The political football in the Jordan Valley

This time, the issue on Jordan Valley annexation has been tied to Netanyahu’s efforts to block the Knesset from voting on whether to grant him immunity.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu points to a map of the Jordan Valley (photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu points to a map of the Jordan Valley
(photo credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)
In the nearly 53 years since Israel gained possession of east Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, nearly 700,000 Jews have gone to live in dozens of neighborhoods and settlements there.
Less than 10,000 have gone to live in the Jordan Valley.
Ten thousand. And that, despite the fact that since 1967, government after government, prime minister after prime minister, have pledged allegiance to the Jordan Valley, so often called Israel’s “security belt.”
Indeed, among the settlements in the West Bank, the Jordan Valley settlements have always enjoyed a wide degree of consensus approval among Israelis never enjoyed by other communities in Judea and Samaria, with the possible exception of those in Gush Etzion.
The settlers in the Jordan Valley were often seen differently – not the religious ideologues of Gush Emunim but, rather, tanned and tough farmers who in the beginning were often associated with the Labor movement.
Settlements in the Jordan Valley were among the first ones set up after the Six Day War by the Labor government, the first – Nahal Mehola – set up in 1968 in the northern Jordan Valley as a military outpost. Like many communities there, it would shortly go from a military outpost to a civilian settlement.
In the first decade after the Six Day War, successive Labor governments – not Likud ones – established some 21 settlements in the region along the parameters of the Allon Plan, whereby Israel would defend itself from possible invasion from the east with a ribbon of settlements about 15 kilometers wide in an area only sparsely populated by Palestinians. Under this plan, the densely populated hill region to the west would not be settled, and would someday be confederated with Jordan in a final peace agreement.
Attempts by terrorists soon after the Six Day War to infiltrate Israel via the region further implanted into Israelis the idea that this area is essential to their security. But few went to live there.
Granted, the Jordan Valley is a tough place to live. The oven-heat in the summer is oppressive and suffocating, the earth is hard to till, the main highway – Route 90 – is hilly, windy and narrow.
But still, if this is the country’s “security belt” – if it is a necessary buffer to block invading forces from the east; if it is vital to prevent underground smuggling tunnels from Jordan into a future Palestinian state – why has there not been more effort, more incentives, to encourage people to live there?
Ten thousand out of 700,000 is not exactly a critical mass.
THIS WEEK, those 10,000 became a political football kicked around between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and the US administration.
Netanyahu, after being in power for more than 10 years with ample time to have forcefully pushed this issue heavily in the past, made clear again this week he wants to do it now. Right now. Without any diplomatic negotiations happening, without the US peace plan yet made public, just a few weeks before the elections.
Actually, he first said he wanted to do it last September, just days before the second election in a move widely viewed as an election campaign ploy. And now, with a third election, he is raising the issue again.
This time the issue has not only been linked to the elections, but has also been tied to Netanyahu’s efforts to block the Knesset from voting on whether to grant him immunity, a vote – because of the current balance of power in the Knesset – he is sure to lose.
But what is the connection? Or, as the great Torah commentator Rashi wrote in a phrase that has entered the Hebrew lexicon to refer to one thing not having any connection to the other, “What do the laws of shmita [the sabbatical year] have to do with Mount Sinai?”
On the face of it, there is no connection. But this week Yamina Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich connected the two. He did this by asking Netanyahu to hold a vote on annexing the Jordan Valley on Tuesday when the Knesset will convene – against Netanyahu’s wishes – to vote on setting up a committee that will reject Netanyahu’s immunity bid.
“Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White think a caretaker government can make key decisions on matters of principle, and I am in favor,” Smotrich wrote about the opposition parties’ determination to convene the Knesset in special session now to deal with the immunity issue.
“Annexing the Jordan Valley is one of the most important Zionist steps that are on the agenda. If Blue and White is moving rightward, let us give them a chance to prove it,” Smotrich wrote.
And the early days of this current election campaign have been marked by an effort by Blue and White to woo voters on what is called the “soft Right” from Likud to its ranks. And one of the ways to do this is to declare an interest in annexing the Jordan Valley, which is something that key figures in the party have done repeatedly.
But it is one thing to say you want to do it, and another thing to actually raise one’s hand in the Knesset and do it now, thereby inviting Palestinian fury, Arab outrage, world condemnation, and perhaps even an unusual nod of disapproval from Washington.
For Washington – according to various reports – made clear that it would prefer that Israel wait until US President Donald Trump’s long-awaited peace plan is rolled out. Not because the plan may not wink at Israeli control over the area, but apparently so as not to spoil the rollout of the plan.
Blue and White head Benny Gantz made clear during a tour to the region that he would like to annex the region, but would do it only after the elections, and in a “nationally agreed process and in coordination with the international community.”
In other words, don’t hold your breath.
Perhaps most striking about all the developments surrounding the Jordan Valley question this week is that an issue as substantive as whether to annex the strategic region is not coming at the end of a deep, public debate worthy of the gravitas of the issue, but, rather, as part of a grueling game of political football.