A river between them: security along the Jordan Valley

It is not without justification to level the accusation against Israel that she is not only obsessed with her security

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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The main topic of conversation between Palestinians and Israelis over the last few days almost provided for a sense of normality. Everyone was talking about the uncharacteristically stormy weather of the region, which brought heavy snow and torrential rain to Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, this only gave Secretary of State John Kerry and the Israeli and Palestinian peace negotiators a short hiatus from the political storm over security arrangements along the Jordan Valley, which rattled the negotiations during Kerry’s visit last week.

As 2013 is rapidly coming to a close, and the American administration’s spring deadline for reaching an agreement is fast approaching, it was almost inevitable that major difficulties around core issues would surface. Typically issues such as Jerusalem, and refugees attract more public attention because they either carry great symbolic value or are humanitarian by nature. Security arrangements seem to concern more mundane technicalities, but this usually conceals much deeper rifts. The Israeli demand for presence along the Jordan Valley has its strategic rational, however, accepting it would be an infringement on the sovereignty of an independent Palestinian state. What transpired from the Israeli demands to keep her military presence in the Jordan Valley for another ten to fifteen years, and the instant Palestinian rejection of this demand, was a wide gap in mutual understanding, or may be negligent disregard, of each other’s strategic, political and psychological necessities.

It is not without justification to level the accusation against Israel that she is not only obsessed with her security, but sees it from a very narrow prism of rigid hard power. Consequently it demonstrates Israel’s inability to take calculated risks, which would leave her with a smaller territory, but more acceptability in the region, hence improved security. There are those in Israel, within government or outside it, who are expansionist by nature or ideology, and for them the security argument is merely a pretext to continue the occupation and expansion of settlements in order to fulfil the dream of greater Israel. However, there are also others, including many ordinary Israelis, whose fear of compromising security through territorial concession is genuine. It derives from their quite unique old and more recent history, which left deep scars and mistrust for anything but their own military power. Since the war of 1967 the prevailing view in Israel was that any peace agreement should not compromise the presence of Israeli troops on the Jordan Valley. The aim of this presence being to counter any potential surprise attack across the eastern border.

It is not without justification to level the accusation against Israel that she is not only obsessed with her security, but sees it from a very narrow prism of rigid hard power

Yossi Mekelberg

In other words, making the West Bank a military buffer zone without occupying it. When the Palestinians oppose this notion in the name of their territorial integrity, the Israeli leadership accuses the Palestinians of using this Israeli demand as a pretext to bring about the collapse of the negotiations. Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz blamed the Palestinian negotiators last week of “… seizing on every detail, every excuse, in order to sabotage every chance for peace, every negotiation,” by refusing to understand that Israeli security must stay in the hands of the Israeli security forces. It might be a reach coming from a minister in a government, which in the midst of peace negotiations with the Palestinians continues to allow for the expansion of settlements, but it still does not negate Israeli genuine strategic concerns about the defense of its eastern border.

Facing challenges

The peaceful relationship with Jordan and the relative calm of the Hashemite Kingdom, cannot conceal the fact that the friendly regime across the Jordan River is facing enormous political, economic and social challenges that threaten the long term rule of King Abdullah of Jordan. The relationship between the two countries became increasingly close as the situation in the region became less and less stable or predictable, and the influx of refugees put once more under question the stability of the current regime. For more than a decade, Israeli strategists directed most of their attention to their perceived security danger of Iran’s increasing influence in the region and its nuclear program. While Iran remains a strategic focal point for Israel, uncertainty along borders with Syria on the Golan Heights and along the Lebanese border is making Israel extremely nervous as to the future security of its eastern border with Jordan. Moreover, Israeli leaders, despite their relative silence about developments in the neighbouring countries since the beginning of the Arab Spring, are increasingly expressing their deep concerns over the possibility that some of her bordering countries might end up being run by radical Islamists, that deny Israel’s existence. Worse, there is constant lingering fear that the political developments might lead to the reversal of the peace agreements between Israel, Egypt and Jordan.

Understanding Israeli security concerns, does not make Palestinian rejection of prolonging the presence of Israeli troops in the territory of a future Palestinian state unreasonable. The Palestinian leadership is experienced enough to recognize that what might start as an interim agreement, might end with a permanent Israeli military presence, which would lead to an Israeli encirclement of the nascent Palestinian state, violating its sovereignty. Squaring this circle, as in any other of the outstanding core issues between the sides, requires a constructive and imaginative compromise which addresses the security and sovereignty needs of both the Israelis and the Palestinians simultaneously. One such instance might be combining the installation early warning stations and the deployment of an international peacekeeping operation.

Neither of the sides should be expected to compromise either their security or sovereignty. However, Israel’s genuine security lies in the type of compromise with the Palestinians which will also lead to reconciliation with them and the rest of the Arab World. In the painstaking peace process, the issue of security along the Jordan Valley could potentially bring about a major crisis, even a breakdown in negotiations. To avoid this both sides have no choice but to accept the imperfection of any of the suggested compromises, and subscribe to the notion that rather an imperfect peace, than an ongoing conflict. Considering the size of the territory under dispute all compromises carry with them a level of risk, but for those of us, me included, who still believe that a two state solution would prevent further bloodshed and misery, this is the only way forward.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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