The timing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and the adjacent northern portion of the Dead Sea — areas of the West Bank that Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War and that Palestinians view as an integral part of a future Palestinian state — was hardly accidental.
He issued the announcement on September 10, exactly a week before the forthcoming general election on September 17, Israel’s second in only five months. Netanyahu made the same promise five days before the previous election in April, which ended inconclusively after his failure to cobble together a right-wing coalition government.
Netanyahu’s intention to extend Israeli sovereignty to the northern expanse of the Dead Sea and the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, comprising nearly one-third of the land mass of the West Bank and dotted with Israeli settlements and military camps, can be regarded as a transparent attempt to shore up his support among the splintered right-wing electorate.
Politicians habitually make promises in the hope of increasing their chance of winning office. In this respect, Netanyahu — the longest serving prime minister in Israel’s history — is no different than any of his predecessors, whether on the left, right or center.
After all, survival is the name of the game in politics.
Yet it would be fair to say, I think, that Netanyahu’s promise is not just a case of cynical election sloganeering.
Although some observers describe Netanyahu as a pragmatist, he is an ideologue, too, a Zionist Revisionist who ardently believes that the Palestinians are unwilling to accept Israel’s existence and legitimacy, that peace is still a long way off, and that Israel, in the meantime, must protect itself by acquiring strategically vital territory and building an iron wall around itself.
When all these factors are crunched into the equation, Netanyahu’s most recent promise is less than surprising. Two and a half months ago, in the company of U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump’s then national security adviser, John Bolton, Netanyahu visited the Jordan Valley and declared that Israel intends to keep it. “The area to the west of the Jordan will always be in our hands,” he vowed. “If we give up the Jordan Valley, we will ensure that there will be a war.”
In accordance with his political instincts and core beliefs, Netanyahu has been moving in an annexationist direction for at least the past few years. In the process, he has shed his commitment to a two-state solution.
Shortly after his reelection in 2009, Netanyahu delivered a speech at Bar-Ilan University in which he endorsed the concept of two states for two people. Previously, he had regularly lambasted the two-state concept. He shifted his position due to pressure brought to bear on him by the then president of the United States, Barack Obama.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu took no significant steps to forge a genuine rapprochement with Israel’s natural negotiating partner, the Palestinian Authority, or its leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu’s settlement building freeze was merely partial and of short duration, and Israel’s direct talks with the Palestinian Authority from 2013 onward soon broke down in a welter of disagreements and mutual acrimony. Since then, negotiations have not resumed, and the Israeli government has demonized Abbas.
In addition, Netanyahu continued to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, claimed by the Palestinians as the capital of their future state.
The accession of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency has emboldened Netanyahu and accelerated the trend away from a resolution of Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians by political means and compromise.
In announcing his pledge to annex the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “secure” and “permanent” eastern border, Netanyahu made an implicit reference to the Trump administration’s pro-Israel stance. As he put it, “This is a historic chance, a one-time window of opportunity, to apply Israeli sovereignty over our communities in Judea and Samaria and also additional areas with great importance to our security, heritage and future.”
“We haven’t had such an opportunity since the Six Day War, and I doubt we’ll have another opportunity in the next 50 years,” he noted. Netanyahu added that, due to his “personal relationship with President Trump, I will be able to annex all the settlements in the heart of our homeland.”
As per Netanyahu’s calculations, the Trump administration was conspicuously silent in the face of his election campaign pledge to incorporate the 2,400 square kilometre Jordan Valley into Israel. Three months ago, David Friedman, Trump’s representative in Israel, said that Israel has “the right to retain some, but unlikely all, of the West Bank.”
Netanyahu’s chief opponent, Benny Gantz, the leader of the centrist Blue and White Party and the former chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, also thinks that Israel must control the Jordan Valley, which is technically within the boundaries of Area C, a designation formulated in the 1995 Oslo accord.
However, Gantz has never called for the outright annexation of the Jordan Valley. The consensus in mainstream Israeli security circles is that it should be militarily controlled by Israel for a certain number of years before it is ceded to the Palestinians within the context of an iron-clad peace agreement, or handed over to an international peacekeeping force.
Netanyahu shredded these ideas and thereby put the Palestinians on notice that the Jordan Valley will be retained by Israel come what may.
It’s a regressive step, a move away from a fair and just negotiated peace agreement. It signifies yet again Netanyahu’s preference for conflict management rather than conflict resolution.
In turning a blind eye to Netanyahu’s land grab, the Trump administration — which is expected to release its long-awaited peace plan following Israel’s election — has become an accomplice to the Israeli government’s short-sighted abandonment of a genuine rapprochement with its Palestinian neighbors.