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Dangerous ground: how territory has influenced Israel's national security outlook.

In the spring of 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon. In the fall of 2005, it withdrew from Gaza. These withdrawals, reasoned the governments of Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, respectively, would significantly promote the Jewish state's national security interests. If Israel surrendered control of these territories, they contended, calm would be restored along its borders with Lebanon and Gaza. Arab terrorist organizations, especially Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as their state sponsors, Iran and Syria, would no longer be able to justify aggression against the Jewish state from these quarters. Indeed, the withdrawals might even encourage the Lebanese and Palestinians to enter into permanent peace agreements.

This line of thought, in hindsight, proved to be completely wrongheaded in both instances. Rather than bring calm and advance peace, the Jewish state's territorial retreats created power vacuums that were quickly filled by Hizbullah and Hamas, with the enthusiastic encouragement and support of Iran and Syria. Ideologically committed to the destruction of the "Zionist entity," these terrorist organizations turned southern Lebanon and Gaza into huge armed camps for ongoing attacks against Israel.

The concomitant deterioration in security along the Lebanon and Gaza borders eventually became so bad that the Jewish state ultimately decided it had no choice but to wage war against Hizbullah (in 2006) and Hamas (in 2008-09). The overwhelming might displayed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on these occasions has clearly had a sobering effect on Hizbullah and Hamas, as well as their state sponsors; however, the tenuous quiet that now prevails along the Lebanon and Gaza borders could disappear at any time. Meanwhile, Hizbullah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas continue to build up their strength inside their enclaves for future confrontations with Israel.

What these episodes illustrate in a broad historical sense is the profound relationship that has always existed in the Jewish state between national security" and territory. Unquestionably, Israel's national security outlook has been very heavily shaped over the decades by territorial considerations. (1) Suffice it to say for the moment that the Jewish state's national security dilemma in this regard has always revolved around the closely related issues of defensible borders and strategic depth.

Though Israel won a clear victory in the 1947-49 War of Independence, actually acquiring much more territory than originally ceded to it under the terms of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, which divided the western portion of British mandate Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, it nevertheless emerged from the hostilities with very problematical borders. Extremely long, due to the Judean and Samarian "bulge" in the state's center and the Gaza "finger" in its south, they were also largely flat, devoid of topographical features that might inhibit either small-scale infiltration or large-scale invasion. The routine ease with which even untrained Arab infiltrators slipped into Israeli territory to inflict mayhem on the civilian populace during the early years of statehood serves as poignant testimony to this reality.

Furthermore, at its particularly vulnerable waist, the Jewish state's width measured a mere nine miles, as the crow flies, at its narrowest point. In the Galilee and the Negev, its width did not exceed more than a few dozen miles at its widest points. Arab control of the highlands of Judea, Samaria, and the Golan only accentuated Israel's miniscule west-east dimensions. All of the Jewish state's major population centers, industrial assets, and military bases, in short, were potentially within easy reach of Arab armies or terrorist organizations.

Unlike many other states, which either possess borders that can be easily defended against invaders (e.g., Switzerland) or that possess hinterlands where their own armies can fall back, regroup, and eventually expel the invaders (e.g., Russia), Israel inside its pre-1967 Six-Day War frontiers enjoyed neither of these luxuries. Its striking lack of defensible borders and strategic depth, not surprisingly, made a grave impression on its military strategists. Intense fighting on the Jewish state's territory, especially in an interstate war, they averred, would inevitably cause terrible harm to both populace and industry, and the country itself could even be completely overrun and destroyed, if such a scenario ever came to pass.

This frame of mind gave rise to the notion that "the best defense is a good offense." Hostilities, these military strategists resolved, must take place on Arab territory to the greatest extent possible, certainly in the case of interstate war. This idea, in turn, had implications for Israel's strategic outlook, constituting a significant piece of the explanation for the Jewish state's emphasis on preventive and preemptive wars during the pre-Six-Day War years. (2) Israel initiated the 1956 Sinai Campaign in large part to prevent Egypt, which had recently purchased an immense quantity of advanced Soviet arms, from transforming itself from a rather dormant threat into a much more active one. The Jewish state initiated the Six-Day War to stave off an imminent threat to itself represented by Arab armies arrayed around what foreign minister Abba Eban called its "Auschwitz borders."

