June 13, 2013

Reflections on Israel: the tyranny of geography

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel to Israel as part of an academic fellowship from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. The purpose of the fellowship was to explore issues related to terrorism and counterterrorism in the region. It was an eye-opening experience that taught me a lot about how complicated the issues are facing Israelis and Palestinians in their attempts to carve out a peaceful solution to the legacy of conflict.

Looking back on my time in Israel, the major lesson that stands out to me relates to geography. Geography is a tyrant that threatens the peace process, shaping all the advice that one could provide when commenting on Middle East peace. Combined with the presence of constant spoilers in the form of extremist actors, I returned sobered on the prospects for lasting peace in Israel.

We were able to take escorted tours of both the Golan Heights, as well as a West Bank settlement.
In looking at the suburbs of Tel Aviv from the West Bank, you can easily imagine how the Israelis would fear a far more deadly repeat of the situation in the southern part of the country, where Hamas and other militant groups out of Gaza fire rockets towards population centers.

Looking down from a West Bank settlement on the area near Tel Aviv

The Iron Dome system provides good air defense, but is prohibitively expensive in the long run. From the Israeli perspective, what is the guarantee that a peaceful Palestinian state could control its territory and prevent such attacks? I believe that it couldn't, and groups like Hezbollah would try to provoke an Israeli return to the West Bank that politically it could not pass up.

The same issue of geographic tyranny applies in the Golan Heights, where a highly unstable Syria is threatening to engulf the whole region into war. Israel has the capacity to defend itself from the Syrians, but there is no incentive to withdraw from the Golan Heights as long as the regime and its allies (i.e. Hezbollah) are overtly hostile, and their survival in power uncertain. Even if Assad falls in Syria, the aftermath of the Libyan and Egyptian revolutions shows that, if played out in Syria, an even worse scenario can unfold on your border.

The small yellow sign marks possible landmines on the Golan Heights
As it stands, one border area where the Israelis formally withdrew, Southern Lebanon, continues to see problems, most notably with the 2006 war. Hezbollah rockets now number in the tens of thousands and threaten Israeli population centers in the northern part of the country. Depending on the outcome of the civil war in Syria, where Hezbollah has gone all in, even to the detriment of its position in Lebanon, Israel potentially faces renewed problems in the north.

Difficult terrain on the Israel-Lebanon border
So, how do you cope with the zero-sum game of land and occupation when beset on one’s borders by unstable or hostile regimes? This is the daily issue facing the Israelis. There are definitely elements of the Palestinian Authority where there’s a deal to be had for peace, particularly with nationalists in the West Bank. However, one can’t overestimate the impact that the Second Intifada and its suicide bomb attacks on civilians had in Israel. While there, during a visit to a prison, our group had members of Hamas tell us straight up that they rejected the notion that there was such a thing as a civilian in Israel, including children, legitimizing all targeting on their part.

A clear view of the controversial security wall near Jerusalem
When facing this challenge, the tyranny of geography significantly limits the options for an Israeli version of the path to peace. The bottom line is that if geography is limiting, then the path to peace has to be found in how Palestinians and Israelis treat each other within the borders of the state. Are there too many groups actively trying to undermine this process, both in and out of government? It's too soon to tell.

1 comment:

  1. Israel always seems to have a history of "enemies round about" so to speak. All through the books of the OT it seems that Israel is surrounded by those that wish her harm. But, then as well as now, God still protects her.