Olmert to Saudi outlet: ‘Nonsense’ to claim we need Jordan Valley for security

In rare interview with Arab press, ex-PM warns annexation will bring ‘catastrophe,’ says Amman was willing to have NATO peacekeepers on its border

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks at a conference of business organizations, in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019 (Ben Dori/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert speaks at a conference of business organizations, in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019 (Ben Dori/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert gave a rare interview to a Saudi-owned Arabic-language news outlet, warning against Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, an area that he said was irrelevant to Israeli security concerns, Channel 12 news reported Thursday ahead of the interview’s publication.

In the interview with the London-based Elaph news outlet, Olmert said he thought it was “nonsense” that the Jordan Valley was critical to Israeli security — giving Israel a buffer from Jordan and greater strategic depth — as Jordan was in theory prepared to have peacekeepers on its borders to prevent the need for such a territorial cushion.

“The claim that we need the Jordan Valley now from a security standpoint is nonsense with no truth to it. I’m saying that as a prime minister of Israel. No one will say that I’m not a patriot,” said Olmert, in a portion of the interview that was given in advance to Channel 12.

Popular conception holds that the Jordan Valley, a strip of land bordering Jordan and the West Bank, is critical to Israeli security. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the idea a central tenet of Israel’s negotiating position vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Over the years, Elaph has interviewed a number of top Israeli officials, including then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman in 2018 and then-IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot the year before. However, this appeared to be one of the few times an interview with a former Israeli prime minister was published in the Arab press.

Olmert harshly criticized the government’s plans to annex portions of the West Bank, specifically the Jordan Valley.

“Annexation will lead to catastrophe,” said Olmert, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2009, before stepping down amid a corruption investigation that eventually led to his imprisonment in 2016.

The former prime minister, who took part in failed peace negotiations with the Palestinians in 2007, dismissed the commonly understood belief by Israeli officials that annexation of the Jordan Valley was critical to Israeli security.

Jordanian King Abdullah II gestures as he delivers a speech at the European Parliament, on January 15, 2020, in Strasbourg, eastern France. (Photo by Frederick FLORIN / AFP)

“I spoke about it with King Abdullah. I said to the king, would you be willing to have an international NATO force along the Jordan [river] on the Jordanian side? He told me, yes,” he said.

In the interview, Olmert, who served as prime minister during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, also denied reports that Israel had tried to kill Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem Soleimani during the conflict when he met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Netanyahu’s Likud party denounced Olmert’s comments in the Saudi-owned outlet, referring to the former premier’s offer to the Palestinians during his 2007 peace talks to give them control of portions of East Jerusalem.

“After Olmert was willing to give up the Western Wall, is it any surprise that he’s willing to give up the Jordan Valley, which is critical to the security of the State of Israel? Olmert’s comments are irresponsibility and irrelevant,” the Likud said in a statement.

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