By Gershon Hacohen At Mozaic
It is right for Israel to expand its eastern border to incorporate parts of the West Bank. Having served in the IDF for more than four decades, having commanded Israeli troops on the battlefields of Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria, and from my current work, directing IDF war simulation exercises, I believe that Israeli security requires control over parts of the West Bank including the Jordan Valley. The proposed plan is closest to the thinking of none other than the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and it does not pose a demographic threat to Israel. Having made my position clear, let me explain why all this is so.
In the West Bank and the Jordan Valley, the state of Israel has three principal interests: defensible borders, space for the development of Israel beyond the narrow coastal strip where 80% of today’s industrial, technological and population infrastructure is concentrated, and a link with Jewish history and heritage that is embodied in landscapes harking back to biblical times.
Let’s look first at the issue of defense. It has never been and will never be sufficient to sparsely dot Israeli troops across West Bank hilltops and along the Jordan Valley. Instead, long-term Israeli sovereignty and settlement is needed across the West Bank to ensure Israeli security.
This essential position is not well understood in the West, in large part because of the efforts of a group of former Israeli security officials, lately organized under the banner of “Commanders for Israel’s Security,” who mistakenly argue that Israel can manage by maintaining modest forces in the Jordan Valley until a permanent settlement with the Palestinians is reached. The foundation of their position is that Israel should withdraw to (with minor adjustments) the borders as they were in 1967, before we conquered the West Bank during the Six-Day War. These commanders think that Israel is basically capable of defending itself on the line set by Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel highway) which runs north-south near the Green Line.
As I’ve explained in a long study on this issue for the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, these officials greatly overestimate the power of the Israel Defense Forces and dangerously underestimate the security challenge that could emerge from the West Bank. We simply cannot make do with limited forces along the Jordan Valley—especially if, as the American proposal envisions, the Jordan Valley borders an independent Palestinian state at some point in the future.
One need only look at the recent past to understand why. When one takes into account the lessons of the second intifada twenty years ago, the regional instability wrought by the badly-mislabeled “Arab Spring” ten years ago, the continuing rocket and missile threat from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the unimpeded growth of Iran’s presence on Israel’s borders, including inside the West Bank and Gaza, then it becomes clear that the Jordan Valley buffer zone becomes an essential shield for Israel. Even the stability and longevity of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan cannot be guaranteed if Israel abandons the scene.
IDF control of the Jordan Valley allows us to enforce the requirement, embedded in the American proposal, that the future Palestinian state be demilitarized. Moreover, should a future Palestinian state in fact be so demilitarized, our control of the Jordan Valley allows us to prevent terrorism and even threats of more conventional military aggression even if they are undertaken by rogue or foreign element.
While the latter threat may seem remote at present, the Iranian Quds Force and its Shiite militia allies are aggressively seeking to penetrate the West Bank from Jordan, destabilize it, and exert control. It is the same playbook they have successfully followed in Syria and Yemen.
Some foreign advisors have proposed that foreign troops—peacekeepers—and technological means—sensors, unmanned aircraft, satellite photography, a stronger security fence, and so on—could obviate the need for Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley. The American general John Allen was tasked with drafting such a plan by the Obama administration. His plan accepted as a point of departure the Palestinian demand for full sovereignty without any presence of IDF forces from the boundary of the Jordan River to the 1967 lines in the mountains above Tel Aviv.
The Allen plan was and is a non-starter. Foreign military forces operating in a totally unfamiliar arena—unfamiliar geographically, unfamiliar mentally, unfamiliar with the human cultures of the Jordan Valley and West Bank—will never be an adequate replacement for the IDF, which has operated continuously there for over 50 years and intermittently for over 70 years. Besides, Israel’s experience with international forces— in the Sinai, in Lebanon, in the Golan, and more—is decidedly negative.
How does acting on the American proposal and extending Israeli sovereignty figure into this picture? It’s simple: applying Israeli law to the Jordan Valley will take General Allen’s cockamamie, if well-intentioned, notions off the table permanently.
So much for security factors, which form the major part of the current case for annexation. But, as I’ve said, there are other components to the case too. Israel needs the Jordan Valley (and significant parts of Area C of the West Bank) for its development and growth. Israel’s population is expected to increase from 9 to 15 million people over the next decade; the National Planning Authority has called for the building of 2.6 million housing units by 2040 to keep pace.
But to concentrate all this civilian home construction within the narrow state of Israel on its 1967 borders is a major mistake. For ecological and basic urban planning reasons, the Israeli center of gravity must shift to the east, with hundreds of thousands of new housing units that should be built in Mishor Adumim just to the east of Jerusalem and in Maaleh Efraim further off to the north.
But in the existing national master plan, the West Bank is a black hole, absent from government planning. To effect a systemic change, a change in orientation is required of all government ministries. This will not happen without the application of sovereignty to the parts of the West Bank that are outlined in the American plan.