The Truth About Israel’s National Security
Israel’s historical experiences, coupled with decades of violent confrontations with Arab states and the Palestinians, have created a major psychological barrier embedded in the psyche of every Israeli, placing Israel’s legitimate national security concerns at the center of its domestic and foreign policy. That said, no military might or even the expropriation of the entire West Bank will guarantee Israel’s security, short of a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The Netanyahu government’s linking of national security to the so-called “defensive borders” is disingenuous and misleading, designed to provide a cover for his and his cabinet’s continued intoxication with seizing Palestinian territories.
In the age of rockets and precision missile technology, territorial depth can no longer guarantee Israel’s security, as Hamas has been able to rain thousands of rockets on Israel, some of which have reached Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The current ‘knife Intifada’ also reveals the absurdity of the argument that borders, any border, can provide air tight security. It is the occupation and the continuing expansion of the settlements that are behind these violent outbursts, and as long as the occupation persists, Israel will not know a day of rest.
In December 2012, Gabi Ashkenazi, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, reconfirmed the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he said: “Israel must recognize the limits of its power and cooperate with forces that support Israeli interests.”
This was aptly expressed by another top Israeli military commander, Shaul Arieli, who said, “We believe that peace will provide better security than anything else.” Otherwise, all security measures, however coercive, elaborate, and sophisticated, cannot guarantee Israel’s national security.
As a master tactician who uses fear to rally public support, Netanyahu is quick to point to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza to suggest that the Palestinians cannot be trusted, as Hamas has been using the strip ever since as a launching pad for rockets, instead of building the foundation of their state.
Sadly, many Israelis bought into this dishonest argument, even though it may appear to be valid on the surface. Only when one carefully examines how the withdrawal from Gaza was conducted would one understand the absurdity of this argument.
The withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was precipitous and unilateral. Then-Prime Minister Sharon knew that Hamas was by far more powerful than the security forces of the Palestinian Authority, and poised to take over. Sharon’s main objective, however, was to rid Israel of the economic and security burdens that Gaza posed, and if his actions would divide the Palestinians, so much the better.
Netanyahu knows only too well that any peace agreement must be based on certain provisions, mechanisms, logistics, and a timeline designed to ensure compliance based on reciprocity while nurturing trust in the process. This would allow for mutual mitigation of biases and selective perceptions over each other’s intentions as they implement all the provisions of the agreement.
The pullout from much of the West Bank must therefore entail a number of specific unilateral, bilateral, and multi-lateral measures that can, in contrast to the Gaza withdrawal, sustain and strengthen peace. Had Sharon put such measures in place, the result would have been entirely different today. These measures include:
Phased Withdrawal and ReciprocityTo prevent a repeat of Gaza, the pullout from the West Bank must be implemented in phases over a period of five to eight years with an established timeframe between each phase based on specific reciprocal and confidence-building measures.
During this period, both sides must develop people-to-people relations, including economic, cultural, and scientific ties, which can mitigate the psychological security hang-ups between the two sides.
Maintaining Full Security Cooperation By virtue of the Israelis’ and the Palestinians’ past experiences, full security cooperation between the two sides remains a prerequisite. Progress made between Israel and the PA demonstrates that effective security cooperation is possible, even in an atmosphere of tension. The success of this cooperation was made possible by the PA’s commitment to peace as well as Israel’s willingness to fully collaborate with the PA’s internal security and improve intelligence cooperation.
A Demilitarized Palestinian State The newly-established Palestinian state should be demilitarized, with its security assured by the US. Regardless of their military prowess, the Palestinians will never be in a position to challenge Israel militarily, nor will they be threatened as long as they are at peace with their neighbors.
Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on military hardware, future Palestinian governments should invest in economic development, education, health care, and infrastructure, while maintaining strong economic relations with Israel from which both sides can greatly benefit.
Preserving Credible DeterrenceIsrael will maintain a credible military deterrence that will dissuade current and future enemies from threatening it; if they do so, it will be at their own peril. For Israelis, “Never Again” is not just a slogan; they are bent, and rightly so, on doing whatever necessary to prevent history from repeating itself.
In this regard, Israel and the United States can ensure that no single state or combination of states is able to overwhelm Israel militarily by maintaining a qualitative military edge.
Reviving the Arab Peace InitiativeIn the context of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, Israel should accept the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which was proposed in 2002, and agree to convene with representatives of the Arab League to discuss its merits. This would open the door for negotiating a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreement, beginning normal relations with the Arab states and by extension with all Muslim states.
As the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, stated in June 2011, “We must adopt the Saudi Initiative, we have no other way, and not because the Palestinians are my top priority but because I am concerned about Israel’s wellbeing and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel’s existence.”
An International Peacekeeping ForceIsrael’s demand to keep residual forces along the Jordan River to prevent the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists from the Jordan Valley is valid. However, such a force cannot be made of Israelis alone in order to prevent it from being seen as a continuation of occupation, only in a different form. Instead, an international peacekeeping force (with Israeli and Palestinian participation) will have to be stationed there for a mutually agreed-upon period of time.
The force should be assembled from specific countries that have a vested interest in maintaining peace, including Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, and EU nations like Britain, France, and Germany, operating under the command of the United States.
A Regional Security Umbrella Once a peace agreement is achieved and all security measures are in place, the United States could offer a security umbrella along the lines of what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed in June 2009, under which all nations in the region who are at peace with Israel (and with each other) could belong, to deter outside adversaries.
Those who claim that this would be the wrong time for Israel to make such a move, given the Middle East’s sweeping turmoil, are wrong. This is precisely the right time—Israel does not need a fire in its backyard or a fifth column at a time when it must focus on threats from Iran and ISIS, as well as the potential disintegration of Syria.
The time has come for the Israelis to reject the scare tactics and false claims of the Netanyahu government. The usurpation of Palestinian land and unabated settlement growth not only delegitimizes Israel’s legitimate national security requirements, but endangers its very existence.
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Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and
Middle Eastern studies.