When Netanyahu says the 1967 borders are “indefensible”, this does not mean Israel must seek to avoid conceding too much West Bank land. It means Israel cannot make any concessions.
Last week, in response to Obama’s speech, Netanyahu argued that for Israel, the borders that existed before the 1967 occupation are “indefensible”. He repeated the same point after their meeting yesterday. But what does it mean?
At its core, the “indefensible” borders argument relates to Israel’s small size, and the concentration of its population in a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast, in great proximity to Palestinian areas of the West Bank. This geographic situation makes Israeli population and infrastructure particularly vulnerable to both “asymmetrical” attacks (e.g. terrorism, rockets, and guerrilla activities) and a conventional invasion by regular armies.
The argument has been used to justify continued Israeli control of the Palestinian territories, and in this form, this is a consistent, albeit cruel and unconscionable, position. Basically, it seeks to use the Palestinian lands as a buffer zone, surrounding and protecting Israeli population centers. Such an arrangement, however, would only make sense if Israel maintains full control over the vast majority of the West Bank’s Palestinian population.
To see why, one need only look at a typical map that aims to show the security threat posed by the 1967 borders.
This map clearly designates the Israeli major cities, but conveniently omits the Palestinian ones. Thus, the arrow showing the distance between the northern West Bank and the Israeli city of Haifa, actually emanates from the area of Jenin, a city and a refugee camp with a combined population of 50,000. The arrow towards Netanya, begins in Tul Karm, with 60,000 people. The Tel Aviv arrow emerges from the area of Qalqilya, with 40,000; and the Ashdod arrow come from the Beyt Jala-Bethlehem area, with 40,000 as well.
But these figures actually underplay the problem. All of these areas include other towns and refugee camps nearby, substantially increasing the relevant population numbers. And if Ashdod is threatened by a distance of 36 Kms, then surely Netanya should be concerned about Nablus, which is even nearer, and is home to 130,000 Palestinians. And we could go on to address Gaza, with over a million Palestinians, and even closer to Israeli cities than much of the West Bank; or A-Ram, Abu Dis, and Ramallah and all the other places with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, which sit right on top of Jerusalem, one of Israel’s largest population centers.
It is really quite simple. Israel is really small. But the West Bank is even smaller; and its Palestinian population lives just as near the 1967 borders as Israel’s. So if ceding territory near its population centers makes Israel truly “indefensible”, that means Israel must retain control of almost all Palestinians. In other words, when Netanyahu says the 1967 borders are “indefensible”, this does not mean Israel must seek to avoid conceding too much West Bank land. It means Israel cannot make any concessions.
That position, however, is completely incongruent with Netanyahu’s statements expressing willingness to negotiate and compromise, up to and including a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank. Therefore, when Netanyahu employs the 1967 borders argument, he is cynically using the security issue to disguise his true concern, which is to keep as much land as possible under Israeli control, while ridding it of the responsibility for the Palestinians who live near (sometimes, on) those lands. It has nothing to do with Israel’s defense.