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Understanding Egypt: Israel's need for defensible borders has only grown


Editor’s note: The Blaze is featuring some guest posts to help our readers gain a deeper understanding of the situation in Egypt. Dr. Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel's Ambassador to the United Nations.

Since coming into office, the Obama administration has made a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of its highest foreign policy priorities. Within the foreign policy establishment this intense involvement has been partly driven by the mistaken assumption that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will stabilize the whole Middle East region from Morocco to Iran. The outburst of street demonstrations that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain had absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and only underscored the fact that more fundamental social and economic forces were behind regional instability in this volatile part of the world. There is also the growing power of Iran which has been behind a great deal of regional subversion.

Nonetheless, there will inevitably be a new push to put Israeli-Palestinian negotiations "back on track." How should Israel respond, given the completely changed Middle East it is facing? At the heart of this question is the fact that the Palestinians want a state in the West Bank, a vitally important area for Israel's defense, that it captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, when it came under attack. Prior to 1967, Israel was only 9 miles wide at its narrow waist; the West Bank dominated the Israeli coastal plain where 70 percent of the Israeli population and 80 percent of Israel's industry were located. Israeli vulnerability only tempted its adversaries to launch wars against it. After the Six-Day War, the UN Security Council determined that Israel would not have to withdraw to the previous armistice lines from which it was attacked, but instead was entitled to "secure and recognized boundaries." Years later, President Reagan was the first to say on this basis that Israel was entitled to new, defensible borders.

A key component of defensible borders in the West Bank is the Jordan Valley, an area that is 1,200 feet below sea-level, near the Dead Sea, from which there is a steeply rising mountain ridge that reaches a maximum height of 3,000 feet . It provides a formidable barrier against an attack by a coalition of hostile armies in the future. It also allows Israel to prevent smuggling into the West Bank of the same advanced weapons that have entered the Gaza Strip, since Israel withdrew from that area unilaterally in 2005. For example, were shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles to enter the West Bank through the Jordan Valley, Hamas and other terrorist organizations would be able to cripple all civilian aviation out of Ben-Gurion International Airport, which is situation only a few miles from the West Bank.

In the past, Israel has been willing to take risks for peace by withdrawing from strategically significant territories that it captured in 1967 by relying, in part, for its security on bilateral understandings with neighboring Arab states. For example, Egypt de-militarized large parts of its Sinai Peninsula, after Israel withdrew from it in accordance with the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace. But what if the wave of protests across the Arab world bring to power new leaders who are not committed to the agreements that were signed in the past? Already several civilian leaders in Egypt, like Ayman Nour, have said that Egypt's peace treaty with Israel has to be reviewed. What if Israel were to withdraw from most of the West Bank and the Palestinian government, to which it turned over the territory, was replaced by a more hostile leadership?

Israel's perception of the rising vulnerability of Arab regimes is coming at a time when Iran is determined to dominate these countries and become the hegemonial power of the Middle East. It has already taken over Lebanon this year through Hizbullah, which is an integral part of the Iranian security and intelligence apparatus. It has made Syria a strategic partner. Iran has paid off leading Iraqi Shiite politicians for years, and hopes to convert Iraq into an Iranian satellite after the US withdraws. Iran is now the main funder of Hamas - the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - which controls the Gaza Strip since it staged a coup in 2007 against Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority. What is to prevent a Hamas takeover in the West Bank, with Iranian backing? Iranian subversion is likely to intensify should it cross the nuclear threshold and obtain nuclear weapons in the next year and a half.

In fact, no one can guarantee who will be in power among the Arab regimes surrounding Israel five or ten years from now. Given the volatile nature of the Arab street, combined with Iran's determination to subvert its neighbors, Israel faces a much more dangerous region. If peace negotiations with the Palestinians are resumed, Israel cannot rely for its security on the intentions of its neighbors alone, but rather on its capabilities for its own defense. It must insist on obtaining defensible borders. Back in 2004, the US sent a presidential letter of assurances to Israel guaranteeing that it would not be expected to withdraw to the 1967 lines and that it had a right to defensible borders. Additionally, the letter explained that Israel needed to have the ability to defend itself, by itself. The letter was endorsed by both houses of the US Congress, as well.

Despite these guarantees, there are voices in Washington that call on President Obama to force Israel back to the vulnerable 1967 lines. Many European governments take this position. Should it be confronted with new international pressures to agree to a full withdrawal from the West Bank, Israel must firmly insist that it has well-grounded rights to defensible borders. Today, given the instability that is spreading across the Middle East and the uncertainty about many of its neighbors, Israel's need for defensible borders has only grown. It will be critical in the weeks and months ahead for the US and its European allies to understand the changed circumstances that Israel now faces.

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