Borderline Views: The implications of annexing the Jordan Valley

The Jordan Valley must not be allowed to become the new white elephant of the negotiation process.

Jordan Valley. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jordan Valley.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The future of the Jordan Valley has returned to the forefront of the political debate following the attempt, last week, by members of the government coalition to pass a law extending civilian legislation to the region, in effect annexing the territory to the State of Israel – much in the same way as was done to east Jerusalem immediately after the Six Day War and to the Golan Heights in the early 1980s.
While this would not change the status of the region in terms of international law, it would change its internal status and would make it far more difficult for any government of the State of Israel to hand over the region to a Palestinian state under a future peace agreement. There would be groups who would take the issue to the High Court, arguing that the state cannot give up territory which, they would claim, has become part of the sovereign territory of the state by virtue of an annexation law being passed by the democratically elected Knesset, representing the people.
The government could, in much the same way, pass a law supporting the terms of any peace agreement, thus effectively negating previous annexation laws – whether it be the Golan Heights or the Jordan Valley. This would also be necessary if the agreement were to include land swaps along the course of the Green Line, enabling Israel to retain the major settlement blocs inside the West Bank while handing over land which, by all definitions, is presently in Israel’s sovereign territory.
Leading right-wing members of the government, especially Housing Minister and former Gush Emunim settlement activist Uri Ariel, have also proposed the immediate strengthening of the Israeli settlement network along the Jordan Valley in an attempt to bolster the numbers of Jewish residents of the region.
The Jordan Valley has had a checkered history since 1967. In the immediate post-Six Day War period, the region was at the heart of the Allon Plan, drawn up by then-deputy prime minister and former Palmach commander Yigal Allon. He proposed settling the entire length of the Jordan Valley with agricultural cooperative communities (kibbutzim and moshavim) as was still common at that time.
Allon saw this as a way of ensuring Israeli presence along the country’s new “defensible borders” – a term he used to describe his plan in a famous article published in Foreign Affairs in 1976.
At the same time, Allon was opposed to settling other parts of the West Bank, with a few notable exceptions such as Gush Etzion or Hebron. His was a pragmatic approach. He argued that as these regions (unlike the Jordan Valley) were densely populated by Palestinians, they should eventually constitute an autonomous Palestinian zone to be linked to Jordan by means of a territorial corridor running from Ramallah in a south-easterly direction through the only major Palestinian town in the Jordan Valley – Jericho.
The Allon Plan formed the cornerstone of the Labor government policies until the rise to power of the country’s first rightwing government in 1977. Prime minister Menachem Begin adopted the proposals of Gush Emunim, a movement opposed to the limitations set by the Allon Plan and which had been founded in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War to expand Israeli settlement and sovereignty throughout the Greater Land of Israel.
The mass settlement of the region, currently encompassing almost 400,000 residents (not including east Jerusalem) really started from that date, while the Jordan Valley settlements which had been established much earlier remained few in number and small in population relative to the other parts of the West Bank.
A combination of geography and difficult climatic conditions worked against the earliest Jordan Valley settlers. The Jordan Valley is remote in terms of its links with the major population and employment centers in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Gush Dan. The climatic conditions are amongst the harshest in Israel, which explains why for centuries hardly any settlement has ever taken place in this region with the exception of the oasis around Jericho.
And the fact that they were still fixated on creating new agricultural cooperative communities at a time when the country was undergoing social and economic transformation away from agriculture and toward suburbanization, commuting and the tertiary economy, meant that it was very difficult to attract new young residents to these communities in the way that had been common during the pioneering period of the 1950s and 1960s.
Beyond the settlement dynamics, the security role of this region has also been brought into question during the past two decades. In an era of ballistic missiles, borders do not necessarily provide the type of security that was common in the past. This was first seen during the Gulf War of 1991 when missiles fired from Baghdad landed in the heart of Israel, and it has become even more apparent in recent years with the firing of Katyushas and other small-scale missiles from both South Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. They take no account of the location or defensive nature of the border and, contrary to the idea of settlements strengthening the border, the missiles cause havoc precisely in those communities which are located in closest proximity to the border.
No longer is there wall-to-wall consensus among the security experts that the Jordan Valley is an essential ingredient of Israel’s security posture. For the Palestinians, the idea of having an even smaller state, which would effectively be enclosed on all four sides, including the eastern border, by Israeli presence, is unthinkable.
Unless there is a clear security argument justifying Israel’s desire to retain this region even in an era of modern warfare, there would appear to be no logic to extend Israeli civilian law to this region – when no previous Israeli government, be it of the Right or the Left, attempted this in the almost 50 years since the Six Day War. The attempt, spearheaded by hard-line Interior Minister Gidon Sa’ar and Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, can only be understood as a provocation, making it even more difficult to reach a political understanding with the Palestinians than is already the case.
And although Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been relatively silent on this matter in recent weeks, he has been consistent in arguing that Israel must retain control of this region, even during the period when it was being written off by many army generals. It clearly serves his interests to show the Americans and Secretary of State Kerry that he is being boxed in by his own “extremist” elements making it difficult for him to give any extra concessions.
Equally, he can signal to the Labor Party and its new leader Isaac Herzog (who have announced their opposition to any attempt at annexation of the Jordan Valley) that were they to join the government along with the more moderate elements such as Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid, the negotiation position vis a vis the Palestinians would be different and would have a better chance of succeeding.
The Jordan Valley must not be allowed to become the new white elephant of the negotiation process if, and when, the other contentious issues have reached agreement. We should be focusing on what is relevant for Israel’s long-term security today and not what was relevant 50 years ago but has undergone significant change in the interim period.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.