The Strategic Implications of the Peace Process for Israel

International Defense Review, January 1994.

As the peace process continues, Israeli military strategy, acquisitions, and deployments will have to respond accordingly. The first stage, involving redeployment and withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Jericho, and the transfer of authority to the Palestinians, is likely to have a relatively limited effect. Later stages, which are expected to include the withdrawal of the IDF from most of the West Bank, and new arrangements with Jordan will have much greater impact on Israeli security and strategy. If negotiations with Syria lead to an agreement on the Golan Heights, Israel will need to adjust its doctrine and deployments accordingly. In addition, the process will affect the wider Arab and Islamic world, extending from Algeria to Iraq and Iran. If these states become active participants in regional arrangements to increase common security and stability, Israel can reduce the resources devoted to longer range strategic requirements. On the other hand, if the radical states, such as Iran, Iraq, and Libya reject the agreements and continue to threaten military action against Israel, the emphasis on strategic deterrence and defense will increase.

The West Bank and Jordan

The strategic impact of the agreements on the West Bank depends on two factors: 1) demilitarization of areas handed over to the Palestinians; and 2) the degree to which the IDF maintains control over the airspace, the central mountain ranges, the Jordan Valley, and the East-West roads that connect the heights to the desert and central Israel. The major threat of a large-scale conventional attack continues to be from the East. In the long term, Israeli planners continue to be concerned that a resurgent Iraq, joined by Jordan under a fundamentalist Islamic regime, Syria, and even Iran, which has begun to repair relations with Iraq and other Arab states, could launch a combined attack, threatening the survival of the state. At the narrow points outside Tel Aviv, pre-1967 Israel is only 15 kilometers wide, and defense of these borders is impossible. However, by maintaining an early warning and long-range intelligence capability and military control along the Jordan river, the IDF can minimize degradation of its capability to respond to large scale ground attacks.

Whatever the political settlement in this area, Israel will continue to rely on offensive air power to destroy large- scale tank and artillery concentrations well before they reach the Jordan river. Thus, while ground forces may be reduced, the Israeli Air Force can be expected to seek increased capabilities, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Emphasis on ground attack helicopters such as the Apache for use against tank and artillery columns will also grow.

Unless the West Bank is demilitarized, the IDF air and ground operations in response to a large-scale attack could be blocked and harassed. Anti-aircraft systems operated by Palestinian forces in this territory could significantly hamper Israeli Air Force operations. Small units from Palestinian ground forces could also make it difficult to move tanks and artillery from Israel through the desert and to the Jordan river. Assuming that the Israeli demand for demilitarization is accepted in the formal agreements, enforcement and verification will still pose significant problems. Even with control of the borders, the IDF will probably have to assume that Palestinians will be able to obtain large numbers of small hand-held SAMs, as well as anti- tank weapons, land mines and small weapons.

Withdrawal from most of the West Bank will also have significant indirect costs, resulting from the loss of land for bases, weapons storage and forward mobilization centers, and space for holding large-scale training exercises. Israel is a very small state, with little space for additional military facilities. The IDF will be hard pressed to relocate these bases within the pre-1967 borders, and preliminary estimates suggest that this aspect alone will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Over the past decade, following the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel has already had to absorb the bases that were located in the Sinai; and further relocation may force Israel to reduce the number of facilities and the scope of exercises.

Syria and the Golan Heights

The Golan Heights dominate both northern Israel and the Damascus plain, and control of this area is of central strategic importance. In the opening hours of the 1973 war, Syrian forces succeeded in sweeping down the Heights, and, in the absence of the counterattack from Israeli reserve forces, would have been able to advance across Northern Israel. Damascus is 40 kilometers from the Israeli front lines, and the implicit threat to the Syrian capital has contributed to stability and caution. Withdrawal from the Golan and the loss of this strategic advantage could lead to instability and renewed military challenges from Damascus.

Here, as in the case of the West Bank, the strategic impact on Israel will depend on the details of any agreements. A number of alternatives have been proposed to replace Israeli forces on the Golan. From the Israeli perspective, demilitarization of this area alone is insufficient to protect against a large scale attack. The Syrian military has acquired 1400 main battle tanks in the past two years, to a total of 4800, (1000 more than the Israeli total). A major Syrian ground attack staged from just outside the demilitarized Golan Heights would be able to reach Israeli territory in a few hours, and with almost no warning time. An expanded demilitarized zone, beyond the Golan itself, would include Damascus. However, this would leave the Assad regime unprotected from internal threats and is considered to be unacceptable to Syria.

Alternatively, the United States has proposed the stationing of external forces on the Golan as a barrier to a Syrian attack. One option would involve one to two combat- ready divisions of American or American-led forces plus combat aircraft. Given the questions of long-term commitment and credibility of this foreign force, however, Israel may not be willing to stake its security on such a force.

