Are the pre-1967 borders really indefensible?

The key sticking point (leaving aside East Jerusalem for the moment) to a land-for-peace deal on the Israeli side is the contention that the pre-1967 borders are indefensible. Is this true?

Looking at history, it would not appear to be so. The pre-1967 border was the cease-fire line at the end of the 1948 war. Israel survived two wars, in 1956 and 1967, from that border. Indeed, the most serious danger to Israel occurred in the 1973 war, when it held the occupied territories.

At present, Israel holds a commanding military superiority over its neighbors. Not only is its military spending some 30% more than Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon combined, its troops are much more highly trained and equipped with considerably more modern weapons.

So the question is – can Israel pull back to the 1967 border and be secure within its borders? Though I know this is a near-impossibility, I beg that we keep partisanship out of this discussion and focus on the military feasibility. Thanks.


SuaSponte, Israel, as far as I can see, has never had a problem defending itself. Do you have examples of Israel being unable to defend itself?

Sweet Willy, try reading the OP again. Perhaps then you’ll grasp what I’m talking about.



You actually ask a good question. I had the same question myself a while back.

However, you are making the assumption that because Israel is better equipped, etc. today and might be able to defend a land only nine miles wide today, they will continue to be able to do so in the future. This is not necessarily so. For all that we know, new found wealth could come to one of the nations you mention and they’d be able to increase their military budget. Or the U.S. could cut back on it’s aid to Israel. In short, just because Israel is militarily superior today (and maybe could defend the '67 borders today doesn’t mean that they should just throw away their margin of safety.

It’s also possible to postulate that Israel was extremely lucky (or had Divine aid, if you wish) in the '56 and '67 wars. Had the Arab nations gotten the jump on the Israelis in '67 as they did in '73, who knows if Israel would be here today?

Zev Steinhardt

Zev - good point, but I’d prefer that we order this discussion to first discuss whether the 1967 borders are defensible today, then, if necessary, discussing the possibility/probability of a future change in the regional balance of power.

My reasoning is that if the borders aren’t defensible today, then there is no need to discuss future changes.


“Defensible” is a tough term. Anything is defensible if you have unlimited assets, just as any position can be taken with enough assets.

Rather than play semantics, I think it’s pretty clear that Israel is signifantly more able to repel attack with wider borders and the buffer of the occupied territories.

Surrounded by hostiles, and with a history of attack against them, I can understand Israel’s reluctance to put themselves at such a significant tactical disadvantage.

I think they could defend themselves against most conventional attacks from their known adversaries for quite some time either way, but it would be much more costly without the occupied territories.

To give an analogy, it’s like a chess game. Even with the occupied territories, Israel’s enemies get the first move. Give those territories up, and it’s akin to giving away the first five moves. It’s still possible to win, but it becomes a much more costly and difficult endeavor.

I know you are (really) talking about the West Bank, but I think this is apropos

The Golan Heights is less strategicalyy important now that Syria (& Iraq & Iran & Lybia) have Missiles capable of hitting Israel proper, than it was from 1967 until the early 80’s. Mainly it is a great point for the Israelis to monitor Damascus and Syrian troop movements. A lot of the stuff you read the Israeli strategist in the next Arab-Israeli war sweating about is a sudden Syrian armor strike - this is one of the “biggees”

In order to get (or allow) Israel hand over the Golan, most plans (none have gotten off the ground) take that into account & call for demilitarized zones or areas of limited troop deployments that must extend further into Syria than they do into Israel.

The Israelis also want to maintain a vantage point to monitor Syrian deployments. So, most deals call for regular satellite and monitoring by the U.S. & in some cases UN officials.

So to the OP: I think that could work on the West Bank proper too. A no weapon zone (thinking artillery or heavy weapons, ideally mean guns tho) in the Palestinian state, monitored by the UN or CIA, along the Israeli border. Certainly no foreign army over the Jordan River – and maybe a no troops zone near Israel for the Palestinian Army.

That would make Israel about as secure as she is today…

So short answer: IMHO yes it is defensible but it must include monitoring and realistic concessions by all sides.

Sua I would love to get into this debate. I actually have some real world experience to relate to this very question. Although I hate to do this I think your OP leaves out some very important information. Before anybody can give you a straight forward yes or no you have to define:

  1. Who are they supposed to be defensible against?
  2. What type of attack are we supposed to be defending against.
    Disclaimer up front: I am extremely biased toward Israel.

SuaSponte, What are you basing your argument on? The claim that the border is not defensible, or do you have an example of Israel being unable to defend the border? Israel may claim the border to be indefensible but I can’t fathom why. It has been defended and extended many times. I have closely examined the maps of the '48 and '67 borders. Either of which appears more defensible than what we have today.

