.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

"Israel doesn't need the West Bank to be secure" (van Creveld)

This op-ed in the Forward last week Martin van Creveld made some waves, because the writer has some serious credentials.

His thesis is that the 1967 borders are defensible. I am not a military analyst, but I will annotate where I find problems with his logic:

When everything is said and done, how important is the West Bank to Israel’s defense?
To answer the question, our best starting point is the situation before the 1967 war. At that time, the Arab armed forces surrounding Israel outnumbered the Jewish state’s army by a ratio of 3-to-1. Not only was the high ground in Judea and Samaria in Jordanian hands, but Israel’s capital in West Jerusalem was bordered on three sides by hostile territory. Arab armies even stood within 14 miles of Tel Aviv. Still, nobody back then engaged in the sort of fretting we hear today about “defensible borders,” let alone Abba Eban’s famous formulation, “Auschwitz borders.” When the time came, it took the Israel Defense Forces just six days to crush all its enemies combined.
If Jordan had tanks on the ridge, and would have attacked Israel a few hours sooner, things very well may have turned out differently. The fact is that Jordan was not terribly interested in war and that is what made the Green Line "defensible" before 1967 - Jordan's King Hussein was not the aggressor Nasser was.

In reality, the snaking Green Line is more than twice the length of the border between the West Bank and Jordan. That by itself makes the Green line less defensible.
Since then, of course, much has happened. Though relations with Egypt and Jordan may not always be rosy, both countries have left “the circle of enmity,” as the Hebrew expression goes. Following two-and-a-half decades of astonishing growth, Israel’s GDP is now larger than those of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt combined. As to military power, suffice it to say that Israel is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of arms.
True, but I believe irrelevant.
Syria, Israel’s main remaining hostile neighbor, has never on its own been strong enough to seriously threaten Israel. While Damascus is getting some weapons from Iran, the latter is no substitute for the genuine superpower patron that Syria had in the old Soviet Union.
Also true, but this article is not about the Golan - and there are other issues there.
Overall, therefore, Israel’s position is much stronger than it was at any time in the past. So how does the West Bank fit into this picture?
One of the main threats that Israel faces today is from ballistic missiles. Yet everybody knows that holding on to the West Bank won’t help Israel defend itself against missiles coming from Syria or Iran. Even the most extreme hawk would concede this point.
Van Creveld is ignoring shorter-range Qassam and Grad-type missiles. There would be nothing stopping a Palestine from allowing those to be smuggled in or built, and nothing Israel could do tostop them.

While they may not be a military threat, Israel has never looked at the conflict in purely military terms, as van Creveld seems to like to do. Israel's position has always been, to its credit, that the security of its citizens are paramount. A danger to civilians is a more pressing issue than the ability to win a war. Van Creveld seems to be thinking in terms of military history, his area of expertise, but that is only part of the story - an Israeli victory in the field can easily be a Pyrrhic victory in terms of the number killed. A situation where easily assembled rockets can effectively hold the biggest population centers of Israel hostage is simply unacceptable, and Israel's ability to win a war is not important if the entire country must live their entire lives the way Sderot lived two years ago.
As far as the threat of a land invasion, it is of course true that the distance between the former Green Line and the Mediterranean is very small — at its narrowest point, what is sometimes affectionately known as “Old” Israel is just nine miles wide. As was noted before, it is also true that the West Bank comprises the high ground and overlooks Israel’s coastal plain.
On the other hand, since the West Bank itself is surrounded by Israel on three sides, anybody who tries to enter it from the east is sticking his head into a noose. To make things worse for a prospective invader, the ascent from the Jordan Valley into the heights of Judea and Samaria is topographically one of the most difficult on earth. Just four roads lead from east to west, all of which are easily blocked by air strikes or by means of precision-guided missiles. To put the icing on the cake, Israeli forces stationed in Jerusalem could quickly cut off the only road connecting the southern portion of the West Bank with its northern section in the event of an armed conflict.
Van Creveld seems to be making a number of unspoken assumptions here. I'll make mine explicit: a demilitarized Palestine will not remain so for long,and Israel would be powerless to stop say, a Hamas government in the West Bank to outsource its army duties to Iran. Or a Muslim Brotherhood coup in Jordan changing the equation. If tanks are already positioned on the high ground, there is little that Israel can do to stop them from cutting the country in half without having a significant proportion of the reserves always mobilized.

