Rethinking the West Bank


WHEN ISRAEL OCCUPIED the West Bank in 1962 it brought upon itself one of the strangest security paradoxes of the post-World War II era. How could one of the most democratic, highly principled nations in history balance the absolute imperative of border defense with what arounded to the subjugation of over a million Arabs? This question was not addressed adequately at the time, and in the intervening decade and a half it has grown in complexity and assessment. The problem's framework remains the same, but important changes have occurred to make it more solveable today than at any time since 1967.

Any discussion about the West Bank today should start with an absolute--Israel cannot completely relinquish control of the area in the forseeable future. Indeed, it is unfortunate and even a little surprising that before '67 most of the concerned nations did not recognize Israel's right to have a military and security influence over the territory. The section of Israel between the pre- 1967 boundaries and the Mediterranean is only eight to 13 miles wide, and contains 67 percent of the country's population and 80 percent of its industry. The strategic vulnerability of this heartland until the Six Day War put Israel in a completely untenable position--Arab armored columns and artillery possessed the ability to cut Israel in half, to destroy its major residential and industrial centers, and to disrupt its lines of communication and transportation. This ability has grown immensely, in terms of military strength, with the help of the Soviet Union and petro dollars.

By 1980 the forces of the so-called Eastern Front--consisting of Iraq, Syria, and Jordan--included some 24 divisions, almost 6,000 medium tanks, 5,200 armored personnel carriers, over 4,000 artillery pieces, and over 1,000 combat aircraft. Thus, in view of the geographical realities of the area, and the sworn enmity and strength of the Arab nations, it is more than a little bit strange that the UN and the concerned nations did not forsee what seems, in retrospect, to be the almost inevitable occupation. Israel needs to monitor and defend the Jordan River area, it has an ultimate right to do so, and neither the UN nor any individual nations should ask or expect the Israeli government to ever rescind this right.

However, having granted Israel's security imperative to control the approaches to its eastern border, it still does not logically and inevitably follow that this need can only be met by complete and permanent occupation. The present settlement policy amounts to a de facto process of annexation. But, because the strategic profile of the region has changed dramatically since '67, it is time for Israel to take a hard new look at the situation. The position of the major actors has evolved to the point now where Israeli policy-makers can and should be able to show more flexibility.

First, the destruction of the PLO, accomplished jointly in the past two years by Israeli, Syria, and factions within the organization itself, has almost removed the terrorist group as a viable factor in the Middle East. The rout of Yassir Arafat's and his men from Beirut, the subsequent fragmentation of the group, and now sectarian fighting in Tripoli have finally demonstrated to the world the utterbankruptcy of this band of terror and its complete lack of a mandate from the unfortunate Palestinian people. If Yassir Arafat's veto on negotiations can finally be removed, all parties, including the truly homeless West Bank Palestinians, will breathe easier and hopefully get down to the business of good-faith negotiations.

Second, the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and certain PLO factions has emerged as a much more genuine threat than Israel has ever been to the security of the Arab nations. The minority-supported regimes of Jordan and Syria have a real fear of overthrow by their own people, and this has now largely replaced their manufactured fear of Israel. In many ways the illegitimacy of most Arab governments prompted them to try and destroy the young Israel in the first place. Creations of an external enemy can be an excellent method of diverting attention from your own shortcomings, as the Argentinian dictatorship found when it tried to seize the Falkland Islands from British control. When the attempt failed, so did the dictatorship. Somewhat the same fate of internal overthrow is feared by the regimes of Syria and Jordan, and to maintain their positions they are expending much of their time and energy to suppress these fundamentalist sects. Israel can now reap the indirect reward, if it so desires.

Third, the strategic balance of the Middle East has never been better from the Israeli point of view. Notwithstanding the level of the force the Arabs have built up (the numbers of weapons cited above constitute a very tangible threat and must not be forgotten), the Israeli people nevertheless have good reason to feel relatively secure at the moment. The performance of the Israeli army and air force during the invasion of Lebanon showed conclusively the superiority enjoyed by Israel over Syria, especially in the air. Also, the "new strategic cooperation" between the US and Israel announced in Washington two weeks ago strengthened even further the alliance between the two nations. As the only reliable and genuinely legitimate government in the Mideast, Israel needs and deserves our help, and we can benefit from cooperation as well. Egypt and the Soviet Union give more cause for concern. Massive Soviet rearming of Syria after the Lebanese invasion should raise ominous questions for the Israelis and the West as to Russian intentions in the Middle East. And the chance of a change in Egypt's stance under Mubarak is also a major long-range danger Israel must consider in all defense planning.