Sweet Willy, once again it appears you haven’t read the OP, or haven’t grasped its meaning. I’ll try one (and only one) more time:

A stumbling block to a land-for-peace deal is that the Palestinians (and Syrians) want all of the territory seized by Israel in the Six-Day War. Many, likely an overwhelming majority, of Israelis sincerely believe that withdrawing from every inch of the occupied territories would be strategic suicide - Israel would be left without strategic depth (at some points, the country would be only 9 miles wide), as well as the loss of tactically (and perhaps strategically) important high ground.

The question of the OP is - are the Israeli concerns about the indefensibility of the pre-1967 borders justified? It wasn’t an “argument” - it was a question that I hoped would start a debate on the subject.

Got it? Everyone else in this thread has grasped the question.

nswgru1 you, biased towards Israel? I’m shocked! :smiley:
Anyway, for the clarifications you seek.

  1. Let’s look at the worst-case scenario - a joint attack by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and a hypothetical Palestinian state. I honestly don’t see parts of the worst-case scenario coming to fruition - at least for the foreseeable future, participation by Iraq would immediately bring in the U.S. But anyway, let’s consider it.

  2. Conventional attack

Scylla, you’re points are valid, but you demonstrate the problem here. Israel presents as fact something that is really opinion. How close can we get to fact about Israeli security behind the '67 borders? I know we can’t get all the way there - issues like demographics, political trends, future U.S.-Israeli relations will all play a role, and they are impossible to fully predict, but hey, that’s why I put this in GD, not GQ?

But again, let’s start with the present balance of forces.

  1. Assuming strategic surprise (which, IMO, would eliminate at least initial Iraqi involvement), could Israel beat off an invasion by its immediate neighbors with acceptable losses behind the '67 borders? For this purposes, and only these purposes, let’s call “acceptable losses” a 25% casualty rate among combat troops. I’m willing to change that figure as needed.

  2. Assuming no strategic surprise, but Iraqi involvement, same question.

  3. After that, let’s make some guesses about the future.


Sweet Willy , I’m looking at the posts, and I don’t see where Sua is suggesting the borders are indefensible. She seems to me to be asking the question “are they indefensible?” This is an important question because it goes to the heart of Israel’s land for peace debate. (If I’d have figured out that “preview” button 5 min ago I could have saved some typing, I see Sua has said the very same thing). I think it would be difficult to defend a country that is so narrow in the middle and up against the sea. You have no room for maneuver and nowhere to fall back. I’m not sure it’s indefensible, but it’s a lousy place to be.


I don’t know. You really can’t calculate those things. What kind of attack? How well orchestrated? What kind of luck and tactics do both sides face? What’s the weather? Is it a multinational all-out effort, or just somebody taking a potshot or making a gesture?

We really don’t know if they can defend it against a specific attack until it happens. Remember the impenetrable Maginot Line?

I don’t think you can reasonably say more than that Israel’s current position is superior to its previous one in terms of defensibility.

It is this way because the current position affords Israel a bigger buffer zone, better observation, and it’s costly land to take, causing an enemy to expend significant resources before getting to Israel proper.

Scylla, bubby, work with me here. If we can resolve this issue, we should be able to present a viable peace plan to the world.

Picture it “The Straight Dope Message Board - Winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.” The Reader wouldn’t even think of charging for access to the Boards - they’d have banner ads coming out the ying-yang! :smiley:


I’m trying Sua, but simple answers to complex problems are few and far between. I don’t see it being a wise move for Israel to give up control of the occupied territories. I don’t think they’ll consider it, and I don’t think they should.

I don’t think those territories, or the defensibility of the borders is really the base issue either, if we’re going for Nobel prizes.

The big problem is that Israel is surrounded by people who want to wipe them off the fucking map, and make the first Holocaust look like a warm-up.

So, if you want to bring a lasting peace to the Middle East, you can:

  1. Wipe Israel off the fucking map

  2. Make Israel so tough and dangerous that nobody wants to mess with it because the payback is such a bitch, and nobody’s got a chance in the first place (this is basically Israel’s strategy.)

  3. Change Arab hatred of Israelis and jews (good luck)

Note that #s 2 and 3 are somewhat at odds.

The idea behind the concessions and withdrawals is that Israel shows it’s a swell guy and just want to get along, thus causing the Arabs to think “Hey maybe those Jews ain’t so bad.” I’m not sure why people think this will work this way, since there is tons of evidence that the exact opposite happens and the concessions are copnsidered a sign of weakness. The other possibility behind the call for concessions is just to stop the escalation and put a patch on things for the time being.

