Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley vow: Harbinger of US support or indication of failure?

Rivals from right and left, and Hebrew news media, unite in dismissing PM’s promise to extend sovereignty as spin. But what will voters say? And where does the US truly stand?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before 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)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before 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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s self-styled “historic” promise Tuesday evening to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area as soon as he puts together the next Israeli government, if he puts together the next government, was received with spectacular cynicism on Israel’s two main TV channels. Both Channel 12 and Channel 13 cut away from Netanyahu in mid-broadcast, determining that his appearance amounted to a party political broadcast, carefully timed for a week before the elections, rather than the “dramatic” diplomatic announcement that had been hyped.

And indeed, it was a carefully timed political broadcast, which the prime minister had instructed all his Likud Knesset colleagues to attend, replete with calls by Netanyahu to Israel’s voters to give him the mandate to follow through on his promises. And it immediately attracted political criticism, with his rivals on left and right unanimously branding it nothing more than spin; Yamina, to his right, said he had refused to discuss the issue in past coalition negotiations; Blue and White’s Yair Lapid noted that “Netanyahu has had 13 years as prime minister and no-one stopped him from applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley. It’s an election stunt and not a very impressive one because it’s so transparent. He doesn’t want to annex territory, he wants to annex votes from [Yamina’s Bezalel] Smotrich.”

Nonetheless, it was also an appearance with potentially dramatic diplomatic implications.

Netanyahu opened by repeating what has by now become his oft-stated promise to apply Israeli sovereignty to all the settlements in the West Bank, home to some 450,000 Jewish Israelis, in what he said he anticipated would be “maximal coordination” with the Trump administration.

But then he proceeded to his second pledge — to extend sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, and to do as soon as his next coalition is established, if he wins the September 17 elections, without awaiting approval from the US. In the last few days, he said without elaboration, the “conditions have ripened” to enable him to make such a vow.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R), US National Security Advisor John Bolton (C) and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tour the Jordan Valley on June 23, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Just weeks ago, in late June, Netanyahu toured the Jordan Valley area in the company of the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, and declared that Israel would never leave it. “The area to the west of the Jordan will always be in our hands,” he vowed. “If we give up the Jordan Valley, we will ensure that there will be a war.”

He may have failed to obtain a formal commitment from the White House ahead of his press conference to back the extension of Israeli sovereignty there, but he certainly sought to indicate that the US administration is broadly supportive. (The Trump administration is understood to have been informed ahead of time about what Netanyahu would announce, and evidently did not regard it as objectionable.)

Needless to say, if things play out along those lines and the US does subsequently formally endorse the idea, this would represent another major blow to the Palestinians, with the US declaratively taking another peace process core issue off the table in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

The political significance of his Jordan Valley promise is plain: Netanyahu unveiled it as proof of his ostensibly unique capacity to build the kind of relationships with leaders like Trump that can enable such a move. Tellingly, he focused on the Jordan Valley because it is more of a consensus issue than the overall settlement enterprise. Many of the residents of the Jordan Valley’s small settlements are traditional Labor Party supporters, living for decades in relatively isolated farming communities, and regarding themselves as performing a vital security function, protecting Israel’s eastern border.

Netanyahu will be hoping that his calculated focus on this area will win him support from beyond his home turf on the right, as well as sapping votes to Likud from smaller right-wing parties. His main rival Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White, also toured the Jordan Valley recently, describing the area as “the eastern defensive shield of the State of Israel” and vowing to retain it under any peace agreement. Indeed, Netanyahu took pains on Tuesday to assure his current supporters and those he hopes to attract that his planned move would not involve annexing “a single Palestinian.”

By that stage of his speech, the Channel 12 and Channel 13 cameras had cut away from what they had branded election propaganda. In a week, we’ll find out how effective it has proved.

Sooner or later, we may also discover quite how supportive the somewhat unpredictable US administration really is of the idea. Unpredictable, in Netanyahu’s specific context, because Trump is showing every sign of wanting to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani even as the prime minister, most recently with his Iran “weapons site” revelation on Monday, strives to highlight Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and duplicity. Unpredictable, too, in that news broke even as Netanyahu was wrapping up his performance on Tuesday that his recent Jordan Valley guest John Bolton had been fired.

So now we wait to see whether Netanyahu’s appearance on Tuesday was a genuine harbinger of genuine US-backed diplomatic drama to come. Or whether the prime minister was putting the best face on a failure to extract a specific US commitment to back his move now — something that truly would have boosted his re-election hopes, and that no Israeli TV station would cut away from.

US President Donald Trump, seated, holds up a signed proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, standing center, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, March 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

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