In a white tent set up not far from the border with Jordan - very similar to the tent that hosted the ceremony for the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan 21 years ago in Ein Evrona, the small Arava town just a few kilometers north of Eilat - a number of army officers, environmental experts, and intelligence officials gathered for a meeting that included a surprise stop by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz.
Twenty-one years after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, the border between the two countries has proven to be the quietest, albeit the least maintained from a financial standpoint, of any of Israel’s frontiers. Nonetheless, the prime minister was given the latest intelligence data that surveyed possible future threats.
In years past, Hamas operatives from Gaza sought to enter the Sinai Peninsula, from where they would seek to infiltrate Israel in order to carry out attacks. That route was closely watched by Israeli intelligence experts until the completion of the fence along the Egyptian border. The barrier has almost completely sealed Israel off from drug smugglers, African refugees and economic migrants, women traffickers, and, of course, terrorists.
Nowadays, the fence has proven to be a necessity given the fact that some violent Beduin tribes from Sinai have joined Islamic State. It allows Israel to better prepare in dealing with a hostile Islamist element currently fighting the Egyptian authorities in an area that is supposed to be demilitarized as per the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. These elements can just as easily try to do harm to Israel as part of its campaign against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, either in an attempt to undermine the cold peace with Israel or simply out of an Islamist ideology that loathes Jews.
Now that the Gaza-Sinai-Israel path has been blocked off, the terrorists will seek an alternate route. It begins in Gaza, continues into Sinai, and, from there, heads further east into Jordan. Then the route takes a northward turn along the rusty, barbed-wire fence that runs along the frontier with Israel.
Initially, it will be criminals seeking to smuggle in drugs, contraband, and women. Intelligence officials are now warning that terrorists are soon to follow.
This is exactly what Netanyahu wanted to hear - a reason justifying his decision to build a fence. The first section of the fence will stretch from the Red Sea resort town of Eilat to Timna. Initially, the pretext for the fence was to build a barrier that would defend the airport that is expected to be built there. Overall, however, this is the Netanyahu Doctrine - build a high fence to keep the bad neighbors out, or neighbors that could turn bad later on.
Israel is entering a sensitive, problematic situation diplomacy-wise. Everyone knows the real reason behind the building of this fence - the very real fear that Jordan will collapse. This scenario is not far-fetched. In fact, it is Israel’s nightmare.
The Jordanians have protected the border effectively and admirably since 1994. It has proven its worth both from an intelligence standpoint as well as its security capabilities, with no infiltrations by armed terrorists. But given the wave of Islamism in the region, it’s doubtful Jordan can survive as presently constituted. It’s a subject that’s completely taboo, certainly among senior defense and government officials, but it’s the bitter truth (at least, potentially).
Amos Gilad, the head of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic-security branch, spoke of the regional turbulence during a lecture on counterterrorism at a conference hosted by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. He speculated that the brutality and unscrupulousness of ISIS would drag the United States and the West into a bitter war.
He argued that if ISIS - which is currently operating in Iraq and Syria - were to be forced out of its current positions by the rebels or troops loyal to Bashar Assad, its next move would most likely be to head south toward Jordan. Gilad noted that Jordan currently shares a border with ISIS from the east and al-Qaida from the north. Al-Qaida has taken control of swathes of the Golan Heights, so Israel is also mired in this mess.
Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ “Quds Force,” has spoken recently of opening up an eastern front against Israel from within Jordan. It was also learned recently that the Hashemite kingdom apprehended a number of individuals suspected to have ties with Hezbollah. Add it all up and what we have brewing is a Sunni-Shi’ite showdown right in our own backyard.
On the Israeli Right, there are those who murmur that Jordan is Palestine, but it would be more accurate to say that Jordan may soon become ISIS-stan. That’s why Israel not only needs a fence, but it also needs a quiet, discreet diplomatic initiative that will help King Abdullah gain some much-needed domestic stability.
As has usually been the case, when it comes to defense and security matters, Israel is efficient, active, and productive. But on the diplomatic level, it has failed whenever it has needed to step up to the plate and strengthen the moderate Arab camp.
The fence needs to be complemented by a diplomatic element. There needs to be something positive, something that signals good-neighborliness and partnership, not just fear and isolation. That’s because a fence pegs Jordan as a potential threat, and this message needs to be softened and camouflaged. A joint water pipeline, which was announced earlier this year, is a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. Much more.
If Netanyahu’s plans are to be fully realized, then Israel will have to deal with another potential landmine - a fence that will run from the Dead Sea northward until the tripartite border with Jordan and Syria. Not only would this be a fence, but it would also be a clear political and diplomatic statement - Israel is demarcating its eastern border. Period.
Such a move would serve as a pretext for a diplomatic crisis that could perhaps trigger a military confrontation. Israel would then need the support of the United States, or, at least its tacit approval. For that, it needs direct channels of communication, mutual understanding, and a respect for one’s sensibilities. These are elements that are lacking in the relationship between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama.
The occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue sees Netanyahu - to some extent, justifiably so - as a prophet of doom, an eternal pessimist cowed by fear who has no idea how to generate hope. Netanyahu, for his part, says that everything that has taken place in the region is proof that caution and circumspection come true in the Middle East. He sees Obama as a naive liberal who is afraid of conflict while giving the most dangerous Islamic power in the region an opening to threaten Israel. The statements made this week
by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran served as further confirmation of Netanyahu’s fears.
One of the disadvantages of this “man the barricades” approach is that while Israel is so preoccupied with the Islamist tsunami from beyond its borders, it is not mindful enough of what is taking place right under its nose. Even though his threat to resign sounds ridiculous, Mahmoud Abbas has one foot out the door. If he does quit, he would set a remarkable precedent - never has an Arab leader quit. Never. They either die while in office, or are killed or toppled.
On the one hand, Israel is complacent. Operation Protective Edge, the quiet summer along the southern front, the sense that its deterrent policy is working for the time being, and the well-founded sense that there is a sense of fatigue among those thinking of armed conflict against Israel - all of these factors combine to create a feeling of immunity.
But there’s something bubbling underneath the surface. Now its manifestations are limited to instances of firebombings and stone-throwing. I predict that the tensions that are festering due to the real, justified fear that the situation is stuck and there is no light at the end of the tunnel, combined with the economic distress and the wind of Islamist revolution sweeping through the region - which most Israelis are unaware of - will lead to another complex, perhaps even violent, dilemma.
This is where we need not just a fence, but a clear delineation of what it is that Israel wants and where it wishes to go in this delicate period that is liable to become explosive and bloody.The writer is Channel 2's top political analyst.