FACT : Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on September 10, 2019: “Today I’m announcing my intention, with the establishment of the next government, to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea. This is our essential safety belt in the east” (Ben Sales, “Netanyahu’s push to annex the Jordan Valley, explained,” JTA, September 10, 2019).
Netanyahu’s statement was widely misreported as calling for the annexation of the territory, but he chose his words carefully. He said “applying sovereignty,” which, Erielle Davidson notes, has a different meaning: “A nation cannot annex land over which it already has sovereign claims” (Erielle Davidson, “Israel’s Sovereignty Claims Over The Jordan Valley Are Legitimate,” The Federalist, September 11, 2019)
As with other issues related to the status of the disputed territories, the wisdom of such a move may be debated; however, to do so it is important to know some facts about the Jordan Valley.
The Jordan Valley is a segment of the larger Jordan Rift Valley which runs along the entirety of Israel’s eastern border. The Jordan River flows south from the Sea of Galilee through the Valley for about 185 miles and feeds into the Dead Sea. It separates Jordan, to the east, from Israel and the West Bank.
Jordan River water resources and development of the Valley were a concern to Israel and the United States going back to 1953 when President Eisenhower announced the appointment of Eric Johnston to undertake discussions with Israel and the Arab States on a comprehensive plan for the development of the Jordan Valley.
Following Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the Jordan Valley was controlled by Jordan and Jews were forbidden to live in the region. The Valley came under Israeli control following the Six-Day War in 1967.
Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley followed three stages: from 1967 to 1970, six villages were established along the main highway; from 1971 to 1974, five were built along the Valley’s western border; and, from 1975 to 1990, 17 more were spread across the region. Since 1990, development slowed due to political concerns, though the population has continued to grow. Today, the 27 Jewish settlements in the “Jordan Valley bloc” have more than 9,000 residents (Yaakov Katz, “West Bank Jewish Population Stats,” Updated to January 1, 2019). The new status will apparently be applied to 31 settlements, including an illegal outpost with about 30 families – Mevo’ot Yericho – which Netanyahu pledged to legalize if he is reelected (Tovah Lazaroff, “Netanyahu pledges sovereignty as cabinet approves new West Bank settlement,” Jerusalem Post, September 15, 2019).
Palestinians live in 10 cities and villages, including Jericho, which have a population of approximately 50,000. The number living in the area where Netanyahu said Israeli sovereignty would apply is much smaller, however, about 9,000 (Jacob Magid, “PM’s Jordan Valley map was error-strewn, but is his vow worth taking seriously?” Times of Israel, September 12, 2019).
The 1995 Oslo II Accords divided the West Bank into areas A, B and C. Roughly 90% of the Jordan Valley, constituting approximately 30% of the West Bank, is in Area C and under Israel’s control. The city of Jericho and its surrounding villages are part of Area A, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority; Israeli citizens are not allowed to enter or build in this area. Netanyahu’s plan would apply sovereignty to roughly 22% of the West Bank (Magid, September 12, 2019).
While Netanyahu’s declaration was viewed by many through the prism of his campaign in advance of the September 17, 2019, election, it should also be seen in the broader context of Israel’s security interests. The idea that Israel should retain control over the Jordan Valley did not originate with Netanyahu.
Shortly after the Six-Day War, Israeli Labor Minister Yigal Allon drafted a proposal – the Allon Plan – which envisioned annexing the Jordan Valley. He believed the area was vital to Israel’s security because it provided a buffer zone between Israel and its enemies to the east. This remains the consensus view in Israel but there are doubters who question its importance in the age of ballistic missiles. Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, for example, has said “the Jordan Valley is not vital to Israel’s security” (Maayana Miskin, “Former Mossad Head: Jordan Valley not Critical,” Arutz Sheva, May 1, 2014).
Yitzhak Rabin, a former chief of staff, shared Allon’s perspective. In his last speech before being assassinated, Yitzhak Rabin flatly stated his opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state and said that as part of a permanent solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, “The security border, for the defense of the State of Israel, will be in the Jordan Valley – broadly defined.”
In 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly agreed to allowing an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley for ten years following the signing of a peace accord during which time PA security forces would be trained to assume control over the region. PA President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the plan (Khaled Abu Tomeh, “Report: Kerry Offers Ten-Year Israeli Presence In Jordan Valley,” Jerusalem Post, December 10, 2013).
