Israel's Security: Five Degrees of Getting Closer
The deaths of 73 Israeli soldiers on Feb. 4 in a crash of helicopters bound for southern Lebanon have raised again the question: How can Israel achieve security? The future of Israel's northern border is one of the key remaining issues in finding an answer to long-term security for Israelis.
Through the half-century of its history, Israel has tried at least five different answers; each has had success mixed with undesirable consequences.
War and territory: From its establishment in 1947, Israeli leaders sought security by building a dominant military machine and gaining territory. The 1947 war with Arab neighbors expanded the original boundaries as defined in the United Nations partition plan. Although the attack on Egypt in combination with France and Britain in the Suez crisis of 1956 was aborted, Israel demonstrated its military might and opened a southern gateway through the Straits of Tiran. Relations with France at that time also laid the groundwork for Israel's nuclear weapons program.
The 1967 war brought the capture of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. But none of these victories ensured true security; Egypt waited for its moment and launched the 1973 war. Despite the territory gained in war, the occupation of Palestinian land created new pressures and acts of terrorism from a sullen occupied population.
Peace with neighbors: Concluding that wars did not bring security, Israel agreed to peace efforts with its neighbors, starting with Egypt in the 1978 Camp David negotiations. In 1994, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed a peace treaty with King Hussein of Jordan, leaving only Syria and Lebanon as belligerents. But neither agreement has lessened the uneasiness of many Israelis face to face with the restless and frustrated Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza.
Retaliation and imprisonment: Rejecting proposals for greater Palestinian autonomy, Israeli governments for many years sought to deal with unrest and terrorism through harsh retaliation and imprisonment. Houses were destroyed. Schools and universities were closed. Activists were imprisoned. Employment and commerce were arbitrarily cut off through border closings. But still security was not achieved.
Settlements: After the 1967 war, Israelis sought security through the expansion and construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories - often after seizing Arab land. Settlements were placed in strategic locations as a means of strengthening the nation's defenses. For the militant settlers, security was a rationale for achieving an ideological goal: the annexation of Judea and Samaria. The settlements' security has been enhanced more recently through a road system that fragments Palestinian territory and, to some at least, reduces the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. But these measures, rather than increasing security, have deepened Palestinian bitterness.
Peace with Palestinians: Only at the end of the 1980s, under Mr. Rabin, did the Israelis conclude that security ultimately required recognizing and treating with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Today, the onus for Israeli security has been placed on the Palestinian leadership - not an easy political burden for them to share. As Israeli troops have redeployed from major Arab cities - including, most recently, Hebron - terrorist acts have, for the moment, declined. Difficult questions regarding additional troop withdrawals, refugees, Jerusalem, and a Palestinian state remain - but signs suggest that the Oslo accords that brought about this peace may be the best route yet to true security for both Jews and Arabs. But one external threat - that from Lebanon - remains.
Rocket attacks on northern Israel by Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah continue. Israeli troops die in ambushes. Nevertheless, demands are being made both within and outside Israel for Israeli withdrawal from the Lebanese security zone. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, however, would see withdrawal as a retreat in the face of terrorism, especially if withdrawal were not accompanied by a similar movement of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
Although progress toward Middle East peace has been made, true security for Israel and its neighbors has yet to be achieved. The best route is still through patient diplomacy with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinians. But ultimately, as the situation in Lebanon demonstrates, it must include the enigmatic leader in Damascus, Hafez al-Assad.
* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.