As Netanyahu takes oath in Israel, Jordan Valley could be a spark that sets off MidEast tinderbox

As Netanyahu takes oath in Israel, Jordan Valley could be a spark that sets off MidEast tinderbox

On Monday, Israel’s new government was sworn in under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, bringing an end to the longest political deadlock in the country’s history, which saw a caretaker government in charge for over 500 days and three back-to-back general elections with no clear verdict. Netanyahu succeeded in forming a unity government with his rival-turned-partner Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party; Gantz was sworn in as the alternate prime minister, to replace Netanyahu in 18 months, as per the power-sharing deal.

At his swearing in, Netanayahu spoke about what is arguably the most controversial plan of the Unity government—establishing Israeli sovereignty over the fertile Jordan Valley West Bank. 

“The time has come for anyone who believes in the justness of our rights in the Land of Israel to join a government led by me to bring about a historic process together,” Netanyahu said. “These regions are the cradle of the Jewish people. It is time to extend Israel’s law over them. This step won’t bring us further away from peace, it will get us closer. “

The vast majority of the international community considers Israeli settlements in the region to be illegal under the international law, and as such stands against the proposed annexation of the area and other areas of the West Bank. The Arab League, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all condemned the move in the strong terms.

However, the US, Israel’s close ally, has pledged to support the move as part of its ‘Deal of the Century’ peace proposal unveiled earlier this year. The plan backs Israel’s annexation of most Israeli settlements and the Jordan Valley as long as it enters into peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

What is the Jordan Valley significance?

The Jordan Valley accounts for around one-third of the West Bank, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War, and is deemed crucial vis-a-vis Israel’s security concerns. The largely-Palestinian region borders Jordan, lies north of the Dead Sea, and Israel has consistently claimed it needs troops there in case it faces another invasion, as it has in the past. In September 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first issued the deeply controversial pledge on Tuesday to annex the Jordan Valley if re-elected. “There is one place where we can apply Israeli sovereignty immediately after the elections,” Netanyahu said in a televised speech.

The geopolitical consequences of such a move by Israel could be massive. A largely agricultural society exists in the region. Multiple studies have estimated that Palestinians depend on the Jordan river for almost a third of their cultivation needs. Israel controlling the Jordan Valley would mean a future Palestinian state would have no access to the Jordan river. Water is already a major issue in the region, with Palestinians alleging that most of the waters are distributed to Israeli settlers, and that their own access has been largely cut off. 

Palestinian commentator Noura Erakat from Rutgers University also argued that Israel controlling Jordan Valley would “deny Palestinian contiguity and freedom of movement, and that without the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, the idea of the viability and sustainability of the Palestinian state would be in serious question”. 

Jordan and Egypt are the only two Arab countries to have signed peace treaties with Israel. Israel’s annexation plans has already agitated Jordan, a country with a large Palestinian population. The move could also prompt a break-down in the 1994 peace treaty signed between the two countries. A former minister of Jordan, Marwan al-Muasher, during a webinar last week, did not rule out the possibility of his country walking out of the historic agreement if Israel moves ahead with unilateral annexation.

International reaction

The US has essentially greenlighted the move. In Trump’s Middle East plan released in January, the administration had designated Jordan Valley as “critical for Israel’s national security, thus under Israeli sovereignty”. “Notwithstanding such sovereignty, Israel should work with the Palestinian government to negotiate an agreement in which existing agricultural enterprises owned or controlled by Palestinians shall continue without interruption or discrimination, pursuant to appropriate licenses or leases granted by the State of Israel,” according to the US plan. With President Donald Trump facing a tough re-election battle in November, Netanyahu and his nationalist base are eager to move ahead quickly.

The 22-state Arab League had dubbed the Jordan Valley plan a “dangerous development” that would violate international law and “torpedo” the foundations of peace. BBC reported Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, describing the plan as “racist” and criticised Netanyahu for “giving all kind of illegal, unlawful and aggressive messages” before the election. Saudi Arabia condemned the plan on state media as a “very dangerous escalation”.

Jordan’s king warned Israel of a “massive conflict” if it proceeds with the plan. “Leaders who advocate a one-state solution do not understand what that would mean,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel. “What would happen if the Palestinian National Authority collapsed? There would be more chaos and extremism in the region. If Israel really annexed the West Bank in July, it would lead to a massive conflict with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” he said.

Will he pull out of the peace deal? Said King Abdullah II: “I don’t want to make threats and create an atmosphere of loggerheads, but we are considering all options. We agree with many countries in Europe and the international community that the law of strength should not apply in the Middle East.”

The European Union is weighing its actions. The 27-nation bloc has routinely warned against the annexation plans, but the member countries appear too divided to seriously weigh any actions, such as sanctions, particularly during informal talks via video-conference. “This is a very divisive issue inside the council of ministers,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said. “Everything in foreign policy requires unanimity, especially sanctions. So we are, for the time being, far away from discussing about sanctioning.” Borrell said the talks are nevertheless important, to understand all 27 countries’ stances on the respect of international law, and how can we judge this announced annexation in order to clarify the position of the European Union.

In February, he affirmed the bloc’s commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East, based along the 1967 lines, with the possibility of mutually agreed land-swaps, made up of the state of Israel and an independent, democratic, contiguous, sovereign and viable state of Palestine. Jordan has been lobbying the EU to take practical steps to make sure annexation doesn’t happen.

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