Jordan said last year it wanted the land back

Minister: Israel has failed to extend lease of ‘Isle of Peace’ on Jordan border

Steinitz says new land will need to be found for farmers who were granted 25-year access under 1994 peace treaty; includes site where 7 Israeli schoolgirls were killed in attack

The Jordanian border crossing into the Island of Peace, January 29, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
The Jordanian border crossing into the Island of Peace, January 29, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Friday that Israel will return to Jordan two pieces of land along the border, indicating Israeli efforts to guarantee continued access to the areas were unsuccessful.

Jordan announced last year it would not renew clauses in the 1994 peace treaty between the countries granting Israel 25 year leases on the agricultural lands, which are set to expire next month.

Amman later said it received a request from the Israeli government to hold formal negotiations on the future of the lands, known in Israel as Naharayim in the north and the Tzofar enclave in the southern Arava desert.

In an interview with Army Radio, Steinitiz was asked if there was any chance Israel would be able to retain access to the lands.

“No. This was a special clause in the peace treaty,” he said, explaining that the areas “are part of Jordan but Israeli farmers could work them.”

Steinitz, a member of the security cabinet and ruling Likud party, said Israel would need to find alternative lands for the farmers in areas under Israeli control.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2019. (Flash90)

Idan Greenbaum, the head of the Emek HaYarden regional council in northern Israel, slammed Steinitz over the comments.

“This is a defeatist and irresponsible remark,” he was quoted saying by the Walla news site.

Greenbaum lamented learning that Israel would return the areas and called on the government to hold talks with Jordan, whose foreign minister last year ruled out negotiations to extend the leases.

Jordan has said it was exercising its legal right in deciding not to renew the agreement and denied the move would affect the decades-old peace treaty, seeking to assuage fears in Jerusalem that ties could be downgraded.

Officials in Israel have expressed concerns that the move signaled Jordan’s desire to effectively reduce diplomatic ties, and many see it as a reflection of intense domestic pressure from a Jordanian public that still largely views Israel as an enemy.

Besides Egypt, Jordan is the only Arab country that Israel has a peace agreement with.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Jordanian King Abdullah II in Jordan in January 2014 (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90/ File)

Naharayim is also known as the Isle of Peace, following a deadly March 1997 attack in which a group of schoolgirls from Beit Shemesh were fired upon during an outing to the area. The girls and their unarmed teachers were standing on a hill above an abandoned lake in the enclave when a Jordanian soldier opened fire on them and killed seven of the schoolchildren.

Following the killings, the late King Hussein made an unprecedented trip to each of the victims’ homes to express his personal sorrow and the grief of his nation.

Tensions between Israel and Jordan have mounted in recent years over such issues as the contested status of Jerusalem and its holy sites, stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, and the 2017 shooting of two Jordanian citizens by an Israeli embassy guard in Amman, which ignited a diplomatic crisis.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley area of the West Bank if he forms a new government after elections next week, a pledge the speaker of the Jordanian parliament said put the peace treaty between the countries “at stake.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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