The US Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded in 1967: “From a strictly military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders.”
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Thomas Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War: “It is impossible to defend Jerusalem unless you hold the high ground….An aircraft that takes off from an airport in Amman is going to be over Jerusalem in two-and-a-half minutes, so it’s utterly impossible for me to defend the whole country unless I hold that land.”
A prominent Israeli politician said, according to Ruthfully Yours: “Most Israelis will tell you that these are deadly lines, very difficult to defend. These would bring back the horrors of pre-1967 Israel.”
Ehud Olmert: “We can never totally return to the indefensible pre-1967 borders, … We simply cannot afford to make Israel [9 miles] wide again at its center. We can’t allow the Palestinians to be a couple [miles] from [Tel Aviv’s] Ben Gurion Airport in the age of shoulder-fire missiles with the capacity to shoot down jumbo jets. But that doesn’t mean we must remain in every corner of the West Bank or in Gaza, where fewer than 10,000 Jews, living next to 1.3 million Palestinians, have been protected by twice as many soldiers.”
Defensible Borders for A Lasting Peace: “UN Resolution 242: No Restoration of the 1949 Armistice Line
Israel’s struggle for “defensible borders” is unique in international diplomacy. It emanates from both the special legal and strategic circumstances that Israel faced in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Israel Defense Forces captured the West Bank and other territories in a war of self-defense. The previous armistice line of 1949 that separated the Israeli and Jordanian armies was only a military boundary and not a permanent political border, according to the armistice agreement itself. The Jordanian occupation of the West Bank occurred in conjunction with its illegal invasion of the State of Israel in 1948. In fact, Jordanian sovereignty in the West Bank was not recognized by a single Arab state. This provided the background for UN Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967 which concluded that Israel would need “secure and recognized boundaries” that would necessarily be different from the 1967 lines. The previous status quo was not to be restored. In diplomatic shorthand, President George W. Bush stated on April 14, 2004, that Israel had a right to “defensible borders,” in order to convey the same point.
Israel is an embattled democracy that historically has had to defend itself repeatedly against the armies of neighboring Arab states whose declared goal was Israel’s eradication. While other nations, like France or Kuwait, have been overrun, occupied, and have survived to reconstitute themselves, Israel cannot depend on obtaining a second chance.
There continues to be a compelling strategic logic underpinning the idea of defensible borders. Israel is in an anomalous situation. It is an embattled democracy that historically has had to defend itself repeatedly against the armies of neighboring Arab states whose declared goal was nothing less than Israel’s eradication. The Israel Defense Forces could not afford to miscalculate. While other nations, like France or Kuwait, have been overrun, occupied, and nonetheless have survived to reconstitute themselves, Israel, in contrast, cannot depend on obtaining a second chance. Miscalculation on its part could have had devastating consequences and, thus, its situation is unique.
Why have Israelis been concerned with such scenarios? The backdrop of Israel’s historical concerns has been the vast numerical superiority that Arab state coalitions potentially enjoyed against it throughout its history. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Arab armies were based largely on regular standing formations that could be battle-ready on short notice. In contrast, the Israel Defense Forces were based mostly on reserve units, meaning that a relatively small Israeli standing army had to hold a defensive line until Israel’s mobilization of the reserves was completed.
A future attack launched from the pre-1967 lines against Israel’s nine-mile-wide waist could easily split the country in two.
Given its narrow geographical dimensions, a future attack launched from the 1949 armistice lines against Israel’s nine-mile-wide waist could easily split the country in two.
Terrorism has also been added to Israel’s concerns, in addition to the threat of a conventional military attack. From a strategic-military perspective, then, the right to defensible borders means that Israel must retain a safety zone in order to contend with a range of threats in the future, even if it reaches political agreements with it neighbors. If aggression is ever resumed, Israel requires a clear ability to defend itself, by itself, based on an appropriate location of its borders with its neighbors.
[…] The Necessity of Strategic Depth
The idea of defensible borders cannot refer only to the actual borderline itself. It must also include the area behind the border – the border area. When Western countries dealt with the question of creating a line of defense in Cold War Europe, their military planners understood that it is not the “borderline” that is decisive but rather the “defensive depth.” From a military standpoint, this defensive area included the entire width of Germany up to the Rhine (over 200 kilometers). This was to provide an area for retreat, were a defensive battle to be waged, so that a line of containment could be stabilized on the Rhine.
In Cold War Europe, Western military planners understood that it is not the “borderline” that is decisive but rather the “defensive depth.” In Europe this included the entire width of Germany up to the Rhine (over 200 kilometers).
In Israel, too, after the Yom Kippur War, military professionals understood that the “line of containment” could never be the border itself. Therefore, establishing defensible borders for Israel would also require determining the territories from which its armed forces would conduct their operations and those from which Israeli forces would be able to withdraw. The 1967 borders do not leave a shred of this necessary flexibility. From a purely technical standpoint, within the 1967 borders Israel loses the ability to defend itself.
According to the principles of defense adopted by armies all over the world, there are three basic criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a defensive plan:
A battle space with the necessary depth, so that suitable defensive forces can be deployed in stages.
A reserve force of a sufficient level of strength to counterattack in order to restore the situation to what it was prior to the outbreak of hostilities.
A suitable distance from the strategic interior, predicated on the assumption that its conquest or serious damage could undermine the army’s ability to hold firm.
All of these principles presuppose one cardinal assumption about the conduct of wars: since no defensive system will remain the same as it was at the beginning of an attack – and must break apart – there is a necessity for sufficient depth for the reserve forces to mass and there is a need for adequate space before enemy forces reach the strategic interior of a state.
Since the 1967 lines do not meet a single one of these criteria for establishing an adequate defensive plan, there cannot be any doubt whatsoever that these cannot be said to constitute defensible or secure borders. The 1967 lines may have certain other advantages from a non-military perspective; some might even think, as a result, that they are good lines. But from a professional military standpoint, relying on the 1967 lines to defend the State of Israel entails an enormous risk, because an army that is deployed along them will not be able to guarantee Israel’s defense, should there be a war in the future.
From a purely technical standpoint, within the 1967 borders Israel loses the ability to defend itself. There is a necessity for sufficient depth for the reserve forces to mass and for adequate space before enemy forces reach the strategic interior. An army that is deployed along the 1967 lines will not be able to guarantee Israel’s defense.”