During the 1990’s the skeptical critique of land-for-peace was that it was structurally asymmetrical. The Israelis were expected to give up tangible land for intangible promises of moderation, a dynamic that encouraged Palestinian abuses. Israeli withdrawals were measurable, while the Palestinians could claim that they were cracking down on extremists and no one could know for sure. Israeli withdrawals were one-off events, while the Palestinians were in the continual process of moderation. Israeli withdrawals were expensive to reverse—requiring military campaigns and costing diplomatic capital—while the most that Palestinians ever lost was “faith” in negotiations. Israeli withdrawals exposed Israeli civilians to terrorist attacks, while the Palestinians at worst got to keep a status quo ante in which thousands of people were very pointedly not dying. And so on, and so on.
To overcome these asymmetries the United States and the West offered Israel a bevy of security and diplomatic assurances, both in the context of Oslo and regarding Israeli withdrawals in general. These assurances were aimed at persuading Jerusalem either that its enemies wouldn’t be able to militarize evacuated territories or that—if they did—the Israelis would have wide latitude in defending themselves. Obviously things didn’t quite work out as promised.
The West Bank became a terrorist cesspool and thousands of Israelis died, until Defensive Shield and the Separation Barrier—both undertaken in the face of international criticism—defeated the Second Intifada. The Gaza Strip is currently an Iranian outpost bristling with rockets and missiles, years after U.S.-backed Fatah forces got rolled by Hamas, and Israel is routinely condemned for its anti-Hamas campaigns. Across the board, the Jewish State has never had less freedom to act than it does today, despite Western promises that it could afford to take risks for peace because self-defense was always an option. And of course the sitting American administration declared a few years ago that, hey, assurances made by previous administrations don’t count any more!
Let’s imagine, though, that none of this were true. Let’s imagine, for instance, that Hamas and Hezbollah had been stymied in their efforts to plant tens of thousands of missiles on Israel’s border, or at least that the IDF was permitted to conclude a decisive military victory against Iran’s proxies. In this alternate universe, where things went in practice the way they were supposed to go in theory, land-for-peace might make sense.
But today’s “nonviolent” Nakba demonstrations present existential threats to Israel, including the hemorrhaging of Israeli sovereignty described by Michael Oren in this 2009 COMMENTARY article, which aren’t checked by security assurances. If you set out with the goal in mind of undermining Israeli confidence in the peace process, you’d be hard-pressed to hit upon a better game plan than encouraging civilian mobs to crash the Israeli border. This is an anti-Israel strategy that, even in theory, is exacerbated by Israeli territorial concessions but can’t be mitigated by security arrangements.
The difficulty of the situation is of course what makes it attractive to anti-Israel partisans in the first place. They think that Israel will have no option but to capitulate. They’re wrong. The Israelis will have at least one option left, and that’s to dig in and refortify themselves diplomatically and militarily. No country can be expected to allow itself to be overrun, and Israelis won’t take seriously the promise that the mobs will stop coming if only they make one more concession. Instead they’ll do what they need to do to defend themselves against those mobs, which will mean diplomatic isolation but will be better than guaranteed eradication.
If international monitors are simply going to stand aside while explicitly genocidal Palestinian “refugees” rush into Israel, the Israelis will need raw space to respond. The IDF will need distance to keep infiltrators away from Israeli civilians. Israeli soldiers will need open spaces to out-maneuver rioters.
If Israel didn’t control the Golan Heights, hundreds of Syrian infiltrators would today have run down into Israel rather having run up the plateau. It’s the old concept of strategic depth, which wasn’t supposed to matter once wars became high-tech video games. It turns out that physical terrain still matters when anti-Israel fanatics, protected by their ostensibly civilian status, are trying to cross swaths of difficult physical terrain.
More importantly, the goal of these media stunts is to have the IDF make mistakes at the expense of Molotov-throwing, stone-hurling rioters (or as they’re described by international press outlets, “protesters”). They’re designed to create claustrophobic, chaotic environments that escalate quickly and establish their own momentum—at which point agitprop-producing photojournalists will create evidence for their outlets’ anti-Israel narratives. The Israelis will quickly conclude that they need literal and metaphorical room for error to contain these crises, to the detriment of any negotiated solution