JERUSALEM — The recent failure to jump-start negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in London has made it clear that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about "peace with security," he means maintaining a secure grip on his own power by pandering to his political base. Reducing terrorism, establishing defensible borders and avoiding armed conflict with Israel's Arab neighbors have little to do with his public pronouncements.
Much of the prime minister's bluster centers on defending Jewish settlements on the West Bank. In fact, leaked maps devised by Netanyahu's "kitchen cabinet" show that he wants to maintain Israeli control over every single Jewish settlement in the area. But there is no Israeli national interest in defending each artificially placed village of 20 or 30 Jewish families who have settled deep inside areas densely populated by Arabs. Most of these settlements were started to assert fanatical claims on the entirety of the land, not to bolster Israeli security. In fact, such Jewish communities in remote places tend to stretch Israeli security forces thin in times of both war and peace. They have military value only in the speeches of Netanyahu and his conservative allies.
Unfortunately, his preoccupation with coalition politics is leading Netanyahu to squander a historic opportunity to strengthen Israel's military position through the peace process. The prime minister's efforts to scuttle peace negotiations actually undercut Israeli strategic thinking about short-term security problems and more basic security issues.
Short-term security problems include terrorism, the Intifada and other small-scale acts of violence that take place between major wars. During the 25 years of unlimited control over the territories, Israel's security agencies could not eliminate these violent flare-ups. Instead, Israel concentrated on trying to minimize their intensity and the frequency of their occurrence.
In spite of continued terrorist attacks, we've learned that optimally minimizing these acts can best be achieved through bona fide cooperation with the Palestinian authorities. Netanyahu's constant public complaint about the unsatisfactory cooperation his government receives from the Palestinians is a tactical admission of the tremendous security benefits that can be derived from working closely with them. But a good Israeli-Palestinian working relationship on security issues can only be achieved through mutual confidence, confidence that is eroded by the prime minister's unwillingness to engage in the peace process.
Israel's more basic security needs involve the threat of full-scale war: how to deter prospective enemies from launching attacks and how to win a war when deterrence fails. The Palestinians are certainly last on the list of such basic security threats given their small military capabilities. The weapons currently in Palestinian hands or those that they could possess under strict limitations imposed by a final-status agreement may be at worst a nuisance in time of real war. Only the armies of the surrounding Arab states and the modern weapons they possess will continue to pose a serious danger to Israeli security in the foreseeable future.
Yes, there are some significant security considerations that must be addressed if Israeli forces are to maintain their strategic advantage should Palestinians take control of essentially demilitarized territories. But for Israel's basic security needs, there are far bigger priorities than controlling a few added square miles in the West Bank. Jordan must be kept out of any future war and induced not to allow any Arab army to cross its lands. Egypt also must be kept out of war and dissuaded from moving its military across the Suez Canal, forcing Israel to commit major parts of its army away from main front-lines elsewhere as a result. Freezing the peace process and alienating Arab nations work counter to these broader Israeli security concerns.
As the three wars Israel has fought since 1967 and the Intifada have made clear, military deterrence has its limitations, and Israel has nothing more to gain through conflict except its own defense. It cannot and need not add more territory. It cannot force its enemies to make peace. In fact, it may lose political and diplomatic assets through war rather than strengthen its international position. Under the best of circumstances, Israel is likely to find itself back at square one at the end of any future conflict. And in the process, hundreds, if not thousands, of Israeli and Arab soldiers and civilians will lose their lives. I share these conclusions with more than 1,500 Israeli reserve officers and combat soldiers who recently joined me in issuing a public letter exhorting the prime minister to pursue real security through peace negotiations.
The prevention of war, therefore, has become Israel's most vital security interest, and the only way to head off another conflict is by moving forward energetically and without hesitation on the road to peace. Unfortunately, Netanyahu has abandoned the pursuit of this national interest and Israel's ability to address short-term security problems in favor of narrow partisan gain. In the end, his policies will lead Israel to neither peace nor security.