Flashbacks in the Jordan Valley

As the Jews returned last century to the Jordan Valley, it became a vestige of their consensus.

THE JORDAN VALLEY. A strategic asset not only militarily but also socially (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
THE JORDAN VALLEY. A strategic asset not only militarily but also socially
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Arid, yellowing, boiling and bald, the sparsely settled Jordan Valley, which sprawls between Beit She’an and the Dead Sea, is famous mostly for its geographic remoteness and military utility, but not for its role in Jewish history.
In fact, no place serves as a better reminder of our forebears’ political divisiveness, strategic recklessness, and self-inflicted demise than the region that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just forced on the election that he imposed, the third in 11 months.
In this valley, soon after Hasmonean Queen Salome’s death, her sons John Hyrcanus II and Judah Aristobulus fought a civil war over her crown. When one prevailed, the other enlisted foreign (Nabataean) troops and chased his brother from Jerusalem.
Scandalous in any event, this fratricide’s timing is altogether mind-boggling, because it happened just when Rome’s eastward expansion reached Syria.
And so, when Rome’s legions descended from Damascus through the Golan to the Jordan Valley, they found here the defeated brother – Judah – ensconced in a fortress atop Mount Sartaba, which now overlooks the Mifgash Habik’ah gas station.
Forced to emerge from his hiding, the Jewish prince now faced General Pompey, and signed a document that handed to Rome the 22 fortresses he had taken from his brother. The Romans thus marched to Jerusalem unopposed. Jerusalem’s Jews then split between John, who opened the city’s gates to the enemy, and his opponents, who fought on the Temple Mount a chanceless last stand.
The civil war in Jericho and the capitulation at Mount Sartaba are not taught in the Israeli and Diaspora schools where Jews learn their nation’s history, but this is what we Jews should remember about the Jordan Valley. Jerusalem’s destruction 133 years later may have been prevented but for the Hasmonean princes’ conduct when Rome first arrived at Jerusalem’s gates.
This saga was but one link in a chain.
HERE, ALONG the Jordan’s east bank, biblical-era Israelites fought a bloody civil war that painted the river’s water red, when warriors from the Gilead caught Ephraim’s fleeing troops, commanded them: “Say ‘shibboleth,’” and slew whoever pronounced it Ephraim’s way (“sibboleth”).
In later times David crossed this valley while fleeing his son Absalom’s chase before their armies clashed in the hilltops west of Mount Sartaba. And here, as the Book of Chronicles (I, 5:26) implies, the Israelites to the valley’s west stood by while those to its east were invaded and deported by Assyria’s troops.
Finally, during the Great Revolt a warlord from Transjordan, Simon Bar-Giora, crossed the Jordan Valley with his militia, leveled a string of Jewish towns from Samaria to Hebron and then broke into Jerusalem, where he fought two other warlords while the Romans were just several miles away.
Yes, the valley that is part of the geological rift that runs from Lebanon to Mozambique was witness to the political rifts that tore ancient Israel apart.
Fortunately, as the Jews returned last century to the Jordan Valley, it became a vestige of their consensus. Unfortunately, its current insertion into the political agenda is not aimed to serve that consensus but to undermine it, in the spirit of the valley’s sad past.
THE VALLEY is currently significant for two reasons: strategically, it offers a clear and natural eastern border for the Jewish state; and demographically, its Palestinian population is minuscule, despite its being part of the West Bank.
This was the context in which Yigal Alon, hero of the War of Independence and a central leader of the Labor Party, conceived in 1967 the plan that to this day bears his name, and which called for settling this region in order to consolidate it as Israel’s eastern border.
The Alon Plan quickly emerged as a middle road between the schools of thought to its Right and Left, Greater Israel and Land for Peace. Half a century later, Alon’s vision still embodies the consensus, in two ways: it seeks to minimize Israel’s rule over Palestinians, and to maximize its hold on strategic land.
No, this is not a consensus in the sense that every Israeli accepts its every clause, but it is in the sense that for the vast majority the Alon Plan is either all they want, or part of what they want.
Alon’s thinking inspired Israel’s settlement policy until 1977, which focused on the underpopulated Golan, Sinai and Jordan Valley, and avoided the West Bank’s densely populated spine, and also the Gaza Strip’s center and north.
Considering the intensity and explosiveness of Israel’s territorial debate, the Jordan Valley is a strategic asset not only militarily but also socially. This is a cause around which politicians from both sides of the aisle can unite, setting aside their differences and jointly promoting a cause for which most Israelis care.
Sadly, this is not what Netanyahu has previously seen in the Jordan Valley, and this is not how he is treating it now.
Netanyahu had an aggregate 13 prime ministerial years to annex the valley, including three during which his friend President Donald Trump inhabited the White House. He never did that, and he also did not invest financially in the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea, whose combined 28 settlements and fewer than 10,000 Israelis he sees as the Labor Party’s legacy and realm.
The man who, for the first time in Israel’s history, passed constitutional legislation with a narrow majority, and the man who habitually incites his followers against the judiciary, the media, and “the Left,” now raised the Jordan Valley issue not in order to do something about its future, but in order to maneuver and bicker with fellow Israelis.
The consensus was never a value for Netanyahu, and national unity was for him an aim no more than it was for the sparring brothers who were Queen Salome’s sons and the Jewish people’s shame.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.