Obama’s Call for Israel to Base Negotiations on Pre-1967 Borders (Part II): A Military Assessment

Source: Google Maps, Reflections of a Rational Republican

In yesterday’s post, I indicated my desire to reflect upon President Obama’s proposal rather than fall prey to my deeply visceral initial reaction. In this post, I decided to tackle what I know best first: the situation’s military dynamics.

From a military perspective, the idea that the Israelis should accept Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries as a starting point for negotiation is preposterous.

To make my argument, I will rely on my five years’ experience as a military officer. My primary responsibility was to serve as a member of the Opposing Force (OPFOR) in ten war games per year against American military brigades of between 5,000 and 8,000 soldiers each.

I participated in a total of approximately 100 simulated desert operations involving hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers on either side.

Source: CIA World Factbook, Reflections of a Rational Republican

As a member of the OPFOR, the Army trained me to fight using Soviet armored doctrine and tactics, the same tactics that Egyptian and Syrian forces would likely employ against the Israelis.

As the charts at the top and on the right show, reverting to Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries leaves Israel perilously vulnerable to its Arab neighbors. At its narrowest point, the distance between the West Bank’s western borders and the Mediterranean Sea is roughly between 10-20 kilometers.

The OPFOR, which was organized as a standard Soviet Motorized Rifle Regiment (MRR), could traverse 30-50 kilometers in 4-5 hours in open desert terrain and against a well-trained American Brigade. In other words, a single Syrian MRR staging in the Palestinian West Bank has the potential to cut Israel in half within a single day.

Granted, Israel’s forces are much better trained and equipped than the Syrians’ are. Furthermore, the fighting would proceed more slowly in this region because Israel is 92% urbanized compared to the open terrain of the Mojave Desert.

That said, Israel’s urbanized environment is another key concern. As Tel Aviv-Yafo lies within 10-20 kilometers of the West Bank’s western border, over 3.2 million Israelis (43% of Israel’s population) would be within conventional artillery range the instant the conflict started.

In other words, expect hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties.

Then there is the question of numbers.

The countries surrounding Israel (including the Palestinian territories) have a combined population of nearly 122 million to Israel’s nearly 7.5 million. In essence, the Arab population in Israel’s adjacent states outnumbers Israel’s population by over 16 to 1.

Would the United States ever give up a territorial buffer that would provide an enemy  outnumbering it 16-to-1 with the capability to cut the United States in half in one day and expose a city that represented 43% of its population to massive artillery bombardment?

I think not.

To ask the Israelis to do the same is completely unrealistic.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Defense, Energy Security, International Security, Media, Middle East, Policy, Politics, Terrorism, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Obama’s Call for Israel to Base Negotiations on Pre-1967 Borders (Part II): A Military Assessment

  1. Israeli PM Ehud Olmert thought the pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations. So did Israeli PM Ehud Barak and US Pres. Bush Jr. Netanyahu & Clinton signed a joint statement recognizing that this was US policy a few years ago. Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass explained, “anyone here deluding himself . . . that the drawing of the new map will be based on any reference point other than the 1967 boundaries is simply disconnected from reality.”

    Israel will not negotiate indefensible borders for itself.

    Also, like Olmert, Barak, Sharon, and Bush, Pres. Obama never called for Israel to revert to its 1967 borders. You should correct the error in your headline.

    • Sorry, with links for substantiation: Israeli PM Ehud Olmert thought the pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiations. So did Israeli PM Ehud Barak and US Pres. Bush Jr. Netanyahu & Clinton signed a joint statement recognizing that this was US policy a few years ago. Sharon adviser Dov Weisglass explained, “anyone here deluding himself . . . that the drawing of the new map will be based on any reference point other than the 1967 boundaries is simply disconnected from reality.”

    • Do you think the Israelis will be able to retain at least half of the West Bank in a negotiation?

      BTW, Jonathan Chait at the New Republic has the best rebuttal to my military argument, which is that massive high intensity conflicts are a thing of the past. My rebuttal to his rebuttal is two-fold:

      1) Arabs don’t need conventional militaries to fire mortars and rockets at Israeli civilians.
      2) While a massive conventional war between Israel and it’s neighbors is highly unlikely today, the sitiuation could be radically different 10 or 20 years from now, especially given the heightened uncertainty associated with the Arab spring.

      • Yes, I believe that Israel will defend its interests in negotiations. The sooner the better– right now, Israel holds all the cards. It can lay waste to entire swaths of Palestinian territory in hours. The Palestinians… can’t.

        Evidently you are of the view that Barak, Sharon, Olmert, and Bush were wrong to suggest and engage in negotiations with 1967 borders as a starting point. Why do you think they made that strategic error? What do you think is the proper policy of the United States?

        Also, your headline is misleading– Pres. Obama did not call for Israel to revert to its 1967 borders.

        • reflectionephemeral,

          Sorry for my long absence. It was a rather busy day at the office.

          I changed my headline, because you are correct in your assessment that it is misleading.

          Starting with the 1967 borders seems to be the American postion since at least George W. Bush if not before him.

          There are several things, however, that Obama did differently that raised my ire.

