Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent statement that Israel can't defend itself with borders drawn along pre-1967 lines has been questioned in certain foreign policy circles. These critics have noted that Israel successfully fought two wars, in 1956 and in 1967, while based within those borders. And they have claimed that borders don't matter as much in modern warfare. But Netanyahu is right.
The idea that the 1967 line isn't defensible has actually been around for decades. Indeed, the architects of Israel's national security doctrine reached that conclusion soon after the Six-Day War. The main strategic problem that Israel faced at that time was the enormous asymmetry between its small standing army, which needed to be reinforced with a timely reserve mobilization, and the large standing armies of its neighbors, which could form coalitions in times of tension and exploit Israel's narrow geography with overwhelming numbers. True, Israel won in 1967, but the war also pointed out the country's many vulnerabilities.
In the years following the war, the main advocate for creating new boundaries to replace the fragile lines from before 1967 was Yigal Allon, then Israel's deputy prime minister. Allon had considerable military experience, having commanded the Palmach, the elite strike units of the Jewish forces, in the 1948 war that created Israel.
In 1976, while serving as foreign minister, Allon wrote an article for Foreign Affairs outlining the strategic logic for his position. He pointed out that the 1967 line was an armistice line from Israel's war of independence and never intended as a final political boundary. Allon quoted the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 1967, Arthur Goldberg, who said that the 1967 line was neither secure nor recognized. Given this background, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, backed by both the United States and Britain, only called for "withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" — but not from "all the territories." The resolution also didn't specify strict adherence to the pre-1967 line, advocating only that "secure and recognized" boundaries be established.
Under the Allon plan, Israel would include much of the Jordan Valley within its border. This area is not within the pre-1967 line, but it is essential to Israel's defense. Because it rises from an area that was roughly 1,200 feet below sea level up a steep incline to mountaintops that are 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, it serves as a formidable line of defense that would enable a small Israeli force to hold off much large conventional armies, giving Israel time to mobilize its reserves. Control of the Jordan Valley also allowed Israel to prevent the smuggling of the same kind of weaponry to the West Bank that has been entering the Gaza Strip: rockets, antiaircraft missiles and tons of explosives for terrorist attacks.
Today, it might be argued that after the demise of Saddam Hussein, Israel no longer has to worry about Iraqi expeditionary forces racing across Jordanian territory. Yet Israeli planning for the future cannot be based on a snapshot of reality in 2011. No one can guarantee what the orientation of Iraq will be five years from now: a budding pro-Western democracy or a heavily armed Iranian satellite subverting the security of its neighbors. The Saudis, it should be noted, are not taking any chances and are constructing a security fence along the border with Iraq.
Israeli vulnerability has regional implications. Should it become clear that the great Jordan Valley barrier that protected Israel for more than 40 years is no longer in Israeli hands, then the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will become an increasingly attractive forward position for jihadi groups seeking to link up with Hamas to wage war against Israel. In 2007, when Al Qaeda activity in Iraq was at its height, the organization sought to build up a forward position in Irbid, Jordan, to recruit West Bank Palestinians. This effort was scuttled. But if Israel is back on the 1967 line, then the whole dynamic of regional security will change and the internal pressures on Jordan will undoubtedly increase.
Yitzhak Rabin, who promoted the Oslo agreements in 1993, understood better than anyone Israel's strategic dilemmas in the years that followed. In October 1995, one month before he was assassinated, he addressed the Knesset and asked it to ratify the Oslo II interim agreement, which he had just signed at the White House in the presence of President Clinton. In his speech, he laid out how he saw the future borders of Israel. He made clear that Israel would not withdraw to the 1967 line. He insisted on keeping Jerusalem united. And finally, like his mentor Yigal Allon, Rabin stressed that Israel would hold on to the Jordan Valley "in the widest sense of that term."
It is always possible to find Israelis who will say the 1967 line is just fine. But Israel's greatest strategic minds since the Six-Day War have disagreed. They overwhelmingly have concluded that Israel can safeguard its future only if it retains defensible borders, which means redrawing the 1967 line to include parts of the West Bank crucial to the country's survival.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.