Frontier State

By Ran Halevi

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

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.

Early political Zionism is characterized by two dominant traits: The struggle to achieve national self-determination, defined brilliantly by Theodor Herzl in his famous pamphlet of 1896,2 and the territorial project that arose spontaneously in the wake of the pogroms in Russia in 1881, which brought a number of pioneer groups to Palestine in the 1880s. Dis­enchanted with the promise of emancipation, these individuals yearned to regenerate the  political and spiritual aspirations of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.3 
Only after Herzl, and following the creation of the Zionist Organiza­tion, did the national and territorial projects converge, become institution­alized, and achieve a dynamic that continues to this day. Successive waves of immigration, land purchases, the proliferation of agricultural communities, the redemption of—in their own words—a desolated land, the develop­ment of several urban centers, the creation of representative institutions, trade unions, social services, even a paramilitary force—all these elements were part of a political strategy that had been spelled out by Herzl and the early Zionist Congresses. It endeavored to provide a territorial groundwork for a political blueprint, with the aim, in the short term, of providing a ref­uge to persecuted Jews, and in the long term of establishing a sovereign state.
During this first and highly turbulent epoch of Zionism, however, the question of borders was rarely ever raised. The establishment of the state seemed too hypothetical, too remote from the more urgent anxieties of the day. The Zionist movement was engaged in a “strategy of insertion,”4 which involved the establishment of a more or less contiguous territorial founda­tion. It consisted of communal settlements, later kibbutzim and moshavim, all in areas only sparsely populated by Arabs: The Galilee and the Kinneret region, the swampy Jezreel Valley, the coastal and Sharon plains, and the Hefer Valley. This program did not lend itself to a discussion about national borders, especially since Eretz Yisrael at that time was only a portion of an infinitely larger territory—the Turkish Empire, and then the British Man­datory regime.
In its first decades, then, Zionism made its priority not the affirma­tion of political sovereignty on a defined territory, but the striking-down of human roots into the soil. It represented the noble dream of a “return to the land”—in both senses of the term—but a return that was silent on the subject of borders.

It was in 1937 that the matter of borders forced itself onto the agenda of the Zionist movement, where it has remained ever since. April 1936 saw bloody confrontations between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, a general strike, and a popular insurrection by Palestine’s Arab inhabitants.5 In the wake of “the troubles,” the British government created a Royal Com­mission of Inquiry (known as the Peel Commission) that eventually recom­mended the abandonment of the British Mandate and the partition of Pal­estine into two states. It even went so far as to draw these states’ respective contours—much to the dissatisfaction of all interested parties (including not a few British parliamentarians).6
The Peel Commission report dealt a harsh blow to the Zionist move­ment. Although this was the first time that the idea of partition, and the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state, had been officially and explicitly formulated, the report’s proposals were deemed callous and illogical: The Jewish state’s dimensions were Lilliputian at best, and practically half the inhabitants living in the appointed territory were Arab. In addition, there was the nagging concern that such a state would not be able to accommo­date all of Europe’s Jews, whose mounting peril in the grip of Nazism was just then coming to light. And finally, the prospect of partition had shat­tered the long-held hopes of the Zionist Left—notably the members of Brit Shalom—for the creation of a binational state.7
Despite the intense passions on both sides, and the fierce arguments for and against, there was henceforth no choice but to address the long-neglected issue of borders directly. The question could no longer be deferred now that the chasm between Zionist aspirations and the derisory parcel of land assigned by the Commission had been revealed.
The events of 1936-1937 constitute, therefore, a major turning point in the history of political Zionism: They inaugurated the debate on the borders of Israel in which we are still engaged today. It is beyond my purview to dis­cuss the vicissitudes of that debate up to and after the creation of the State of Israel. I will, however, note that during the two decades that separated the War of Independence and the Six Day War, this debate observed a kind of truce, suspended but not resolved, as the young state lived inside its uncomfortably vulnerable borders—borders that were at least tangible, if not acceptable.

Indeed, with the Six Day War, the idea of borders tilted dramatically. The spectacular expansion of territory under Israeli control after 1967, particularly its eastward extension to the banks of the Jordan, made real what had previously been but a utopian dream: A geographical equivalence between the State of Israel and the Land of Israel.
Paradoxically, this equivalence, greeted in certain quarters as a messianic omen, had the effect of blurring rather than clarifying the idea of borders. From the outset, it was clear that these new borders could only be tempo­rary: Israel could not give them legal imprimatur without stirring universal opprobrium, which, for the core of Israel’s political class, was simply not worth the risk. Even as resolute a partisan of Greater Israel as Menachem Begin was always wary of formally annexing Judea and Samaria, although he considered them an integral part of the Land of Israel. Indeed, a certain ambivalence characterized all governments that identified with the idea of Greater Israel: They claimed sovereignty for the Jewish state over the West Bank, yet never went so far as a legal enactment. They established dozens upon dozens of settlements as if to erase the former Green Line, yet never attempted to draw up a new boundary. Thus Israel became, literally, a state without borders.

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