Emanuel Shahaf

Israel at 65, land without borders

It is widely accepted that Israel is an exceptional country but there is one thing about it which is absolutely unique: It is the only country in the world without recognized borders. Sure enough, there are countries that have border disputes with their neighbors but these disputes are over borders already recognized by the international community. Israelis however are not that lucky. Only parts of Israel’s borders are recognized: With Egypt the border was settled in 1979, after Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, along the lines drawn by representatives of the Ottoman and British Empires in 1906. The border with Jordan has two parts that are recognized and agreed upon between Jordan and Israel, a northern section along a short stretch of the Jordan river and a southern section from the middle of the Dead Sea down to the Red Sea but a 100 km gap remains in between, the eastern border of the West-Bank. While Jordan’s western border is along the Jordan river, Israel’s eastern border is not, as long as it occupies the West Bank and the status of that territory remains in dispute.

The situation is different with Lebanon: Israel has withdrawn to a UN acknowledged “Blue Line” which hugs the international border agreed upon by the British and the French in 1923 but is not identical to it and is not a “recognized international border”, pending an agreement with Lebanon. And with Syria ? Since 1967, Israel occupies the Golan Heights, Syrian territory and the border there is a cease-fire line, not more and not less, as it was between the years 1949 and 1967.

Interestingly enough, Israel has never clarified what territory it claims. After the Balfour Declaration of 1917 when the issue of a Jewish National Home in Palestine first became practical after two thousand years, the Zionist Movement was asked to propose which territory it should include. In February 1919 it submitted a map to the Paris Peace Conference that included what later became Israel, the West-Bank and narrow strips of territory that belong to what today are Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, then British and French mandates. That was almost 100 years ago. Since then Israel has been unwilling or unable to spell out what territory it is willing to settle for.

In the negotiations conducted with Syria by Israel’s government in the 1990ties and 2000, Israel never said what border exactly it wants, it only said what it doesn’t want: A return to the armistice lines of 1949 (which are not identical to the international border delineated between the British and the French in 1923). One big advantage along this border is the fact that nobody really knows where the international border lies thus leaving plenty of room for creative diplomacy where both sides, should they get around to talk to each other again after the civil war in Syria is settled, could claim that they got what they demanded.

In the West-Bank, Israel’s claims remain flexible but undefined depending on political realities, wishful thinking and the presence of Jewish settlements and population centers. One thing they are not: Based on some broad national-security concept. Looking at the winded path of the separation fence-wall-obstacle which is still being built along the Eastern border of the West-Bank and in the Jerusalem area, the absence of a concept is as clear as is the eventual impossibility to maintain the border along the path of the fence. For the time being the fence is what one could call “occupational therapy”, an obstacle erected to maintain an occupation under the best of circumstances for the occupier, to prevent armed incursions into the occupiers heartland at the cost of proliferating much of the very misery among the occupied that causes most of these incursions in the first place.

The temporary nature (46 years) of the situation in the West-Bank has another side-effect: Close to 300,000 Israelis, those living in the West-Bank, have no idea for how long they will be able to live there. This is probably a unique situation for citizens living in their own homes anywhere. Many of them will eventually have to move once Israel comes to an agreement with the Palestinians that will be sanctioned by the international community.

It is easy to see that this situation does not bode well for political stability although at present, the government of Israel, its major political parties  and most citizens as well, despite Obama’s recent reminder and a sizzling West-Bank, seem to be blissfully unconcerned over our unresolved problems with the Palestinians and the lack of recognized borders. Should they get worried, they can always relax by taking a dip along the one undisputed border that Israel has, the Mediterranean Sea.


About the Author
The author served in the Prime Minister’s Office as a member of the intelligence community, is Vice Chairman of the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce, Vice-Chairman of the Israeli-German Society (IDG), Co-Chair of the Federation Movement (, member of the council at and author of "Identity: The Quest for Israel's Future".