This memorandum analyzes Jerusalem’s importance from a strategic security perspective and its contribution to the survival of the Jewish state. 1  Jewish control of the hilltops in the Jerusalem area has major strategic implications for the security of the coastal strip and for designing a defensible border for Israel in the east along the Jordan River. Ideas about dividing Jerusalem or allowing Arab control in parts of the Greater Jerusalem area not only weaken Israeli sovereignty and compromise Jerusalem’s status as the capital of the Jewish state, but also jeopardize Israel’s future. Greater Jerusalem is an Archimedean point for controlling and maintaining security in the Land of Israel west of the Jordan.

Vital Strategic Depth

Over 60 percent of Israel’s Jewish residents live in the coastal strip between Hadera and Rehovot. This narrow strip is an extremely dense urban area by any international standard. Its narrowest width, between Netanya and Tulkarem, is only 15 kilometers. This strip is dominated from the east by the slopes of the mountains of Samaria and Judea. Along with the dense population concentration, many strategic assets are located in this narrow strip—for example, Ben-Gurion Airport, Ashdod Port, power stations, banking headquarters, arrays of computerized databases, vital military bases, and the main headquarters of all the security branches—the IDF, the Mossad, and the General Security Service (Shin Bet).

These vital assets are observable from the slopes of the mountains that overlook the plain from the east, particularly the mountains of Samaria, and also are within the range of short-range rockets (less than 40 kilometers). Within this range, these targets are also easily accessible to incursions by motorized commando forces and even infantry units.

Even in the context of modern warfare, the value and indispensability of territorial depth as a basic condition for defensive warfare are undeniable. General Aharon Yariv defined strategic depth as “the space between the forward-most front line at which a state can maintain military forces for its defense without impinging on another state’s sovereignty, and its vital territory.” 2 He added that gauging strategic depth needs to consider the ratio between the length of the front line and the size of the territory that must be defended.

According to this definition, the Israeli territory within the narrow coastal strip lacks strategic depth and conditions for defensive warfare. The problematic ratio between the length and the width of this strip points to the operational distress in attempting to defend the coastal plain from 1967 borders.

Even in modern warfare, territorial depth is a basic condition for defensive warfare.

Ever since the War of Independence, the political leadership and the IDF General Staff understood that the narrow and lengthy coastal strip whose borders were the 1949 armistice lines (known as the 1967 borders) was not defensible. Hence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s national security concept was based on rapidly transferring the war into enemy territory; that is, an immediate transition to offense.

If a Palestinian state is established on the basis of the 1967 borders, the coastal strip will revert to its previous status as a territory lacking the depth required for defensive warfare. According to the “Clinton Parameters,” which assume an almost complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 line, the border and the IDF’s forward line of deployment would again extend along the foothills of the mountains, eastern of Highway 6. This defensive space would be lengthy, depthless, and entirely vulnerable to the threat of high-trajectory fire and of surprise incursions, with no room for early warning.

Over the past 20 years, despite the threat of long-range rockets, and especially after the Iraqi missiles attacks (1991), many proponents of withdrawal have argued that strategic depth is no longer relevant. They do not view territory and topographic features as important elements in designing security borders. Instead they emphasize the political dimension of peace agreements and have emptied the notion of “defensible borders” of its content.3

Yet, this view is deeply flawed. The distance determines both the warning time and the chances of intercepting a rocket. The effective range of rockets is also predicated on the depth of the territory that is held by Israel. Moreover, the threat of a ground offensive has not vanished. Both the Hizballah forces on the Lebanese border and the Hamas forces on the Gaza border pose a growing threat of ground incursions into the Israeli interior. The depth of the territory within which an army can conduct defensive warfare remains very significant for the success of a defensive campaign.

Senior defense officials who favor considerable withdrawals for the implementation of a two-state paradigm admit that if a threat from the Palestinian territory develops, the IDF will again have to recur to a ground-offensive to remove the threat in a short, rapid war. These officials remind the Israeli public that in June 1967 the IDF was able to achieve a stunning victory with a lightning offensive from the 1967 borders.

They completely ignore, however, the fact that those feats were performed in symmetrical warfare between standing armies, which is hardly relevant today. The current form of warfare, inspired by Hizballah’s approach, displays features nonexistent in 1967. They include: (a) a large array of missiles and rockets of all ranges that are emplaced in civilian environments and ready for immediate launch without warning time; (b) a dense defensive configuration based on villages, towns, and natural cover, and on underground facilities; and (c) a highly decentralized command and control network. Israel encountered such an enemy in the Second Lebanon War (2006) and in the three campaigns in Gaza since the disengagement (2005). These new conditions will make it very difficult for the IDF to achieve victory in a lightning offensive as in 1967.