On the operational level, the lack of defensible borders and strategic depth contributed substantially to the IDF's decision to opt for maneuver rather than attrition as its dominant mode of warfare. (3) Hence, in the pre-Six-Day War period, the IDF emphasized the development of military forces capable of taking the war into the hinterlands of its Arab foes--that is, it built up its armored corps and air force above all else. Its operational code and tactical principles in the arena of interstate war were oriented primarily toward striking rapidly and deeply into Arab territory in order to bring about the speedy collapse of Arab armies.

With respect to low-intensity conflict, Israel's lack of defensible borders and strategic depth prompted its emphasis on retaliatory action in the pre-Six-Day War period. The IDF had neither the men nor the infrastructure to mount an effective perimeter defense--that is, to seal the Jewish state's borders against insurgents bent on murder, sabotage, and theft. Its military strategists, therefore, decided that Israel required the "cooperation" of its Arab neighbors to maintain quiet along the frontiers, so it attempted to coerce them into damming the flood of infiltration by inflicting severe costs on them through raids into their territories. Similarly, the Jewish state sought to put an end to border skirmishing that involved the Arab states themselves through retaliatory actions that exacted painful costs on their recipients.

The Six-Day War substantially altered the territorial status quo of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Not only did the Jewish state thoroughly smash the military machines of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, but it also captured sizable chunks of their territories--the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, Judea and Samaria from Jordan, and the Golan from Syria. These acquisitions furnished Israel with considerably more defensible borders than it possessed in the past. First, the Jewish state's revised borders now incorporated militarily impressive geographical obstacles, such as the Suez Canal in the south and the Judean and Samarian highlands in the east. Second, the total length of the frontiers had been shortened significantly now that the Judean and Samarian bulge and the Gaza finger had been eliminated from the map. Moreover, the acquisitions of the Sinai, Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and the Golan provided Israel with a measure of strategic depth for the first time in its history. Its major population centers, industrial assets, and military bases, especially in the south and center of the country, were no longer within easy reach of Arab armies or terrorist organizations.

The Jewish state's expanded post-Six-Day War territorial dimensions had a discernible impact on its national security outlook. While Israel's decisions to initiate--or not to initiate--interstate wars have certainly never been made principally on the basis of military considerations related to territory, the acquisition of defensible borders and strategic depth have tempered somewhat its propensity to engage in preventive and preemptive wars. Indeed, the Jewish state initiated two of the three interstate wars in which it fought prior to 1967. Of the three interstate wars it has fought since 1967--the 1969-70 War of Attrition, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the 1982 Lebanon War--only the last was initiated by Israel. (4) And this war was fought along a frontier where the Jewish state had neither a defensible border nor strategic depth against massed rocket fire.

Israel has also initiated two asymmetrical wars of late--the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hizbullah and the 2008-09 Gaza War against Hamas (commonly known as Operation Cast Lead). (5) The Jewish state embarked on both wars after years of seemingly unending provocations across the Lebanon and, particularly, Gaza borders. Because the Jewish state had withdrawn from southern Lebanon and Gaza years earlier, it had neither defensible borders nor strategic depth along these frontiers in respect to massed rocket fire. In these instances, as in the pre-Six-Day War era, its limited territorial dimensions played a significant role in propelling it into war.

On the operational level, though maneuver still remains the dominant mode of warfare within the IDF, attrition has become more prominent in the army's thinking since the Six-Day War. Already during the aptly named War of Attrition, the IDF displayed an inclination to employ firepower as a substitute for mobility. The experience of the opening days of the Yom Kippur War, when an unprepared IDF found itself in very difficult circumstances, further enhanced the appeal of firepower. The shift toward a greater role for attrition has been especially evident in the realms of low-intensity conflict and asymmetrical wars against terrorist organizations. Witness the devastating firepower unleashed by the IDF during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead, coupled with its restrained ground maneuvers in both campaigns. Today, far more so than in the past, the IDF has invested itself in the idea that the application of long-range, precision firepower represents a better option than capturing territory to meet Israel's national security challenges.

