Land for peace: A historical perspective
November 1, 2019
(JNS)—“...a military defeat of Israel would mean the physical extinction of a large part of its population and the political elimination of the Jewish state. To lose a single war is to lose everything.”—Yigal Allon, commander of the Palmach and deputy Prime Minister (Labor), 1976
“One does not have to be a military expert to easily identify the critical defects of the armistice lines that existed until June 4, 1967.”
— Yigal Allon
Since the early 1990s, and certainly since the Oslo process (1993), the “land for peace” principle has been Israel’s dominant policy paradigm, particularly, but not exclusively, with regard to the “Palestinian problem.” This is something that is difficult to comprehend. After all, not only was it a formula that was largely rejected up until that time as borderline sedition, but since then, in every instance in which it has been applied, it has failed resoundingly (albeit at various rates of speed), with the land transferred to Arab control invariably becoming a platform from which to launch/prepare attacks against Israel.
Indeed, the flawed rationale for the land-for-peace doctrine was forcibly articulated by the man who later embraced it (with calamitous consequences): Yitzhak Rabin.
In an address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress (Jan. 28, 1976), Rabin cogently underscored the irrelevance of territory as a cause of Arab enmity towards the Jewish state: “Until 1967, Israel did not hold an inch of the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or the Golan Heights. Israel held not an acre of what is now considered disputed territory. And yet we enjoyed no peace. Year after year Israel called for, pleaded for, a negotiated peace with the Arab governments. Their answer was a blank refusal and more war... The reason was not a conflict over territorial claims. The reason was, and remains, the fact that a Free Jewish State sits on territory at all... It is in this context that the Palestinian issue must be appraised.”
Paradoxically, less than two decades later, the very people who articulated with such chilling clarity the compelling reasons for eschewing a policy of territorial concessions—and accurately foretold the ruinous results of adopting it—embraced it with unreserved enthusiasm.
Predicting the perils of Palestinian statehood
More three decades ago, it was none other than Shimon Peres, widely considered the principal protagonist in the Oslo process, who warned ominously:
If a Palestinian state is established, it will be armed to the teeth. Within it there will be bases of the most extreme terrorist forces, who will be equipped with anti-tank and anti-aircraft shoulder-launched rockets, which will endanger not only random passers-by, but also every airplane and helicopter taking off in the skies of Israel and every vehicle traveling along the major traffic routes in the coastal plain.
Indeed, it was Peres who predicted with uncanny precision that: The establishment of such [a Palestinian] state means the inflow of combat ready Palestinian forces (more than 25,000 men under arms) into Judea and Samaria; this force, together with the local youth, will double itself in a short time. It will not be short of weapons or other [military] equipment, and in a short space of time, an infrastructure for waging war will be set up in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip. Israel will have problems in preserving day-to-day security, which may drive the country into war, or undermine the morale of its citizens. In time of war, the frontiers of the Palestinian state will constitute an excellent staging point for mobile forces to mount attacks on infrastructure installations vital for Israel’s existence, to impede the freedom of action of the Israeli air force in the skies over Israel, and to cause bloodshed among the population... in areas adjacent to the frontier line.
But Peres wasn’t the only one who supported the land-for-peace doctrine and Palestinian statehood, having previously warned of the deadly perils this would entail.
Professor Amnon Rubinstein, Israel Prize laureate and former Education Minister for the far-left Meretz Party, wrote prior to his entry into politics, essentially echoing Peres’s concerns: “[The proponents of withdrawal] claim if they [the Arabs] threaten us with artillery from Kalkilya [an Arab town close to the 1967 ‘Green Line’], we will threaten Kalkilya with our artillery. However, the answer to this is very simple. The Arab world can exist, prosper, and develop not only if our artillery threatens Kalkilya, but even if it hits it. Israel, small and exposed, will neither be able to exist nor to prosper if its urban centers, its vulnerable airport and its narrow winding roads, are shelled. This is the fundamental difference between them and us, this is the terrible danger involved in the establishment of a third independent sovereign state between us and the Jordan River.”
