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Middle East Conflict and Israel’s Neighborhood

Israel’s Close Borders and Open Spaces

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The message flashed on my Blackberry as the taxi arrived in central Ramallah about 10 miles north of Jerusalem: “Marhaba! ("hello" in Arabic) Smell the jasmine and taste the olives. JAWWAL welcomes you to Palestine. For Customer Service, please dial 111.”

My T-Mobile service provider had switched again, the second time in short car trips just outside of Jerusalem on visits that I highlighted in a separate photo essay last week. The first time my service switched I was on a road east of Jerusalem, and my Blackberry picked up service from a provider in Jordan, which lies to the east across the Jordan River. These two examples of something as mundane as Blackberry service show how close the boundaries and borders are that Israel shares with its neighbors—and in the case of the Palestinians there are no set, agreed-upon boundaries.

I received another vivid reminder of how close Israel’s neighbors are in a helicopter tour of Israel organized last week by the Israel America Academic Exchange Program, in partnership with the Yitzhak Rabin Center and the Milken Institute.

Helicopter tours of Israel are often organized for visiting delegations to demonstrate how small and narrow Israel is, in order to highlight the lack of strategic depth and the challenging regional security environment. This map clearly shows the short distances that separate key areas in the region—Jerusalem and Damascus, the capital of Syria, are about 140 miles apart, or a little over a two-hour drive if there were a direct road between them.

So the obvious point of Israel’s small size can easily be seen from the air. But one thing that struck me as we flew over central Israel—inside of Israel proper and not over any disputed territories—was the open spaces. Our flight path took us from a small airport north of Tel Aviv, into north central part of the country, up through Galilee and over the northwest edge of the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Tiberias or the Sea of Tiberias. As this slideshow demonstrates we stopped at the northernmost part of Israel, and then stopped on top of the Golan, before heading down to Sderot, a city on the western edge of the Negev desert that has been targeted by rocket fire from the Gaza Strip. As we were traveling over the central part of Israel I was surprised to see so much open space and farmland in the parts of Israel not under dispute, such as the West Bank.

The closeness of Israel to Lebanon and Syria—its neighbors to the north and northeast—will require special security procedures if a peace deal is struck someday on those fronts. But the trip left me confident that if there is political will and leadership, a deal with special arrangements could be made that would safeguard the security concerns of Israel. It will require a lot of negotiations, confidence building, and support from international powers, but a deal is not outside of the bounds of reason.

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