A third alternative would involve major reductions in standing Syrian forces in the area. The Syrian standing army is twice as large as Israel's, and a surprise attack, based on forces in place, and supported by combat aircraft and SSMs with chemical warheads, could block Israeli reserve mobilization. This danger could be reduced through a major reduction in the size of the Syrian forces based in proximity to Israel. The regime would be allowed to maintain two divisions in the Damascus area for internal purposes, with some armor, but would not require T-72 tanks for this purpose.

The Golan provides also Israel with important early warning and intelligence facilities, and these will have to be replaced if Israel withdraws. One option provides for continued operation of these facilities under American or multilateral control, as in the case of the Sinai agreements with Egypt. To supplement these stations, Israel might also deploy its own high-altitude reconnaissance platforms.

Any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan is also linked to a clear end to the conflict with Syria, marked by a formal peace treaty, and the establishment of a network of interdependent and cooperative relationships. Specific confidence and security building measures would include crisis management mechanisms, frequent meetings between military commanders, pre- notification and observation of military exercises, and other CSBMs based on the CSCE model. In addition, verifiable ceilings on the acquisition of new weapons systems, both conventional and unconventional, are under discussion. This model has been successful in the case of Egypt, and the peace has been preserved for over 15 years, despite the assassination of Sadat and periodic tensions. Egypt has honored the terms of the treaty, including demilitarization of the Sinai, and officers from both countries meet and exchange information in the context of CSBMs. Similar measures with respect to Syria will balance the costs of withdrawal from the Golan and could improve Israel's strategic situation significantly.

Iran, Algeria and the Long Range Strategic Threat

The major and fastest growing strategic threat to Israel comes from the long-range missiles and chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons that are being acquired or sought by a number of countries in the region. During the six weeks of the 1991 Gulf War, the Israeli economy was essentially paralyzed by the Iraqi threat to use Scud missiles with chemical warheads against Israeli cities. Iraq was also close to reaching a nuclear weapons capability, and there is considerable evidence that Saddam also had an advanced program to develop biological weapons.

The proliferation of missiles and non-conventional weapons in the Middle East continues to accelerate. Libya, Syria, and Iran have significant stockpiles of chemical weapons, and all three have or are acquiring long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching targets in Israel. (Iran and Syria have recently deployed the North Korean Nu Dong missile, with a range of 1000 kilometers, and are reported to be acquiring production facilities for this missile.) Immediately after the international sanctions are lifted from Iraq, Baghdad can be expected to recover these capabilities.

The greatest threats to Israel and to the region are posed by the efforts of Iraq, Iran, and Algeria to acquire nuclear weapons. (Libya has sought an assembled weapon or fissile material ready for assembly.) In the absence of active intervention, Iran is expected to become a nuclear power by the year 2000 and perhaps earlier if cooperation with Germany expands. Under the Islamic fundamentalist regime, Iran has actively opposed the peace process and supported Hizbollah guerrillas operating out of Lebanon against Israel, as well as the Hammas guerrillas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. Iran is seen as the most active of the remaining radical and "rejectionist" states, and the greatest threat.

Thus, regional stability and Israeli security depend on removing or substantially reducing the threat posed by these states and their unconventional weapons. However, here the impact of the peace process is weakest. Iran, Iraq, and Libya have refused to participate in the negotiations and have denounced the Arab states and Palestinians who have agreed to recognize and deal with Israel. The military government in Algeria has agreed to participate in the multilateral negotiations, including the workshops on arms control and regional security, but work on the nuclear program continues, and is likely to fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who are challenging the military for control.

Unless Iran, Iraq, and Libya are brought into the negotiations, or their nuclear programs (along with Algeria's) are halted, the strategic threat to Israel from these countries will continue to grow. Without the inclusion of these states, regional arms limitation efforts aimed at slowing or stopping the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction will not get off the ground. Israeli leaders have said that they expect the international community, led by the United States, to block these threats before weapons are produced, but the Iraqi precedent does not provide confidence that much will be done.

As a result, even if the peace process is fully successful with respect to the Palestinians, Syria, and Jordan, Israeli security will still be threatened by the growth of long-range strategic threats. This will lead Israel to place even greater emphasis on its strategic deterrence, early warning, and pre-emptive capabilities. In addition, Israel is paying greater attention to the potential for ballistic missile defense as means of blunting a first strike, allowing for massive retaliation.


The peace process will result in significant changes in Israeli strategy and policies, but the specific nature of these changes depends directly on the details of the agreements. Withdrawals and redeployments on the West Bank and Golan Heights will lead to increased emphasis on early warning and offensive air capabilities. In the long term, demilitarization of these areas, as well as other measures to reduce Arab offensive capabilities, both conventional and non- conventional, can allow Israel to reduce the resources allocated to defence. However, given the political instability in the Middle East, unless Iran and Iraq are brought into this process, Israel will be forced to maintain its long-range strategic deterrent.