Updating the Valley’s strategic significance

The Jordan Valley has always been strategically important for Israel. Most recently, events in Iran and Iraq, and particularly Hamas’ rise to power in Palestine, have once again upgraded the significance for Israel’s security of its presence in the Valley. This could have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s relations with Jordan and the Palestinians.
From 1948 until the American occupation of Iraq in April 2003, Israeli security thinkers were concerned to one degree or another with the threat of an "eastern front" coalition of Arab forces confronting it across the Jordan Valley. Iraqi, Syrian and Jordanian forces in various combinations created an eastern front in 1948 and 1967, and threatened to do so in 1973. Israel’s occupation of the Valley in 1967 vastly enhanced its capacity to deal with military threats from the east. Beginning around the early 1990s, the saliency of the Jordan Valley/eastern front threat was progressively reduced by Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan, international sanctions against Iraq, and Syria’s military isolation and weakness. Then, the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 for the first time created conditions for Israel to consider withdrawing the bulk of its military forces from the area, leaving only those charged with anti-terrorism tasks and significantly enhancing the territorial prospe! cts of a Palestinian state.

Now, the events of recent months appear once again to reinforce Israel’s strategic need to remain in the Jordan Valley. First, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, linked with a Shi’ite-dominated Iraq–or, alternatively, with a Shi’ite state in the southern two-thirds of a dismembered Iraq–poses a new threat to Jordan and, by geographic and political extension, to Israel. Second, and more significantly, the outcome of the Palestinian elections of January 25 potentially creates conditions for Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to link up with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, destabilize the Hashemite Kingdom and, again by extension, threaten Israeli security as well. Already the Jordanian Muslim Brothers have hastened to declare null and void the 1988 Jordanian decision to sever its claim to sovereignty in the West Bank, and Islamist students at the University of Jordan have raised the green Hamas flag.

At this point, less than a month after the Hamas victory and prior to the formation of a Hamas-dominated government in Palestine, Hashemite leaders do not seem particularly concerned about the dangers posed by an Islamist Palestine seeking to link up with Islamist elements among Jordan’s majority Palestinian population. They argue that as long as the outcome in Palestine is the product of a negotiated peace settlement, it will not threaten them. They do not acknowledge that there can be no such peace with Hamas. The Hashemite regime’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood have been generally manageable.

There was a time, toward the end of King Hussein’s reign, when some Hashemites quietly hinted to Israelis that, in order to isolate Jordan’s Palestinian population from irredentist influences, they would prefer a Palestinian state in the West Bank that did not have an extended common border with Jordan along the Jordan River. Whether or not we revert to that era, Israel has a right to be concerned: Hashemite Jordan shares with it two vital local and regional strategic security interests that have been negatively affected by the Hamas victory and recent developments to Jordan’s east: containing the Palestinians in a non-threatening political entity, and keeping radical state and Islamist threats as far away as possible. Hence, in the Hamas era, any additional unilateral Israeli dismantling of settlements and/or withdrawal on the West Bank is not likely to include the sparsely-populated Jordan Valley. Nor can Israel now afford to consider turning the Allenby Bridge crossing ov! er to bilateral Palestinian-Jordanian control, along the lines of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai. Already Egyptian security officials are evincing concern that Hamas is exploiting its relatively free entry at Rafah into Sinai to collude with Egyptian Islamists.

Yet even as Israel reevaluates yet again the strategic significance of the Jordan Valley, it must not lose sight of the importance of that area, fully one-third of the West Bank, for the future viability of a Palestinian state. In the long term, Israel does not need the Jordan Valley settlements any more than it needs those in the mountain heartland; indeed, after more than 35 years of Israeli settlement in the harsh conditions of the Jordan Valley, there are no more than 7,000 settlers living and farming there, and their farming communities are still not profitable. On the other hand, a Palestinian state cannot be viable unless it includes all or most of the Valley. Israel’s original post-Oslo vision of a long-term residual Israeli security presence in the Valley coupled with limited Palestinian sovereignty is still valid.

But as we enter the Hamas era, that vision must be put on hold. Heavier strategic security considerations prevail. Once we know the nature of Hamas rule and the outcome in Iran and Iraq, we may be able to reconsider.