The Jordan Valley: an essential component for Israel's security?

The Jordan Valley, light-years away from the Israeli consciousness, is joined to the country’s center by wide roads only 46 miles in length–just over an hour’s ride by car. The past, present and future of this intriguing locale served as the topic of a special seminar at the Jabotinsky Institute in Israel in Tel Aviv on May 25, 2014.

A large audience gathered to hear insights from speakers David Elhayani, head of the Jordan Valley Regional Council; professors Dr. Yigal Shefi and Dr. Udi Lebel, and military officers (Reserve) Brigadier General Uzi Dayan and Labor party Knessset Member (Reserve) Lt. General Omer Bar-Lev.

Jabotinsky Institute Director General Yossi Ahimeir moderated the seminar, reminding the participants of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s connection to the Jordan Valley region during World War I when the 38th Royal Fusiliers Battalion of the Jewish Legion, whose establishment Jabotinsky had initiated, took part in the conquest of the Umm esh-Shert Ford in September 1918. Ahimeir read several verses from Jabotinsky’s poem Smol HaYarden (East of the Jordan).

Regional Council Head David Elhayani presented a host of encouraging data on the significant development which the Jordan Valley has undergone since it was liberated by Israeli Army forces during the 1967 Six Days War. Forty-seven years have passed in which this area, plagued by scorching heat, sandstorms, and grueling climatic conditions, has been transformed to a flourishing garden thanks to the pioneering work of its over 7,000 residents in 22 settlements, including Herut-Betar agricultural settlements and the urban settlement of Ma’ale Efraim.
According to Elhayani, there are no vacant homes in the Jordan Valley. There is an excellent quality of life, swimming pools in the settlements, as well as kindergartens and cultural centers. The Jordan Valley spans an area which is 14.1% the size of Judea and Samaria, yet here the Arab population is sparse. Thousands of local Arabs are employed in Jewish settlements, Elhayani noted, “Good neighborly relations and a common economic interest make for a tranquil Jordan Valley.”

The Jordan Valley boasts 12,850 acres (52,000 dunam) of agricultural land, producing 60% of Israel’s date exports and 40% of the date market of all of Europe. The region’s annual growth rate for 2013 was 3.8%, attracting the interest of developers from Israel and abroad. Recently the first supermarket was opened in the area, along with additional economic developments to advance the region.

Elhayani noted that the European-imposed economic boycott on Israel has dealt damage amounting to 100 million shekels ($28,700,000). Yet Israel has not despaired, and has found substitute markets for our agricultural products in Russia, Eastern European nations, and additional countries across the globe. “The Europeans are not boycotting our dates,” he remarked. “Why? We are 40% of the European Common Market. At certain points where there is a shortage of agricultural products in those countries, such as peppers, and they pressure us to supply them, we reply, ‘No, thank you!’ We, too, have our national pride.”
Historian Professor Yigal Shefi addressed his remarks to the history of the Jordan Valley region during World War I (1914-1918). Using slides and photographs, Professor Shefi spoke of tradition versus history, noting that the Jordan Valley was a marginal front for the Turkish and British armies deployed there up until the final stages of the War. Shefi explained that the Jordan Valley was a main axis which the Ottoman regime opened during the Great War to convey produce from the east to the west bank of the Jordan River. For this purpose, they introduced motor boats to the Dead Sea.

Letters written by soldiers of that era attest to the area being hard-hit by malaria and infectious diseases, the suffering of the troops from the scathing heat, the pervading heat waves, and the harsh desert conditions. While European historians describe the Jordan Valley campaign as having been negligible, the annals of Zionist history confer the campaign a different dimension. Despite the fact that the 38th Royal Fusiliers Battalion and part of the 39th Battalion took only a minor part in the conquest of the Jordan Fords, they were ordered to capture the Umm esh-Shert Bridge on September 23, 1918–their sole combat action without a battle, with Jabotinsky taking part as well in his role as battalion commander.

Professor Udi Lebel, a member of the Academic Committee of the Jabotinsky Institute, spoke on the divergences in public opinion resulting from the gap between the given reality and the general conception of the public at large. A calm security situation, where terror is not on the agenda, generates the thought that it’s possible to leave this quiet cell. A calm Jordan Valley over the past many years and the nation’s relative quiet may lead people to think that the area is not crucial for Israel’s security.
To the contrary, a region plagued by terror and a tense security situation generates the sense of the crucial necessity to avoid giving up the area. The yearning for calm and quiet is a type of impetus for seeking far-ranging solutions.

According to Prof. Lebel, the Jordan Valley is perceived in public opinion polls as being irrelevant to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Thus, it is considered as being “virgin” from the standpoint of political perception. It is exterior to the Palestinian problem, in particular following the agreement with the Kingdom of Jordan twenty years ago. The story of the Jordan Valley ended, in Lebel’s opinion, after the Peace Treaty with Jordan. It stands outside the Israeli consciousness: there’s no terror, no occupation, so why leave? Yet in the absence of a perception which envelopes this area, the pervading calm may act, paradoxically, to the detriment of the Jordan Valley.

Knesset Member Omer Bar-Lev stressed that settlement in Eretz-Yisrael is the essence of Zionism, as it has been throughout Zionist history. Settlement along the borders is the manifestation of Israeli sovereignty. Bar-Lev believes in the peace agreement with the Palestinians, although he recognizes the importance of Jewish settlement in the Jordan Valley, which has come in large part at the encouragement of the Labor Movement.

According to Bar-Lev, since the “Alon Plan” was initiated, determining that the Jordan Valley is an essential component of Israel’s security, many things have changed. Bar-Lev noted that on the first day of the Yom Kippur War (October 6, 1973), on the Golan Heights front, all of the settlements were evacuated of their residents. Meaning that settlement wasn’t a security component, but the contrary.

As for the situation today, the threats from the east have been reduced – the Syrian Army is driving itself into the ground, the Iraqi Army is not at its prime, the Jordanian nation is observing the peace treaty, and the battlefield is totally different from what it was forty-five years ago. The entire width of the Jordan Valley is only nine miles. “I’m not saying that this isn’t important, but less than what it was in the past. Everything is conditional upon reaching a (peace) accord with the other side.” Bar-Lev, too, believes that the Jordan Valley must remain under Israeli sovereignty if there is no partner to the accord.

In contrast, (Reserve) General Uzi Dayan declared, “The Jordan Valley is also necessary within a peace accord.” According to Dayan, the 1967 borders are a cause for war. Thus, Yitzchak Rabin, IDF Chief of Staff, the Minister of Defense and the Prime Minister, also understood that in any treaty, the Jordan Valley will be Israeli in the broad meaning of the concept. President George W. Bush (2004) also comprehended that Israel had the right to defensible borders, within which Israel could defend itself by use of its own independent might.

According to General Dayan, it is precisely today’s unstable situation among the Arabic nations east of the Jordan (Iraq, Syria) that demands vigilance, not complacency. Security cannot be structured upon the capabilities or intentions of the Arabs. The rule of thumb here is not to relinquish strategic assets. And this is distinct from the issue of whether there will or will not be a peace accord. The Jordan Valley is essential in combatting Arab terror. In this case the Jordan Valley is the mantle. If we do not retain the mantle, there is a good likelihood for terror.