What Happened to the Jordan Valley?

, January 14, 2010

Speaking before Israel’s ambassadors from around the world two weeks ago, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu explained his view about how to create effective security arrangements in the event of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. He decided to stress that to safeguard the demilitarization of the West Bank, it was vital for the IDF to maintain a military presence along the points of entry to the territories from the east, in order to prevent these areas from being penetrated and flooded by smuggled weaponry.

In short, without going into details, Netanyahu was reminding his diplomats about the critical importance of the Jordan Valley for the future security of Israel.

Netanyahu was following a long tradition of prime ministers who saw the Jordan Valley as the front line of Israel’s defense. One month before he was assassinated, Yitzhak Rabin appeared in the Knesset on October 5, 1995 and outlined how he viewed the country’s future borders. He first declared that “Israel will not return to the lines of June 4, 1967″ and then stated that “the security border for defending the State of Israel will be in the Jordan Valley, in the widest sense of that concept.”

Clearly, Rabin did not want to defend Israel along the narrow river line, where Israeli forces would be exposed to hostile fire from immediately adjacent high ground. Instead, he sought to exploit the steep eastern slopes of the West Bank hill ridge that rise to a maximal height of 3,000 feet from the river bed which is below sea-level. In an interview in Haaretz on April 14, 2005, Ariel Sharon explained that Israel must control the Jordan Valley from the hill ridge above the Allon Road.

YET IN the public discourse over Israel’s future borders, it seems as though the question of the Jordan Valley has been forgotten for three reasons.

First, when military planners in the past talked about the importance of the Jordan Valley, Israel was still at war with the Kingdom of Jordan and concerned about the emergence of an eastern front, including Iraqi expeditionary forces. Since Israel now has ties with Jordan, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was badly weakened in 1991 and occupied in 2003 by the British and the Americans, some have argued that Israel no longer needs the Jordan Valley.

Second, once prime ministers started talking about giving up 88, 93 or 97 percent of the West Bank, they stopped talking about the Jordan Valley. After all, the whole area is approximately 33% to 40% of the West Bank. A diplomatic strategy of holding on to the Jordan Valley contradicted their peace proposals, which became increasingly motivated by the question of what would be acceptable to the Palestinians rather than what was necessary for Israel’s security.

Third, in the public discourse on the future of the West Bank, the major constraint in the last 10 years on any significant withdrawal became the large settlements that were part of heavily populated blocs, like Ariel, Givat Ze’ev, Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion. After the tragedy of the disengagement, those drawing lines for peace proposals sought to squeeze as many settlers into as minimal an area as they could find. They either forgot about Israel’s security needs or just assumed that if Kassams were fired from the West Bank, the IDF could easily retake the whole area in a few hours (this was before the Second Lebanon War and Cast Lead showed the complexities of such ground operations in densely populated areas, when future Goldstone Reports might be issued).

IT IS now well-understood by the Israeli public that the most crucial error of disengagement was abandoning the Philadelphi Corridor between the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Sinai, which allowed Hamas to build a vast tunnel network, with minimal Israeli countermeasures, and smuggle a huge arsenal into the Gaza Strip. From 2005, when Israel left Gaza, to 2006, the rate of rocket fire increased by 500%. New weapons, like Grad missiles, were fired for the first time at Ashkelon after the pullout. It does not require much imagination to understand what would happen in Judea and Samaria if Israel left the Jordan Valley – which should be seen as the Philadelphi Corridor of the West Bank.

For example, up until now, Israel has not had to deal with SA-7 shoulder-fired rockets that could be aimed at aircraft over Ben-Gurion Airport, because it is difficult to smuggle them into the West Bank as long as the area is blocked by the IDF in the Jordan Valley. Nor has Israel had to face Islamist volunteers who reinforce Hamas and could prolong a future war, like those who joined the jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen or Somalia, because Israel can deny them access to the West Bank.

In fact, in its annual survey for 2009, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) noted that while there has been a decrease in the terrorist threat to Israel, the only exception to this positive trend is the increasing involvement of global jihadi groups, who at present are building up a presence in the Gaza Strip. Clearly they would be in the West Bank if they could get there.

WHAT ABOUT the Jordanians? Why does Israel have to stay in the Jordan Valley if the Jordanian army intercepts units of al-Qaida coming from Iraq or Syria?

The fact of the matter is that if Israel withdrew from the Jordan Valley and it became known among the global jihadi groups that the doors to the West Bank were open, the scale of the threat would change and the Jordanians would find it difficult to effectively halt the stream of manpower and weaponry into their territory.

Clearly Jordan itself would be destabilized by this development. This is exactly what happened in 2005 when al-Qaida in Iraq set up an infrastructure in Jordan and attacked hotels and government buildings. This is also what happened during Black September in 1970, when the Jordanian army had to confront a massive Palestinian military presence and a civil war ensued. Besides, should Jordan have a common border with a Palestinian state, Palestinian irredentism toward the East Bank would undoubtedly increase.

More than 30 years ago, when foreign minister Yigal Allon – who had been Rabin’s commander and mentor in the Palmah during 1948 – was summarizing his plan for “defensible borders” for Israel in Foreign Affairs, he simply said that if Israel wanted to be sure that the areas from which it withdrew would remain demilitarized, it must keep the Jordan Valley. Allon was writing in 1976, but his analysis remains as relevant as ever today.

About Dore Gold

The writer, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN, is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and serves as an external advisor to the office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).