Vol. 5, No. 17 February 7, 2006
- The massive electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections has created an entirely new strategic reality for Israel which vastly increases the importance of the Jordan Valley (a desert zone almost devoid of population) for Israel’s security in the near term.
With Hamas dominating the Palestinian Authority, Jordan could find itself sandwiched between the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq and a pro-Iranian Palestinian Authority. In addition, should Israel face a new round of armed Palestinian violence, its ability to isolate the Hamas regime from external reinforcement will be a key security requirement.
The Iraq war has had a number of unintended side effects which could destabilize Israel’s eastern front. In the summer of 2005, bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, requested that Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi extend his Sunni insurgency to the secular states neighboring Iraq, meaning Syria and Jordan, and prepare for the “clash with Israel.” Former IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Yaalon warned at the recent Herzliya Conference that Israel might face the threat of mujahideen from the Iraq war seeking to infiltrate into Israel.
Control of the Jordan Valley enables Israel to deal with any likely eventuality to the east. Should Israel withdraw from the Jordan Valley to the line of the security fence, it would not be able to stop the flow of insurgents and equipment into the West Bank to the terrain dominating Ben-Gurion Airport and other vital parts of Israel’s national infrastructure along its coastal plain.
While some have misinterpreted Sharon’s ultimate map of withdrawal in the West Bank, asserting that he planned to pull back to the line of the security fence or even to the line that President Clinton had proposed in 2000, all evidence indicates that Sharon was determined to retain the Jordan Valley and many other vital areas beyond the security fence.
Israel’s Eastern Front
After the 2003 Iraq War, it became commonplace in parts of the Western policymaking community to assert that, since the U.S. had eliminated the threat emanating from the armored formations of Saddam Hussein, Israel could relax its traditional territorial claims for defensible borders in the West Bank. The argument was further reinforced by the fact that Israel had a peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 1994. This led many observers to the conclusion that Israel no longer needed to control its strategic barrier in the Jordan Valley that served as its primary line of defense since 1967.
The massive electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections has created an entirely new strategic reality for Israel which vastly increases the importance of the Jordan Valley for Israel’s security in the near term. In this case, however, the Jordan Valley’s role in Israel’s defense is not to serve its traditional function as a steep strategic barrier blocking a numerically superior conventional military attack on Israel’s eastern front. Its new role must be understood in the context of the increasing terrorist threat emerging to Israel’s east.
The Strategic Role of the Jordan Valley, According to Israel’s National Security Architects: Allon, Rabin, and Sharon
After Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and UN Security Council Resolution 242 opened the door to modifications of the prewar boundaries, Israeli military planners began to consider how the resolution’s call for “secure and recognized boundaries” might be implemented.
It was Israel’s deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, who first proposed to the Israeli cabinet just after the Six-Day War on July 26, 1967, that Israel retain new defensible borders based primarily on control of the eastern slopes of the West Bank hill ridge down to the bottom of the Jordan Valley, as well as the Judean Desert that was adjacent to the Dead Sea. As Israel’s foreign minister in 1976, in the first government of Yitzhak Rabin, Allon wrote in Foreign Affairs:
I am referring to the arid zone that lies between the Jordan River to the east, and the eastern chain of the Samaria and Judean mountains to the West from Mt. Gilboa in the North through the Judean desert until it joins the Negev desert. The area of this desert zone is only 700 square miles and it is almost devoid of population.
In 1972, Allon explained that this security zone, amounting to approximately one-third of the West Bank, needed to be placed under Israeli sovereignty. Israel paved a north-south road in the West Bank known as the Allon Road, just above the Jordan Valley, that roughly marked the western border of the “Allon Plan” region.
Allon commanded the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah, during Israel’s War of Independence. Yitzhak Rabin served under Allon, who was Rabin’s mentor; his portrait hung in Rabin’s office in the 1990s when Rabin was prime minister. Indeed, Rabin continued to stress the vital importance of the Jordan Valley in subsequent years. In October 1995, just one month before he was assassinated, Rabin stressed in his last Knesset address: “the security border of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.” Rabin still believed in the critical importance of the Jordan Valley in 1995, even though he had signed the Oslo Accords two years earlier and had negotiated a peace treaty with the Jordanians, as well, in 1994.
