Samaria's Strategic Value

The advantages to Israel of Samaria's strategic heights, territorial depth and airspace -- without which her borders would be indefensible.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Michael Gottlieb, an oleh (immigrant) from the US who is a man on a mission. After moving from New York’s suburbia to Israel’s bucolic Samarian (Shomron) heartland region, he has joined the battle to save the Land of Israel in general and the Shomron in particular. His weapon of choice: his Shomron Central blog.

FP: Michael Gottlieb, welcome back to Frontpage Interview. It was a pleasure to speak with you in our previous two interviews. (Part I, click here, Part II, click here)

Gottlieb: Thanks, Jamie.

FP: Your blog’s lead-off page explores the immense strategic value of the Samarian mountain range to Israel and her citizens. Share with us its main points and arguments.

Gottlieb: Its main points are the advantages to Israel of Samaria’s strategic heights, territorial depth and airspace, without which her borders would be indefensible.

Samaria straddles Israel’s Central Mountain ridge, running north-south for 70 kilometers right down the middle of the country. This ridge runs parallel to that part of the coastal plain which is the most heavily populated, including the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Area. It is staggering to think that the western side of this ridge dominates a section of the coastal plain that is home to 70% of Israel’s population and 80% of its industry and infrastructure, not to mention numerous military installations, most major traffic arteries and its sole international airport. Were an enemy to control the Samarian heights, Israel could be shut down overnight. Moreover, the eastern side of the ridge overlooks and controls the strategic Jordan Valley, widely considered essential to Israel’s security.

People don’t realize that pre-1967 Israel, without Samaria, is just 15 km wide at its narrowest point. An enemy tank can traverse that in under 18 minutes. That’s not a defensible border. Once that weak link is broken, Israel is cut in half. Samaria serves as a buffer to the country’s nerve centers along the coast to the west and provides territorial contiguity with the Jordan Valley to the east. Its depth provides Israel with the crucial reaction time needed to mobilize forces and repel a ground invasion. It also allows her to deploy her air defense systems from forward positions along the Samarian hilltops and not from the crowded coastal plain. Short-range radar and early-warning systems positioned on the plain would have their line-of-sight blocked by the mountain ridge.

The airspace overhead is no less crucial to Israel’s security. It takes just three and a half minutes for an enemy fighter bomber to cross over the Jordan River and reach the Mediterranean. Under two minutes to reach Jerusalem. Without Samaria, Israel would lack the minimum reaction time needed to intercept enemy aircraft or deploy anti-aircraft missiles. Without this airspace, she would be defenseless.

FP: Would trading the strategic high ground of Judea and Samaria for some kind of “peace deal” in the future ever be worth Israel’s risk?

Gottlieb: That all depends on what kind of peace deal you mean. While it is theoretically possible for Israel to get the kind of deal it needs to safely and permanently decouple from Judea and Samaria, I doubt that will happen in our lifetimes, if ever. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest that such a deal is likely to materialize. The Arabs won’t compromise; their intransigence is legendary. And the gap between what could be an acceptable deal and what’s possible today is vast and growing. The Palestinians’ best offer is so far from one that Israel can afford to accept, that the odds of a mutually acceptable, successful and lasting peace deal is virtually nil. The Two State Solution has hit a dead-end.

In light of this, Israel must get off the fence and make some tough decisions now. She could capitulate and withdraw to the Green Line, but then the resultant Palestinian state would be final and irreversible. An ensuing state of war would be inevitable. Or Israel can assert full control over Judea and Samaria, undo past mistakes and keep open all her options. The latter is a lot less risky.

In any case, one thing is for sure: peace deals and regimes are transient. They can be abrogated and toppled. The strategic high ground, however, is forever and unchanging; it will always protect its possessor.

FP: You refer to the “Mountain Ridge Shield”. What is that?

Gottlieb: The Samarian mountain ridge dominates Israel’s western and eastern flank. Israeli control over the western slope provides a protective shield for the country’s major transportation arteries in the exposed coastal strip to the west. This is crucial during a wartime mobilization. Three-quarters of the Israel Defense Forces are reservists who need quick, unfettered access to the roadways during a call-up. Materiel must also be moved quickly from various points throughout the country to the fronts. An enemy presence on these heights will disrupt and delay a mobilization. But that won’t happen if Israel controls the Samarian heights.

The mountain ridge is also the world’s most effective natural tank barrier. Its steep, 1200 meter high eastern slope overlooks the Jordan Valley depression and is virtually impenetrable. There are only five east-west crossings over the length of the entire ridge. Strategically positioned at these crossings, Israel can block a large easterly invasion with a relatively small force, buying herself valuable time to mobilize.

There’s a lot of misinformation going around regarding this issue. Two-state solution advocates claim that Israel can afford to relinquish control of their Judean and Samarian land assets. Their rationalization is that the high ground is less relevant in today’s age of ballistic missiles and sophisticated weaponry. I disagree. In fact, just the opposite is true. The more advanced and destructive the Arabs’ weapons become, the quicker Israel needs to mobilize. That can’t happen if the enemy is disrupting Israel’s transportation network from the Samarian heights. Also, while missiles do destroy, it’s the tanks and troops that conquer and occupy. To defeat an enemy, there is still no substitute for a ground invasion, as was borne out by the 2002 Afghanistan and 2003 Iraq campaigns. Israel’s control of Samaria will deter such an invasion.

