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May 22, 2020 9:38 am

In Jordan Valley, We Need Facts on Ground and Development — Not Annexation

avatar by Pinhas Avivi

Opinion

The Jordan Valley. Photo: Юкатан via Wikimedia Commons.

The Jordan Valley must be Israel’s eastern border; yet the question remains how best to achieve that outcome.

Momentum is growing for an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and areas of Judea and Samaria. However, the fact that the Netanyahu government has, for more than 10 years, refrained from taking that step at the practical level, suggests that the potential consequences of annexation are significant.

Most Israelis, from left to right, believe that there are some places in the territories that must remain under Israeli control. But many are opposed to the idea of Israel becoming a bi-national, Jewish-Palestinian state. The majority of Israelis, whether on the right, left or center, do not wish to see all of the residents of the West Bank become Israeli citizens.

This consensus attitude views ongoing Israeli control of the Jordan Valley as critical. The dramatic changes that have swept the Middle East — including the revolutions in Arab states, the rise of radical Islam and the danger posed by Iran’s regional conduct —  have forged the consensus that the Jordan Valley must be Israel’s eastern border.

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But that is where the agreement ends. The manner in which Israel should secure the Jordan Valley is in dispute within Israel, as is the fate of other areas of the West Bank.

Case studies around the world, as well as Israel’s own experience, show that in order to control territory, a state must firstly have a firm civilian presence embedded therein.

In the previous century, Chile conquered a northern area previously controlled by Peru and Bolivia. To this day, Chilean control of the area remains disputed. Yet Chile created facts on the ground within that territory, and today, no one expects it to relinquish control.

Closer to home, no one on either side of the political spectrum, thinks the major settlement blocs can be transferred over to a future Palestinian state for the same reason; facts on the ground preclude that from happening — specifically, communities of significant size. Whether Israel annexes these blocs or not, it exercises control over them in a de facto manner.

Israel has not created the same type of de facto reality in the Jordan Valley, despite the existence of opportunities to do so. Developments could include a new, central, north-south highway that runs parallel to Route 6, and which would connect Jerusalem to the Golan Heights. That highway would promote industry in the Jordan Valley, potentially in cooperation with Jordan. A far broader Israeli agricultural presence is also badly needed in the Jordan Valley and should be developed.

Those are the efforts that should be undertaken, and they are of significantly greater importance than the pursuit of de jure annexation measures.

In addition, negative ramifications resulting from annexation cannot be ignored. Jordan relinquished its designs for the West Bank in favor of establishing a Palestinian state there, because it has a core, existential interest in preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state in its own territory, which would endanger its very existence. As a result, any de jure annexation steps would alarm the Hashemite Kingdom. Israel has thus far avoided annexation, in part, because it understands that problem.

Meanwhile, Israel has made major progress developing strategic ties with regional states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. These Arab states develop such ties, not only because it helps them form a defensive wall against Iranian aggression, but also because the Palestinian issue is not a live discussion at this time. Annexation would change all of that, and place the Palestinian issue firmly back in the spotlight. Returning it to prominence is not an Israeli interest.

As soon as de jure annexation is initiated, sleeping bears will stir. It would practically force the Gulf states to take up a position that will not be sympathetic to Israel. As a result, Israeli interests would be served far more effectively by de facto development of the Jordan Valley, through the growth of communities, infrastructure, industry and agriculture, rather than Knesset decisions on annexation.

In the meantime, signs are growing that the Trump administration is changing its tune regarding the prospect of a broad annexation. The voices coming out of Washington on the matter are divergent from those originally heard.

Israelis who insist upon seizing this historic moment for annexation point out that Iran is of greater concern to Arab states than the Palestinian issue. They argue that the world is preoccupied with dealing with the coronavirus crisis. Both points are valid — but annexation remains likely to renew opposition to Israel, both in the region and beyond.

None of this is to say that Israel should be passive in shaping its borders. The option of de facto steps on the ground is available, essential — and preferable.

Even on the Israeli right, most prefer to avoid a situation that would drag Israel into a bi-national reality. Annexation opens the door to that. Caution is vital. The Palestinian Authority may not survive a large-scale annexation, and that would leave Israel in charge of directly running the affairs of 2.5 million West Bank Palestinians, creating a de facto bi-national reality. Israel needs to avoid that path.

The dormant status of the Palestinian issue is to Israel’s benefit. De jure annexation could spark a new intifada, or foment a situation where Turkey is able to challenge and decry the improving state of Arab links with Israel. To promote Israel’s long-term interests, the facts on the ground are what matter. De jure annexation now could undercut the progress made by such facts — and needlessly so.

The author is a publishing expert at the MirYam Institute, a former senior deputy director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was responsible for global, strategic and multilateral affairs. He served as Israel’s ambassador to Chile, Colombia, and Turkey.

The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.

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