As the year 5765 opens, for Israel the writing is on the wall. The country’s morale is being undermined; its resources are eaten up in a fruitless struggle. Since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising four years ago, Israel’s economic position has deteriorated in comparison with other developed countries, and even compared with some Arab countries — the first time in more than two decades that this has happened. Human losses, too, have been severe, with more than 1,000 Israeli deaths. This is a larger number of casualties than Israel suffered when it conquered the West Bank and Gaza in the first place.
Even if the Israel Defense Force could “win” the conflict against the Palestinians, hostilities would only be suspended, not ended. Despite Jewish immigration — which has fallen off in recent years — the rapid demographic growth of the Palestinian population makes time work against Israel; the longer it waits, the more difficult things will become. Worst of all is the fact that whereas fighting a strong enemy causes a people to unite, combating a weak one will cause it to divide. A deepening cleavage between right and left is tearing at the very fabric of Israeli society. As former minister of defense Binyamin Ben-Eliezer put it, the country may not survive another shot through a prime minister’s spine.
In the absence of a government on the Palestinian side that is able and willing to negotiate peace, the only way to save Israel from destruction is to build a wall and get out of the territories. History shows that walls work. If not perfectly and forever, then for a considerable period of time and to a very large extent; if not because they are impossible to undermine or surmount, then because of the psychological effect they have on those on both sides of them. The Roman Limes, or frontier; the Great Wall of China; and, in our own day, the barriers that divide Korea and Cyprus are all proof of that fact. Even the Berlin Wall gave that city, which used to be the most dangerous flash point on earth, three decades of almost perfect peace.
In Israel’s case, the fences that separate it from Lebanon and Gaza work much better than anybody expected. In spite of Hezbollah’s repeated threats, the fence on the Lebanese border has produced a situation in which fewer shells and rockets are being fired across the northern border in a year than used to be in a week. The Gaza fence took time to construct but now has been perfected to the point where it prevents practically all suicide bombers who attempt to enter Israel from Gaza from carrying out their plans. While the West Bank fence is not yet complete, the sections that have been built have helped reduce terrorism dramatically over the past year.
But can Israeli security be maintained even without maintaining control of the West Bank and Gaza? To answer that question, let us look at the threats Israel faces. A quick glance at the regional balance of power shows that compared with the past, the conventional threat posed by Israel’s neighbors has diminished greatly. On the southern front, Egypt now has been at peace with Israel for more than two decades. Its armed forces, supplied as they are by the United States, probably could not make a serious move against Israel; in any case, between Egypt’s army and Israel are 150 miles of open desert. The vast, integrated array of anti-aircraft missiles and guns that protected Egyptian forces during the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal no longer exists. Should the Egyptians ever be so foolish as to mount an invasion, there is no question that Israel’s air force would chop them to pieces just as it did in 1956 and 1967.
On the northern front, the Syrians at one time used to constitute a serious enemy. However, over the last 15 years they hardly have been able to import a single modern weapon; as a result, to quote a statement by a former Israeli chief of intelligence, Brigadier General Uri Saguy, they are “not a threat.” Farther away, Iraq, which in the past often sent powerful expeditionary forces to fight Israel by way of Syria and Jordan, is no longer a danger. As for Jordan and Lebanon, they have always been far too weak to pose a serious threat and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.
This leaves the Palestinians. Simply from the standpoint of geography, the Palestinians would be unable to mount a serious military challenge to Israel. At 25 miles long and less than 10 miles wide, the Gaza Strip is a death trap for any armed force based there. This was demonstrated by the ease with which Israel dispatched with Egyptian forces in Gaza in 1956 and 1967. The situation in the West Bank is similar. The area is surrounded by Israel on three sides. Because of its high ratio of miles of frontier to square miles of territory, the West Bank would be very hard to defend. In addition, the only road that connects the West Bank’s southern bulge with its northern portion runs through Jerusalem. Given these facts, as well as the balance of forces, the real question is not whether the Palestinians could militarily threaten Israel, but rather how on earth they could resist an Israeli offensive for more than a few hours.
Moreover, a comparatively high per capita GDP, a well-educated population with highly developed technical skills, extremely sophisticated military and computer industries, and massive American financial assistance have all combined to make Israel’s armed forces among the most powerful in the world. For reasons that are probably rooted in culture, as well as economics, the Arab world has not been able to develop its armed forces along the same lines. As a result, technologically speaking, the gap between Arab armies and Israel’s military is much larger now than in the past.
It is true that Israel still faces a nonconventional threat in the form of long-range ballistic missiles and the weapons of mass destruction that they could carry. Taking Israel’s own very considerable strategic assets into account, leading experts are divided as to the significance of this threat. Some see it as more serious, others as less so. All, however, agree that it has nothing to do with the territories. In other words, whether Egyptian, Syrian or Iranian missiles are able to reach Israel does not depend on whether the Israeli army continues to occupy Gaza, Nablus or the Jordan Valley.
With the threat from the Arab countries either greatly diminished or (in the case of missiles) stemming from weapons that can hit Israel regardless of the territories it occupies, the military and political case for building a wall and getting out has become unimpeachable. Consider the example of a man whose leg has become infected with gangrene and has reached the point where it can no longer be cured with antibiotics. Either he agrees to put on a tourniquet and have his leg amputated, or else he must die; the choice, like that facing Israel, is his.
Martin van Creveld is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of the recent “Defending Israel: A Controversial Plan Toward Peace” (St. Martin’s Press).