With Kerry in town, minister to expand Jordan Valley settlement

Gideon Sa’ar, MKs will launch ‘actual construction on a new neighborhood,’ a move likely to anger visiting US secretary of state

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Jordan Valley. (CC BY Trocaire, Flickr)
The Jordan Valley. (CC BY Trocaire, Flickr)

A top minister is scheduled to attend a Thursday dedication ceremony for a new Israeli neighborhood in a Jordan Valley settlement while US Secretary of State John Kerry is to be in the region, a move that could threaten to further complicate the ongoing peace process.

Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and other lawmakers are scheduled to visit the Jordan Valley community of Gitit and attend a ceremony during which “actual construction… on a new neighborhood” will take place, according to the organizers.

Sa’ar’s move is liable to embarrass Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kerry, who is slated to arrive in Israel Wednesday to advance stalling peace talks by advocating for Israelis and Palestinians to sign on to a proposed “framework agreement.”

A senior Likud minister who ran the Likud’s 2013 election campagn, Sa’ar is billed as patron of an event 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 — including caucus co-chairs MKs Orit Struck (Jewish Home) and coalition whip Yariv Levin (Likud) — are also to visit other communities in the Jordan Valley, including a meeting with farmers in the settlement of Tomer.

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Well-informed sources told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Sa’ar has offered to champion the cause of securing Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley.

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 the event, released Tuesday, proclaims that “The Jordan Valley will always will be Israeli.”

Gideon Sa'ar at a recent press conference. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Gideon Sa’ar at a recent press conference. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The event, which is to include a press conference in Gitit, is explicitly taking place “in the shadow of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Israel and the ongoing negotiations with the Palestinians,” organizers said.

Kerry is due to meet with 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back to camera), visiting the Jordan Valley in 2011. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (back to camera), visiting the Jordan Valley in 2011. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

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.

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