Similarly, under that scenario, I do not believe that there is much Israel could do to protect Jerusalem from being cut off from the rest of the country, exactly as it was in 1948.
The defense of the West Bank by Arab forces would be a truly suicidal enterprise. The late King Hussein understood these facts well. Until 1967 he was careful to keep most of his forces east of the Jordan River. When he momentarily forgot these realities in 1967, it took Israel just three days of fighting to remind him of them.
Sorry, but I don't understand why. And even if it was "suicidal," if the enemy is motivated by promises of virgins in paradise, we cannot assume rationality in their decision-making.
Therefore, just as Israel does not need the West Bank to defend itself against ballistic missiles, it does not need that territory to defend itself against conventional warfare. If it could retain a security presence in the Jordan Valley, keep the eventual Palestinian state demilitarized and maintain control of the relevant airspace, that would all be well and good. However, none of these conditions existed before 1967; in view of geography and the balance of forces, none is really essential today either.
Again, I reject the premise that a military edge is the only pre-requisite for Israel's security.
And how about terrorism? As experience in Gaza has shown, a fence (or preferably a wall) can stop suicide bombers from entering. As experience in Gaza has also shown, it cannot stop mortar rounds and rockets. Mortar and rocket fire from the West Bank could be very unpleasant. On the other hand, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran already have missiles capable of reaching every point in Israel, Tel Aviv included. Many of those missiles are large and powerful. Compared to the damage they can cause, anything the Palestinians are ever likely to do would amount to mere pinpricks.
It certainly appears from this statement, and the earlier ones, that van Creveld looks at war like a videogame. Actual human casualties from Qassam-type rockets and terrorism are merely "unpleasant." But from Israel's perspective, they are entirely unacceptable, and his facile acceptance of the hell that Israelis would live under shows that he is not in touch with Israel's very raison d'etre.
Furthermore, in recent years Israel has shown it can deal with that kind of threat if it really wants to. Since 2006, when the Second Lebanon War killed perhaps 2,000 Lebanese, many of them civilians, and led to the destruction of an entire section of Beirut, the northern border has been absolutely quiet.
Um, the LAF shot and killed an IDF officer earlier this year during the tree-cutting ambush. It does not help his argument when he makes statements that are demonstratively false. Besides, Hezbollah's motivation is not to secure Lebanon but to destroy Israel and kill as many Jews as possible - a basic concept that seems to elude van Creveld.
Since Operation Cast Lead, which killed perhaps 1,200 Gazans, many of them civilians, and led to the destruction of much of the city of Gaza, not one Israeli has been killed by a mortar round or rocket coming from the Gaza Strip. Since mortar rounds and rockets continue to be fired from time to time, that is hardly accidental. Obviously Hamas, while reluctant to give up what it calls “resistance,” is taking care not to provoke Israel too much.
His description of the destruction is exaggerated.

There is no doubt that Israel's reactions in the north and the south have deterred Hezbollah and Hamas for the time being, but van Creveld ignores that in the time since both wars, both the enemies have more than recovered their losses and are both militarily much stronger than they were before. He also ignores that in both those cases, the wars were sparked by Arab actions that had no military value on their part. Van Creveld is again assuming a conventional war scenario where each side acts rationally, but that is simply not the case with Iranian-backed Islamist groups.
Keeping all these facts in mind — and provided that Israel maintains its military strength and builds a wall to stop suicide bombers — it is crystal-clear that Israel can easily afford to give up the West Bank.
That statement is beyond absurd. Van Creveld did not even touch on many other arguments against ceding the West Bank to a sworn enemy.

One example is the vulnerability of Ben Gurion Airport to simple anti-aircraft missiles.

Another is the amount of time it takes for Israel to mobilize its reserves - in those 48 hours, the amount of damage that Israel must absorb is significantly higher without the West Bank as a buffer.

A third is the simple realization that Israel, by ceding the West Bank, could be setting up a scenario where it is completely surrounded by Iranian proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria, "Palestine" and "Hamastan."

In addition, there are a number of papers on the topic of defensible borders written by people with much more military expertise than I have. They bring up many more points that van Creveld ignores with his flat statement that his thesis is "crystal clear."
Strategically speaking, the risk of doing so is negligible.
Only if you consider it acceptable to have an entire nation held hostage by radical Islamists with crude rockets - that Israel cannot defend against without potentially starting a war with the Arab world. They might not run to defend Gaza but a sovereign nation, with defense pacts, is a different story - especially if they think they can win. Israel's perceived weakness in withdrawing from lands won in war will never make Arab nations less likely to attack!
What is not negligible is the demographic, social, cultural and political challenge that ruling over 2.5 million — nobody knows exactly how many — occupied Palestinians in the West Bank poses. Should Israeli rule over them continue, then the country will definitely turn into what it is already fast becoming: namely, an apartheid state that can only maintain its control by means of repressive secret police actions.
Now we see that van Creveld might have more of an agenda than simply speaking from a purely military perspective. The issue is real, but it does not belong in an article like this; it indicates that his analysis might be colored by his bias.
To save itself from such a fate, Israel should rid itself of the West Bank, most of Arab Jerusalem specifically included. If possible, it should do so by agreement with the Palestinian Authority; if not, then it should proceed unilaterally, as the — in my view, very successful — withdrawal from Gaza suggests. Or else I would strongly advise my children and grandson to seek some other, less purblind and less stiff-necked, country to live in.
Israel's withdrawal from Gaza resulted in thousands of rockets and a war that killed some 1200 people. What exactly are his criteria for success? Again, a statement like that calls into question van Creveld's entire perspective on what it means to be an Israeli, and what its citizens should be forced to endure, for his seemingly bizarre concept of living in security.
Martin van Creveld is an Israeli military historian and the author of “The Land of Blood and Honey: The Rise of Modern Israel” (St. Martin’s Press, 2010).

(h/t Zach)