(July 17, 2020 / JNS) There is strong consensus that among Israel’s defense establishment that Israel must maintain a permanent military presence in the Jordan Valley. Extending sovereignty is the best way to secure that. Sovereignty also facilitates peace talks by removing a non-starter from the discourse. Sovereignty’s benefits outweigh the risks, while continuing the status quo harms growth, does not prevent international scorn and entails long-term risks. Israel should seize the opportunity provided by its historically large government, the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” vision, and favorable international conditions to extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.
Prime ministers spanning Israel’s political spectrum, including Yitzchak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu, all staunchly supported retaining permanent control of the Jordan Valley. Military control allows Israel to enforce the demilitarization of a future Palestinian entity, defend against conventional attack, deter and prevent forces from destabilizing Jordan, and mobilize reservists along interior lines.
Past withdrawals have failed to achieve peace, weakening Israel’s security in the process. Understanding these lessons, no responsible leader should cede control over strategic territory in an unstable region, to an untrustworthy entity. Israel’s evolving defensive capabilities do not minimize the importance of territorial control. Active defense entails taking fire which hurts Israel’s economy and traumatizes its citizens. The less Israel has to rely on it, the better.
Israeli control of the Jordan Valley remains key to preventing the “Gazafication” of any future Palestinian sovereign entity. Without it, militants can infiltrate from anywhere in the Middle East, extending Iran’s reach, and that of other militants, to territory bordering the Jerusalem-Ashdod-Haifa triangle—home to 70 percent of Israel’s population and 80 percent of its economic infrastructure. Foreign forces and “trip-wires” cannot prevent this. For example, the United Nations failed to enforce Hezbollah to disarm following the 2006 Lebanon War.
Sovereignty, not status quo
An estimated 60 percent of Israelis want the government to extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley. Some experts argue that sovereignty would unnecessarily focus negative attention upon Israel, and they advocate for Israel to simply continue building “facts on the ground.” Such an approach has not shielded Israel from international condemnation in the past.
Continuing the status quo neither moves the peace process forward nor enhances Israel’s future prospects. It asks Israel to “play dumb” and assumes that the international community and the Palestinians will play along indefinitely. This risks Israel being pressured into a withdrawal from the Jordan Valley in the next peace process, as it was under the 2013 initiative led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Israel has historically failed to maintain a military presence beyond its borders. Extending sovereignty now, under the auspices of a U.S. proposal, would create a powerful political “fact on the ground,” while continued limbo disincentivizes investment in civil infrastructure needed to build a de facto presence.
The Jordan Valley contains only 58,000 Palestinian Arabs, who will likely remain under the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. The demographic risk is a non-issue. Sovereignty enjoys significant public support and diplomatic risks are overblown.
The Palestinian Authority
Israel’s mutually beneficial cooperation with the P.A. is unlikely to suffer significantly. Oft-repeated threats by P.A. chief Mahmoud Abbas to cut security ties ring hollow. The P.A. relies on the IDF to keep Hamas from throwing its men off roofs as they did in Gaza. This is why despite numerous threats, in practice, the P.A. will likely continue security cooperation.
Israel and the United States both desire good relations with Jordan. However, Jordan faces severe challenges to its stability, relies heavily on American support and benefits from the IDF securing its western border. It is therefore unlikely to curtail cooperation over territory that it ceded its claim to in 1988. Senior Jordanian officials have reportedly signaled this position repeatedly to Israel and to other leaders involved in the U.S.-led peace initiative.
Increased threats from Iran and the decreased importance of Middle Eastern oil have been leading regional powers to seek stronger ties with the United States and Israel. Several Arab countries are quietly backing the U.S. plan allowing Israel to extend sovereignty. Senior Saudi officials reportedly said that for many Arab states, official opposition is for show.
European Union and international bodies
The European Union has voiced strong opposition to Israel’s sovereignty plans. Hungary and Austria have prevented unanimous condemnation, and will likely make it impossible for it to impose sanctions on Israel, while mutually beneficial trade and defense ties are unlikely to suffer much.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) also expressed concern. In the past, it has sought to prosecute Israelis for fighting Hamas. If Israel is criticized for defending itself against a terrorist entity which calls for genocide in its charter, there is little reason to believe that it can ever avoid being the target of a double standard by the ICC or other international bodies. The United States recently rejected the ICC’s power to charge its troops. Its authority should not be overestimated.
The United States
The Trump administration’s approach to Israel has gained rising legitimacy as its political opponents’ predictions of “a regional explosion” over moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights failed to materialize. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo’s most recent statements called extending sovereignty “a decision for the Israeli government.” He noted regional support and expressed disappointment over the P.A.’s refusal to participate in negotiations. Future administrations from either party are unlikely to pressure Israel to withdraw once sovereignty is an established fact. Nor would they be likely to curtail defense, intelligence, trade or diplomatic relations, which enjoy strong congressional and popular support.
There is broad consensus that Israel must maintain military control in the Jordan Valley. Continuing the status quo does Israel no favors, while the risks of extending sovereignty are likely overblown. Sovereignty reduces the likelihood that Israel will be pressured into further withdrawal. It also removes ambiguity, enhancing Israel’s ability to build infrastructure. This will yield economic and security dividends. Israel should seize the current opportunity. Long-term ambiguity is not in Israel’s interest, despite it consistently being the easier short-term route.
Jeremiah Rozman is a publishing Adjunct at The MirYam Institute. A former member of the Israel Defense Forces, he currently works as the national security analyst at the Association of the U.S. Army.
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