Israel. The most startling—and least publicized—aspect of the Arab “uprising” has been the outpouring of Arab anti-Semitism, of a blood-thirstiness and medieval ferocity that surpass even the push-the Jews-into-the-sea slogans of the Nasser era. Arab poets extolled by Israel’s “peace camp” as paragons of moderation and potential partners in peace (of whom Mahmoud Darwish, the PLO “culture minister” and regular participant in dialogues with Israeli super-doves, is the best known but by no means the only one) have published works calling for the disappearance not only of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants, but of whatever may serve as a reminder of their presence in the land, including their graves.

The establishment press in such “moderate” countries as Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia publishes stories of settlers kidnapping Arab children and using their blood for Passover matzot, and prints articles and sermons by religious leaders advocating the complete liquidation of Israel and the killing of “all those eaters of human flesh, wild animals, infidels, murderers, pigs, and dogs . . . those cursed people, the Jews.”

Such manifestations go a long way toward shattering illusions. But recognizing illusions for what they are is not “pessimistic,” as Ruth S. King characterizes my argument; it is a necessary condition for thinking clearly about alternatives, which is what I attempted to do in my article.

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