Israel’s Elusive Search for Security

Israel has made its security the sin qua non of negotiations with the Palestinians, including insistence on military control of the Jordan River valley. But these escalating demands ignore questions of Palestinian security and the greater risk to Israel from worldwide opprobrium, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Everyone should be able to agree that any settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians needs to be consistent with genuine security for the people of Israel. The history of strife between Israel and multiple neighbors demands that. The longer history of the Jewish people, and of the persecution and hatred they have endured, demands it.

It is understandable that Israel’s security is a major topic to be considered in evaluating any agreement. We do not know all the details of the security plan developed by General John Allen, but it is appropriate that such a plan be part of U.S. efforts to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

President Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on May 20, 2011 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

President Obama speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on May 20, 2011 (White House photo by Pete Souza)

It thus should be all the more distressing that the subject of Israel’s security gets so badly distorted and exploited in the misleading and manipulative ways that it does. The other day Yuval Steinitz, a right-wing minister in the Israeli government, rejected the portion of General Allen’s plan dealing with the Jordan River valley and declared that Israel, for its security, must maintain a presence in the valley forever.

We should not even need the expert judgment of a former head of Mossad, who directly contradicted Steinitz, to realize that Israel faces no security threats from across the Jordan River and that there is no need for an indefinite Israeli military presence there.

Who supposedly poses any such threat? Is King Abdullah of Jordan going to fire up his M60 tanks and try to recapture the West Bank (to which his father, King Hussein, renounced any Jordanian claim some two decades ago)? Will the Iraqi government take time out from fighting jihadis in Anbar province to send an expeditionary force across Jordan to try to conquer Israel? Or might the Iranians decide one day to send such a force across both Iraq and Jordan to try to do that?

The absurdity of such scenarios underscores the groundless nature of Steinitz’s assertion. And even if a phantasmagorical hostile army someday waded across the Jordan River, the imbalance of forces would be such that the Israel Defense Forces, even without a permanent presence in the valley, would crush the invaders before they had a chance to dry their feet.

As Mitchell Plitnick suggests, assertions such as Steinitz’s aren’t really about Israel’s security; they are part of the Israeli government’s stretching out the unresolved conflict indefinitely so it will never have to give up the West Bank.

It also is distressing to hear American politicians abetting that sort of game. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, actually made this comment last week: “Here’s the one thing that I think dominates the thinking in Israel: that once you withdraw, then the ability to go back is almost impossible. Look at Gaza. What’s the chance of going back into Gaza militarily?”

Hello, senator, have you been following any of the news coming out of that part of the word over the last several years? Israel actually has lots of experience in doing the going-in-militarily-after-withdrawal thing. They have done it in Gaza as well as Lebanon.\

Five years ago they did it in an especially big way with Operation Cast Lead, a major invasion and demolition of the Gaza Strip. Now, that sort of operation is not generally recommended as a positive contribution to international security. The Palestinians wouldn’t think so; they saw 1,400 of their citizens get killed by the Israelis in Cast Lead. But Israel certainly did not seem to have any hesitation about what they can and cannot do after a withdrawal from occupied territory.

Graham was not reported as mentioning any of the reasons that unhappy Gazans did things, such as firing rockets into Israel, that got the Israelis riled up. The reasons, besides denial of political self-determination, have to do with Israel’s endeavor to turn the Gaza Strip into a blockaded open-air prison in which life is kept miserable and people are swimming in sewage.

So we don’t know if he envisioned the same sort of arrangement for the West Bank, which, like Steinitz’s demand for permanent Israeli military occupation of the Jordan River valley, would be a deal-killing non-starter, or something more reasonable and feasible, which would make his Gaza point even weaker.

Even beyond such game-playing, too much that is said about Israel’s security exhibits three major flaws. One is to be stuck in a sort of 1948 time warp, with no apparent cognizance of how much the correlation of forces has changed since then (and even in 1948, the Israelis prevailed). Today Israel is easily the most potent conventional military power in the region, as well as being, since the 1970s, the region’s only nuclear power.

A second is the blatant, but usually unstated, asymmetry in which much is said about Israel’s security but little or nothing about security for the Palestinians. It is a game of pursuing absolute security for one party even if it means absolute insecurity for everyone else.

By any reasonable measure, such as who has been invading whom and who has suffered far more casualties than the other side, the Palestinians have more claim on the attention of the United States and the world regarding security concerns than do the Israelis.