In 2005, Eitan Haber, who was Rabin’s chief of staff and speechwriter, confirmed that Rabin sought to retain well above a third of the West Bank. According to Haber, Rabin said the Palestinians would receive 50 percent or maybe, at the most, 60 to 70 percent of the West Bank.1 Journalist Akiva Eldar, who spoke with Haber, adds that he was “absolutely convinced that Rabin was not prepared to hear of territorial concessions on a scale of 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank, as was proposed in American president Bill Clinton’s outline, which prime minister Ehud Barak presented to the Israeli cabinet for approval in late 2000.” In short, Rabin wanted to hold on to the Jordan Valley.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon maintained Rabin’s legacy. In an interview on April 24, 2005, Sharon went into considerable detail: “The Jordan Rift Valley is very important and it’s not just the rift valley we’re talking about [but]…up to the Allon Road and a step above the Allon Road.” Indeed, Allon’s concepts had already crossed party lines in Israel years earlier, for back in 1997, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described his own ultimate map for the borders of Israel by using the term “Allon-Plus.”
Some American publications have misinterpreted Sharon’s ultimate map of withdrawal in the West Bank, asserting that he planned to pull back to the line of the security fence or even to the line that President Clinton had proposed in 2000.2 But all evidence indicates that Sharon was determined to retain the Jordan Valley and many other vital areas beyond the security fence.3 Indeed, one Sharon advisor recently admitted: “Sharon repeatedly stressed the importance of the Jordan Valley to Israeli security.”4 Finally, on February 6, 2006, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose ministry was responsible for designing the route of the security fence under Sharon, declared his view that the Jordan Valley would ultimately be incorporated into Israel.5
A Defense Line in Conventional War or a Key Component of Counter-Terrorism
Allon, Rabin, and Sharon all appreciated the importance of the Jordan Valley for the conventional defense of Israel. For that reason, they sought control of not just the Jordan Valley riverbed, but also the eastern slopes of the West Bank hill ridge. Over the years, Israel has established a series of military bases for its armored and infantry forces throughout the Jordan Valley. The main early-warning station of the Israeli Air Force was situated at Baal Hatzor, the highest point in the West Bank, which was also near the Allon Road, making the entire area a major defensive network in the event of war. Topography and terrain explained why the area was ideally suited for this purpose.
Though the West Bank hills only reach a maximal height of 3,000 feet, they are adjacent to one of the lowest points on earth, which is 1,200 feet below sea-level. This meant that any army attacking Israel from the east would face a steep, 4,200-foot incline up from the Jordan Valley that could provide a crucial territorial advantage to Israel’s quantitatively inferior active service army formations in any defensive campaign.6 What made this particularly significant in the past was the fact that armored and mechanized formations from Iraq could reach the Jordan River in 36 hours – in less time than the 48 hours the Israel Defense Forces would require for mobilizing its reserve units (assuming mobilization is not delayed by ballistic missile attacks).
At present, the conventional threat to Israel has been severely reduced with the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s army. Additionally, there is no Soviet Union to provide wartime reinforcement of Arab client states with needed military equipment, as was the case in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. For now, these conventional military threats may have diminished, but there is no certainty that they may not become relevant again in seven or ten years. Nonetheless, there is a new strategic reason emerging for Israel’s continued presence in the Jordan Valley: the war on terrorism.
Blocking Terrorist Infiltration from the East
A year after the Six-Day War, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan became the primary base of operations for Palestinian terrorist groups seeking to infiltrate armed units and military equipment through the Jordan Valley to the West Bank. From 1968 to 1970, Israel neutralized this effort by sealing off the Jordan Valley, so that all Palestinian units seeking to penetrate the area and enter the West Bank were intercepted and eliminated. To create an effective defense against terrorist infiltration from the east, the entire Jordan Valley was fenced and an elaborate system of patrol roads and observation points was created. If terrorists managed to cross the Jordan Valley fence, trackers would have 24 hours to find them before the terrorists succeeded in climbing through the steep terrain on foot and reaching the Palestinian population centers located at the top of the West Bank hill ridge.
When Jordan became the headquarters of PLO terrorism against Israel between 1967 and 1970, the growth of the armed Palestinian presence nearly led to the overthrow of King Hussein. It took a civil war in Jordan in September 1970 to end this threat. After the Jordanians eliminated most of the armed Palestinian presence in the Hashemite Kingdom, most of the PLO’s military infrastructure was transferred to Lebanon. For Israel, however, this experience underscored the vital importance of the Jordan Valley in preventing the infiltration of terrorists into the West Bank for attacks against Israel.