          First, this was the first time a U.S. president has publically articulated a commitment to two states based on teh 1967 borders. Okay, this is probably not the worst thing, but what he did next is. The second, and what I find most objectionable, thing the president did was he alled for a “full and phased withdrawal of military forces” and thereby ruled out an Israeli presence on or near the Jordan River. Any solution will require forward deployments of Israeli troops, because as I have argued, the Israelis need to have defensible borders. The pre-1967 lines obviously are woefully inadequate.

          Lastly, he abandoned President Bushes commitment to the “three conditions” of “the abrogation of violence, recognition of Israel, and respect of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements” from Hamas. In my opinion, failing to get these three agreements is a non-starter.

          Anyway, my two cents…

        • Ha, no problem, real life does that sometimes.

          Thanks for spelling out your concerns in this post & comment.

          Though I certainly see that it’s a valid concern, I don’t have the same reaction you do to the idea of a full, phased withdrawal– if there’s to be a Palestinian state, which I believe ought to be the US and Israel’s policy, someday it will control its territory. A full, phased withdrawal has to be the endgame, I would think. Israel is holding the cards here, again, and will work to withdraw– or maintain territory– as it sees fit.

          At the end of the day, it seems to me, if we’re worried about strong bad Arabs invading a decade or two or more hence, Israel has already lost. It’s a country of about 8 million people. Long term, demographically, the way for Israel to remain safe is to reach an agreement with its neighbors. There really isn’t any other way. That’s the big picture, here, that Israel cannot remain safe, democratic, and an occupier. It’s come a long way in the past 30 years, with Egypt and Jordan. It’s in Israel’s interests– and, of course, in the US’s interests, because Israel is a colossal strategic liability to the United States– to reach a political agreement with the PA.

          I’m not at all concerned about Obama’s not using the words that Bush did. Here’s what Obama did say:

          For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.

          That seems to me to address the fundamental issues that Bush’s “three conditions” addressed.

          Netanyahu’s decision to fly off the handle publicly about the phrase “1967 borders” really has me astonished and almost despairing for Israel. I just can’t see how working to alienate the United States, for saying something they’ve been saying for a decade or more, makes any strategic sense whatsoever. Just as Israel has survived plenty of UN resolutions targeting it, it has cheerfully ignored US policy, most famously on settlements. I think everyone can agree that Obama’s speech about US policy– even if there’s matters one reasonably disagrees with— was very far from an ultimatum to Israel. Netanyahu could have ignored the content of the speech and done nothing, without any consequences. The US funnels weapons and money to Israel, and vetoes anything from the Security Council that Israel wants vetoed. Going ballistic in public may make sense in the context of domestic politics, but I cannot identify any strategic rationale for it. A week ago, some future rupture of US-Israeli relations was unthinkable to me. Not that such a rupture is likely, but it’s not unthinkable, given the behavior of Israel’s PM this week.

          A meta point– your concerns are very well-considered and not lightly dismissed. Would that this were the debate going on in the country, rather than the faux indignation over the longstanding policy of 1967 borders as a starting point. Your honesty, knowledge, and thoughtfulness on this are greatly appreciated.

          • Ah, now I understand what you meant in your blog post about Netanyahu’s strategic incompetence. Of course you framed it much more diplomatically than I just did. I personally wouldn’t call it a lack of understanding strategy, just poor diplomacy on Netanyahu’s part.

            I appreciate the dialogue. Lord knows we are not seeing it on the national level.

        • To re-clarify yet again, I think that Netanyahu is flipping out because he has no interest in negotiating toward a resolution. The diplomatic boorishness is the result of his inability to think strategically. His cabinet & voting bloc want the occupation to continue indefinitely. That’s untenable.

          As Jeffrey Goldberg put it, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-24/why-palestinians-have-time-on-their-side.html

          “If I were a Palestinian (and, should there be any confusion on this point, I am not), and if I were the sort of Palestinian who believed that Israel should be wiped off the map, then I would be quite pleased with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance before Congress this morning. I would applaud Netanyahu for including no bold initiatives that would have suggested to the world that Israel is alive to the threat posed by its seemingly eternal occupation of the West Bank.”

  2. pino says:

    the idea that the Israelis should accept Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries as a starting point for negotiation is preposterous.

    Sooooo….let’s say that the two parties sit down with the 1966 boundaries as the starting point. And then the Palestinians say, “Yo, I’m good” and walk away? Are those boundaries then enforced or do we say nothing happened in which case the idea that the 1966 boundaries really AREN’T the starting point?

    How would that work, exactly?

  3. Ben Hoffman says:

    Until the Palestinians show that they’re willing to live in peace, there is no way Israel will accept an independent Palestinian country.

    What would happen if there was an independent Palestine? Neighboring countries would flood it with weapons. War would break out between Palestine and Israel. Arab countries would join the fight. The U.S. would get involved. And all hell would break loose. Talk about Armageddon!

  4. Pingback: Obama’s Call for Israel to Base Negotiations on Pre-1967 Borders (Part III): A Political Assessment | Reflections of a Rational Republican

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