Defensible Borders for A Lasting Peace: “The U.S. Military’s View: Control the West Bank Mountain Ridge
The same conclusion was reached by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff back in 1967, when they were asked to express their view about what minimal territorial modifications would have to be added to Israel in order to create an effective defense line against conventional coalition attacks and against terrorism. A memorandum to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara from June 29, 1967, signed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Earl Wheeler, concluded: “From a strictly military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured Arab territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders.” According to the Joint Chiefs, their determination of the territory to be retained was based on “accepted tactical principles such as control of commanding terrain, use of natural obstacles, elimination of enemy-held salients, and provision of defense in depth for important facilities and installations.”
In 1967, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded: “From a strictly military point of view, Israel would require the retention of some captured Arab territory in order to provide militarily defensible borders.” In the West Bank Israel should “control the prominent high ground running north-south.”
The main conclusion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff regarding the West Bank was that Israel should “control the prominent high ground running north-south.” The line they recommended ran “east of the main north-south highway that connects Jenin-Nablus, al-Bira, and Jerusalem.” They explained that “the envisioned defense line would run just east of Jerusalem.” From there the line would run southeast to the Dead Sea at Wadi al Daraja. The Joint Chiefs also voiced their view with respect to the Golan Heights, where they recommended Israel holding on to a line 15 miles east of the pre-1967 line, so that it controlled “the terrain which Syria had used effectively in harassing the border area.”
Nearly forty years have passed since the Joint Chiefs of Staff prepared their memorandum for the Johnson administration. Is all of this still relevant? Clearly, the geography and topography have not changed, and military technology has not negated their conclusions, either. Indeed, there have been significant developments in the size, quality, and structure of the armed forces of the Arab states surrounding Israel that makes the analysis of the Joint Chiefs of Staff even more compelling today:
Back in 1967, most Middle Eastern armies were made up of relatively slow infantry formations. Today, Middle Eastern armies are structured around highly mobile armored and mechanized formations that can fight continuously over much longer stretches of time. Today’s military formations, moreover, can envelop and conquer much wider territories than in the past. These changes only reinforce the conclusions drawn by the U.S. military in 1967 about Israel’s need for defensible borders.
The range of effective fire has also grown with the advent of new military technologies. This is true with respect to defensive weapons, such as anti-tank missiles, as well as offensive weapons, including aerial-delivered and artillery projectiles. This change lends greater force to the U.S. conclusions about Israel’s defensive needs on the ground. This is also why the minimal defensive depth that the U.S. Army has defined as necessary for its own divisions has almost doubled in recent years.
Precision-guided weapons will become a dominant factor for both sides on the battlefield in the future. As long as such weaponry was in Israeli hands alone, this clear-cut advantage in military technology enabled the Israel Defense Forces to cope with inferior conditions on the ground, such as disadvantageous terrain or inadequate depth. But when Israel’s adversaries also possess precision-guided weapons, then defensible borders become an absolute necessity for which there is no possible substitute.
If Israel does not control the defensive line proposed by U.S. planners, the Israel Defense Forces will pay a steep or impossible price in the event of war. Israel will be unable to defend itself since all of its civilian and strategic military infrastructure, as well as Israel’s own fighting forces, will be spread out as in a computer game opposite a hostile military enjoying the benefit of the dominant terrain of the West Bank. The opportunities to disperse Israeli defensive assets that might become the targets of an adversary’s precision-guided munitions would be extremely limited.
The range of effective fire has grown with the advent of new military technologies. This is why the minimal defensive depth that the U.S. Army has defined as necessary for its own divisions has almost doubled in recent years.
In light of all these factors, it is clear why U.S. military experts and the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as well as Israel’s current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have all stated that even if Israel will need to make territorial concessions, it must still maintain its ability to defend itself by holding “the high ground” of the West Bank. Rabin would refer to Israel’s need to hold on to “security borders.” Regardless of the terminology, the conclusion of all these former military commanders was that there is no possibility of defending Israel from within the 1967 lines in case of war, and certainly not against a modern army equipped with precision weapons. No responsible leader can promise that Israel will not have to face such a threat in the future.
In 1974, seven years after the memorandum by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a similar study was undertaken by the U.S. Army’s Command and Staff College. It reached the same conclusion. In order to defend itself, Israel must control the high ground east of the central axis along the West Bank’s mountain ridge.
In 1974, a study undertaken by the U.S. Army’s Command and Staff College reached the same conclusion as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In order to defend itself, Israel must control the high ground east of the central axis along the West Bank’s mountain ridge.”