Could the same job be done if Israel held only a thin security zone along the Jordan Valley riverbed? With the Palestinians controlling the dominant hill terrain above the Jordan River, any Israeli positions below would be vulnerable to small arms fire. Furthermore, any military front line for Israel needs to be reinforced from secure positions in the rear. A thin security zone would be vulnerable to harassment or armed attack and would also create an untenable line of separation between the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom, like the narrow Philadelphi Corridor between Gaza and Egypt that Israel had to abandon. In short, Israel needs a robust defense against the threat of terrorist infiltration that can best be obtained by controlling the Jordan Rift Valley in its entirety.
The Newly Emerging Threat of Global Jihadi Terrorism from the East
In 2006, Israel faces a rapidly changing strategic landscape. The Iraq war has had a number of unintended side effects which could destabilize Israel’s eastern front in several respects.
First, there is the direct threat of jihadi terrorism. Iraq clearly has replaced Afghanistan as a new global terrorist center, drawing Islamic volunteers from Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The brutal attacks by these foreign forces belonging to the Iraqi insurgency in the Sunni Triangle has elevated the personal prestige of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of the Sunni insurgency, within the al-Qaeda network. In recent years, Zarqawi has recruited a following in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan whom he could utilize in the future. The scale of the Iraqi insurgency has been enormous, deploying men and materials in sufficient quantities to tie down entire U.S. Army and Marine Corps formations.
In the summer of 2005, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, requested in writing that Zarqawi extend his Sunni insurgency to the secular states neighboring Iraq, meaning Syria and Jordan, and prepare for the “clash with Israel.”7 The letter was intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies. Soon thereafter, the Syrian armed forces began clashing with a new organization called Jund al-Sham in the area of Homs and Aleppo.
Of greater concern for Israel in the latter half of 2005 were the rocket attacks in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba and a triple suicide bombing of hotels in Amman. In October 2005, the Iraqi interior minister, Bayan Jaber, warned the Jordanians that documents found on a dead Zarqawi operative in Iraq indicated that he had already ordered his men to begin to move into neighboring countries.8 By December 2005, Jordan declared it was in a “state of emergency.” Because of warnings of imminent terrorist attacks, the Australian, British, and Canadian embassies closed down in Amman in January 2006.
If mujahideen from Iraq seek to infiltrate the Hashemite Kingdom, there is little to stop them from gaining entry. According to those stationed along the Iraqi-Jordanian border, the entire border zone is extremely porous.9 Fortified border positions built by the U.S. on the Iraqi side are seriously undermanned.10
Speaking on January 23, 2006, at the Herzliya Conference to a panel on “Defensible Borders for Israel,” former IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel might face the threat of mujahideen from the Iraq war seeking to infiltrate into Israel. There are three scenarios Israel must take into account in this regard. First, if the U.S. and the new Iraqi government manage to subdue the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle, then the foreign forces currently fighting there will seek new areas of refuge; that is precisely what happened after the U.S. eliminated the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In such a case, it can be expected that many Sunni extremists who were involved in the fighting will seek refuge in Jordan or Syria.
Second, if the U.S. decides to withdraw from Iraq prematurely before vanquishing the insurgency, then there might very well be a surge in jihadi violence because al-Qaeda would view such a situation as a victory over the U.S. armed forces. It should be recalled that al-Qaeda was established in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, precisely because the mujahideen were emboldened by the Soviet failure. Under such conditions, Iraq would become the main base for global jihadi terrorism throughout the Middle East.
Finally, regardless of what happens to the Sunni insurgency, the Shiite faction in Iraq also must be taken into account. Despite the political-religious differences between Iraqi Arab Shiites and Iranian Persian Shiites, Iran is determined to become the dominant force in post-Saddam Iraq, utilizing the fact that Shiites make up 65 percent of the Iraqi population. As Iran’s confrontation with Western-backed governments in the Middle East grows, it would be a mistake to rule out the prospect that Iraq might become a new center of Shiite terror groups like Hizballah, that would seek to infiltrate Jordan and, eventually, Israel. Indeed, Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric, declared in 2004: “I am the beating arm for Hizballah and Hamas here in Iraq.”11 With Hamas dominating the Palestinian Authority, Jordan could find itself sandwiched between the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq and a pro-Iranian Palestinian Authority.
