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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Kerry and the struggle over the Jordan Valley

Filed under: Israeli Security, Peace Process, The Middle East
Publication: Dore Gold Articles


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) has been doing his utmost over the last several months to persuade U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the merits of his demand that Israel accept the 1967 lines as the basis for a future border before any negotiations can be resumed. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has responded firmly that he refuses to accept any preconditions for sitting at the table with Palestinian negotiators.

But Netanyahu’s objection to this Palestinian pre-condition was not only procedural. Speaking before the U.S. Congress on May 24, 2011, Netanyahu stated that while the precise delineation of Israeli-Palestinian borders must be negotiated, he added: “Israel will not return to the indefensible lines of 1967.” Since that time there has been a struggle underway in which both the Israelis and the Palestinians are presenting their diplomatic narratives to Western diplomats, who have been predisposed to accepting the Palestinian narrative on territory and the Israeli narrative on security. This struggle has direct implications for the future of the Jordan Valley.

In his 2011 address to Congress, Netanyahu was reflecting what has been the legacy of the founding fathers of Israel’s national security. In July 1967, just one month after the Six Day War, Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, the former commander of the Palmach in 1948, submitted to the cabinet his famous proposal for Israel retaining territories of strategic importance for its defense, thereby giving Israel what Allon called “defensible borders” that would replace the vulnerable 1967 lines. Legally, Allon based himself on U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which according to its drafters, envisioned the creation of a new secure border that would replace the old armistice lines, from which Israel was forced to defend itself at the start of the Six Day War.

The Allon Plan, which was largely based on Israel retaining the Jordan Valley, remained a critical component of Israeli military thinking years later, even after conditions in the Middle East changed. Thus on October 5, 1995, almost two years after Israel signed the Oslo Agreements, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin declared before the Knesset that “The borders of the State of Israel, during the permanent solution, will be beyond the lines which existed before the Six Day War. We will not return to the 4 June 1967 lines.” In the spirit of Allon, who had been his mentor when they served together in the Palmah, Rabin added: “The security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term”.

During his first term in office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the language of “Allon-Plus” to give the public a sense of his thinking. Finally, even after he announced his disengagement plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Haaretz on April 14, 2005, that Israel must continue to control the Jordan Valley from the hill ridge above the Allon Road, which had been regarded until then as the western boundary of the Allon Plan area.

The Israeli public internalized these positions. A poll conducted by Dahaf for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, in December 2012, showed that these statements had served as the basis of an Israeli security consensus, for 66% of Israelis (76% of the Jewish population) opposed a return to the 1967 lines, even if all the Arab states declared an end to the conflict in return. Roughly, the same numbers continued to support Israel holding on to the Jordan Valley.

In the last few months another view of Israeli security needs in the West Bank has re-emerged and gained considerable attention in the media. For example, Shaul Arieli, a former IDF colonel who was part of the Geneva Initiative, published this year with Yediot Books “A Border between Us and You” in which he argues that the threats to Israel have changed and hence the Jordan Valley is no longer relevant for the main security challenges which Israel faces. He goes so far as to say that the application of the concept of “strategic depth” to the Jordan Valley is “worthy of mockery.”

Surprisingly, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan appeared to join this school of thought when he said that the IDF would be able to defend the country even if Israel were to withdraw to pre-1967 line. Speaking on a panel at President Peres’ Tomorrow Conference on June 19, he specifically added: “The Jordan Valley had importance in 1991. ” But now he maintained that things had changed: “At that time, there was a threat from Jordan, Syria and Iraq, but now it is of less importance.”

There are two significant problems with this approach. First, Rabin was stating his firm opposition to a retreat to the 1967 lines and his support for the Jordan Valley as late as 1995, even after the strategic changes that occurred in 1991. Moreover, Rabin insisted on an Israeli line of defense in the Jordan Valley even though he reached a peace treat with the Jordanians a year earlier, in 1994.

And though Sharon revised his view of the Gaza Strip in 2005, he nonetheless insisted that the Jordan Valley was strategically vital to Israel. While Rabin and Sharon did not state the reasons why they continued to take these positions, it is likely that they were cognizant of the fact that in the Middle East, in particular, situations can change dramatically, so that strategic planning of Israel’s future borders must not be based on a snapshot of reality in 1995, or in 2005.

Second, Israeli control of the Jordan Valley is not only needed for defense against conventional attacks, but also for neutralizing the growing threat from advanced weapons that can be smuggled to terrorist organizations. Israel learned the hard way that when it left the Philadelphi Route at the outer perimeter of the Gaza Strip, the scale of weapons smuggling, particularly from Iran, surged, and Gaza became a strategic threat to Israeli cities.

Military strategists are aware how important this factor is in winning counter-insurgency wars of the future. After spending ten years hosted by U.S. commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, Max Boot just published a 600-page book on the history of guerrilla warfare. He suggests that there are five factors behind the success of insurgency forces; the fourth is their ability to obtain reinforcements in the form of weapons or even manpower.

When Boot looks at Israel’s success in halting the wave of terror attacks in its cities in 2002, he cites the “IDF’s success in sealing off the West Bank” from resupply as a key component of its strategy. Boot’s analysis makes sense. In Gaza, where Israel no longer could control of the outer perimeter of the territory at the Philadelphi Corridor, it lost its counter-insurgency war with Hamas and other groups and withdrew. But in the West Bank, it defeated terrorism by fulfilling this essential precondition for winning a counter-insurgency campaign by retaining the Jordan Valley.

True, Israel is many times inundated with suggestions that it replace the IDF with international forces. In Southern Lebanon, while an enlarged UNIFIL, reinforced by European troops, was hailed in 2006 by many as a guarantee for Israeli security, it has utterly failed its mission of preventing the smuggling of rockets into Shiite villages in the area between the Litani River and the international border. For Israel, relying on international peacekeepers in the Jordan Valley would be far too great a risk for any responsible Israeli government to take.

Currently, in order to back up Secretary of State Kerry’s shuttle diplomacy, the U.S. has begun a quiet dialogue with Israel over how it might have its security protected should it withdraw the IDF from the West Bank.

The U.S. side is lead by General John Allen, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In a report in the Washington Post on Allen’s talks with his Israeli counterparts it was revealed that “…the most contentious issue under discussion is military control over the Jordan Valley.” Given the uncertainties of the Middle East in the years ahead, it is extremely unlikely that Israel will consider withdrawal of its forces from the Jordan Valley–or its right to reinforce them–thereby giving up what has been the front line of its defense since 1967.