Remember, the next Mideast war will likely be multi-frontal.  Israel’s control of the high ground will greatly improve her odds of repelling an invasion and that will free up the army to deal with the other fronts. Without the Mountain Ridge Shield, Israel’s would be defenseless.

FP: Territorial depth and air space are some of the strategic advantages of Samaria. What is the scope of protection offered by this land?

Gottlieb: For Israel to defend her home front, she needs the ability to detect and intercept enemy aircraft and incoming missiles from a sufficient enough distance. At least 70% of Israel’s territorial depth, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean coast, comes from Samaria. That provides Israel with the airspace cushion she needs to protect her citizens.

Also, the Shomron offers commanding views of much of the country.  On a clear day, from the “Three Seas” lookout in the Samarian settlement of Itamar, the naked eye can see the Mediterranean Sea, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, as well as the Jordan Valley. That’s more than a third of the entire country visible from just one spot. Imagine what would be if Israel’s enemies were to control that and other such lookouts.

FP: If Israel were to give up Samaria to the Palestinians, can modern weapon systems and international guarantees somehow compensate her for the strategic loss?

Gottlieb: Any modern weapon system, even if based on cutting edge technology, has a limited shelf life; it’s just a matter of time before it becomes outdated. Any system requires regular updating, upgrading and eventually replacement. System can be jammed and failures can happen unpredictably. Without any territorial height or depth to fall back on and living in a very dangerous neighborhood, a slimmed-down post-withdrawal Israel cannot afford even one mistake. While weapon systems do play an important role in a country’s defense, they are no substitute for its natural topography and territorial depth. Israel cannot allow herself to gamble with her survival in such a way.

International guarantees sound nice in theory, but are in no way a sure bet. They cannot be enforced and are subject to change. Just look at UNSC Resolution 1701, adopted after the Second Lebanon War. It promised that UNIFIL soldiers will disarm Hizballah, restore full control to the Government of Lebanon and bring home the Israeli POWs. Instead, Hizballah is now armed to the teeth, our POWs still missing and Lebanon has become a virtual puppet of Iran. Israel’s northern border is again primed for hostilities. I don’t put much faith in international guarantees.

There is no justification for trading Israel’s strategic land assets for weapon systems and international promises. The only guarantor of Israel’s security is Israel herself.

FP: How well is the Shomron’s strategic advantage understood by the average Israeli? 

Gottlieb: Unfortunately, not well enough. The Israeli media and intelligentsia, enablers of the Left’s agenda, have cornered the marketplace of ideas. They suppress an open and free exchange of opinions if it runs counter to their worldview, which is very undemocratic. Thus, most Israelis are unaware, uninformed and conditioned to dismiss anything or anyone over the Green Line. The image of the settlers and the Greater Israel movement suffer from this. The Right has trouble getting its message out to the mainstream. It’s hard to convince an Israeli of the strategic importance of Samaria when he believes our hold on Samaria was born in sin.

Yet, people are finally starting to wake up. Activists and private initiatives are bringing people out to the Shomron to show them firsthand its beautiful countryside, patriotic residents and strategic importance. I’m optimistic for the future.

FP: Certainly Israel’s military leaders and strategists know a thing or two about security and defense. What is their position on giving up the Shomron?

Gottlieb: The commanders of the Israel Defense Forces know very well that Samaria is a strategic asset of the highest order. The region’s empty, wide open spaces provide ample room for air force maneuver exercises. Its hilly terrain is ideally suited for the army’s radar stations, communications towers, observation and listening posts. Far from encouraging conflict, the IDF presence on the Shomron actually discourages hostilities and stabilizes the area. I believe that Israel’s not-so-friendly Arab neighbors also appreciate Samaria’s strategic value and that helps to keep them at bay. Nothing would tempt them more than a defenseless, Samaria-free Israel. If Israel doesn’t use the Shomron for her own benefit, others will use it to her detriment.

The problem arises when some of these otherwise astute military men become our politicians, which is typical here. They seem to suddenly forget the strategic and deterrent value of the land and behave very irresponsibly.

FP: You equate the strategic importance of Samaria with the Golan Heights. What would you say to those who would charge this to be an exaggeration?

Gottlieb: Come and see for yourself. Go to any lookout point on the western slopes of the Samarian mountain range and look out towards the sea. The entire coastal plain is laid out before your feet. Witness the sweeping panoramic views of 130 kilometers of coastline, from Ashkelon to up the Carmel Mountains. Gaze upon three-quarters of Israel’s population, industry, infrastructure and roadways. Watch from above as planes take off from Ben Gurion International Airport. You are at the doorstep of Israel’s soft underbelly. Now jump in your car and drive uphill a few minutes until you reach the ridge’s summit. From here face east and peer down into the Jordan Valley abyss below. You will immediately understand why no enemy tank could cross into Israel from Jordan.

Actually, my blog doesn’t equate the strategic importance of Samaria with that of the Golan. Of the two, Samaria is more significant. The Golan Heights is indeed very strategic but it’s far from the crowded center; Samaria sits right on top of it.

I invite your readers to log on to my Shomron Central blog here to learn more about Samaria.

FP: Michael Gottlieb, as always, a pleasure.