Israel’s Security Imperatives in the Jordan Valley
While there has been much debate over Jerusalem’s possible decision to apply Israeli law to the Jordan Valley, the move’s underlying security imperative is not often recognized. As a retired Israeli major general, I believe that Israeli sovereignty over the valley is critical to Israel’s ability to defend itself by itself. The benefits outweigh the potential costs, and the move would not preclude a future agreement with the Palestinians.
Israel faces myriad security threats. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has amassed an estimated 150,000 rockets and missiles, while the Assad regime, Iranian forces, and Shiite militias have solidified their hold over Syria. ISIS remains active in the Sinai, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are entrenched in the Gaza Strip, and extremist cells are routinely uncovered in the West Bank. Iran proudly broadcasts its violent opposition to Israel’s existence while continuing to develop its nuclear capability and ballistic missiles.
This context is critical to understanding the Jordan Valley’s centrality within Israel’s defense strategy, as outlined in a new report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.. The valley is a natural barrier and Israel’s longest border, separating Jordan from Israel and the West Bank. Compared to the pre-1967 armistice lines, it provides Israel with much-needed strategic depth, allowing IDF forces to more efficiently neutralize threats in Palestinian Authority territory. Through Israel’s close security relationship with Jordan, this depth also extends east.
Ties between Jerusalem and Amman are anchored by a 1994 peace treaty, and include extensive military and intelligence cooperation. Israel also supplies water and natural gas to the kingdom, which has limited natural resources. Despite hostility from parts of the Jordanian public, the monarchy -- itself grappling with a beleaguered economy, influx of refugees, and Islamist opponents -- has long recognized the value of this relationship in a volatile region. A decade has not yet passed since the so-called Arab Spring, which most sharply demonstrated how quickly countries can plunge into years of chaos, with severe regional consequences.
By applying Israeli law to the Jordan Valley, Israel would be able to permanently contribute to Jordan’s stability and its own. IDF forces already routinely thwart arms smuggling and other terrorist activities along the Jordan river. Continued Israeli presence will prevent the valley, and by extension the West Bank, from devolving into a terrorist haven akin to Gaza. Such a scenario in a territory adjacent to Jordan, whose population is majority Palestinian, would dangerously undermine Jordanian security. For Israel, when compounded with existing threats, it could be disastrous.
The territory’s topography likewise presents a clear advantage, allowing Israeli troops to effectively monitor incoming threats, whether from Jordan, Iraq, or Syria. It also requires any invading forces to launch an uphill attack when proceeding westward, making defense easier and granting Israel valuable time to mobilize reserve troops.
While such a scenario in the quiet border region may be currently difficult to imagine, Syria’s violent unraveling and the turbulent power changes in Egypt were also difficult to predict a decade ago. No Middle Eastern country is impervious to sudden, violent changes. Israel must have defensible borders. The valley can provide those.
Some have argued that, should the valley turn into a hotbed of terrorism without Israeli presence, the IDF would be able to easily reassert control. This rationale is undercut by past experience. During Operation "Defensive Shield,” launched amid the Second Palestinian Intifada, Israeli forces engaged in a major incursion to remove terrorist elements from the West Bank. Thirty IDF soldiers died. Gaza, where Israel carried out three major operations in six years, is another case study. Once Israeli forces withdraw, it becomes far more difficult to uproot a territory’s terrorist infrastructure and leadership.
Other critics have cautioned that applying Israeli law to the valley could harm the country’s security, at least in the short term, by destabilizing Jordan. The move will certainly create challenges for King Abdullah, who said it would hurt prospects of "peace and stability in the region."
These concerns are valid, yet they should not deter policymakers in Jerusalem from acting on widespread domestic support and fulfilling Israel’s historic and natural rights. Jordan still relies on security and intelligence cooperation with Israel, as well as supplies of water and natural gas. With Syria and Iraq as neighbors, it also needs a stable border -- something only permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley can provide.
Moreover, such a move does not rule out a future agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Rather, it establishes a reality on the ground that can shape a sustainable arrangement that Israel can accept. No Israeli majority will agree to returning to the indefensible pre-1967 lines. Until Palestinian leaders decide to pursue a lasting solution, Israel must act to secure its interests with American coordination. Applying Israeli law to the Jordan Valley ranks high among those interests.
IDF MG (ret.) Yaacov Ayish is a former Israeli Defense Attaché to the United States and Canada, and former head of the IDF General Staff Operations Branch. He is Senior Vice President for Israeli Affairs at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).