Why Israel Won’t Let the West Bank Go

Religious considerations aside, the West Bank gives Israel a security buffer many believe it needs.

Israeli soldiers West Bank
Israeli soldiers patrol along the West Bank barrier near Hebron, June 17, 2014 (IDF)

Most of Israel’s critics argue that any Israeli claim to the moral high ground is compromised by the fact that the Israeli military has been dominating the West Bank since 1967, thereby denying the Palestinians the ability to ever form their own state. While of course there is truth to this argument, it nevertheless ignores a critical point: Israel believes it must control the West Bank, at least for now, in order to ensure its own continued safety over the long-term.

Even though religion is the key motivator for most of the Jews (and Christians) who have settled or support Jewish settlement within the West Bank, Israel’s desire to control the West Bank is not ultimately rooted in religion, but rather in physical geography and “strategic necessity.”

By dominating the West Bank, Israel gains control over the Jordan Rift Valley, a steep-walled, incredibly deep canyon containing a number of the points on Earth that are the furthest below sea level through which the Jordan River runs into the Dead Sea. The rift valley serves as an excellent defensive barrier against invasion or incursion. Israel enjoys using it both as a defensive border with Jordan and as a security barrier separating the roughly three million Palestinians living in Jordan from the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Israel is hardly alone in wanting control over this valley: about seven different African states also use the Jordan Rift Valley (in Africa it is called the Great East African Rift Valley) as an international border.

Even more important, the West Bank allows Israel to control the hills and highlands that surround Jerusalem on three sides and directly overlook nearly every other major Israeli city.

The average elevation of a West Bank hill is about 700-1000 metres above sea level; to put that in perspective, the One World Trade Center, the tallest building in Manhattan, reaches just 540 meters high.

Tel Aviv, in contrast, sits roughly at sea level with its downtown core just twenty kilometers away from the West Bank and a number of its suburban areas, like Modi’in or Rosh Ha’ayin, within two-ten kilometers of the West Bank. The Jordan Rift Valley, meanwhile, sits around 200-400 meters below sea level. And the centre of Jerusalem is within two-four kilometers of the West Bank in every direction except due west.

Managing the West Bank also lets Israel have control over any movement or potential smuggling of weapons between West Bank Palestinians and Palestinians living within the pre-1967 borders of Israel, the latter of whom account for an estimated 20 percent of all Israeli citizens. Most Israeli Arabs outside of Jerusalem live in a region of hills and low mountains that is just around twenty-sixty kilometers north of the West Bank in which they make up about 50-75 percent of the regional population.

This region also happens to be strategically crucial for Israel, as it borders Lebanon and overlooks both Haifa (Israel’s largest port and third largest city) and the Jezreel Valley, Israel’s route to the the Sea of Galilee and Golan Heights which is where the majority of Israeli freshwater is located and which serves as an Israeli border with Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, then, is most likely the result of Israel’s desire for security and survival rather than the result of the Israeli government being a uniquely radical one. Indeed, it is possible that the Israeli government’s support for religious Jewish civilians settling the West Bank is based for the most part on the notion that these settlers are likely to help cement Israel’s strategic control over the region rather than being a result of, as most critics of Israel believe, the Israeli government having been cowed or infiltrated by religious Jewish extremists. Of course, this does not mean that extremist views have not also become much too influential within Israeli politics.

The idea that Israel faces serious threats is not some outdated relic from the earlier days of Zionism when the country’s power was not yet fully formed. To the contrary, it was only a decade ago, between 2001 and 2005, that a thousand Israelis were killed by Palestinian militants, most of them in suicide attacks. Relative to the size of Israel’s population, that would be the equivalent of about 45,000 Americans being killed, roughly nine times more than have died in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. And of course, the conflict also claimed the lives of an even larger number of Palestinian civilians.

More worrying than the prospect of another intifada, however, is the possibility that Israel could suffer tens or hundreds of thousands of casualites by militant groups or perhaps even individuals armed with weapons of mass destruction.

This threat too may inform Israel’s continuing presence in the West Bank. If, for example, a country that has nuclear weapons, such as Pakistan, were ever to collapse into extreme chaos, one of Israel’s main defenses would probably be to seal its own borders, and perhaps also to establish buffer zones in areas like the eastern Sinai Desert or southern Lebanon, until it could ascertain whether or not any such weapons were likely to have gone missing. The goal would be to protect its core territories between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’ersheva.

This strategy might be an effective one, not only because Israeli borders are fairly short and carefully guarded but also since it is extremely challenging to properly adapt a nuclear weapon for a missile — particularly a long-range missile — and because Israel has a relatively sophisticated missile defense system that it hopes to continue to improve over time.

The weak link in the defense, however, could be the Palestinian territories in which there are long-established smuggling, militant and short-range missile networks as well as borders which are adjacent to major Israeli cities.

The West Bank poses a danger in this sense because it directly borders and surrounds Jerusalem, overlooks the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Be’ersheva and has a long external border with both Israel and Palestinian-inhabited Jordan. Indeed, the West Bank’s border with Jordan is more than ten times longer than Gaza’s border with Egypt; the West Bank’s border with Israel is more than six times longer than Gaza’s. As such, Israel’s ability to respond to a nuclear threat arguably appears to depend on its ability to control the border of, or movement within, the West Bank.

Admittedly, this does not mean that there is not a strong religious current running through the Israeli government and helping to drive its policy of expanded settler activity or that the Israeli government’s alliance with portions of the religious right wing is not a cynical one.

Indeed, by issuing a claim on the West Bank that appears to be irrational — namely, that Israel has a right to it because Jews controlled it during parts of the Biblical era or that God Himself granted it to the Jewish people — the religious right often dilutes and, in effect, undermines the true security-based explanation for Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank.

Given that Israeli politicians understand Israel’s security situation extremely well, as many are themselves former military commanders or security officials, this also suggests that the Israeli government has been at least somewhat disingenuous with regard to the offers it has extended for a two-state solution in recent decades. Unless real trust is formed between Jews and Palestinians, or unless Israeli technology reaches a point wherein geographically-rooted security considerations are finally rendered irrelevant, it seems unlikely that the Israeli leadership would ever remove its military from much of the West Bank. It might not even be willing to remove its civilian settler population, as that can double as a security and intelligence force or political bargaining chip in times of crisis. The government’s offers to do so during peace talks, therefore, were perhaps never intended to succeed but may instead have been extended mainly in order to placate outside observers like the United States.

Clearly, then, the Israeli government has made, and continues to make, important mistakes. Many of its actions may even be cruel or counterproductive. Still, it is worth remembering that the primary motivation for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is its real, deep, possibly even existential security concerns rather than its religious land claims or nationalistic expansionism. The geopolitics of Israelis and Palestinians are simply intertwined now and both must somehow find a way to make the best of a very dangerous — and, especially for the Palestinians, a very tragic — situation. Getting God out of politics would be a good start.

This story first appeared at Future Economics, July 28, 2015.