Israel is reluctant in this area as they have experience with their neighbors to guide them, and they don’t want to take chances with messing with #2, hich is the only thing that seems to work. Nor do they want the occupied territories watched by the CIA, spy sattelites, the UN, or anybody else other than themselves. Why should they entrust the safety of their nation into another’s fickle hands?

The problem is that the Palestinians won’t be satisfied with anything less than the total destruction of Israel, and they have a lot of sympathetic friends.

I don’t think a lot of people realize that Israel is protecting itself from a genocidal attacker. They shouldn’t give an inch. They’re facing total warfare from their enemies where the civilian populations themselves are massed against them.


Israel is stronger relative to the Arab world than it was in 48, 67, or 73. In a conventional war the same ultimate result would follow. It doesn’t really matter what its borders are in the end. The major difference this time would be that there are rockets (200 in Syria alone) that can reach & fairly wildly/indiscriminately blow up pieces of Israel proper. Still I’d think of it as a “London during the Blitz” terror threat rather than militarily determinate of outcome.

If you take the conventional stipulation off, and I think you have to … Syria’s whole total war with Israel strategy apparently involves chemically loaded rockets … Saddam certainly wouldn’t hold anything back at this point … I think ultimately the result would be the same, tho Israeli population/civilian losses will be much higher.

I can’t imagine them starting to throw nukes back and forth (Saddam’s 2-3 (tops) vs. Israel’s 200? or so) but if they did it would be the same result … an Israeli victory.

Re OP: All of this says to me though where to draw the border-line is important for religious, political, water, emotional, symbolic, & personal security issues … but it is not overwhelmingly a military/strategic issue that drives the border debate

Disclaimer: You will not like this answer.

Here are the knowns of this scenario:

  1. Attack is imminent= no negotiations are going to stop it.
  2. It is a conventional attack from 3 main areas of thrust.
  3. For the sake of believablity the hand of G_d isn’t going to come out of the sky and crush the opposing armies.
  4. And I think this is important the picture that Scylla paints in regards to Arab intention and attitude is correct. (I happen to agree but for the sake of argument lets take it as a known)
    Well I started to write down this great big long thesis of what would happen and how it would go down but decided f*ck it. What would happen is the country would be split in half and the Israeli army would be chopped up piece meal. The Israeli airforce would be (probably) blown to bits from a hail storm of small rocket fire while it sat on the ground and what would happen is that within a months time there wouldn’t be but 2 Jews left in the entire middle east.

This all takes into account that the bickering that usually plauges Arab armies will occur AFTER the killing has stopped.

Personal note: The thought of the occupied territories being handed over to the palestinians with NO agreements to arms limitations is a thought that is really hard for me to even think about. The massacre that would ensue would make Hitler look like Mr Rogers. Seriously.

Oh as a side note you can rest assured that Bagdad, Damascus, Cario would be nuked and the Piramids and the Spinx would glow like they were lit up at a Iron Maiden concert.

I will go through the whole senario if anybody is interested but someone will have to request it before I trudge through the whole thing.

nswgru1 is being dramatic.

The infamous ‘nine-mile-wide’ strip is right in line with Jordan. Jordan has never had much of an army. If Jordan started to get aggressive, I would expect the IDF to simply retake whatever part of the West Bank made them feel safer, regardless of who lived there. Witness how swiftly the latest crackdown has occurred. As for any new Palestine, Israel will never let the Palestinians acquire heavy armor. So forget the east as a conventional threat. Guerilla, yes.

The concept of the Israeli air force being destroyed on the ground is kind of funny, as that’s pretty much what happened to the Egyptian and Syrian air forces in '67 and '73. One can safely assume the Israelis will own the skies and any invading force will recieve a heavy pummeling.

Egypt is no longer a threat due to the treaty, but even if it were, it wouldn’t be too much trouble for the IDF to take a buffer zone in the Sinai again.

If Syria has the Golan, they have artillery range to several Israeli population centers, as well as Mount Hermon, with the advantage of height and terrain everywhere. The IDF would have to counterattack from the valley bottom while still watching the Lebanese border. Not good. I would expect Israel to win such a conflict, as Syria is not the military power it was in '73, but it’s best that they keep the Golan and make sure it doesn’t happen anyway.

Keeping the land has two pluses - it both discourages and defends against attack.

