Time to Get Some Perspective on Israel

Syria spirals out of control.  Iran marches toward nuclear Islamageddon.  So, naturally, Secretary of State  John Kerry schedules yet another trip to "solve" the region's relatively stable, if not ideal, Israel-Palestinian dispute. 

Like so many in foreign policy circles, Kerry and the Obama administration know -- absolutely know -- the key to peace in Israel's neighborhood: Israel's withdrawal, with perhaps minor adjustments, from all West Bank territory conquered in 1967.  

Yet history indicates that withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, absent major changes, is arguably the single most counterproductive act imaginable for long-lasting peace.  There is no greater obstacle to peace than the perpetual temptation to launch another war against Israel from such lopsided lines. 

What is so sacred about the pre-1967 lines, anyway?  In 1967, there was neither peace nor an independent Palestinian entity.  Similar lines were part of the 1947 Partition Plan and were overrun by invading Arab armies.  The pre-1967 lines were never an internationally recognized border -- thanks to Arab insistence that they not be.  They were merely the armistice lines of 1949, an armistice honored mostly in the breach.  In 1967, Arab armies finally shredded the armistice by attacking across those lines, in spite of Israeli pleas to Jordan's King Hussein not to do so.  With new ceasefire lines in 1967 and 1973, the pre-1967 lines were rendered meaningless, having lasted all of 18 years: 1949-1967.  RIP.

Even putting aside Israel's own legitimate legal, cultural, and historical claims to disputed territories, Israeli withdrawal to those lines won't happen now due to Israeli aversion to existential vulnerability.

We all know Israel is small, but we rarely appreciate just how tiny and exposed it is.  Pre-1967 Israel is about one tenth the size of Kansas, roughly the size of New Hampshire.  But even that exaggerates the practical reality of Israel's size, as about 57% of pre-1967 Israel is made up of the sparsely inhabited Negev Desert.  Most of Israel's population, business, industry, and technology reside in the narrow central Coastal Plain.  That is a strip of land between the West Bank and the Mediterranean Sea which varies between 9 and 11 miles wide.  "Start-Up Nation" Israel squeezes into that Rhode Island-sized area.

Think about that.  An entire country, nine miles wide.  A bicycle could easily cross it in 30 minutes -- and a rocket in a matter of seconds.  Nine miles is less than the distance from Barack Obama's Chicago home to Wrigley Field.  It's the distance between Manhattan's George Washington Bridge and Holland Tunnel.  It is one and a half times around the Central Park loop.

Still hard to grasp?  This photo might help (click for a larger image):

This is the view from the West Bank hilltop settlement of Peduel, about three miles over the Green Line.  In the foreground is the West Bank Arab village of Dayr Balut.  In the middle ground are Tel Aviv and its surrounding neighborhoods.  Behind Tel Aviv is the Mediterranean. That's it.

The next time some radical speaks of "driving the Jews into the sea," keep in mind how short a drive that is.

When controlled by Israel's enemies, vulnerable, lowland Israel consistently proved too tempting to resist attacking, whether in exterminationist wars of 1948 and 1967 or in numerous cross-border terror acts in between.  Yet, in 1973, when Israel was teetering in the early days of the Yom Kippur War, Jordan -- no longer in control of the West Bank and its commanding heights -- refrained from attacking.  The "Occupation" -- Israel's administration of the West Bank -- saved Israel (and countless Jordanian soldiers), whereas the past absence of occupation had invited attack.  Rather than simply an "obstacle to peace," the Occupation also serves as an obstacle to war.

To withdraw to pre-1967 borders is to risk suicide.  All the diplomatic condemnations in the world won't make Israel act so recklessly, especially when based on murky claims of "international law" invoked only in the Israel context -- never, of course, involving occupations and human rights abominations by Turkey (Cyprus), Russia (Georgia, Chechnya), China (Tibet), India (Kashmir), or Syria (Lebanon).

Tellingly, even "moderate" Palestinian leaders have rejected any material adjustments to those lines, unless demanding that those lines be adjusted in the other direction -- i.e., into pre-1967 Israel.  Just this week, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat demanded the strategic high ground of Latrun, which overlooks Israel's all-important Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway.  Dare we ask why?

From Israel's perspective, having frequently faced eradication at the hands of Arab neighbors, the peace process is like a sheep trying to make peace with a wolf: it can be done, as long as the sheep stays alert and armed and takes ample precautions.  But when the wolf insists that the sheep leave its pre-1967 neck exposed, it is fair to question the wolf's motives and decline the wolf's terms for "peace."

John Kerry can afford to be wrong about what he "knows" will bring Israeli-Palestinian peace.  Israel can't.

Abraham Katsman is an American attorney and political commentator living in Israel.  He serves as Counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.  More of his work is available at AbeKatsman.com.

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