Saturday, 21 December 2013

Jordan and the Israel-Palestine détente

          When the current Israel-Palestinian peace talks began on July 29, 2013, a nine-month gestation period was ordained. The due date for the birth of an agreement is therefore the last day of April 2014. We are currently about half-way through this pregnancy which has, not unexpectedly, involved hard labour from the very beginning.  Whether it will turn out to have been a false pregnancy remains to be seen.

          The prime mover in this enterprise is US Secretary of State John Kerry, and if an infant agreement is finally born, he may well be dubbed its daddy.  At the very start of the face-to-face discussions, Kerry announced that all parties had agreed to cover the proceedings with a blanket of secrecy.  Not a word would emerge about their progress from any source except Kerry himself.  Any other reports emanating from supposedly informed sources would be speculation and rumour.

          Speculation and rumour have nonetheless been rife, and one whisper currently circulating is that the attention of the negotiating parties is now focused on the matter of Israel’s security.  In the words of Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu: “There must be iron-clad security arrangements to protect the peace arrangements that allow Israel to defend itself, by itself, against any possible threats. And those security arrangements must be based on Israel’s own forces. There is no substitute for that.” 
          One commentator asserts that the Americans know that he means what he says and, as a result, have set up a team led by retired General John Allen, unprecedented in size and scope, to look at Israel’s security requirements and to suggest solutions. Speaking at the Saban Forum recently, Kerry said that some 160 people from US defence and intelligence organizations are involved in the project, evaluating the security implications of a Palestinian state from “every potential security scenario.”

         A key aspect of the evaluation is how both Israel and a future sovereign Palestine can be secured against infiltration by terrorists, or defended against future invasion by jihadists, across the Jordan valley from the east.

"We don't want to see rockets and missiles pouring into a Palestinian state,” said Netanyahu back in 2010, “and placed on the hills above Tel Aviv and the hills encircling Jerusalem. If Israel does not maintain a credible military and security presence in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future, this is exactly what could happen again."

The Jordan valley, some 120 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, extends from the outlet of the Jordan River up north at Lake Kinneret, to its inlet at the Dead Sea. To the north it forms the border between Israel and Jordan; further south it delineates the West Bank which extends along part of the Dead Sea. For the portion of the Dead Sea not included in the West Bank, the Israel-Jordan border runs right down its middle, and then down the Negev to the Red Sea.

As the Washington Post recently pointed out, a generation of Israeli generals has considered the Jordan Valley a crucial flank against a land invasion from the east. The valley has been under the control of the Israeli military since 1967. The area bristles with covert listening stations, radar sweeps and thermal- and night-vision cameras. On the mountain tops that rise steeply from the valley floor, Israel maintains a series of early-warning stations. Troops are on constant patrol along the river and the passes.

Kerry and his team have tried to help Israel overcome its security fears with offers of US-provided intelligence and technology, but Israel already has sophisticated drones, surveillance technology and some of the best “smart fences” in the world.  At one point, US diplomats discussed placing international troops in the Jordan Valley, but Israel pointed to numerous failures by UN forces in demilitarized zones along the Lebanon and Syrian borders.

In short, Israel sees its future security as dependent on the continued presence of its own forces in the Jordan valley. To the Palestinian Authority (PA), the whole concept of Israeli military being stationed in a future sovereign Palestine is anathema.  Equally unacceptable is the idea that Israel should transfer sovereignty of the Jordan Valley to the PA, which would in turn lease it back to Israel an idea that is not new.  Israel signed a similar leasing agreement with Jordan as part of the 1994 peace accords, in which Israel acknowledged Jordanian sovereignty over 300 square kilometres along the border, and leased back 30 square kilometres in automatically renewed long-term leases.

While the peace negotiators toss Jordan and its borders to and fro across the table, it is legitimate to wonder why Jordan itself has not been directly involved in the discussions, and what it thinks of a continued Israeli presence in the Jordan valley.  It is legitimate, because back in May 2013, when Kerry was in the process of setting up the peace discussions, he flew to Rome to meet Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh.  The result? A declaration by Kerry that Jordan, because of its geographical and diplomatic affinity with Israel, was an essential partner to peace.  “Jordan will play a key role,” said Kerry.

The fact is that the last thing Jordan needs is a weak Palestinian state some 15 minutes from Amman that could be overrun by Hamas. They view with apprehension the prospect of a West Bank transferred to the PA which – as Gaza was – is subsequently taken over by Hamas to become a possible base for Iranian Revolutionary Guards and jihadist elements keen on overthrowing not only Israel, but Jordan as well. In addition Jordan wants Israel in the Jordan Valley to prevent a further influx of Palestinian Arabs. Jordan’s Palestinian majority has threatened the Hashemite monarchy in the past, including in the 1970-1971 Jordanian civil war.

Which explains recent reports of Jordan pushing the United States to support Israel’s position that it needs to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley. And indeed, in a new proposal to both Israel and the PA last week, Kerry is said to have suggested that Israel be permitted to maintain a military presence there. According to Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, Jordan coordinated with Israel to convince Kerry of the crucial importance of continued Israeli army control of the border region.

Predictably, the PA responded with outrage. Chief Palestinian negotiator Yasser Abed Rabbo told France’s AFP  that Kerry had put the entire peace process on the verge of “total failure” by backing the Israeli demand.

If Jordan were permitted a look-in on the peace discussions, it might be able to convince the Palestinian negotiators that a deal with Israel on the Jordan Valley might  be no bad thing.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 December 2013:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 December 2013:

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