The grave asymmetry inherent in the conflict, which Rubinstein points out, was vividly underscored by Yigal Allon, former commander of the Palmach and later deputy prime minister for the Labor Party. In an article in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs, he observed: “...the Arab states can permit themselves a series of military defeats while Israel cannot afford to lose a single war... a military defeat of Israel would mean the physical extinction of a large part of its population and the political elimination of the Jewish state. To lose a single war is to lose everything.”
Allon took issue with those who argued that in era of modern weaponry, the value of territory has been diminished: “...there are some who would claim that in an era of modern technological development such factors [strategic depth and topographical barriers] are valueless. In a nutshell, their claim is that the appearance of ground-to-ground missiles, supersonic fighter-bombers and other sophisticated instruments of modern warfare has canceled out the importance of strategic depth and topographical barriers... this argument is certainly invalid regarding Israel, and within the context of the Middle East conflict, where the opposite is true. Precisely because of dramatic developments in conventional weaponry the significance of territorial barriers and strategic depth has increased.
These sentiments were reiterated by Peres himself, who warned that the range, firepower and mobility of modern weapons enhanced the importance of territory: “In 1948, it may have been possible to defend the ‘thin waist’ of Israel’s most densely populated area, when the most formidable weapon used by both sides was the canon of limited mobility and limited fire-power... In the 20th century, with the development of the rapid mobility of armies, the defensive importance of territorial expanse has increased... Without a border which affords security, a country is doomed to destruction in war.”
Peres also focused on the economic importance territory has for the efficacy of the allocation of national resources: “The resources available to a country are finite. In the absence of a strategic border, the investment in security that a country requires, comes at the expense of other needs. This difference in the level of investment in security creates in certain cases a qualitative change in the general level of a nation in terms of its economy, its society and education... A country that has the advantage of a strategic frontier can invest less... in fortifications, maintenance of battle ready armed forces, armaments...”
Although he conceded that territory itself was not sufficient to deter attack, it was, in and of itself, necessary to do so. Underscoring the gravity of the lack of minimal geographical size, he wrote: “It is of course doubtful whether territorial expanse can provide absolute deterrence. However, the lack of minimal territorial expanse places a country in a position of an absolute lack of deterrence. This in itself constitutes almost compulsive temptation to attack Israel from all directions...”
Of course, Peres was not the only Israeli leader to warn of the dire consequences of yielding territory to Arab control only to embrace it as a national imperative later, precipitating all the dangers of which he had previously warned.
Ariel Sharon on Gaza, 1992
One of the most striking examples of the radical metamorphoses from an uncompromising hawk to champion of unilateral concessions was the Ariel Sharon, who reneged on his election pledges and imposed unrequited withdrawal from Gaza, which soon afterwards fell to the Islamist terror group, Hamas, just as he had foreseen it would.
In a 1992 opinion piece, Sharon recalled how Israel overcame the spate of terror attacks in the Jordan Valley following the Six-Day War: These experiences prove not only that terror can be eradicated, but also the principle by which this is to be accomplished. It is imperative not to run from terrorism, and it will be smitten only if we control its bases and engage its gangs on their own territory.”
He went on to elaborate about Gaza just prior to the conclusion of the Oslo Accords: “And Gaza is the prime example. The populated sections of Gaza had become in 1970 an area controlled by the terrorist organizations because the Defense Minister [Yitzhak Rabin] decided to evacuate the towns, villages and refugee camps. Fortunately, we returned to the correct policy before the Gaza Strip exploded like festering abscess, which could have poisoned the entire surroundings. But because of mistaken policy—of fleeing from the population centers and refraining from eliminating the danger in its early formative stages—we had to conduct a much more difficult and lengthy campaign.”
