Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Why Borders Matter

This article is published on PajamasMedia.

By Barry Rubin

A reader asks whether there are any defensible borders in the modern world because it is possible to fire missiles or rockets across a border.

Well, yes, but even in ancient times it has always been possible for an army to cross--or try to cross--a border. That isn't what defensible borders means.

Example, rockets can hit Sderot from the Gaza Strip but not hit Tel Aviv because the latter city is too far for Hamas to hit from its side of the border. Can they get bigger ones? Yes but the bigger they are the easier they are to spot and the longer--even seconds count--a defensive missile has for shooting them down.

The further the border, the longer it takes for a terrorist squad to get to where there are a lot of people to kill. It's best to stop them either before they cross the border or while they are on the way.

Geography matters also. It is far easier to attack or shoot downward from the Golan Heights than from the flat plain below. It is far easier to do so also from the Judean Hills. An army holding that terrain has an advantage, even when it comes to firing rockets

It is far easier to cut a narrow corridor like that leading to Jerusalem in the pre-1967 borders and thus surround, beseige, and capture that city than it would be if the border was further away. The same applies to the fact that pre-1967 Israel's narrowest point is half the width of the Washington Beltway, that's twenty minutes' even in driving in traffic. And enemy armies don't stop at red lights.

Depth of defense is a basic strategic consideration. The deeper your territory the more time and space you have to maneuver and to create multiple lines and defenses, each of which the enemy must face and defeat for advancing.

Israel has a small standing army. Its defense depends on mobilizing reserves, civilians, who must get the word, go to their assigned stations, get their equipment, and go into action. That can be done quickly but it still takes time. And it is much harder to do if attacking forces are within range of their homes, assembly points, and armories.

The reader asking about all of this cites the rather bad example of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya who "cannot defend his borders." Leaving aside the fact that there's a civil war going on (his main enemy is inside his borders), of course it is best to have a technological edge and the ability to move quickly. Israel has both of these advantages.

What it lacks, with the 1967 borders, is strategic depth and advantageous terrain.

But isn't peace better than a good defensive situation?

Of course it is. Not being attacked at all is better than being attacked and winning (I'm sure there are exceptions to that but I'll leave that for another time.)

Yet that's precisely the point. It is because Israel CANNOT ASSUME AND HAS GOOD REASON NOT TO ASSUME that an agreement with the Palestinian Authority would lead to lasting peace. This is the factor that is generally left out of Western calculations that simply cannot comprehend Israel's position on the issues.

Western officials and those talking on television and writing in newspapers call on Israel to rush into a deal--no matter what concessions are needed--because things will get worse. That, like many of the mainstream arguments given about the Middle East, can be demolished in sixty seconds. If things are going to get worse--and they will--any peace agreement would be abrogated by the other side and backfire.

It isn't a great idea to be a country the size of Delaware surrounded by enemies who daily boast of how they're going to wipe you off the map, have broken almost all of their previous agreements, and who outnumber you by a ratio of about twenty to one. 

How is that hard to understand?

Now, with Iran moving toward getting nuclear weapons; Turkey about to reelect a government dedicated to Israel's destruction; the Palestinian Authority reincorporating Hamas; Egypt electing a radical and possibly Islamist regime; Hizballah taking over Lebanon; and the weakest, most unreliable, government in Washington within living memory is not the time for Israel to weaken its defenses.

Why don't we hear that simple truth?

To take voluntarily a bad strategic position in a situation where the probability of attack is higher than at any time in more than 30 years is crazy. Yet this is what much of the world, including the U.S. president, wants Israel to do.

Israel is not going to follow a stupid, self-destructive strategy. If only this could be said of others today!

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is His PajamaMedia columns are mirrored and other articles available at

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