In the past, Netanyahu considered various compromises on the status of the Valley. He said, for example, “the Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley could be reassessed over time and could be altered according to Palestinian security performance” (Herb Keinon, “IDF will remain along Jordan River, PM insists,” Jerusalem Post, March 8, 2011).
His envoy to peace talks that took place in Jordan in 2012, Isaac Molho, said, Netanyahu spoke of a “military presence along the Jordan River,” but did not demand that Israel maintain sovereignty over the valley (Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu’s Border Proposal: Israel to Annex Settlement Blocs, but Not Jordan Valley,” Haaretz, February 19, 2012). His former Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, said that Netanyahu had agreed to give up control over the Jordan Valley as part of a peace deal during negotiations with the Palestinians in 2014, a claim the Likud Party denied (Ilan Ben Zion, “Ya’alon: Netanyahu was prepared to cede Jordan Valley,” Times of Israel, (July 27, 2016).
One explanation for the timing of Netanyahu’s announcement was to attract right-wing voters he needed to be reelected. Another is his apparent belief that President Trump would endorse, or at least not object to the application of Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley given his support for Israel and recognition of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights (Robert Mackey, “Netanyahu Hints Trump Peace Plan Will Allow Israel to Annex Key West Bank Territory,” The Intercept, September 11 2019). Immediately after his declaration, the administration officially said only that it had not changed its policy, but, according to one source, the White House does “ not think it precludes the possibility of a political settlement in the future” (Eric Cortellessa, “US says peace deal still possible if Israel annexes settlements, Jordan Valley,” Times of Israel, September 10, 2019).
While the timing, coming just before the election, was controversial, the idea of applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley was not. Netanyahu’s main opposition, the Blue and White Party, said it was pleased to see he was “adopting Blue and White’s plan for recognizing the Jordan Valley” (Gil Hoffman, Khaled Abu Toameh and Omri Nahmias, “Netanyahu vows to annex all settlements, starting with Jordan Valley,” Jerusalem Post, September 11, 2019).
The Israeli public also believes the Jordan Valley is important for security. In one poll, for example, almost 80 percent preferred keeping strategic territory such as the Jordan Valley in any peace agreement. In a more recent poll that asked about annexing all of Area C, not just the Jordan Valley – if the Trump administration supports it – found that 48% of Israeli Jews would support annexation and 28% would not (Tamar Hermann and Or Anabi, “Two Weeks to Election Day: IDI Poll Reveals Jewish Israelis are in Favor of a Unity Government,” IDI, September 3, 2019).
As Eugene Kontorovich, director of the International Law Department at the Kohelet Policy Forum, noted, Netanyahu is “translating long-standing Israeli consensus into action” (Davidson, September 11, 2019).
Typically, diplomats and commentators predict an eruption in the Arab world if Israel takes unilateral steps and, while the announcement predictably provoked widespread criticism, it evoked little outrage from Arab leaders. The one exception is Jordan which is understandably more sensitive given that it once occupied the Jordan Valley and has to worry about Palestinian anger given that they make up most of the kingdom’s population (Ben Hubbard, “Little Outrage in Arab World Over Netanyahu’s Vow to Annex West Bank,” New York Times, September 10, 2019). If Netanyahu goes through with his vow, the situation might change, but, for now, it does not appear to threaten the peace treaty with Jordan or Israel’s improving relations with the Gulf States.
Critics of Netanyahu claimed fulfilling his pledge would kill the peace process and the Palestinians expressed their disapproval. Before the announcement, however, the peace process was moribund. Moreover, the Palestinians have not accepted any offer for independence in all the years Israel has refrained from changing the status of the Jordan Valley.
Applying Israeli sovereignty to the Valley would not preclude negotiations or the possibility of a two-state solution. One reason Israel wishes to control the Valley is to reduce the size of any future Palestinian entity and surround most of its frontier. In addition, an Israeli military presence in the region is meant to enforce the demilitarization of a future Palestinian state by stopping arms smuggling across the Jordan River. It would also provide Israelis with safe and secure access to the Dead Sea, Jordan River and Sea of Galilee.
The issue may be moot in the short run regardless of the outcome of the election. If Netanyahu loses, it’s unlikely a new government would take any immediate action on the Jordan Valley. Like other politicians, Netanyahu has a history of reneging on grand campaign promises so a victory does not necessarily mean he will follow through on his pledge (Hoffman, Tomeh and Nahmias, September 11, 2019).