A top Israeli minister on Thursday led a delegation of parliamentarians to the Jordan Valley, where he helped inaugurate a new neighborhood in a settlement and vowed to maintain a military and civilian presence in the territory “for all eternity.”
Gideon Sa’ar’s statement came mere hours ahead of the arrival in Israel of US Secretary of State John Kerry. On his tenth trip to the region this year, Kerry is slated to present a “framework” for a peace deal to Israeli and Palestinian leaders — including a proposal for security arrangements in the valley, which borders Jordan, involving the demolition of the area’s settlements.
“We are here in the Jordan Valley out of a recognition that during these days one of the most crucial issues to Israel’s future is at stake,” Sa’ar (Likud), the interior minister, told journalists at a lookout over the Jordan Valley named for the late IDF general and Labor Party politician Yigal Allon.
Sa’ar was accompanied by an entourage of deputy ministers and other MKs, including Likud’s Ze’ev Elkin, Tzipi Hotovely, Yariv Levin and Reuven Rivlin; the Jewish Home party’s Eli Ben-Dahan, Orit Struck and Ayelet Shaked; and Yesh Atid’s Dov Lipman and Ronen Hoffman.
The “crucial” issue is where Israel’s border is going to be drawn: whether it will be the Jordan River or, “God forbid,” somewhere near Netanya and Kfar Saba, Sa’ar said, noting that Israel would become a “state with no strategic depth” if it withdrew from the valley.
“The presence of the IDF in the Jordan Valley can’t be a temporary thing; it needs to be for all eternity,” he added, linking Israel’s military presence to the ongoing presence of settlers in the area.
Sa’ar noted that all Israeli governments since the 1970s had built settlements in the Jordan Valley, including Labor-led governments, and added: “It needs to be entirely clear that where there will be no settlements, there will be no IDF. Where there will be no IDF there will be no security and there will be terror instead.”
After the impromptu press conference at the lookout, the group continued to the Jordan Valley community of Gitit, where Sa’ar and his companions lent a symbolic hand to efforts to construct a new settlement neighborhood, taking turns hoisting buckets of cement and pouring them into the foundations of a new building.
Thursday’s event was “the right action at the right time,” said Elkin, the deputy foreign minister, evoking the late diplomat Abba Eban’s comparison of the 1967 lines to “Auschwitz borders.” He added that in light of Kerry’s visit and the security arrangements proposed by the Obama administration, the ministers were presenting to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Israel’s “sole possible response” to the demands made of it.
Lipman, the MK from the centrist Yesh Atid party, told The Times of Israel that his presence and the presence of his fellow party member Hoffman was no indication that Yesh Atid was in favor of recent efforts by some Likud ministers to legislate the annexation of the Jordan Valley. Rather, he said, he was there to “discuss the issues.”
The event was organized by the Caucus for Eretz Israel, a Knesset caucus dedicated to fortifying Israel’s presence in all parts of the West Bank. The minister and the other MKs were also to visit other communities in the Jordan Valley, including a meeting with farmers in the settlement of Tomer.
The West Bank border region has become a sticking point in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, with Jerusalem demanding the long-term presence of Israeli troops in the area, a proposal the Palestinians reject.
On Sunday, a bill to annex the Jordan Valley passed a key ministerial committee, drawing condemnations from both Palestinians and Israelis, who said it threatened the future of the talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to thwart the bill becoming law.
There are 21 Jewish settlements in the Jordan Valley, the first of which was established less than a year after Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. Settler leaders say that today 7,000 Jews live in the area, but other estimates put the number at around 4,000. The newest settlement was founded in 2002.
A flyer advertising Thursday’s event, released Tuesday, proclaimed that “The Jordan Valley will always will be Israeli.”
Kerry is due to meet with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week to discuss a so-called framework agreement that would enable the sides to continue negotiating a final status agreement beyond the May 2014 deadline originally set for the conclusion of talks. The exact nature of the positions delineated in this agreement are still unclear. The State Department said Monday merely that it would “serve as guidelines for the permanent status negotiation and would address all the core issues.”
Netanyahu insists that Israel needs to maintain a security presence in the Jordan Valley to be able to protect itself, by itself, from any threats. However, he is likely to freeze the proposed legislation that would annex the territory to Israel.
On Tuesday, the spokesperson of the Jordanian government condemned the legislation and called on the US to prevent Israel from passing the bill.
The bill, proposed by MK Miri Regev (Likud), would apply Israeli civil law to — and, in effect, annex — the strategically significant Jordan Valley. Despite passing the cabinet’s Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the bill stands little chance of becoming law as it faces resistance from senior cabinet members, including the ministerial committee’s chair Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) and Netanyahu. Netanyahu, Livni and Science Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) have already vowed to appeal the vote.
“Both sides have made commitments such as avoiding making unilateral moves,” the prime minister said Monday.
Opposition MKs have submitted a counter-bill that would forbid the government from annexing any part of the West Bank not currently under Israeli sovereignty, except in the framework of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Sa’ar, who is not a member of the powerful security cabinet but sits on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, voted in favor of the bill. “There is no distinction between settlement and security, and the Jordan Valley is a consensus among Israeli civilians,” he said.
A sitting minister endorsing, in person, the expansion of Israel’s presence in the Jordan Valley — at a remote locality deep inside the West Bank, far away from large settlement blocs — while America’s top diplomat is in town to try to secure a peace deal could prove to be political dynamite. In 2010, while US Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel, the Interior Ministry (then headed by Shas MK Eli Yishai) announced 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, a move that made headlines around the world and was widely perceived as being detrimental to Israel-US relations.
“The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now,” Biden said at the time.
Mitch Ginsburg and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.