Does Israel Really Need to Control the Jordan Valley?

The recent Israeli-Palestinian talks in Amman highlight the gaps between the two sides on security, but also opportunities.

zk feb1 p.jpg
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands on the west bank of the Jordan River during a 1999 visit / Reuters

One of the many reasons cited for the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian exploratory talks last week was the gap between the two sides on the question of security. This was particularly highlighted by Palestinian negotiator Saed Erekat's reported refusal to even enter the room when Israel brought an Israeli Defense Forces general to present its concerns.

Details have subsequently begun to trickle out from the closed-door meetings, including a report from Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv that Israel had given up on its long-held demand for sovereignty over the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, and would be satisfied with tight security arrangements along the Jordan River. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the report during a meeting yesterday with his Likud party's Knesset faction, according to the Jerusalem Post:

"I heard the reports," Netanyahu said. "I would like to say what I will do. This depends on me. I will sign a permanent agreement only if it includes Israel's remaining in the Jordan Valley. Nobody can ensure this but us. I think that we are acting responsibly and prudently and are seeing to the security of the State of Israel. This requires Israel to remain in the Jordan Valley."

Government officials said afterward Netanyahu was referring to a security presence, not a civilian one. Netanyahu has said consistently since coming into power that any agreement would necessitate an Israeli military presence along the Jordan River, and he has emphasized that point repeatedly since the revolutions in the Arab world began last year, saying the regional uncertainty makes such a security presence even more necessary.

Netanyahu's wording here is important. As I reported last year, Netanyahu's speech to Congress specifically mentioned a "long-term" military presence in the Jordan Valley, a marked shift from his previous insistence that Israel have a permanent military presence there. He dropped the demand for sovereignty in his speech to Knesset last year as well.

9-11 Ten Years LaterThe difference is significant -- "permanent" leaves no room for negotiation, as that is a non-starter for Abbas. "Long-term" allows some breathing room, as Abbas has mentioned before his willingness to be flexible on allowing Israeli troops to remain in certain areas in the West Bank for a circumscribed period of time after the signing of an agreement.

To be sure, even if Netanyahu's statements yesterday aren't necessarily a reversal of his comments to Congress, there is still a significant gap between the two sides on this issue. The Ma'ariv report claims that the Israelis demanded an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for 10 years after an agreement is signed, while subsequent reports from the Palestinian Authority put the demand at "dozens of years." Netanyahu himself has said that he envisions "long-term" as 40 to 50 years, while Abbas would be more comfortable with something closer to 4 to 5 years.

The changing Israeli consensus on control of the Jordan Valley is reflected in a recent report by Israel's Council for Peace and Security, which argues that the Israeli demand for control of the Jordan Valley is based on an outdated assessment of Israeli threats:

The central threat Israel faced in the past was that of a massive ground attack with air power support from a coalition of Arab states. Clearly, the current reality of the military balance in the Middle East renders this threat nearly irrelevant due to the collapse of the pan-Arab movement, the peace agreements Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan, and the eradication of Iraqi military forces. ...

[Even if the conventional threat were to return,] the crucial area for force deployment is the slopes leading up to the Judean and Samarian mountains. Force deployment on the slopes turn the entire Jordan Valley into a 'killing zone' of the attacking ground forces ... and in constant threat of encirclement." Besides, current Israeli military capacity allows for them to "destroy expeditionary forces within Jordanian territory long before they reach the Jordan River line." ...

"Strategic depth" with regard to the Jordan Valley and the West Bank makes a mockery of the term. With or without the Jordan Valley, Israel does not have strategic depth; it is only about 40 km across, including that valley. Thus, regardless of control of the valley, this threat must also be countered with other responses.

In other words, the report found that Israeli control over the Jordan River valley isn't as strategically important for defensive security as it once was. Still, as long as both the Israeli and Palestinian representatives distrust one another's commitment to reaching an agreement, actually finding a mutually agreeable arrangement is going to be more difficult than it has to be.