Each of these scenarios reflects an increase in the threat to Israel from the east, and the threat of terrorism could be amplified by volunteers seeking to join the Palestinians or the infiltration of advanced weaponry of the types now proliferating in Iraq. U.S. military and intelligence analysts have been concerned with the fact that thousands of shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles, that were previously under the control of Saddam Hussein’s army, are now missing.12 It is a very real possibility that such missiles have entered terrorist inventories and could be supplied in large numbers to the Palestinians, altering the scale of any future confrontations.
Moreover, there is an even greater strategic threat emerging from all of these scenarios: the potential destabilization of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan itself. Dr. Azzam Huneidi, head of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in the Jordanian parliament, expressed his confidence that the Hamas victory among the Palestinians will be followed by the victory of other Islamist parties.13
Control of the Jordan Valley enables Israel to deal with any likely eventuality to the east. Should Israel withdraw from the Jordan Valley to the line of the security fence, as some observers have suggested, it would not be able to stop the flow of insurgents and equipment into the West Bank to the terrain dominating Ben-Gurion Airport and other vital parts of Israel’s national infrastructure along its coastal plain. In addition, the vacuum created by any such Israeli pullout could draw insurgent volunteers into Jordan in great numbers, which would destabilize the Hashemite monarchy.
The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections could create a magnet that attracts other insurgency threats. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, comes from the same ideological roots as the founding members of al-Qaeda.14 Yet, Hamas is also strategically tied to Iran and Hizballah. While the threat of al-Qaeda terrorism and Iran predated the Hamas election victory, now either of these elements may be invited in by Hamas to build up a presence within the Palestinian Authority. Should Israel face a new round of armed Palestinian violence, its ability to isolate the Hamas military infrastructure – which is likely to remain intact regardless of who controls the Palestinian security forces – from external reinforcement will be a key security requirement.15 For this reason as well, the Jordan Valley will remain vital to separate the instability of the Palestinian Authority from the spreading regional instability emerging to Israel’s east.
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1. Akiva Eldar, “On the Same Page, Ten Years On,” Ha’aretz, November 7, 2005; www.haaretz.com/hasen/objects/pages/PrintArticleEn.jhtml?itemNo=641689
2. For example, see Charles Krauthammer, “A Calamity for Israel,” Washington Post, January 6, 2006.
3. Ari Shavit, “The General: An Israeli Journalist’s Six Years of Conversations with Ariel Sharon,” New Yorker, January 23-30, 2006. See also Dan Diker, “Sharon’s Defense Legacy for Israel: Competing Perspectives,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 5, No. 15, Institute for Contemporary Affairs/Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, January 12, 2006.
4. Statement by Lior Horev, cited in Yossi Klein Halevi, “Can Israel’s Center Hold?” New Republic, February 13, 2006.
5. Felix Frisch, “Israel’s Final Borders: The Mofaz Version,” Maariv, February 7, 2006.
6. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, “Military-Strategic Aspects of West Bank Topography,” Appendix I in Yuval Steinitz, Yaakov Amidor, Meir Rosenne, and Dore Gold, Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2005.
7. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” October 11, 2005; http://www.dni.gov/release_letter_101105.html
8. International Crisis Group, “Jordan’s 9/11: Dealing with Jihadi Islamism,” Middle East Report No. 47, November 23, 2005; http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=3801&CFID=6186517&CFTOKEN=41306821
9. James Janega, “Too Much Border, Not Enough Patrol, Chicago Tribune, April 19, 2005.
11. Jeffrey Gettleman, “The Struggle for Iraq,” New York Times, April 5, 2004.
12. Dana Priest and Bradley Graham, “Missing Antiaircraft Missiles Alarm Aides,” Washington Post, November 7, 2004.
13. Jonathan Dehoah Halevy, “And Now – A Call for an Islamic Revolution in Jordan,” News First Class, February 5, 2006; http://www.nfc.co.il/NewsPrintVersion.asp?docID=92642&subjectID=1
14. Dore Gold, “Is Hamas Part of the Global Jihad?” Jerusalem Post, February 3, 2006.
15. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, “Executive Summary,” in Defensible Borders for a Lasting Peace.
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Dr. Dore Gold, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-1999, heads the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His book Hatred’s Kingdom surveys the rise of Islamic militancy in Saudi Arabia.