Thomas Friedman argues in today’s New York Times that Israel should extend its freeze on settlement construction because when a key ally like America “asks Israel to do something that in no way touches on its vital security … there is only one right answer: ‘Yes.'” Friedman is, of course, correct that countries should help allies anytime they can do so without great cost to themselves. Where he’s wrong is in saying that no vital Israeli security interest is at stake.
It’s true that Israel has no real security interest in a few more houses here or there. But it does have a vital security interest in ultimately securing defensible borders, which can’t be done without retaining some territory on the other side of the Green Line under any deal. And continuing the settlement freeze would undermine Israel’s negotiating position on this issue.
Israel’s need for defensible borders was first recognized in UN Security Council Resolution 242, which is still considered the basis for resolving the conflict: this resolution deliberately demanded an Israeli withdrawal “from territories” captured in 1967 rather than from “all the territories,” as the Arabs had wanted, to enable Israel to retain some of this land.
As Lord Caradon, the British UN ambassador who drafted it, later said, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.” Similarly, America’s then-ambassador to the UN, Arthur Goldberg, said the resolution’s goal was to secure “less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces … inasmuch as Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.”
Many settlements were subsequently built for precisely this purpose: to thicken Israel’s narrow pre-1967 waist and create a buffer around its major population center (the greater Tel Aviv area), its capital (Jerusalem), and its only international airport (Ben-Gurion).
Israel’s experience with previous withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza — which, as Friedman admitted, gained it nothing but rocket fire in return — has only made this more important. Even with the new Iron Dome anti-rocket system, a territorial buffer is essential to protect these vital areas from short-range rockets: not only can the system not stop weapons launched from less than 4.5 kilometers away, but it’s economically prohibitive against anything beyond very occasional fire.
Thus Israel has a valid security-based claim to these areas, and a onetime, temporary building moratorium as a goodwill gesture to promote peace, like the one Israel instituted last November, doesn’t undermine it. But extending the freeze would, because that implies the moratorium isn’t a onetime goodwill gesture on Israel’s part, but — as most of the world indeed claims — a necessary condition for progress, since this land a priori belongs to the Palestinians, and Israel has no right to it.
Israel can’t stop other countries from rejecting its claim to this land. But for Jerusalem to itself denigrate this claim by extending the freeze would undermine its negotiating position on a vital security issue: defensible borders. And that is something no country with any vestige of a survival instinct should agree to do.