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Frontier State

By Ran Halevi

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


What has most contributed to the blurring of borders since 1967, how­ever, is the absence of a national consensus as to the legitimacy and extent of Israel’s territorial sovereignty. For the unyielding believers in the idea of Eretz Yisrael, sovereignty—the product of a divine covenant—transcends every human convention. Hence no government has the authority to abandon a gift bequeathed by God to the Jewish people. For the majority of Israelis, however, sovereignty is first and foremost a political principle, by definition irreducible to transcendent authority. It belongs to the realm of man. It involves contractual engagements sanctioned by law and deter­mined in the framework of international negotiations. But in the absence of such negotiations, the very idea of a border, with its concomitant human dimension, became increasingly evanescent in the collective consciousness of Israelis. One needs to make a real effort to conceive of a national entity without a shared vision as to the physical contours of its communal exist­ence. This predicament has continually undermined Israeli society, threat­ening the social fabric of the country to this day.


In the years that followed the victory of 1967, one could identify three distinct arguments on the question of borders. The first was the bibli­cal, or messianic, argument to which I referred above. The second was the geopolitical argument—the most famous expression of which was the Allon Plan8—which sought to afford Israel strategic depth by postulating borders protected by buffer zones and a reservoir of settlements, while at the same time keeping out of areas heavily populated by Palestinians.9 The third argument was the demographic one, which the Allon Plan had attempted to address as well in its own way. According to this argument, every solu­tion other than a general retreat from the West Bank arrived ineluctably at a binational state in the best-case scenario, and the subordination of one people by another in the worst one. The Labor party, which, one sometimes forgets, took an active part in the settlement of these territories, tended to give priority to strategic considerations. As for the leaders of the Right, they tended to compound the security argument with the biblical argument, and sometimes—depending on whom they were addressing—alternated between the two.
The first two arguments have not stood the test of time. The geopolitical contention, plausible in its day, is now nullified by the prodigious advances in military technology; no amount of strategic depth can shield Israel from modern missiles. The biblical argument is not in much better shape today, either, not only because Israeli society has become less hospitable to invoca­tions of Providence as a political imperative, but also because of a growing alienation on the part of the majority of Israelis towards the partisans of Greater Israel, particularly since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. This murder, which was preached before it was committed, and was then justi­fied and even celebrated by the lunatic fringes of the extreme Right, deliv­ered a fatal blow to the idea of Greater Israel. Thus while there have always been those who invoked the Tora as the fundamental justification for an­nexation, or even for maintaining a hold on the territories, this position has little traction today in the public debate in Israel.