AS A RESULT, then, of various seemingly unconnected events, Israel now stands supreme as a sort of Middle East superpower. Syria did not even try to engage fully with the Israeli military in Lebanon; Jordan and Egypt did nothing, involved in their own problems or unable to do anything anyway; Iraq is busy destroying and being destroyed by Iran; the PLO is shattered, homeless and virtually friendless in the Arab world. Israel's American backing is firm, and in general the country has every right to be satisfied with its present lot.

. The division amoung the Israeli peopl on the issue has alwasy been profound, and is now worsened both by the occupation of Lebanon and the comparative security Israel enjoys as a result of the above-described combination of factors. The settlement policy is accelerating this integration of the West Bank into Israel. Already 90 percent of West Bank imports come from Israel, which in turn takes two-thirds of all West Bank Exports. The widely-quoted statistics of a higher Arab birth case are insufficient to warrent fears that Israel could have an Arab majority sometimes after annexation; but if annexation took place today, the Arab population of "unified Israel" would be approximately 40 percent, certainly a problem for those who believe in a mostly Jewish Israel.

Two reasons have consistently been given for the settlement policy; first, that the area is Israel's by right, derived from history and the Bible; and, second, that military occupation is necessary for security reasons. This second rationale can be dismissed directly, and with no contradiction of the absolute need for Israeli control of the Jordan River.

It must be recognized that this situation is almost unique in history, and that therefore many national sovereignty "rules" don't necessarily apply. Sufficient conditions for Israeli monitoring and control of the Jordan River area would include the following: 1)Forward observation posts, both visual and electronic on the Jordan River itself and on strategic high ground throughout the West Bank. These stations would be manned by Israeli soldiers, who would be guaranteed free passage to and from the border. 2)Maintenance of open and adequate communications and transportation routes for Israeli tank forces throughout the West Bank. These roads would not be used for exercises, only kept in constant readiness for use in an emergency. 3)Maintenance of ammunition and supply dumps throughout the territory. The need for these logistical supports quickly becomes crucial in the type of lightning warfare used by modern forces, especially in the Mideast. 4)Some type of extradition process exercised between the Israeli government and whatever duly-constituted authority emerges for the Palestinians. This would be necessary to prevent creation of a safe harbor for terrorists, of the type that Southern Lebanon had become. In any event, Israeli casualties from terrorism have never amounted to more than a fifth of the number of injuries from traffic accidents in any given year. Their emotional impact has always constituted their main effect on public opinion. 5)Verifiable guarantees that the Palestinians will not maintain troops, and that the West Bank as a whole will be a completely demilitarized zone.

Certainly this all sounds quite bizarre and even unworkable; but it would not be unique. West Berlin has existed under almost exactly analogous conditions for nearly 40 years, with only a few real disruptions. Maintenance of a balance in this fashion is thus not only possible, but even desirable for the West Bank. As is the nature of all true compromise, each party would get "half a loaf." Israel's military security would not be as great, true; but it would be enough. The Palestinians, whether on their own or in some combination with Jordan, would not be completely autonomous; but they would take a giant step in the right direction. Likewise, the Arab nations would kick and fuss about a partial solution; privately they would breathe a sign of relief, and the tension level would decrease still further. The heat would be off Egypt, especially if it played an active role in the process, as it surely would.

So we are left with the other reason, that these lands are Israeli's by right, and that whatever happens to them is OK as long as they are retained. Words of two great men answers this directly:

"For many years, Israel said that the Palestinians could not have peace and final settlement unless they recognized Israel, that is, unless they accepted the legality of the state created by the partition of Palestine. This is equally true of Israel itself... In the here and now, in this imperfect realm of, at best, rough human justice, Israel was given a charter to part of the land, and it rightly demands that it be allowed to live there in safety. Israel's moral strength, and the possibility of its finally achieving peace, rest inevitably on its recommitment to the basic bargain that was struck at its founding." (Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, writing in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1983)

"There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting depotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other... The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances." (Thomas Jefferson)