Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why the Jordan Valley is vital

Dr. Reuven Berko

The Israeli demand for continued control over the Jordan Valley and the border crossings with Jordan within the framework of a final-status agreement with the Palestinians now stands at the center of the argument between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

For Israel, the Jordan Valley is profoundly important from a military aspect due to past efforts by the Palestinians, either in regard to terrorism or weapons smuggling from Jordan (after the Six-Day War, the valley region was nicknamed "The Land of the Chase," a reference to the army's anti-terror campaign there), or to our ongoing experiences with them along the Gaza Strip border. From a security perspective, it is undoubtedly preferable for Israel to maintain control of the Jordan Valley rather than redeploy along an alternate border line west of the valley.

Beyond the settlements, it appears security is the core issue that needs to guide Israel in the negotiations. In the reality of an Arab Spring in which hordes of mujahedeen from across the globe are pouring into the conflict zones around us, the importance of controlling our border with Jordan is even more important. A strong and stable Jordan in control of its borders is important for peace and quiet on Israel's eastern border. Therefore we must take into account the inherent risk involved in relinquishing responsibility for the border and its crossings to the Palestinians. Such a step would expose Jordan, which has a population comprised mostly of Palestinians, to the threat of a future Palestinian revolution. 

The jihad tourists
Examining the threat against us on our eastern front through the prism of our enemies' deteriorating armies and their increased reliance on ballistic weapons could lead one to conclude that territorial depth is inconsequential and it is therefore possible to concede the valley. In actuality, these "jihad tourists" flooding the conflict areas in our region are far more hazardous and cast doubt on the aforementioned argument. The Arab monarchies, including Jordan, are in danger. In this reality any step that could weaken Jordan and flood it with fighters from al-Qaida, the Nusra Front or Hamas would be unwise.

The jihad tourists operating in disintegrating Arab countries are indifferent to the suffering of the Islamic populations in the countries they have invaded. They rape and murder the locals; deterring them is not easy. This is a largely ground-based threat that highlights the importance of controlling essential border crossings, tactical terrain and territorial depth. Syria is a classic case of how losing control over border crossings leads to throngs of mujahedeen invaders. During the Mubarak era, Egypt allowed al-Qaida and global jihadist fighters to join forces with the Muslim Brotherhood in the country and with Hamas in Gaza, and establish an entire industry of weapons smuggling from Sinai into Gaza, the foundation of terrorist attacks against Israel.

Jordan is managing for the time being to stunt this process and has proven itself to be a dependable partner along our eastern border. Even if it does not say it out loud, Jordan is not thrilled about giving the border and the crossings to the Palestinians. It has already coped, in the 1970s, with an attempt at a hostile takeover by the Palestinians (Black September), led by Yasser Arafat at the time. Furthermore, the Jordanian monarchy is dealing with economic difficulties and with threats to the regime's stability from home and abroad, while the Bedouin tribes that have traditionally supported the crown have grown weaker. 

In addition, Jordan is currently flooded with a giant stream of refugees (many of them Palestinians) from Syria and along its eastern border it is fighting to block Islamist radicals trying to enter from Iraq. If the Jordan Valley is handed over to the Palestinians, whenever that may be, the kingdom's internal security will suffer the effects, because whether Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas turns a blind eye to terrorist machinations or he collapses and Hamas assumes control of the West Bank, the Jordan Valley will become an open security breach. The damage to Israel in such a scenario is clear.

All signs indicate that Israel and Jordan are unhappy at the prospect of changing their current security situation on their shared border in favor of a dubious arrangement like the one proposed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Therefore the debate over the border with Jordan necessitates an answer to the question: Is it preferable to continue controlling the border area and the crossings but to sustain the inevitable backlash from failed negotiations with the Palestinians, or is a diplomatic arrangement that we know is "a recipe for terrorism" preferable, one in which the Palestinians will ultimately proceed according to the "balloon effect" to take over the area that is breached first?
Were Jordan to indeed ever become "Palestine," then in such a scenario Israel should never in the first place have allowed the Palestinians to control the Jordan River and the crossings, due to the potential threat to Israel posed by an armed Palestinian-controlled Jordan.

The Jordanian concern over the "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians concept getting stronger inside Jordan led them to sever ties with the West Bank and to support any solution to the Palestinian problem that does not involve its own territory. There are those who believe the Jordanian kingdom could kick-start its own initiative under its own auspices on the Palestinian front that would preserve the Hashemite monarchy and its relations with Israel. Until then, the Israeli-Jordanian interest is to uphold the status quo. The joint security interests of the two countries began with those cross-border terrorist attacks on Israel through the Jordan Valley region and the army's subsequent retaliatory raids into Jordanian territory.

The security ties that developed between Jordan and Israel curbed this phenomenon. The relationship that emerged as a result of this cooperation involved secret strategic cooperation, and it was able to withstand the pan-Arab pressures to which it was exposed. The relationship was maintained by the countries' leaders and ultimately led to the peace treaty signed in 1994. Jordan is now, essentially, a buffer between Israel and its many enemies, and it cannot be weakened.

While Israel demands to keep control of the Jordan River and valley region, the Palestinians refuse to accept this and persist in their demand for sovereignty and control over the area. In light of these conflicting positions there are those among us who actually reason that we must placate the Palestinians and concede to their demands, arguing that the threat of a coalition of conventional armed forces poised against us on our eastern front has been removed and that the likelihood of such a threat ever returning is exceedingly small.

Those who share this approach argue that Israel's deterrence capability is adequate enough to render a presence in the Jordan Valley unnecessary and of secondary importance. This dangerous approach is essentially founded in the notion that Jordan, as it is presently constructed, is a constant variable. It fails to account for the risk that Jordan could be weakened if control of the border crossings is given to the Palestinians, and that it could cease providing the service we expect from it -- or that it could fall prey to a revolution that would be to our detriment. 

In summary, Palestinian control of the Jordan River and valley region along with the border crossings with Jordan will harm the joint security interests of Israel and Jordan. We must be mindful that dramatic developments could unfold in Jordan or its Arab or Islamic neighbors (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon), ones which are not in Israel's favor and which could pose a severe threat to us from the east. That is why Israeli control of the Jordan Valley is critical.

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