The third flaw is the tendency to treat hostility toward Israel as an unchanging commodity, to be countered forcefully forever, while refusing to recognize the respects in which this hostility is a function of unresolved conflicts and Israeli policies. This is the part that ought to be most distressing to Israelis themselves, because it entails blindness to the real threat to their security and to what underlies it.

That threat has been manifested in such things as rockets from Gaza and suicide bombers in Israeli streets. In the future it will be manifested not in the form of some new Arab legion mustering on the banks of the Jordan but instead in increasing international opprobrium and isolation and in a further distancing from liberal democratic values within Israeli itself.

Anyone concerned about these things ought to support, not impede, what Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to do in resolving the festering Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Israel’s Elusive Search for Security

  1. John
    January 15, 2014 at 23:51

    The UN has not technmically recognized the partition of Palestine, the vote only passed the General Assembly, not the Security Council and neither have the Palestinians ageed either. And what Israel are the Palestinians to recognize, that with the green line, that including all of Jerusalem. Get serious. Israeli leaders have often commented that there will never be a Palestinian state. Its seem they just use it to buy time for wars with Iraq, Iran, Lebanon to distract us while they build facts in the occupied territory (not contested land – Oslo died when Israel continued building settlements when in good faith they knew they politely should have stopped – how to enrage Palestinians).
    So why was Rabin shot, why do settlers harrass Palestinian Christians and Muslims, burn their crops and shoot farmers in their fields, scare remote estates using KKK like tactics etc. Because they want the land and they BELIEVE it is theirs. Some reason, and worthy of international debate!

  2. Reginald
    January 11, 2014 at 16:29

    Whilst it is true, at the moment, that Jordan is politically stable, it may not always be so. It is perfectly possible that the large numbers of Palestinians living there may seek a larger union with those living on the West Bank, leading to the formation of a nation-state that could easily present a major offensive threat to Israel in concert with other regional states who also wish to be rid of the Jewish state. Israel cannot cover all the bases. I think that they should annex the whole of the territory west of the Jordan river and be done with it. The PLO would then become just another political party in the Knesset and the Palestinians mightvfind that peace and frienship achives more.

  3. Hossein
    January 8, 2014 at 10:02

    “Palestinians needs to be consistent with genuine security for the people of Israel. The history of the Jewish people, and of the persecution and hatred they have endured, demands it.”

    What an apologetic way to start.
    What does that have to do with the Palestinians and Palestine. What about the plight of the Palestinians for the past 60 years who have almost been wiped out and their country and home land whipped out literally. Jews suffered for 4 years, Palestinians for 60 years and counting and apologists like you insist in fore front “genuine security for the people of Israel” demanded from the Palestinians. The Palestinians did not land in Israel-Israel landed in Palestine and from the get go started butchering the peaceful people of Palestine. The Christians of EU committed the crime and Mr. Balfour gave the Zionists a blank check on the behalf of the Palestinians and washed the blood off their hands and with the same hand are pointing to the Palestinians with displeasure for not dropping dead nicely enough.

  4. Hillary
    January 8, 2014 at 08:08

    Israel has always professed to want peace but only on her terms.
    It negotiated peace with Lebanon while it dropped millions cluster bombs ,,
    It continues to want peace while it steals Palestine lands ..
    Negotiating in good faith while committing crimes is not the way to go …

  5. Joe Tedesky
    January 7, 2014 at 21:51

    So let’s see THINTHREAD is $300 million TRAILBLAZER $3.8 billion subtract THINTHREAD 3 mil from TRAILBLAZER 3.8 bil = 3.3 billion there’s your problem…THINTHREAD was to cheap? TRAILBLAZER was enough for the right few to get a chew of that TRAILBLAZER apple.

    If what is said in this article is true then this issue at least deserves a hearing.

    I can’t get over how 757 & 767 Boeing’s equipped with Honeywell Pegasus Flight Management Systems could not have been taken over remotely away from the hi- jackers. While we are at it, how could even 1 plane have been taken over let alone 4 planes were hi-jacked with box cutter armed terrorist? Out of 4 planes what were the odds that NORAD didn’t get a 1 of them! What did we train for?

    If THINTHREAD is a good system then it makes all the sense in the world to me, because I always believed that SIMPLE was the way to go when fighting terrorist.

    WWI taught us to think defense as opposed to offense. WWII went from battleship to air craft carrier/submarine. Terrorism is intelligence to special ops. Lean & Mean is the way to go….sealed with a kiss (keep it simple stupid)!

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