Editor’s Note: A somewhat longer version of the following article first appeared in The Jewish Press more than 25 years ago. Not only is it remarkably prescient, it is as relevant now as it was then. It is especially important at this particular moment, when 105 retired and reservist senior IDF officers have signed a letter calling publicly on Prime Minister Netanyahu to “lead” in negotiating for a Palestinian state.



February 1989

A pair of prominent Israeli commentators recently pointed out that continued control of the territories would have grave consequences for Israel’s security. In this connection, Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former chief of military intelligence, argues in his newest book,Israel’s Fateful Hour, that a refusal to end “occupation” of the West Bank and Gaza will produce escalating terrorism and further incentives for war by neighboring Arab states. Abba Eban, foreign minister of Israel from 1966 to 1974, insists in a January 2, 1989 editorial inThe New York Times(“Israel, Hardly the Monaco of the Middle East”), that Israel would have nothing to fear from an independent “Palestine.” Such a state, he claimed, “would be the weakest military entity on earth.”

In these assessments, Harkabi is certainly correct, but nowhere does he compare the risks to Israel of an ongoing “occupation” with those of a Palestinian state. If he had offered such a comparison, perhaps he would have understood that continuing Israeli administrative control of Judea/Samaria/Gaza would certainly have its risks, but that a bordering state of Palestine would be far worse. As for Mr. Eban, he is wrong altogether.

If there were to be an Arab-ruled state in Judea/Samaria/Gaza, its particular danger to Israel would lie less in its own army than in the assorted insurgents that would soon shelter themselves in “Palestine.” To suggest that the principal risks to Israel could be ascertained by simply comparing the Israeli army to the far more modest forces of this 23rd Arab statewould assume an incorrectly static condition in the new enemy country, one that would offer only the “best case” scenario for Israel.

These suggestions are hardly in Jerusalem’s best interests. Israel is not “the Monaco of the Middle East,” but neither would Palestine be as benign a mini-state as Abba Eban suggests. Before Israel can reasonably conclude that the so-called occupation is intolerable, its leaders will first have to determine whether it is actually less tolerable than Palestinian statehood. If it isn’t less tolerable, then rationality would require continuing administrative control, however painful, costly, and unfortunate. And such rationality would not even take into account the overwhelmingly all-important fact that Judea and Samaria are inherent parts of the Jewish state under authoritatively binding international law.

What, exactly, are the major strategic risks to Israel posed by an independent Palestine? To answer this question, one must first understand that several of the Arab states are still preparing for war with Israel, and that a new Arab state in Judea/Samaria/Gaza would open another hot border for the Jewish state. As a result, the Arab-Israeli balance of forces could change decisively, possibly even providing the needed incentive for certain Arab first-strikes.

Let us turn to Iran, certain to become a major strategic threat to Israel. Until the revolution in January 1979, Iran’s nuclear program was the most ambitious in the entire Middle East. In addition to open, commercial activities, the Shah most likely initiated a full-scale nuclear weapons research program. This program included work on two technologies for producing weapons-grade nuclear materials, enrichment and reprocessing, and on the actual design of nuclear weapons.

Because of Washington’s unwillingness to undermine the Shah in the days preceding the final overthrow, Khomeini inherited substantial nuclear assets. The precise configuration of this nuclear infrastructure, including weapons-relevant technology and equipment, is still known only to selected persons within the Messianic Iranian regime. What is known is that the regime is diligently reactivating the nation’s nuclear program. Where will this reactivation end?

Nuclear weapons would seem to have special value in enhancing Iran’s status in the region, and its associated capacity to advance the objectives of militant Islamic fundamentalism.

What delivery systems are available to Iran? At the moment [1989] the Tehran regime has two lines of advanced combat aircraft that can deliver a nuclear bomb: the F-4D/E Phantom II, and the F-5E/F Tiger II. It also has a ballistic missile force that could deliver nuclear warheads. Although there is no available information that Iran is making substantial progress in the manufacture of such warheads, that country has maintained and expanded its very costly nuclear research program at a time of increasing economic dislocation and hardship.Iran remains a potential nuclear power that should not be dismissed out of hand.

What about Syria? Recognizing that it cannot rely entirely on the air force to penetrate Israeli air space, Syria knows that its Soviet-designed Scud-B missile could, if fired from Syria, reach all of Israel, except the southern Negev, in six minutes. A direct descendant of the German V-2, the Scud is a weapon that could do enormous damage to Israeli civilian populations. In this connection, it could carry, if Syria should ever acquire nuclear warheads, the implements of atomic war. At some point, Syria will very likely attempt, in great secrecy, to acquire some nuclear weapons capability.

If “Palestine” should provide the essential incentive for an Arab/Islamic war against Israel, a war that would end with the actual use of nuclear weapons, it could wind up as Armageddon. But even if there would be no escalation to nuclear warfare, “Palestine” could still become another Lebanon, with many different Palestinian factions, both within and outside the P.L.O. umbrella, contending for control over the new Arab state. Various insurgents that [presently] do not threaten Israel’s very survival would now be able to inflict great harm on their neighbor to the west.

Let me be more precise. Should an independent Palestine be created from Judea/Samaria/Gaza, within hours of the new state’s effective beginnings its government and ruling elite would be targeted by radicals. A number of factions,including some newly developing Islamic fundamentalists spun off from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,would fight for control over any new state of Palestine, and all of these factions could resort unhesitatingly to high levels of violence.

Before long, the resident Palestinian population would suffer far more than it had under Israeli rule, and anarchy would pose a real threat to Jordan. Over time, it is likely that Jordan could be undermined altogether, and become part of a “greater Palestine.” Ironically, the result of these events would be enormously tragic for both Palestinians who seek a homeland and for Israelis who seek secure frontiers.

It follows from all of this that “Palestine” would pose a very serious security risk to Israel, and that this risk could become far greater than that of maintaining Israeli control of “the territories.”

This does not mean that Israel and the Palestinians should steer clear of meaningful negotiations, or that Israel should not concern itself with protecting the peremptory human rights of Arab populations under its control. But it does mean that any reasonable assessments of Israel’s security must always compare the expected costs of both principal options for Judea/Samaria/Gaza: IDF military administration versus independence.

In the absence of such an essential comparison, Israel could go from bad to worse – from a situation that is conspicuously debilitating and demoralizing to one that is utterly intolerable.


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Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue and the author of twelve books and several hundred articles on nuclear strategy and nuclear war. He was Chair of Project Daniel, which submitted its special report on Israel’s Strategic Future to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, on January 16, 2003.