Israel has by far the strongest military in the Middle East, yet it faces hostile forces on various fronts along its borders. The major security concerns Israel has to deal with are rocket and terrorist attacks from various groups in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as “lone wolf” and terrorist attacks from the West Bank. These are not existential threats to Israel. A nuclear Iran is considered an existential threat, but current efforts to reach an agreement to limit the scope and increase the transparency of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the fact that Israel — though it has never officially confirmed it — is thought to have a nuclear deterrent of some 80-200 nuclear warheads can address that concern.
Due to Israeli security concerns on its borders, Palestinian negotiators have agreed in the past that a future Palestinian state would be demilitarized. Israel also wants to make certain that the Palestinian Authority, which has been working with Israeli intelligence for years to thwart potential attacks on Israelis, continues this effort when and if a Palestinian state is established. Many American and Israeli officials over the years have commended the cooperation in this regard that they have received from the P.A. Palestinian security efforts in the West Bank have been a key factor in dramatically reducing attacks on Israeli civilians.
The United States is committed, and is mandated by law, to ensure Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME). This means the US guarantees Israel’s ability to counter and defeat military threats from any individual state, coalition of states, or non-state actors, such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Israel certainly does maintain the QME, both with American help and through its own resources. It has been over 40 years since Israel was involved in a war with another country. Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt continue to hold fast, despite their lack of popularity in those countries.
Many peace advocates contend that the best possible boon for Israeli security, given its QME, is to end its occupation of Palestinian lands. Israel contends it can only do so with significant border modifications and security guarantees, including the complete disarming of all Palestinian militant groups, something the current Palestinian security forces are not equipped to do and which could ignite significant intra-Palestinian violence.
The question of the security of a future Palestinian state has been raised, but has received much less attention. The Palestinians obviously have a serious concern about their external security if their state is demilitarized. But Israel has also implicitly expressed concern about this issue, as many of its leaders have openly wondered whether the P.A. could survive both internal threats from other groups and external threats in a region that is becoming even more volatile and radicalized.
Past proposals have reflected an ongoing American commitment to Israel’s security; a phased Israeli military withdrawal; agreements to allow Israeli use of Palestinian airspace and to deal with emergency situations; Israeli early warning stations jointly staffed by Israelis and Palestinians and an international armed force to work with the Palestinians to address their own security needs. The Palestinians have generally been receptive to such arrangements, but the Israeli government has generally found these arrangements insufficient. Israel has not, to date, clarified what conditions, if any, it would see as satisfactory for a complete withdrawal from the West Bank. The current government has maintained that an ongoing Israeli military presence in the West Bank — a non-starter for the Palestinians — is a necessity for Israeli security.