Control of buffer zone seen as crucial for Israel, though threat from east has changed.
Tel Aviv — Against a backdrop of bald desert hilltops overlooking a valley of agricultural settlements to the east, Road 508 in the Jordan Valley makes quick ascents that turn into curving rollercoaster-like plunges.
Back in the early 1970s, it was part of a network of West Bank roads imagined by some security planners here as Israel’s eastern security border. It was dubbed the “Alon Road” for Yigal Alon, the Israeli ex-general who hatched a plan for Israel to keep tanks on the western slopes of the Jordan Valley after a West Bank withdrawal. The tanks would protect Israel from any invasion of Arab armies through Jordan.
Control the Jordan Valley has moved to the forefront of the current U.S.-sponsored peace talks initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry. Both Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to try to hammer out a peace agreement over the course of nine months. The negotiations have reached their midpoint with no apparent sign of progress.
Israel has made clear in the talks that it wants to retain control of the border region with Jordan even after withdrawing from the rest of the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Palestinians say any Israeli soldier remaining behind would undermine their sovereignty.
However, the collapse of foreign militaries in Syria and Iraq that once threatened Israel, coupled with the rise of non-state militant organizations armed with rockets, means that the formula for a security compromise has shifted markedly since the time of the Alon Plan.
“The story of the eastern front doesn’t exist anymore,” said Shaul Arieli, a former colonel who advised previous Israeli governments while in the army and is a member of the dovish Council for Peace and Security. “We aren’t required to deploy divisions in the Jordan Valley. … Even Bibi and Boogie understand there is no threat from the east,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.
What that means is that, instead of demanding to station tanks and artillery divisions in the Samarian hills along the Alon Road to stop an army, Israel is now more focused on blocking militant infiltrations between Jordan and the West Bank. That requires less heavy hardware and more Israeli infantry patrols.
Israel is also likely to remain at the Allenby Border crossing. Located just outside of Jericho north of the Dead Sea, it spans the Jordan River between Jordan and the West Bank.
Regional changes “make a difference” in how the security deal will look, said Shlomo Brom, a former head of strategic planning in the IDF, and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “What is left is the issue of border control. … The problem is that Israel doesn’t trust the Palestinians.”
Itamar Ya’ar, who until recently served as deputy head of the National Security Council for Defense Policy, said Israel’s security “is one of the main, if not the main element” to be resolved in a peace agreement.
“For the Israeli side, peace means security measures that would allow us to make concessions at the table with the Palestinians,” he said in recent conference call with the Israel Project.
Regarding the Jordan Valley, Ya’ar said Israel wants to maintain a military presence “but I don’t think the government will insist on sovereignty. It might include military forces on the ground at least in the short term and technological measures that allow us to collect information east of Israel.
He added that as part of an agreement, Israel could be expected to allow some international forces to patrol the area along with Israeli troops.
“International forces are not new to the Israeli system and the Israeli way of thinking,” he explained. “We have them along the Lebanese and Syrian borders and in the Sinai. There are U.N. forces that have their headquarters in Jerusalem. So you see them all over. I could see a mixture of forces because the Palestinians don’t trust the Israeli forces and I can understand that.”
Israeli officials and other analysts said that just because the conventional threat to the country has diminished, doesn’t mean that the Jewish state doesn’t face a frightening strategic threat from the potential build-up in the West Bank of rocket armories like those amassed in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon.
The argument is that Israel can’t be sure that the rising chaos in the Arab world won’t eventually destabilize Jordan’s monarchy and affect the military’s [so-far effective] control of the border region.
If that were to happen, Israel would face a smuggling threat on a border 50 times the size of the border between Gaza and Egypt, said Michael Oren, who was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. until a few months ago.
“Were we to leave the border unguarded, there’s a possibility the West Bank would fill up with hundreds of thousands of rockets” near Israel’s economic heartland, Oren said. “This is not a tactical threat; it’s a strategic threat.”
Kerry, who visited the region twice this month to focus on the security plan and was rumored to be en route once again, said that his goal for the plan is to ensure Israeli security while respecting Palestinian sovereignty.
The U.S. is sharing a proposal by retired Marine Gen. John Allen, described as one of the U.S.’s leading military minds. He has been studying West Bank security for months.
Kerry said that some of the challenges would be overcome by technology, prompting speculation about satellite imaging to detect infiltrations. However, Israeli security hawks say that no technological innovations can replace the IDF.
“We are told that they found the answer to all of our security problems. … We can place cameras, lasers, helicopters, and especially rely on international forces and the security guarantee of our friends,” wrote Economics Minister Naftali Bennett ahead of Kerry’s arrival.
“The world can give a guarantee, but it is unsolidified, flexible and always evaporates when we really need it. So, no thanks,” he added.
Where exactly are the negotiations headed? Now that there’s less than five months from the May deadline, there’s speculation about whether the U.S. will push for an extension for the talks, or seek some sort of partial deal — a Palestinian state in temporary borders — to salvage what is possible from the talks. It’s an idea that appeals to many Israeli backers of the peace process who believe the gaps are too wide to bridge now, but Palestinians disappointed by the Oslo interim agreements will not support such a deal.
The idea of an interim “framework” agreement was put to rest by Kerry last week, who, in response to a reporter’s question on the matter, said that the goal remains a permanent, not a temporary, settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
There’s also much speculation that Kerry might make public the U.S. position on an Israeli-Palestinian deal — a rerun of the parameters published by former President Bill Clinton in his final hours in office back in 2001.
Oren believes that’s unlikely because it is counterproductive, allowing the Palestinians to “pocket” the compromise to improve their position in the next round of talks. (U.S. parameters would ostensibly yield gains to the Israelis as well.)
The former Israeli diplomat said he shares the widely held view that, in the absence of a two-state deal, the status quo is unsustainable because it will lead Israel closer to binational state reality.
In that case, Oren said he believes that Israel — in close coordination with the U.S. — will have to unilaterally draw its own borders, annexing the Jewish settlements blocs that would be candidates for land swaps under negotiations, while pulling back from other areas. Though the notion of unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank (possibly including the Jordan Valley) is likely to raise an international outcry, such a move would go over well at home.
“It would have strong resonance in Israeli society,” Oren said.
President Barak Obama has said the Palestinians would have to accept constraints on their sovereignty at first — a position harshly criticized by the Palestinians. The question, say analysts, is for how long. Netanyahu is thought to want to keep Israeli soldiers there for decades, while others think that a 10-year period would suffice.
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