The new conditions make it very difficult for the IDF to achieve victory as in 1967.

If Israeli forces have to neutralize a threat from the West Bank cities, they will encounter major difficulties in launching the mission from the coastal plain. Mobilization areas will be exposed to monitoring and to fire from the mountain slopes. Moving along hilly routes in a dense and hostile urban area will be dangerous, since the enemy will hunker down in tenacious defense, as it has in Lebanon.

Controlling Jerusalem alleviates such severe defensive deficiency, as it did in 1967. In the 1967 War, the Jerusalem corridor, which served as a wedge in the midst of the mountain ridge, was the base for the main offensives to conquer the Ramallah area in the north and Hebron in the south. Controlling the Jerusalem area also made possible the forward thrust of Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002.

Israeli control of the Jerusalem area refers to more than the city limits. Jerusalem must be a metropolis that includes Gush Etzion to the south; Maale Adumim and Mishor Adumim, leading out to the Dead Sea, to the east; and the settlements of the Binyamin Regional Council—Beit El, Tel Zion, Michmash, Ofra, and Givat Ze’ev—to the north. It is also very important to control the East-West arteries into the city, particularly Route 443 north of the capital and Route 375 south of the capital, to save Jerusalem from being dependent on Route 1 only.

The emphasis on Greater Jerusalem as the center of gravity of the defensive system puts the potential dividing of the city in a different light. In a divided city, it would be impossible to protect the urban seam lines, crossing back and forth between the two political entities.  In addition, Jerusalem’s role in the defense of the coastal plain will be seriously compromised. Greater Jerusalem serves as a main juncture between the east (toward the Jordan Valley), the south (toward Hebron), and the north (toward Ramallah and Nablus). Jerusalem as a metropolis covering a wide area is essential to controlling the Land of Israel, as elaborated below.

Without control of the Greater Jerusalem area, the narrow coastal strip, which is dominated by the mountain ridges to the east, is not viable.

The division of Jerusalem would revert it into a border town—a remote suburb of Gush Dan (the Greater Tel Aviv area) and no more. At the same time, Israel would lose the geographic prerequisites for controlling the central mountain ridge, as well as the Jordan Valley to the East and the Mediterranean coast to the West. The division of Jerusalem would reduce Israel to a coastal state in a narrow strip of land along the sea, a strip in which the large majority of the country’s Jewish population is concentrated. Unless the Greater Jerusalem area is controlled by Israel, that narrow coastal strip, which is dominated by the mountain ridges to the east, is not truly viable.

The Key to a Defensible Border in the East

Jerusalem is an important intersection that controls the south-north axis along the watershed line of the central mountain ridge. It is also located on one of the few lateral axes that make it possible to travel by vehicle from the Jordan Valley westward toward the mountain ridges and the Mediterranean.

Indeed, a cursory look at the map shows clearly that Jerusalem is the only intersection on the watershed line, along the mountain ridge of the country that has a Jewish majority. In an invasion from Jordan, forces from the coastal plain, where most of the Jews and the emergency warehouses are concentrated, would have to make their way toward the Jordan Valley. They could only do so in relative safety if there was a Jewish majority in Jerusalem. From a strategic standpoint, the corridor from Jerusalem to Maale Adumim, and from there to the Jordan Valley, is of special importance. East of the city, Mishor Adumim—which still is not populated—can serve as a base for deployment under peacetime and emergency conditions. Because the urban space is not suitable for that purpose, the open lands along the east-west axis must also be under Israel’s control.

Many Israeli strategists, notably Yigal Alon and Yitzhak Rabin, saw the Jordan Valley as the key strategic territory to defending the country. A glance at the map, and basic familiarity with the country’s topography, remind us that between the Jordan Valley and the coastal plain are the mountains of the West Bank, and that these slopes steeply down to the valley, forming a formidable strategic obstacle. The valley lies 250 to 400 meters below sea level, while the Samarian and Hebron-area mountains rise 1,000 meters above sea level.

This means that in case of an attack from the east, an armored column must make a very steep climb of 20 kilometers, and can only do so through a very small number of passes. An army that controls the openings of these routes can block an invasion from the east. That is the strategic logic behind the Allon Plan, which also fits well with the demographic issue, as the valley has almost no Arab population.

