Israeli and Palestinian Authority military officials agreed in principle to an IDF withdrawal from the Jordan Valley within 10 to 15 years of a broader West Bank pullout, the US general who drafted a security plan under the Obama administration said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“A deal is reachable if the sides get over the politics,” said retired Gen. John Allen, a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and special envoy to ex-secretary of state John Kerry, during talks he led in 2013-2014. Allen stressed that Israeli political leaders on both sides never came on board with the plan.
With a new peace dialogue led by US President Donald Trump moving ahead, attention has returned to Allen’s plan, many details of which are still classified.
Allen’s interview with the Post
was the first time he has gone on record in detail about the plan. He said the blueprint addressed 26 mutually agreed Israeli security concerns, divided into six categories.
According to Allen, one of the main points of tension between Israel and the Palestinians was the number of years the IDF would be allowed to remain in the Jordan Valley after the establishment of a Palestinian state and a broader West Bank withdrawal.
Israeli concerns about redeploying from the strategic lowland abutting the Jordan River expanded with ISIS’s rise in 2013, the disintegration of Iraq and Syria as well as existing concerns over the continued instability in the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians’ starting position was that the IDF could remain in the Jordan Valley for two years following an agreement and a pullout from the rest of the West Bank.
Allen said that “as the Palestinians gained confidence in both the American side and in the emerging American plan, they demonstrated significant flexibility in the number of years” they agreed to see Israeli forces remain in the valley.
According to Allen and Eric Lynn, a former top adviser to three US defense secretaries and a key member of Allen’s security team, the Israeli security establishment could live with withdrawing from the valley 10 to 15 years after a withdrawal from other parts of the territory, as long as security benchmarks were met. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly rejected this position and sought a 40-year IDF presence in the Jordan Valley.
Retired Maj.-Gen. Gadni Shamni, formerly head of the IDF’s Central Command, and retired Maj.-Gen. Amnon Reshef, the head of a group of 200 top ex-Israeli security officials who advocate for a peace deal, agreed with this characterization of the Israeli security view. Both have authored their own parallel, but distinct, security plans.
Shamni said that with just a few notable exceptions, “90 to 95% of top security officials” backed the Allen plan.
Allen said the demand for a 40-year or longer IDF presence in the valley “showed no rigor or science,” in contrast to the proposal for a 10- to 15-year gap that he said his team arrived at with serious research and thought.
Ilan Goldenberg, a former US State Department official and co-author of Shamni’s plan, said that Netanyahu’s 40-year number “tells you that he never wants to leave.”
Last month, Haaretz
reported that the Trump administration had hired US Air Force Col. Kris Bauman, who was involved in the Allen plan, as a key member of its team on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Allen thought that Bauman’s knowledge regarding past security plans would make him a strong asset for any future peace talks.
Back in 2014, a number of Israeli defense officials criticized Allen’s plan, claiming that it relied to heavilly on technology. Lynn dismissed the criticism.
“This idea of adding technology in place of people on the ground is 100% false,” Lynn said. “The technology was meant to augment forces on the ground, but there was never a suggestion of zero people on the ground. The debate was about what would the force look like and who would be commanding it.”
Allen and Lynn’s plan called for a “joint security patrol force, a combination of IDF, Palestinians and Jordanians with US officers training and overseeing, but not in a combat role,” he said.
A source speaking on condition of anonymity said that former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon had objected to the joint patrols, though the Israeli military echelon was ready to accept them as long as a US officer advised the patrol Israelis did not have to take orders from Palestinian or Jordanian officers.
Allen said, “We built in no slippage in the level of security as a condition for withdrawal of Israeli soldiers from the Jordan Valley, so the redeployment could gradually start but then stop at any time.”
The former US Marine Corps general added that withdrawn Israeli forces would be replaced over time with a multi-tiered series of security commands.
He said that a three-star US general worked on this aspect of the plan, which called for hundreds of US troops to serve as trainers and advisers for the Palestinians.
Another hotly debated issue was the extent to which Israel would retain the right to act unilaterally in an emergency situation after a West Bank withdrawal.
“We always said to the Palestinians that we would support Israel’s efforts – which were necessary to defend themselves – and the Palestinians were willing to accept unilateral Israeli intervention when Israeli security was at risk,” Allen said.
He had wanted to provide Palestinian security forces some window of time to address security threats, but the Israeli political echelon rejected the idea.
Though Allen said most security issues had been resolved by the parties’ military officials, “the talks fell apart with the start of the 2014 Gaza war, ending this conversation.”
Lynn offered an interesting anecdote about how much more interested IDF officers seemed to be in reaching a deal than their political counterparts.
The IDF chief of staff during the talks, Benny Gantz, felt neither Netanyahu nor Ya’alon were pleased “with the expedited progress toward security solutions as part of a two-state scenario.” Lynn said that when Gantz was asked “whether we should continue our work” anyway, the general replied: “We were given orders to discuss all relevant security solutions in a two-state scenario and we are going to continue to fulfill that order until it is withdrawn.”
According to Lynn, Gantz’s message was that if the politicians only hinted and did not dare to formally end the security dialogue, he would push forward. Gantz declined to comment on Lynn’s remarks.
It is expected that any new US plan would need to cover new threats such as terror tunnels like those used by Hamas in the Gaza War of 2014.
“It was not something we had yet embraced and fully delved into,” Allen said, adding that he would have addressed “a range of subterranean warfare doctrinal and technological problems” if the talks had continued.
Moreover, Allen pointed out that parts of the Jordan Valley would be “far more daunting” for tunnel-diggers than typical West Bank or Gaza terrain, so that threat of terrorists digging tunnels to infiltrate Israel was only relevant for certain areas.
Regarding the threat posed by tunnels, Shamni and Goldenberg’s parallel plan said that “exceptional security zones would be set up near sensitive border areas” that would be among the last areas to be handed over to the Palestinians.