Understanding Bibi’s controversial campaign pledge on the Jordan Valley

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announces his intent to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley in the near future, at a press conference on September 10.

 

Election promises should always be taken with a grain of salt, but especially Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s promise on September 10 to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea should he win Israel’s general election on September 17.

The Jordan Valley, a hot, arid plain bordering Jordan and split in two by the Jordan River, is sparsely settled, with the exception of the city of Jericho and its environs (populated by some 65,000 Palestinians), which would remain under control of the Palestinian Authority under Netanyahu’s plan. It is also home to a small number of Israeli agricultural settlements (pop. 8,000).

While most discussions of Israel’s presence in the West Bank revolve around settlements, Israel’s foremost interest in the Jordan Valley is security. Every Israeli prime minister and major security official since 1967 has stressed the importance of Israel retaining some form of security presence at the Jordan River, even in the framework of a two-state peace outcome with the Palestinians.

For example, on October 5, 1995, in his last-ever Knesset speech, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said:

“[This is what we] envision and want in the permanent solution [with the Palestinians] …

B. The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.”

On May 21, 2001, speaking as prime minister, Ariel Sharon said:

“The Jordan Valley will remain in Israeli hands forever. And when I speak of the Jordan Valley… I am talking about an eastern security zone whose western borders are the mountain range located to the west of the Allon Road.”

While precise details of their own peace plans have never been released, Prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert reportedly demanded arrangements in the Jordan Valley that would have involved a continued Israeli security presence in the territory alongside Palestinian forces.

For more information about the importance of the Jordan Valley to Israel’s defence in any peace agreement, see General (Res.) Uzi Dayan’s detailed analysis from 2012 here and a 90-second video clip from Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President and former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold in 2013 here.

The map Netanyahu unveiled on Tuesday was consistent with that bipartisan vision of Israel’s security needs in the Jordan Valley, with the western contours of the area he proposed extending Israeli sovereignty to ending at the Allon Road – and it’s worth noting, smaller than what prime minister Sharon envisioned.

This strategic road, to allow observation of movements in the valley below as well as the rapid transfer of forces along the perimeter, was itself built decades ago in line with the security plan based on laying the groundwork for territorial compromise with the Palestinians, which was drafted by one of early Israel’s most trusted military minds, the late Yigal Allon of the Labor party.

Like Sharon’s vision of the Jordan Valley as an eastern security zone, Netanyahu sees it as an area that requires a measure of strategic depth to enable freedom of movement militarily. In this way, it’s also important to take note how Netanyahu’s sovereignty plan for the Jordan Valley differs from his stated intention about extending sovereignty to West Bank settlements generally. In the past, Netanyahu has spoken about only applying sovereignty on the settlements themselves and not for the vast territory around them. It is apparent from his September 10 speech that the Jordan Valley is a special case, due to the unique role it plays in securing Israel’s eastern border.

Moreover, Israeli legal experts have pointed out that Netanyahu’s September 10 announcement was ambiguous and unclear whether he is talking about annexing land, applying Israeli law to certain areas or just to Israelis living there.

While Netanyahu’s announcement sparked a tone of alarm in international media, including here in Australia, his speech was seen by most Israeli political analysts, as little more than cynical pandering for votes.

Political columnist Yossi Verter from the left-wing Ha’aretz dismissed Netanyahu’s speech as mere “bells and whistles”. Far from being alarmed by a plan to unilaterally extend sovereignty to any part of the West Bank, as one might expect from an analyst for Ha’aretz, Verter waved it off as something highly unlikely to be implemented:

“The newly declared intention will only be realized if he is elected, and if he gets to form the government and if the White House – headed by a mercurial and volatile president who is not concealing his eagerness to hold a meeting with Hassan Rohani of Iran – graces it with its blessing. Don’t hold your breath.”

Similarly, Ma’ariv columnist and Netanyahu biographer Ben Caspit dismissed Netanyahu’s announcement as “meaningless”, pointing out on Wednesday (in Hebrew), if Netanyahu had wanted to, he could apply sovereignty to the Jordan Valley immediately and not wait until after the elections – according to Israeli law, a simple cabinet decision is all it would take. Caspit added that Netanyahu had not discussed his intent regarding changing the status of the Jordan Valley with Israel’s security establishment in advance – something he would certainly have done if he were serious about going through with it. Caspit further claimed, albeit without verification, that Netanyahu had sought approval of the announcement from the Trump Administration but failed to obtain it – something that would also lend credence to the idea that Netanyahu have great difficulty delivering on the promise even if he intended to.

(Officially, the US has stated that its policy regarding the future of the Jordan Valley has not changed.)

Yediot Ahronot columnist Ben-Dror Yemini depicted Netanyahu’s announcement as playing politics with Israel’s security and pointless pandering to strengthen the Likud at the expense of parties on its right:

“There’s a massive difference between annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley with no peace accord, and annexing settlements and the Jordan Valley with one. So ultimately, this move is only detrimental to Israel. If before Tuesday there was no real international front to dispute Israel’s hold of the Jordan Valley, now there certainly will be.”

The Jerusalem Post’s Knesset reporter Gil Hoffman reminded readers that Netanyahu had made promises to satisfy right-wing demands many times in the past, including his vow to develop the controversial “E-1” neighbourhood of Ma’ale Adumum, east of Jerusalem, only to later come up with repeated excuses for delaying action.

Not every analyst has been critical of the announcement. At Israel Hayom, Amnon Lord and Caroline Glick struck a positive tone. Writing in Hebrew, Lord called it a “very significant change” but worked on the assumption, unlike Caspit, that the Trump Administration supported the announcement behind the scenes. Meanwhile Glick, who is an outspoken proponent of Israel extending sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, wrote “Netanyahu is right… It is important that the Israeli public also understand that he is right.”

It is revealing that Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley plan was met with a generally muted response in the Arab world.

Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former deputy head of the National Security Council, explained to the Jerusalem Post that leaving aside the question of “how willing or unwilling Arab leaders may be at this delicate moment to step on the toes of [US President Donald] Trump just a week before he may or may not meet with [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani, the Arab leaders have a very different set of priories across the region.”

For additional reading, the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) has produced a brief fact-sheet on Netanyahu’s announcement with important contextual information. The Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA)  has also published an analysis of the announcement.