Israel’s eastern border is its most important, since it is the closest to the Jewish population concentrations.

Israel’s eastern border is its most important, since it is the closest to the Jewish population concentrations. The aerial distance from the Jordan River to Jerusalem is about 20 kilometers, and to Tel Aviv about 80 kilometers. The Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Haifa triangle, which contains the majority of Israel’s population and most of its economic infrastructure, is close to the Jordanian border, much more so than the Egyptian or even Syrian and Lebanese borders. The importance of distancing the border from the country center has grown because in recent decades the importance of Gush Dan has grown—notwithstanding expectations that developments in communication and transportation would lead to population dispersal.

The design of the country’s borders for generations to come must not be determined by transient circumstances. Claims that conclude, due to technology or another, that “territory is of no importance” are both problematic and shortsighted, and hence simplistic from a strategic standpoint. Military technology can change.

During the history of warfare, military technologies have changed, affecting the importance of defensive or offensive deployments; Sometimes the military technology facilitated offensive capabilities, sometimes defensive capabilities. For example, the walls and fortifications of the Middle Ages enhanced defensive capabilities and endured for about five to six centuries until another technology emerged, the cannon, which put an end to the primacy of knights’ castle walls and to the old political order. True, Israel is now having a hard time dealing with missile fire, but the large investments in antimissile technologies are already bearing fruit, as in the case of Israel’s Arrow antimissile and Iron Dome systems.

Some argue that, because the Jordanian regime is not hostile to Israel, Israel need not retain the Jordan Valley. Indeed, at present, the Hashemite Kingdom has a strategic agenda similar to Israel’s, mainly because of common enemies (including the Palestinian national movement). It is also true that this regime has shown a high capability for survival.

Nevertheless, there is no way to know how long the kingdom will prevail. Jordan could be destabilized domestically by Palestinian-tribal tensions or by Islamists. A complete takeover of Iraq by Iran would also not augur well for Jordan. Thus, stability in Amman is not a constant given. Similarly, the optimistic assumption that a Palestinian entity would honor its commitments over time and refrain from joining Israel’s enemies must not determine the scope of Israel’s territorial concessions.

The optimistic assumption that a Palestinian entity would refrain from joining Israel’s enemies must not determine the size of Israel’s territorial concessions.

Essentially, the enhancement of Israel’s defensive, intelligence, and deterrent capabilities fostered by the current borders and by Israeli control of Greater Jerusalem is an important stabilizing factor in Israel’s relations with Arab states. These capabilities widen Israel’s narrow security margins and reduce the need for preemptive attacks upon signs of possible Arab belligerence. A military deployment with only limited deterrent capability against an attack, or with a weakened defensive capability, or both disadvantages together, makes for a precarious security situation and invites aggression.

The present borders, then, are a factor for continued stability, though of course it depends on political factors as well. Since the October 1973 War, Israel has not been attacked by Arab armies, and one of the reasons is the favorable defensive lines that Israel attained in 1967.

It is incumbent to design defensible borders for Israel that will withstand changes in military technology and political upheavals in the Middle East.

Thus, it is incumbent on us to design defensible borders for Israel, borders that will stand the test of change in military technology and of political upheavals in the Middle East. A policy that does not take account of scenarios with negative implications for Israel’s security is irresponsible from a national standpoint.

Professor Yehezkel Dror often reminded us that in the Middle East there is a high probability of low-probability scenarios. It would therefore be a grave strategic error to allow a foreign presence in Jerusalem and its environs that would likely jeopardize Israeli control of the best west-east axis the country has, an axis that is vital to building a security border in the east. This axis must, of course, be as wide as possible.

Counter-Terror Needs

In addition to the concerns discussed above, control of Greater Jerusalem plays a role in two other related domains: intelligence and fighting terror. The altitude of the Greater Jerusalem area gives the IDF intelligence advantages in the eastward direction, but also toward the south and the north. Dividing the city would jeopardize intelligence facilities because of the possibility of their disruption.

The claim that planes and satellites can offer intelligence facilities in lieu of those situated on mountains is only partially correct. Compared to a mountain, only limited intelligence-gathering means can be emplaced on planes and satellites. Furthermore, there are ways of shooting down planes and there are technologies for attacking satellites. It is much harder to topple a mountain.

Israel’s control of Greater Jerusalem also provides some of the means of fighting Palestinian terror. Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has not met its obligation to fight terror in the territory evacuated under the Oslo agreements. Jerusalem is situated close to some of the terror hubs, constituting a point of egress for IDF soldiers and the other security forces, and offering a mainstay for vital intelligence activities.

Greater Jerusalem and the area eastward to the Jordan River form a wedge between the dense Arab population to the south and north of Jerusalem. Without this wedge, the Arab concentrations to the south and north could enjoin and turn Jerusalem into a border town. Such a development, which the Palestinians would welcome, would alter the city’s strategic position as well as its economic and demographic fate.

Today, Arab settlement, orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority and encouraged by the European Union, is already taking place east of Maale Adumim. Minimizing the security risks entailed by Arab demographics from the south and north of Jerusalem requires the land wedge.

Israeli Control of United Jerusalem

Effective control of united Jerusalem is also essential to the security of the Jerusalem residents themselves. While technical and tactical measures are important, they are subordinate to systemic considerations.

A fence and similar obstacles are nothing more than a technical measure that soon turns ineffective. One can get under, through, or over such measures, with tunnels, breaches of the fence, or with ladders and other means of elevation. Not to mention high-trajectory weapons and sniping, against which the fence, or wall, provides no protection. Maintaining the effectiveness of the fence requires a large order of battle that is busy with continuous routine work along the fence. Surrounding the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem with fences, along the urban seam lines, requires large resources of manpower currently unavailable.

The logic of fences as a technical solution characterizes Israeli thinking that is applied indiscriminately to many operational problems. The fence along the Egyptian border has indeed provided a solution to the infiltration of African immigrants. A reliance on fences as the solution, however, deserves critical consideration. It is similar to solving traffic congestion with interchanges and additional lanes. Undoubtedly such measures help; but when they are used to solve traffic congestion in city centers, they soon exhaust themselves and even worsen the problem. An alternative solution, such as closing the city centers to vehicle traffic, turns out to be a more effective, systemic, and architectural solution. Similarly, the problem of security in Jerusalem requires a systemic rather than technical response.

Fences create a binary spatial separation that detracts from the flexibility in deploying force, reduces the effectiveness of the Shin Bet’s activity, and actually gives the enemy a protected space in which to get organized, like the haven that emerged in the Gaza Strip after the disengagement. Friction in a space that includes both Arabs and Jews is actually preferable in terms of the overall security equation. The separation proponents do not take into account the uncontrolled phenomena that result from a technical spatial arrangement that has not been thoroughly considered.

The avoidance of friction in the border areas that fall within the Arab neighborhoods, especially within neighborhoods that have found themselves outside the security wall, is seen as weakness and boosts hopes for the Palestinian struggle. The contest over sovereignty in Jerusalem will be decided precisely there, and in the empty space that is outside of Jerusalem. Israeli control of the entirety of the area, accompanied by extensive settlement to the east, the north, and the south, will foster the conditions for imposing law, order, and security in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem as well. As long as the struggle over the open space from the Mount of Olives ridge out to the Dead Sea has not been decided, the Arab neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city will constitute a bridgehead for the overall Palestinian effort.

As long as the struggle over the open space from the Mount of Olives out to the Dead Sea has not been decided, the Arab neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city constitute a bridgehead for the overall Palestinian effort.

The security issue is connected to other issues of daily life within the urban fabric: transportation, industry and employment, commerce and markets, and of course service and support facilities such as hospitals and clinics. In light of all these aspects, along with the potential for terror stemming from daily interactions at the flashpoints of all aspects of life in the urban space, any idea of dividing the city will encounter a maze of unresolvable problems. Any spatial division that aspires to hermetic security will turn Jerusalem into a space organized like a zoo: enclosures within fences, the animals inside, patrons of the zoo passing on walkways.

An understanding of the motivation behind the Palestinian struggle indicates that even if the city is divided, many Palestinians will probably remain strongly motivated to perpetrate terror attacks, along with firing at Jewish neighborhoods in the city. If Jerusalem is divided, the Jewish targets will be much closer and more accessible, and the possibilities for hitting them will be abundant. Moreover, under such a spatial arrangement, the chances of thwarting terror attacks will be much lower and more difficult, while the Palestinians’ access to weapons will increase.

The past two decades of fighting terror have proved that the struggle cannot be waged from “outside” but, rather, primarily from “inside,” with a continuous presence and the maintenance of operational, intelligence, and preventive access within the space itself.  Over the past two years, the Jerusalem police has taken a first step in this direction by gradually increasing the presence of police officers in Arab neighborhoods, and by establishing police stations there.

Political Advantages of Retaining Greater Jerusalem

Continuing to rule Greater Jerusalem has positive strategic aspects. Above all, by retaining the area despite demands for the city division voiced by the Arab world and the international community, Israel demonstrates its resolve and fortitude —a crucial element in international relations and particularly in the Middle East. Indeed, the balance of power between Israel and its neighbors has been tilting in favor of the Jewish state. One indication is that there have been no wide-scale conventional wars since 1973. The lack of attempts to attack Israel in such a war is mainly due to Israel’s power and the Arabs’ weakness.

Israel’s continuous control of Greater Jerusalem highlights Israel’s strong international position.

Continued Israeli control of Greater Jerusalem also highlights Israel’s strong international position. The international community’s apparent displeasure over Israel’s presence in east Jerusalem has not led to any serious measures. There have, of course, been anti-Israeli UN resolutions as well as condemnations. Nevertheless, Israel continues to hold all of Jerusalem and other territories. The Arabs’ inability to change the territorial status quo through military force compels them to take the diplomatic route.

The ongoing Israeli rule also creates legitimacy for making changes in the 1967 borders and for expanding the territory under Israeli sovereignty. In light of President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of April 14, 2004, Israel claims that the United States recognizes the permanence of the so-called “settlement blocs.” Although the exact definition of these settlement blocs is unclear, and there may be further arguments with Washington about their size, this is an important achievement. The United States recognizes that there are facts on the ground that cannot be eliminated. Maale Adumim, an important part of Greater Jerusalem, is included in that category. Gush Etzion, which is south of Jerusalem, apparently is also part of these “settlement blocs.”

The struggle over Jerusalem has far-reaching implications for Israel’s security and its international position.

Territorial concessions in Jerusalem will be interpreted as Israeli weakness and, inevitably, as a victory for Islam, and will encourage radical elements in the Muslim and Arab world to keep eroding the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Precisely because the importance that Jews attribute to Jerusalem is understood by some of Israel’s foes, concessions in Jerusalem will likely be perceived as the beginning of a decline in Israel’s strength.

In general, continued Israeli control of the territories, and especially of Jerusalem, contributes to the peace process. This process is built primarily on sustaining the existing power balance—with Israel strong and the Arabs weak. If Israel is weakened (a concession in Jerusalem as a clear symptom of this) and the Arab states are strengthened, then in the near future there would be no reason whatsoever for the Arabs to come to terms with the existence of the Jewish state. If they have the power and the capability to attack Israel and erase it from the map of the region—they will do so.


The struggle over Jerusalem has far-reaching implications for Israel’s security and its position in the region and the world. Jerusalem constitutes Israel’s strategic depth for the densely-populated coastal plain. Jerusalem is the main junction between the area of Judea and Samaria, separating the two areas. Its location serves for intelligence collection and for forays into the territory of the Palestinian Authority. Jerusalem is a vital link for protecting the Jordan River as Israel’s eastern security border. Only a metropolis in Greater Jerusalem will prevent the city from turning into a declining border town.

Greater Jerusalem’s strategic importance formed the basis of the Alon Plan, to which Yitzhak Rabin was committed until his last day. The development of metropolitan Jerusalem under Israeli rule is, therefore, an national mission of existential significance. Victory in the struggle will be achieved both within Jerusalem and in the territory surrounding it—the Judean Desert to the east, Gush Etzion to the south, and Binyamin to the north.

David Ben-Gurion’s saying from 1968 is still relevant: “Without a large and growing Jewish settlement in the Jerusalem area, to the east, north, and south—peace will not come to the City of David.” 4

Photo credit: Bigstock

[1] This study is an expanded version of an earlier article, published by the authors in Hashiloach (Hebrew) Vol. 4, May 2017.

[2] Aharon Yariv, “The Israeli Viewpoint,” in Elazar Pages II, ibid., 46.

[3] Actually, the Israeli left accepted the Arab interpretation of the notion of security borders, which focused on political agreements as a source of security. See Efraim Inbar, “Contours of Israeli New Strategic Thinking,” Political Science Quarterly, 111 (Spring 1996).

[4] A letter to Yitzhak Nahum, June 12, 1968. In The Old Man and the People: Personal Letters of David Ben-Gurion (Tel Aviv: Ministry of Defense, 2001), p. 197. (Hebrew)