Whenever it had the chance, Iran supplied extremist factions with weaponry and money to hit Israel: such has been the case with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. If the Israeli military withdrew from the West Bank, is there anything that would prevent Tehran from supplying rebellious factions there as well?
The question hints at a crucial aspect of the Middle East peace process: the recognition of full statehood and military independence for Palestine must necessarily go hand in hand with a new military security concept. Without such an element, an Israeli exit from the West Bank would not be the end of current problems but the beginning of new and deeper ones. The question of “defensible borders” has too long be deemed a “conservative” or “hawkish” issue. The Left should sincerely engage with the problem to pave the way for a feasible approach.
The peace process highlights the classic conflict between morals and pragmatism. Few people would criticize the Palestinians’ right to enjoy full recognition as state entity (hence the moral justification of the claim), yet that moral conviction does not answer the question of Israel’s defense and strategic position. Retiring from Gaza in 2005 was a bold choice by Israel. Relocating settlements ignited a hard national discussion about “Jews evicting Jews.” The Gaza Strip was left to the Palestinians – and soon thereafter Hamas took control of the territory and increased its military activities. Israel’s fear is that reducing control on the West Bank may lead to an equal radicalization of military attitudes in the territory.
The problem isn’t so much the political choices made by the Fatah-led Palestinian authorities, but the inability of any Palestinian state-like entity to control the West Bank. Let’s take Gaza again as an example: after a truce between Hamas and Israel had been decided, missile operations still went on, performed by uncontrollable maverick groups, some of Salafist inspiration. Moreover, it has become clear that the IDF lacked the capacities to reach the smuggling tunnels to Gaza in the Sinai – and Operation Pillar of Defense has further weakened Israel’s military capacity in the Gaza Strip.
The long-term risk of maverick groups in the West Bank is much higher than in Gaza. First of all, the problem is “territorial.” The West Bank is much larger than the Strip. From the West Bank it is possible to hit Tel Aviv with low-technology rockets of the sort that Hamas is now able to assemble (or even produce) in basement labs. The ten-mile distance between the territory and Tel Aviv could even be covered by hand-make grenades, or at last we shouldn’t be surprised if this happened. Some Russian shoulder-fired missiles are also capable of reaching planes at Ben Gurion airport.
Secondly, the risk of armed maverick groups is further increased by the Mideast turmoil. It is clear that Iraq is doing nothing to stop arms smuggling from Iran to the Shiite portion of Syria (and to Hezbollah in Lebanon). Weapons from Iran have reached the Sunnis of Syria, and they are now capable of hitting helicopters with shoulder-fired missiles.
What happens after the end of the Syrian conflict? If the Shiite (or, rather, “Alawite”) leadership under the command of President Assad wins, Sunni leaders will flee the country. Their only source of income would be their weapons arsenals. Arms smuggling would increase, with many of these weapons going into the West Bank.
If the Sunni insurgents triumph in Syria, we can expect that the resistance will soon splinter into more than one hundred groups and form a patchwork of political factions comparable to the Afghan political landscape after the defeat of the Soviets. We would see progressives, moderates, extremists, radicals, terrorists, and outright killers. Disagreements over the direction of post-conflict Syria may lead to military attacks and violent power struggles (again, this has happened in Afghanistan before). The weapons arsenals of the former government would increase the insurgents’ stockpiles (as it happened in Libya), generating an explosive mix whose consequences are impossible to predict.
Therefore, Israel’s military control of the West Bank and of the Golan Heights cannot be judged in moral terms alone. Long-term feasibility matters, too. The Jordan valley is a natural barrier and the Eastern border of the West Bank. Controlling the valley can only partially be justified with the argument that Israel needs to protect itself from a full-blown tank and infantry attack from its Eastern neighbors (as it did in 1967 and 1973). Instead, Israel aspires to control the border because it wants to contain low-intensity violence in the West Bank. If the fighters in the West Bank had the same military capacities of Hamas, the consequences on Israel would be much worse. Except for the town of Beersheba and a few small cities, the border region of Gaza is largely deserted. The West Bank, by contrast, borders on important urban and economic centers of Israel.
The risk of low-intensity warfare makes the peace process more difficult. The UN proposals still don’t fully account for changes in Israel’s security situation. UN Resolution 242 (passed after the six-days war in 1967) calls for a Israeli retreat from “territories” occupied during the conflict. New borders were based on the principle that each state should enjoy its “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” It was a blurred formulation intended specifically to start territorial negotiations. Yet the Cold War prevented meaningful negotiations for a long time.
Today, the prominence of militant groups armed with rocket launchers has changed the framework. What would now count as “secure borders,” we might ask. The formulation of UN Resolution 242 reflected a context of traditional warfare. Now, the containment of fragmented risks requires a different approach. If Israel were to retire tomorrow from the West Bank, rocket fire would probably intensify. Soon thereafter, the IDF would return to the West Bank.
This is possibly the worst time in history to achieve progress in the peace process. The Middle East is marred by civil conflicts, and old and new powers are trying to gain new presence in the quadrant. Israel’s actions in the West Bank also reflect the conviction that the international community has abandoned the country. We can observe a tendency to oversimplify events in the Middle East: “Israel is the bad guy, and peace would prosper in the West Bank if the PDF withdrew.”
Somehow, we can come to regard the peace process as a local conflict that will be solved with local solutions: the IDF retreat and Palestine flourishes. Yet this is a truly global problem, and it will require a global solution. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is the front for a global clash whose outcome remains uncertain. Russia backs Iran. Iran backs Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The US is trying to regain its footing and has to deal with Turkey’s ideological leadership and with Morsi’s messy rule in Egypt. Israel finds itself in the middle of a war it cannot control. A reminder from the past: peace in 1967 and 1973 was negotiated in Moscow, not in Jerusalem.
Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes