Two reports in the Sunday, Jan. 5, papers caught my eye. They were seemingly unrelated, but their combination is essential for understanding the central issue which has been troubling Secretary of State John Kerry on his 10th visit to the region. The solution for which he is aiming is also revealed in combining the two reports.
The first item, published in various media including the Israeli daily Maariv, quoted Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad. Speaking in the city of Kfar Saba, Dagan challenged the claim that the Jordan Valley is essential for Israel’s security, terming it a “manipulation” by politicians who abuse outlandish security arguments. According to Dagan, the Jordan Valley has lost its strategic importance, since “there’s no Iraqi army, there’s no eastern front. There’s peace with Jordan.”
The second item, which ran on the front page of Israeli daily Haaretz, reported that Sunni fighters linked to the al-Qaeda terror organization have taken over the town of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province, leading to a mass flight of its residents. The government of Nouri al-Maliki appealed last Thursday, Jan. 2, to Arab and Muslim states, asking them to support his country’s struggle to gain control of Iraq’s biggest province (about one-third of the country’s area), bordering Syria to the north, Jordan to the west and Saudi Arabia to the south.
Dagan is right, but also wrong. True, the demand that Israeli soldiers be deployed in the Jordan Valley as part of a permanent agreement with the Palestinians reeks strongly of politics. None other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself can attest to the marginal, if not irrelevant, contribution of stationing a ground force in the valley. In his September 2011 speech at the UN General Assembly, he explained that Israel’s need for “defensible boundaries” stems from its narrow “waistline” and that it takes no more than three seconds for a fighter plane to cross them. How can Israeli soldiers deployed in the valley stop this plane on its way to Tel Aviv?
A November 2013 position paper by the Council for Peace and Security notes that using the term “strategic depth” in the context of the Jordan Valley and the western part of the West Bank is “a mockery.” The authors of the document, among them former Air Force commander, Gen. (Res.) Amos Lapidot, and Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shlomo Brom, who headed the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) strategic planning department, stress that Israel does not have a strategic depth — with the Jordan Valley or without it (Israel’s width, including the valley at its narrowest point, is about 50 kilometers [some 30 miles]). The missile and rocket range of any country on the eastern Jordan River bank, including obviously a future Palestinian state, covers every town and place within Israel — a fact that makes an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley unnecessary.
Thus, the main military threats with which Israel will have to contend in the foreseeable future are terrorism, ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. According to members of the council, the former senior officers, the best way to deal with these threats is by demilitarizing the Palestinian state and putting in place supervising arrangements on the border with Jordan and the border crossings to ensure the demilitarization; a ban on the Palestinian state to maintain alliances or cooperation with countries or elements hostile to Israel; a commitment by the Palestinian state to prevent the establishment of a terrorist infrastructure and oversight of this commitment; and, deployment of an international force in the Palestinian state.
Dagan is wrong in his diagnosis that “there’s no eastern front.” The growing infiltration by global jihad into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is generating concern in Israel and the West over the stability of the regime in Jordan. Of late, King Abdullah has been having trouble dealing with the masses of refugees flooding his country and with the radical Islamist circles threatening his rule. Now, more than ever, Israel should have an interest in strengthening its informal strategic alliance with Jordan. Removing the barrier of the occupation and the settlements, especially in East Jerusalem, are necessary conditions for the creation of a situation in which Israel’s defensive border will stretch along the east and north of the Hashemite Kingdom. The value of the alliance with Jordan is far greater than that of a battalion of Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley, the demand for which is threatening to derail Kerry’s initiative.
Dagan was not precise in his diagnosis, but presented a fitting treatment method. He suggested bringing in the Arab League in an effort to bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians over core issues. He believes that presenting compromise proposals as an Arab initiative (and not as a capitulation to Israel’s demands) will make it easier for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to digest them and to sell them to the Palestinian public. The Arab states, with Saudi Arabia at their head, have a common strategic interest with Israel to block violent rivals headed by al-Qaeda and Shiite pro-Iranian organizations such as Hezbollah, which spare no effort to exchange the old regional order for a new regional disorder. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands in the way of all sides realizing the security potential hidden in this common interest.
Kerry’s journey to Riyadh, the trip by his envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk to Cairo, seat of the Arab League headquarters, and the close ties with regional Arab leaders, indicate that the regional approach has replaced the bilateral approach. The entry of external players into the arena is proof that Kerry has decided to use the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a tie breaker in the endless game called “the peace process.”
When the Obama administration presents the two sides with its plan, the Israelis and the Palestinians will be forced to deal with a two-story dilemma. On the lower floor, they will have to choose between perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the danger of a third intifada and between division of the land and chances of good neighborly relations. On the top floor awaits a choice between perpetuating the Israeli-Arab conflict and the collapse of Jordan, or the chance of normal relations with the entire neighborhood.