If the strategic argument has been losing its purpose and the biblical argument its aura, demographic considerations have been steadily gaining ground. It has been an uphill struggle, however. Until recently, successive Israeli governments and the general public have indeed remained deaf to warnings, infrequent as they were, which predicted an ineluctable slide towards a binational situation if Israel continued to occupy the territory conquered in 1967 and to establish new settlements therein. For a long time, these warnings were dismissed by both the Right and the Left: The former viewed them as undermining the realization of Eretz Yisrael, and the Left considered it simply a matter of time before a physical separation between the two peoples would be enacted in any case. Motivated by ut­terly divergent objectives, yet nonetheless convergent in their conclusions, both partisans and opponents of Greater Israel were united in brushing off a few troublesome demographers whose warnings remained largely inaudible. One such demographer even found himself chided by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir: “Ah, so you are the professor who alarms the public with your statistics.”10
It was these statistics, however, highlighted by the tragic Israeli-Palestin­ian violence of recent years, that ended up forcing a large part of the Israeli Right to abandon its dream of a Greater Israel, and a good portion of the Left mournfully to revise its naive vision of peace. Thus have both groups been compelled to revise dramatically the way they now think about sovereignty, territory, and peace.
It would therefore appear that, regarding the perception of borders, we are now living in another era, the first portents of which could be seen long before the death of Yitzhak Rabin, and even before the Oslo accords. If I had to assign a precise date to this new perception, I would go back to 1987 and the outbreak of the first Intifada. Between 1967 and 1987, the Green Line had all but vanished; Israelis had practically forgotten about it. They circulated freely in Judea and Samaria without much concern for their safety. The inhabitants of the settlements rubbed shoulders peaceably with a Palestinian population that may not have accepted them, but didn’t set out to harm them, either. The “revolt of the stones” put an end to this trouble-free coexistence, however. And if the Intifada did not bring the Palestinians any immediate political benefits, it did produce one considerable effect: The Green Line, which seemed to have disappeared, now fatefully returned to Israeli consciousness.
One could argue that, Green Line or no, the process of building settle­ments in the West Bank continued and even accelerated. But by 1987, and particularly by the eruption of the second Intifada in September 2000, aside from the agglomerations that surround Jerusalem, settlements both new and old came to resemble less and less the peaceful localities they had once been. Today they increasingly look like besieged fortresses, protected by IDF soldiers and connected to Israeli territory by special roads, themselves patrolled by the army. It could be said that in the eyes of the majority of Israelis, all ideological considerations notwithstanding, the inhabitants of these settlements appear to live beyond the borders of their country. It could even be said that they are considered to be living in a foreign country, one to which most Israelis have not ventured for years. It is surely not by chance that among the thousands of families who have just been evacuated from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, almost none have considered relocat­ing themselves to the West Bank, or even to the Golan Heights.


The construction of the security fence has placed in striking relief the resurrection of the old Green Line. In fact, it has done much more. Aside from the contentious question of the precise route it should take, it has revived the long-dormant notion of a national border—and not in an altogether bad way. The wall has restored to Israel is an image quite unlike the sentiment it communicates to many Europeans. I am not only referring to the benefits it has brought in matters of security, for in this the results are incontrovertible. I am talking rather about the different reactions, political and cultural, that the wall has produced both within Israel and abroad. It is this difference that I wish to explore by way of conclusion.
For a European today, a wall that separates one people from another instantly evokes the darker moments in the history of a continent long di­vided by fierce national conflicts, and in particular by the East-West stand­off emblemized by the Iron Curtain. It is no coincidence that the mass of barbed wire and stones that divided Berlin was called “the wall of shame.” The dissolution of the Soviet empire delivered Europe from the curse of its past divisions, but the pacification of the continent came at a price: Nation­alistic passion was extinguished, and along with it came the diminishing stature of the nation state. We now live in a time when borders have all but disappeared, and the very idea of a border seems obsolete, even suspect. The recent rejection by a majority of Frenchmen of the European constitution hasn’t changed this; the nation has been brought into disrepute, and the blessings of multiple identities, plural solidarities, and global humanism are everywhere acclaimed.
In the world in which we now live, then, Israel appears as an anomaly, and the security fence a veritable scandal that offends not only European memories of the recent past, but also individual sensibilities and globalized compassion cherished especially among the European Left. Israel is prob­ably the only Western country that is evolving counter to the new faith in a unified, borderless humanity. Indeed, this vibrant nation has, since its birth, lived in search of borders, in the forlorn pursuit of defined sovereignty, tangible territory, and a physical horizon that circumscribes a national con­sciousness at peace with itself.
The ambiguous attitude of the Palestinians on the question of borders only serves to heighten this sense of yearning. The reticence or inability of the Palestinian leadership to pronounce upon, or even discuss in public, the borders of its future state has persuaded a large cross-section of Israe­lis—on the Right as well as on the Left—that, in avoiding the question, the Palestinians may reveal a deep-seated wish that there be no borders at all. To put it bluntly, they still hope that Israel will somehow go away; and any discussion about borders will only compromise this long-standing design. One could even say that Israelis’ aspiration for a border is nourished, even exacerbated, by the Palestinian silence on the subject.


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