There is a solid consensus within Israel that it must continue to control the Jordan River Valley, as it is Israel’s only truly defensible border to the east. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, nearly twice as many Israelis are in favor of annexation of Jordan River Valley than are opposed.
There is little doubt of the necessity of the Jordan River Valley for Israel’s long-term safety, especially with a fragile Jordan controlling the eastern bank of the Jordan River, and both Iran and Sunni jihadists waiting for an opportunity to destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom.
It is not often said, but any Palestinian state that is created in the foreseeable future would destabilize Jordan. Israel’s control of the valley is also in America’s interest, which is served by regional stability.
Critics of continued Israeli control of the Jordan River Valley claim that its annexation is illegal as it is “occupied territory,” according to their definition of international law, and would preclude the creation of a Palestine state.
According to this view, ending the possibility for a Palestinian state is against Israel’s own interests, for it to remain both a democratic and a Jewish state. Others also claim that there is no need for Israeli topographical advantage or controlling the passages through the mountain ranges in Samaria with today’s defensive advanced technologies, which in this view are less dependent on geography.
Countering this view is the reading of international law that would dictate that territory acquired in a defensive war should not be returned unless there is a complete end of conflict agreement, with a demilitarized Palestinian state. In addition, since the territory never had a previous legitimate stakeholder, Israel has at least equal rights to the territories beyond the 1949 armistice line, and so the land should clearly be viewed as disputed, not occupied.
The first duty of any nation is to protect its people, and control of the Jordan River Valley clearly rises to the level of an essential long-term strategic defensive priority, especially in this neighborhood of very bad actors.
But does Israel need to annex the Jordan River Valley now?
Supporters say that there will never be another President Donald Trump in the next 100 years—someone who was willing to recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, when no previous American president, Democrat or Republican has been willing to do so. Those presidents and their “peace teams” not only didn’t recognize Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, but also encouraged Israeli prime ministers to consider a near complete Israeli withdrawal for a “words only” promise of peace with Syria.
Israel doesn’t have to annex the Jordan Valley in order to control it indefinitely. Its choices include leaving the status quo or extending Israeli civilian law to the region without annexation.
According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research for the Israeli Defense forces, and now a security and intelligence expert at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), applying the law “means that the area is still a disputed land that is subject to future negotiations,” whereas annexation is more irreversible.
Annexation at this time would, in my view, be a mistake.
It would be unnecessarily placed on the agenda of the contentious Democratic Party debates, forcing Democratic candidates to criticize Israel to remain relevant in the primaries where progressive anti-Israel forces are likely to hold sway.
The rhetoric and damage will only increase during the 2020 elections between Trump and the Democratic presidential candidate, where Israel will be placed on the docket—the worst place it could be to accelerate the bipartisan divide.
Five years ago, I was asked by a member of Israel’s security cabinet what he should recommend to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in regard to accepting the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner to speak about the upcoming Iran deal. Knowing that I was strongly against the deal that was being negotiated, he was surprised when I told him to tell Netanyahu not to come. The timing was wrong.
I advised him to wait a few weeks until after the Israeli election; it will put Israel in a better position diplomatically with wavering members of the Democratic Party. I said that if he won the election, he would be received with much stronger support from the Democratic side in just a few weeks. But if he came now, he would further polarize bipartisan support and weaken the case, which needs Democratic support.
The annexation story has strong parallels, and the subject should be avoided in American politics as much as possible. If Trump losses the next election, a premature Israeli annexation may force the next Democratic president to impose consequences on Israel, especially if there is Democratic control of both chambers of Congress, a totally unnecessary and self-inflicted wound.
There is no imperative to annex now unless Israel believes that the move cannot be reversed in the future, which is not certain. Timing it to coincide with a Trump second term would be a much better strategy.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”