Since Israel’s retrieval of Judea and Samaria in 1967, the Jordan Valley has been considered key to Israel’s security. Among its strategic features are the hills and ridges at the western edge of the valley which constitute a natural barrier to conventional ground forces.
A large swath along the border between Jordan and Israel (or a future Palestinian state), it is also the point at which weapons or other illicit materials will be smuggled into the country.
Because of its strategic value, alongside negotiations and concessions for peace, almost every prime minister for the past 20 years has said that Israel must remain in the Jordan Valley.
Perhaps none have talked about the importance of the Jordan Valley as much as the current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who routinely declares that Israel must “remain” in and “will never cede the Jordan Valley.” Netanyahu has thus called for a “long term” Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley under any final-status arrangement with the Palestinian Authority.
Yet under Netanyahu’s stewardship, Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Jordan Valley has become a fait accompli.
The erosion of Israel’s position on the Jordan Valley under Netanyahu appears to have begun with a reported meeting between Netanyahu and US officials toward the end of 2010 during which the US proposed that Israel lease the territory from the future Palestinian state. Netanyahu reportedly responded, “Seven years is not enough. An arrangement like this needs to last for dozens of years.”
Later, in January 2012, Ma’ariv reported that Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molho told Palestinian negotiators that Israel was willing to cede sovereignty over the Jordan Valley. In October 2013, Ma’ariv similarly reported that Israel proposed that it cede sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and then lease it for decades.
Netanyahu has also reportedly agreed to the new US “framework” agreement, which is said to respond to Israel’s demands by calling for an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for 10-15 years.
The prime minister’s response to these reports seems to corroborate them. On one occasion, Netanyahu responded, “I have heard the reports” and “I will sign a permanent agreement only if it includes Israel’s remaining in the Jordan Valley.” On another he denied that he would evict residents of Israeli settlements. Such responses do not preclude a cede-and-lease option.
Further corroboration of the cede-and-lease proposals can be found in the vocal objections from PA President Mahmoud Abbas to such proposals.
In September 2010, Abbas said Israel demanded a 40-year presence in the Jordan Valley and rejected it. He rejected it again in November 2013 saying, “They say they want to stay in the Jordan Valley for 40 years,” but “[w]ith 40 years in the Jordan Valley there will be no solution.”
In a video interview shown at the recent INSS conference, Abbas countered the US proposal of 10-15 years saying that Israel could remain in the valley for three years “maximum” (read: minimum) and characterized proposals for 10 years as disingenuous (read: maximum, maybe). Abbas then proposed that Israeli forces remain on for five years and be replaced by NATO forces.
Between the leaks from the negotiations and Abbas’s counterproposals, Netanyahu’s public statements should be understood to mean that Israel must remain in the Jordan Valley “for a long term period,” and not “for the long term.” In other words, Israel agrees to cede sovereignty and to eventually withdraw its forces from the Jordan Valley.
Perhaps to Netanyahu these are just words and positions to be manipulated to suit diplomatic needs (e.g., offer to lease for dozens of years to simultaneously placate the US and scare the Palestinians). But words uttered by the leader of the State of Israel, even in seemingly closed negotiations, are not mere words. They create expectations on the part of the United States, the PA, the world, and the citizens of Israel.
Assuming that Netanyahu and Abbas do not sign the framework agreement and the negotiations end immediately, nevertheless a consensus on Israel’s eventual withdrawal from the Jordan Valley, after a number of years, has been reached at the diplomatic level.
As with Netanyahu’s declarations on demilitarized Palestinian statehood, each of the parties involved will believe that an eventual Jordan Valley withdrawal is acceptable to Israel.
Even if Netanyahu is not the prime minister to create a Palestinian state or relinquish the Jordan Valley, it will be much easier for a dovish successor to do so. It will also be much more costly, if possible at all, for a hawkish successor to extricate himself from these positions.
Netanyahu may also believe that a lease of 10 or even dozens of years is practically forever.
But there are numerous examples of powers that withdrew from territory as promised years earlier: the British from Hong Kong after a 99-year lease; the US from Panama in 1999 pursuant to a 1977 treaty; and more recently, the US from Iraq in December 2011 pursuant to a 2008 agreement.
The withdrawing powers in these examples are not only far mightier and wealthier than Israel, but are also not subject to remotely similar external or internal pressures as Israel. If Israel refuses to withdraw from territory pursuant to a US-brokered treaty, for example, Israel may not be able to count on a US veto of Security Council resolutions against it in the matter. That fact alone will likely ensure a timely Israeli withdrawal.
And a withdrawal could come earlier than agreed. The Palestinian state could claim that it had the right to order the IDF to leave its territory before the lease was up, either in violation of the lease agreement or by claiming Israel violated the agreement. At that point, remaining in the Jordan Valley could be said to violate Palestinian sovereignty and the UN Charter, a treaty which Israel is a party to.
Again, this diplomatic reality would probably force a future Israeli government to comply and withdraw.
It should go without saying that we intend that the State of Israel will survive and thrive 99 years from now and beyond – when Israel will likely remain surrounded by hostile states and organizations. Just because that future is far away doesn’t mean we can trade on it today.
The writer is an attorney and a Likud Central Committee member.