The most important contribution to the Jewish state's national security made by the post-1967 borders is that they have insulated the country against a catastrophic reversal during interstate wars by allowing the IDF to trade space for time. In the Yom Kippur War, the defensible frontiers and strategic depth provided by the Sinai and Golan "buffer zones" allowed the IDF to recover from its early surprise. Until ample reserve forces could be mobilized and deployed to stern the Egyptian and Syrian offensives, the IDF's regular forces were able to wage effective mobile defenses both in the Sinai and on the Golan, rather than being forced to wage "life-or-death" stands along the front lines, because they were able to relinquish some territory, particularly in the south, in order to regroup. These "blocking battles" stabilized the situation on both fronts, and eventually permitted the IDF to launch punishing counterattacks that brought ultimate victory to Israel.

But control of territories captured in the Six-Day War, as well as the Lebanon War, has also created national security problems for the Jewish state. The loss of the Sinai gave Egypt a convenient pretext to embark upon wars against Israel in 1969 and 1973. Likewise, the loss of the Golan provided a convenient pretext for Syrian aggression in 1973. Mass Palestinian unrest and terrorism from the late 1980s onward, as well as terrorism in the southern Lebanon security zone from 1985 to 2000, moreover, seriously called into question the utility of dominating territory that is home to sizable, belligerent populations. Also, it must be noted that control of territories captured in 1967 confers no special advantage in defending against ballistic missiles equipped with chemical, biological, and, possibly, nuclear warheads--and warfare with weapons of mass destruction has become a central, even existential, concern for the Jewish state over the past few decades.

For these reasons, since the late 1970s, Israel's national security outlook has moved in the direction of relinquishing captured territory--initially, in exchange for formal peace agreements accompanied by acceptable security guarantees (which have included international monitoring, demilitarized zones, and bilateral security cooperation) and, more recently, unilaterally. Thus, the Jewish state returned the Sinai to Egypt under the terms of a peace treaty. It also gave up substantial parts of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza to the Palestinian Authority at a time when that entity appeared committed to a peace process. Southern Lebanon and Gaza were simply abandoned without any quid pro quo whatsoever.

Israel's readiness to relinquish additional territory in the future--namely, most of the rest of Judea and Samaria, as well as most (perhaps all) of the Golan--is much less assured, however, than a decade ago. The murderous violence begun by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Hizbullah in 2000, not to mention the grossly counterproductive results of the withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza, has soured the Jewish state on the notion of "land for peace." Whether this attitude can be reversed under the right set of circumstances remains an open question.

More certain, on the other hand, is that, in a future war, whether interstate or asymmetrical in nature, Israel is not very likely to pursue territorial objectives, at least in the form of a long-term administration of "Arab" territory. Instead, the IDF is much more likely to concentrate upon the in-depth destruction of opposing armies or terrorist organizations as a superior approach to the advancement of the Jewish state's national security interests.


(1.) Territory, of course, is simply one of the variables that has influenced Israel's national security outlook. The present examination of the link between territory and national security is not intended to obscure the fact that the latter has also been shaped by other variables, such as the country's manpower resources and its relationships with foreign powers.

(2.) The fundamental distinction between preventive and preemptive war concerns urgency. A preventive war is fought to impede a latent threat from developing into a manifest threat. A preemptive war, on the other hand, is fought to eliminate a manifest threat.

(3.) Maneuver is a mode of warfare based upon rapid movement. It is particularly suitable for armies that wish to engage in swift offensive thrusts. Attrition, in contrast, is a mode of warfare that emphasizes firepower over movement. It is particularly suitable for armies that do not wish--or are not capable of--swift offensive thrusts.

(4.) In 1973, admittedly, a vehement American objection to a preemptive strike constituted the primary reason why Israel chose not to initiate war. Nevertheless, the IDF's insistence that the Jewish state would not lose the war if the Arabs struck first, in part because Israel possessed defensible borders and strategic depth, served to bolster the government's decision.

(5.) An asymmetrical war is defined as one fought between a state and a substate entity, such as a terrorist organization.

DAVID RODMAN is the author of Arms Transfers to Israel: The Strategic Logic Behind American Military, Assistance (Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and Defense and Diplomacy in Israel's National Security Experience: Tactics, Partnerships, and Motives (Sussex Academic Press. 2005). He has written frequently on Israeli affairs for Midstream.
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Author:Rodman, David
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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