Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that if he is reelected next week, he’ll immediately annex a big part of the West Bank: the Jordan Valley.
That’s kind of a big deal. On the other hand, it’s not really — yet.
That specific eastern swath of the West Bank runs alongside the (yep, you guessed it) Jordan River. It would be the first time in decades that Israel annexed any territory in the West Bank, and it assuredly would have serious implications for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Netanyahu also said he’d move to annex more territory — after the Trump administration unveils its long-awaited peace plan sometime following Israel’s elections next week.
“Today I’m announcing my intention, with the establishment of the next government, to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea,” Netanyahu said. “This is our essential safety belt in the east. This is the eastern defensive wall.”
Here’s what that means and why it matters.
What is the Jordan Valley and who lives there?
The Jordan Valley is an area in the West Bank, which is a territory Israel captured during the Six-Day War in 1967 and since has controlled. The West Bank got its name because it’s the western bank of the Jordan River. So the Jordan Valley is the strip of territory in the West Bank that runs alongside the Jordan River.
The borders of the territory aren’t precisely defined, but the area to which Netanyahu was referring is pretty extensive, stretching at its widest about 10 miles into the West Bank.
According to the left-wing anti-settlement NGO Peace Now, the area specified by Netanyahu for Israeli sovereignty totals 1,236,278 hectares, amounting to 22.3% of the West Bank. It encompasses 30 settlements and 23 outposts, which are home to a total 12,778 Israelis, Peace Now said, citing 2017 data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.
Peace Now calculated that 44,175 Palestinians live in the area specified by Netanyahu, though the prime minister said he did not intend to annex a single Palestinian. He indicated, with the help of a map, that certain areas would remain under Palestinian Authority control, leaving open the question of the status of those Palestinians who live outside those areas. Peace Now estimated that a fifth of the area specified by Netanyahu — some 250,000 dunams — is private Palestinian land.
Who controls the Jordan Valley now?
The West Bank as a whole is under varying degrees of Israeli control. Some of it is governed by Palestinian institutions (with minimal Israeli military presence) and the rest is run entirely by Israel. The Jordan Valley is in the part, known as Area C, that is fully controlled by Israel, with the exception of the Palestinian city of Jericho.
So the Jordan Valley is part of Israel?
No. Like the rest of the West Bank, Israel has controlled it for more than 50 years but has never officially annexed it. Israelis who live there are Israeli citizens. Palestinians there do not have citizenship and do not have the right to vote for Israeli officials, though they do vote in Palestinian local elections. Israel also largely controls the Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
The Palestinians, the international community and the Israeli left (and an Israeli Supreme Court ruling) say the West Bank is occupied by Israel. The Israeli right and its supporters say Israel rightfully won the territory in a defensive war. Some Israelis — especially religious Jewish ones — view the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, as Israel’s heartland, the setting of many of the Bible’s events.
With annexation, Netanyahu would officially be making the Jordan Valley part of Israel, having the same status in Israel’s eyes as Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Most of the international community hasn’t recognized Israel’s previous annexations, and likely wouldn’t recognize this one, either.
However, Palestinian areas like Jericho or the village of Duma, which was the site of a Jewish extremist terror attack in 2015, would not be annexed. Those cities, now surrounded by Israel, would maintain their current status.
Why is Netanyahu focusing on the Jordan Valley?
Israelis have been fiercely debating the status of the West Bank for decades. But to Jewish Israelis, the Jordan Valley is less controversial than the rest of the territory.
Successive Israeli governments have viewed control of the Jordan Valley as a strategic asset for Israel. It completes the country’s eastern border with Jordan and allows Israeli forces to encircle the West Bank’s Palestinian population. It essentially creates a buffer between Israel and the Arab states farther to its east, including Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.