Barton you might think it is dramatic but the taken the knowns into consideration at the begining I don’t think it is dramatic at all. You are correct in your assesment that Jordan has never been all that strong militarily. That is not so for the Iraqis. I have personally wondered why Saddam never made an armored thrust north westward durring the Gulf war if his intention was to draw the Israelis into the fight. (I personally feel that Bush #1 did an amazing feat of diplomacy keeping them out) Secondly even as we speak Saddam has at least 2 armored divisions along the northern border with Jordan right now. It isn’t hard to fathom these divisions moving across Jordan and being in position to launch a major offensive within Israel through the WB should the political climate allow.

You are however correct about Egypt. Initially (and I mean the first week to ten days) the Egyptian army wouldn’t be that big of a threat. But in our little make believe game we are playing here peace treaties are worth the paper they are written on after a visit to the head.

Everybody here has to understand that the Israeli army has three advantages over her enemies:

  1. The speed at which they can mobilize
  2. The understanding of the army that it truly is their ass on the line
  3. Technology.

In that order. As a side note if you haven’t seen the speed at which the Israeli army can get rolling you haven’t seen the anything it is almost mind blowing. It makes the US look like the three stooges.

One needs only to look at the 1973 Yom Kippur War to see exactly how imperative the Golan Heights are for the defense of Israel.

The Israelis held the Golan Heights at the outset of that war. The topography of the Heights allowed Israel to guard that entire section of the border with about two hundred tanks. As it happened, when Syria attacked without warning on October 6, there were only about 160 serviceable Israeli tanks on the line.

The Syrians attacked with 1,400 modern tanks. For 48 hours, the Israelis delayed the attack by utilizing prepared positions and slowly, inevitably releasing ground. The terrain allowed the Israelis to maneuver without being directly exposed to Syrian anti-tank weapons.

The only reason why Syrian armor wasn’t on the outskirts of Tel Aviv by October 8 is because the topography of the Golan Heights provides only two gaps through which armor can reliably travel. One is now known as Emek Habacha, the “Valley of Tears,” and it was through this gap that the Syrians concentrated. It is only about seven miles wide. About 100 Israeli tanks were engaged there, and ninety-three of them were destroyed before reinforcements arrived. In 1973, Israeli armor held no significant advantage over that of Syrian armor. Geography was the only thing in their favor.

The Syrians actually invested most of the Heights and had begun to push into the valley below before the Israelis counterattacked and drove them back (unlike the Israelis, the Syrians did not have the luxury of prepared positions). The Israeli counterattack was nevertheless extremely costly, because the Syrians made excellent use of infantry anti-tank and -aircraft weapons.

Most of the Israeli tankers engaged in the Valley of Tears were killed or wounded, and the crisis did not end when mobilization kicked in because the situation was so dire that the relief arrived piecemeal and was as often as not destroyed as soon as it was fed into the line. It is really quite impossible to overexaggerate how desperate the situation was for them; the Israeli forces were within hours of cracking completely.

It is also worth noting that the Israelis were able to mobilize more effectively because of the holiday. Most of the Israelis were at home, and therefore were able to quickly join their local reserve units and move out within two days. The Syrians will never forget that mistake, I can assure you.

In Israel’s brief history, Syria has used the Golan Heights as a springboard for invasion twice and was planning to use it a third time when they were preemptively attacked (1967). Throughout the mid-1960s they allowed Yassir Arafat’s al-Fatah to use the Heights as a platform from which they shelled and sniped the valley below.

The Israelis to not control the entirety of the Heights, but only to just past the most prominent ridge line. The gaps work in both directions; an Israeli attack on Syria today would have to penetrate a U.N. security zone, followed by a frontal assault on prepared Syrian positions, constricted by the same geographical features that led to the Syrian defeat.

As it is, both sides can now guard approximately twelve miles of territory. If either side controlled all of the heights, the other would instantly be required to guard something like forty-five miles of territory which would be observed from superior positions. Virtually all of the non-Israeli inhabitants of the region fled the area in 1967 to Lebanon and Syria, and have long since made other living arrangements. Aside from water rights, there is no reason for Syria to wish for the return of the territory, save one.

I’ll let you guess what that one reason might be.

I’m sorry, I made an incorrect statement above. Currently the Israelis control all of the Golan Heights, with the exception of a small strip of its eastern plateau, which is held as a buffer zone by the U.N. I was under the mistaken impression that the buffer zone extended all the way to the ridge line. That has some serious implications for Syria’s perception of security.

Here is a sort-of decent map:

I also should not have been so flippant about the water rights issue, which is in fact a fairly big deal. A rather nasty exchange resulted when the Syrians attempted to divert the River Jordan–and about a third of Israel’s water–to the Syrian side of the fence back in 1964.