Presciently, he predicted the very perils he later precipitated by implementing precisely the very measures he warned should be avoided: “If now we once more fall into the same mistake, the price will be much heavier than before because now the terrorists and the means they have at their disposal are different and more dangerous than before. If we abandon Gaza, it will be taken over by the terror organizations. Palestine Square [in Gaza] will become a launching site for rockets aimed at... Ashkelon and what will the IDF do then? Will it once again recapture Gaza? Shell and bomb the towns and refugee camps in the Gaza Strip?”
He cautioned: “We all aspire to a political settlement, but we not will reach it by way of surrender but only after crushing terrorism and we can only eliminate terrorism if we control its bases, and fight its gangs there and destroy them.”
On the importance of Jewish settlements
In the debate on how to achieve peace with Palestinian Arabs, the Jewish communities beyond the 1967 Green Line (a.k.a., “settlements”) are widely portrayed as an irksome “obstacle to peace.” It is thus intriguing to discover that Peres himself (in his pre-Oslo era) was one of their most fervent advocates; indeed, in important ways, he was their founding father.
He urged: “[We need] to create a continuous stretch of new settlements; to bolster Jerusalem and the surrounding hills, from the north, from the east, and from the south and from the west, by means of the establishment of townships, suburbs and villages—Ma’ale Edumin, Ofra, Gilo, Bet-El, Givon, and IDF camps and Nahal outposts—to ensure that the capital and its flanks are secured, and underpinned by urban and rural settlements. These settlements will be connected to the coastal plain and Jordan Valley by new lateral axis roads...”
Peres then stressed the security aspect of the Jewish settlements: “...the settlements along the Jordan River are intended to establish the Jordan River as the [Israel’s] de facto security border; however, it is the settlements on the western slopes of the hills of Samaria and Judea which will deliver us from the curse of Israel’s “narrow waist”; the purpose of the settlements in the Golan is to ensure that this territorial platform will no longer constitute a danger, but a barrier against a surprise attack...”
No less noteworthy was the attitude of Yigal Allon to what is arguably the most controversial of all the “settlements”: that in Hebron. On Jan. 26, 1969, he wrote the following letter to one of the families there, on the occasion of the first circumcision ceremony in the community:
Dear Nachshon Family,
Unfortunately, I am not able to be with you as I would have wished, to share your joy at the “Brit Mila” [circumcision] ceremony of your son, the first child of the restorers of the Jewish settlement in Hebron, I wish you all, the parents and the entire tribe of settlers, great blessing and joy in raising your son.
Bringing your son into the covenant of the Patriarch Abraham, in the city of Abraham after forty years of separation from it, has a special symbolic significance. It bears testimony to our continuous connection to this place, to which we have returned never to leave.
As the prime force behind the perilous Oslo Accords, it is noteworthy that Peres once totally dismissed the value of any agreement signed with the Arabs, writing: “The major issue is not [attaining] an agreement, but ensuring the actual implementation of the agreement in practice. The number of agreements which the Arabs have violated is no less than number which they have kept.”
It seemed that Peres’s skepticism as to agreements and demilitarization did not wane right up until the signature of the Oslo Accords. In his The New Middle East (1993), he wrote: “Even if the Palestinians agree that their state have no army or weapons, who can guarantee that a Palestinian army would not be mustered later to encamp at the gates of Jerusalem and the approaches to the lowlands? And if the Palestinian state would be unarmed, how would it block terrorist acts perpetrated by extremists, fundamentalists or irredentists?”
Allow me to conclude with the words of Rubinstein, former minister and Knesset member on behalf of the dovish Meretz Party, who proclaimed: “Not since the time of Dr. Goebbels [the head of the Nazi propaganda machine] there has ever been a case in which continual repetition of a lie has born such great fruits... Of all the Palestinian lies, there is no lie greater or more crushing than that which calls for the establishment of a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank...”
Martin Sherman is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.