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Decoded: Netanyahu's doctrine of "defensible" borders

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has destroyed any hope for peace in the Middle East in the short term. In his speech to the US Congress on the 24th May he repeated the usual mantra that Israel was ready to make "painful compromises" in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians and announced his support for an independent Palestinian state that was "big enough to be viable, independent and prosperous". He then made these words completely meaningless by insisting that Israel would never return to the 1967 boundaries, that it had to keep all of Jerusalem and most of the settlements (which were in fact, he said, suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem), that a future Palestinian state had to be "fully demilitarized", and that Israel on the other hand, had to maintain a "long-term military presence along the Jordan River", thus surrounding the defenceless Palestinian state on all sides. To justify this, he rehashed the argument that Israel's 1967 boundaries were indefensible. The beginning of Netanyahu's speech was given over to scaremongering about Iran, Hezbollah, nuclear terrorism, and other supposed threats emanating from the Middle East. It pandered to the lowest stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims held by Americans and Europeans. Israel said Netanyahu, quoting George Eliot, "shine[s] like a bright star of freedom over the despotisms of the East". The millions of Palestinians who have been living under Israeli occupation for 43 years without even the most basic rights would no doubt agree.


This set the scene for dire predictions of what would happen were a fully sovereign Palestinian state encompassing the whole of the territories occupied in 1967 were to come into existence. Weapons would "flow unchecked" to the Palestinians. The inhabitants of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be less than 60 seconds away from Palestinian rocket attacks. "Would you live that way?", he asked his audience. " Well, we aren't going to live that way either". Israel, he said, needed "unique security arrangements because of its unique size". There could be no going back to the "indefensible" borders of 1967. Of course there are many other countries in the world which are smaller than Israel, such as Israel's northern neighbour Lebanon. However, it is very difficult to imagine the Lebanese prime minister being given standing ovations in Congress for saying that Lebanon should establish and keep settlements on Israeli territory, that Israel should be demilitarized, and that Lebanon should permanently station troops on Israeli territory, even though he would have much stronger grounds for saying so, since his country has been attacked on a regular basis by Israel since 1978.

Netanyahu's talk of security arrangements is simply a rehashing of the same argument that Israel has been using since 1967 for why it cannot withdraw from the occupied Palestinian territories. When speaking to a Western audience, Israelis always gives "security" as the reason for why they cannot give up the West Bank and Gaza and use the same arguments that Netanyahu gave in his speech. In addition to Israel's small size and the possibility of rocket attacks, they make much of the fact that Israel would be very narrow in some places. The truth is that Israel is perfectly capable of defending itself in its 1967 borders. From 1948 to 1967, Israel existed inside these borders and the Arab states were unable to take any effective action against it. It then won a crushing victory against them in the 1967 war. While Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders say that the 1967 boundaries are indefensible, they do not say where the "defensible" borders are, nor has any map been published showing them. Netanyahu's speech to Congress was deliberately vague on this. He said that Israel must keep all Jerusalem and "most" of the settlements as well as the Jordan valley and that the Palestinian state must be demilitarised. This is enough to rule out the possibility of any viable Palestinian state coming into existence without giving any indication of where Israel wants its borders to be.

Before 1967, the issue of defensible borders never came up in Israel and if the borders were indeed indefensible, one would expect Israeli defence and security experts to be the most vocal opponents of withdrawal from the West Bank. In fact, many have proclaimed their support for withdrawal from the West Bank. They include former army chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, co-founders of the Israeli Peace Initiative. Israel is today the most powerful country in the Middle East. Possessing the most advanced American conventional weapons and with an arsenal of 200-300 nuclear weapons, it has strategic superiority over all the Arab states. If a Palestinian state were established today in the West Bank and Gaza, it would most likely be demilitarized as a condition of its existence or there would be tight controls on the arms it would be allowed to possess. Such an entity could not threaten Israel in any way. In fact, while Israel claims that its cities are under threat from attacks from the West Bank, the West Bank is surrounded on three sides by Israel, giving Israel an additional strategic advantage over a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu's claim that Israeli cities are "less than sixty seconds" from an attack launched by a prospective Palestinian state is simply more scaremongering. Any city close to a border is "less than sixty seconds" from attack by a neighbouring state. If Israel annexed the settlements in the West Bank, which Netanyahu describes as suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, they would be less than sixty seconds from attack as well. Singapore is less than sixty seconds from attack by Malaysia but its citizens do not lie awake at night worrying about that possibility. Israel's military superiority is enough to deter any possible attack. In his speech Netanyahu referred to 12,000 rockets being launched at Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah. What he failed to mention was that they were launched in response to wars initiated by Israel which caused infinitely more destruction to Gaza and Lebanon than Israel.

The real reason why Netanyahu does not want to withdraw from the West Bank and allow a viable Palestinian state to be established is made clear in his speech. He speaks of a "4,000 year old bond" between "the Jewish people and the Jewish land", something which "no distortion of history can deny". This, besides being a distortion of history in itself, shows the real motive behind Netanyahu's insistence on grabbing as much land as he can in the West Bank. Netanyahu is driven by an extreme variant of Zionist ideology which does not recognise the right of the Palestinians to any portion of the land and does not recognise the simple fact that they are the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine. It is true that Netanyahu said that "the Palestinians share this small land with us… they should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state," but the rest of his speech shows that he has no intention of ever allowing this to happen. Opposition to Netanyahu's policies is growing in Israel. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, a known hardliner, criticised Netanyahu a few days ago, saying that his failure to put forward a peace initiative and to respond to the Arab peace initiative was "pushing Israel into a corner", and expressing his fear that Netanyahu would soon start a war with Iran. If security was really the issue, Netanyahu would realise that continued occupation of the Palestinian territories keeps Israel permanently insecure and makes peace impossible.

It appears however, that US Congressmen and Congresswomen do not share the gloomy assessments of Netanyahu's domestic critics. They gave him standing ovation after standing ovation, applauding him 59 times as he asserted Israel's claims to Jerusalem, the illegal settlements and the Jordan Valley. As Thomas Friedman, a Zionist American columnist noted, Netanyahu could have read from the phone book and got the same applause. Such sycophancy is simply a testament to the power of the Israeli lobby in the United States. It brings to mind the applause that the rubber-stamp Syrian parliament gave to the dictator Bashar al-Assad during his speech following the outbreak of protests calling for freedom and democracy in Syria. Assad promised no reforms, only more repression and this speech signalled the start of an ongoing bloodbath in Syria. Who knows what disasters Netanyahu's intransigence and extremism will bring?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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