Frontier State

By Ran Halevi

Why can't Europeans accept Israel's security barrier? Because they don't believe in borders.

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In Europe today, a common understanding of borders tends to confuse two distinct orders of reality: On the one hand, the juridical demarcations of a state; on the other, the historical contours of a nation’s territory. If French citizens are only dimly aware of this distinction, it is because since Louis XIV the borders of the kingdom—subsequently the Republic—have been congruent with what generations of Frenchmen have come to consider the natural borders of France. The genius of the “Sun King” was to bring the na­tion to consider those boundaries to be natural—what the royalist historian Jacques Bainville would later deem the “necessary borders” of France.1 This equivalence of state and country, firmly rooted as it now is in the European way of thinking, likewise determines what we understand by “sovereignty”: A state, a nation, a territory.

These brief observations will suffice to highlight the radically different situation in Israel with regard to the question of borders. To begin with, the borders of today’s Jewish state in no way correspond to the historical boundaries of the biblical Land of Israel. Furthermore, to this day these bor­ders have been neither definitively fixed nor formally recognized. They have been regularly adjusted by military confrontation and political negotiation. The borders that were drawn in the 1947 UN partition plan, for instance, do not correspond to the considerably expanded borders of the armistice signed two years later, at the end of the War of Independence. And those of the armistice were, in turn, frequently redrawn: In 1967 after the Six Day War; in 1979 following the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt; again in several stages following the 1993 Oslo accords; and finally last summer, with the evacuation of the Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria. And they are bound to be redrawn yet again at a final settlement of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
For the time being, however, we cannot foresee what the precise bound­aries of the Jewish state will turn out to be. We know that they will not fol­low the contours of Eretz Yisrael. In fact, we are not even certain what these contours really were; neither Jewish tradition nor scriptural commentators have been able to agree on the exact demarcation of the biblical Promised Land. This double uncertainty—concerning the borders of the state and the contours of the Promised Land—weighs heavily on the manner in which Israelis relate to the territorial dimension of their national sovereignty. In­deed, there has never been a single, authorized, consensual vision in Israel of the nation’s own “home turf.”
There is yet another peculiarity of the Israeli condition: The equivalence between the principle of sovereignty and the idea of borders—taken quite for granted elsewhere—was slow in coming to political Zionism. For sev­eral decades, from the birth of the movement at the end of the nineteenth century until the middle of the 1930s, the Jewish aspiration to reclaim a national existence in the biblical land of Israel overlooked, so to speak, the question of the actual borders of the future state.
In the following pages, I will attempt to determine how and when the question of sovereignty and that of borders finally converged. I will also try to shed light on the evolution and inflections of the notion of borders in the history of political Zionism. In tracing this evolution, one may point to three pivotal moments....

Ran Halévi is director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and professor of political history at the Centre de Recherches Politiques Raymond Aron in Paris. This essay originally appeared in the French journal Commentaire, and is published here with permission.


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