Jordan Valley Annexation - A Security Liability, Not an Asset

According to Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the bulk of his suggested West Bank annexation is making the Jordan Valley (approximately 30% of the West Bank) an integral part of the state of Israel. Netanyahu’s rationale for annexing the Jordan Valley is that it would bolster Israel’s security. In this paper, APN intern Avraham Spraragen explains why annexing the Jordan Valley would hinder Israeli security rather than boost it.



On September 10, 2019, a week before the second of three unprecedented Israeli Knesset elections within a year, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu announced in a televised press conference his “intention, after the establishment of a new government, to apply Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley.”[1]

In his address to the nation, Netanyahu presented a map that demarcated the proposed swaths of land, constituting 1,236,278 hectares or 22.3 percent of the West Bank, to be annexed.[2] This unilateral annexation plan, a blatant violation of international law and the possible death knell of a two-state solution, would entail an Israeli absorption of 30 settlements, including 12,778 settlers, as well as of 18 illegal outposts.

Following the third election in March, a unity deal was reached between political rivals Netanyahu and former IDF Chief of Staff turned Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz for the establishment of a new government. Per Clause 29 of the unity deal, the fragile Netanyahu-Gantz government is set to “bring the agreement reached with the United States on the application of sovereignty [in the West Bank] … for the approval of the cabinet and/or the Knesset starting July 1, 2020.”[3] Days away from this July 1st “deadline” to begin advancing unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, one of the chief annexation scenarios considered by the Israeli government awaiting a “green light” from U.S. President Donald J. Trump, is a proposal to annex the Jordan Valley.[4]


West of the Jordan Valley, inside the West Bank, lies a mountain ridge that overlooks Israeli cities, infrastructure, military installations, and Israel’s main international airport. This mountain ridge reaches 3,000 feet at its highest point and the Jordan Valley to its east reaches 1,200 feet below sea-level, the lowest elevation in the world. This means that the West Bank mountain ridge forms a relatively steep, 4,200-foot barrier facing eastward. The distance from the Jordan River to the apex of the mountain ridge is roughly 8 to 12 miles. Furthermore, the Valley itself is a long and narrow trough, 65 miles long with a width averaging 6.2 miles. Over most of its length, the Jordan Valley forms the border between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to the east, and Israel and the West Bank to the west. The 1994 Israel-Jordan peace treaty regulates this “administrative boundary” between Jordan and the West Bank (occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War). On the West Bank of the Valley, Israel has allocated 86 percent of land to Israeli settlements.[5] This settlement project was initially undertaken by Israeli Labor party governments in the 1970s. These settlements were viewed as national security assets. Specifically, Jordan Valley settlements were part of the 1967 Alon Plan, drafted by Israeli Minister Yigal Alon after the 1967 Six-Day War to establish a security buffer of Jewish settlements to protect against then-existing threats from the east.[6] The notion of the Jordan Valley as Israel’s future boundary was first publically expressed by Alon himself in a 1976 article for Foreign Affairs entitled “The Case for Defensible Boundaries.” This article still serves proponents of Jordan Valley annexation who argue that these historic threats somehow warrant present-day Israeli annexation of the Valley.[7]

Proponents of Jordan Valley annexation contend that from the perspective of Israeli security, the Jordan Valley provides “strategic depth,” without which Israel would be at risk of military invasion and terrorist infiltration from its so-called “Eastern Front.” They imply that opponents of unilateral Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley must not care about Israel’s security, an argument that understandably resonates with Israelis and Americans familiar with the tragic consequences of historical Israeli insecurity. The negative experience of IDF withdrawals in the past fifteen years, from Southern Lebanon in 2000 and, most importantly, Gaza in 2005, also inform this thinking. However, as former Chief of Staff to the U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Ilan Goldenberg argues, “the strategic logic behind holding onto the Valley, which was developed in the years after 1967, no longer holds: Today, Israel can remain entirely secure while allowing the Valley to become part of a future Palestinian state.”[8]

By ignoring this fact and leveraging the otherwise legitimate concerns of both Israelis and Americans about the many longstanding threats to Israeli security, annexationists seek to hold onto the Jordan Valley in order to thwart the establishment of a future Palestinian state. Put another way, fearmongering over the necessity of unilateral annexation of the Jordan Valley is aimed at an Israeli territorial envelopment that would strip Palestinians of land crucial to the development of an independent state of their own. As IDF Major General (ret.) Shlomo Gazit told Haaretz, “the Palestinians need [the] Jordan Valley to develop as a viable state, especially if they want to absorb refugees.”[9]Indeed, proponents of Jordan Valley annexation use these manipulative tactics to advance an ideological “Greater Israel” agenda. Similarly pernicious is the claim that anything short of giving Israel carte blanche with regard to the status of the Jordan Valley amounts to purposeful neglect of Israeli security. Former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert, who negotiated extensively with the Palestinians on mutual security issues, told Israeli TV Channel 12: “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,” Olmert contended.[10]

Ironically, those who endorse annexation on national security grounds are themselves compromising Israel’s safety. The continued viability of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is put at risk by preventing an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement. Indeed, as former colonel in the Research Division of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Ephraim Kam writes for the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), perpetual “control” of the Jordan Valley “could prove to be an unwanted cost to Israel in its relations with the Palestinian state, and to insist on maintaining it could make an agreement between them difficult to attain.”[11]


Nevertheless, according to Netanyahu and his ilk, the land from the Jordan River to the eastern slopes of the Judaean Hills must be annexed to defend Israel against a range of threats, from military invasion to terrorist infiltration from the east. The rationale for a permanent IDF presence in, and even the extension of sovereignty over, these areas is that the Israeli military could repel potential military invaders and terrorist infiltrators from high ground. However, the threat to Israel of an eastern invasion by major foreign armies, supplied with tanks and tens of thousands of ground troops, is extremely low, as recognized by Israeli strategic scholars.[12] This is especially true since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and in light of Israel’s longstanding peace agreement with Jordan. Furthermore, critical threats from Syria and Saudi Arabia do not presently exist, as the former is in tatters and the latter is focused on the challenge posed by Iran. In the words of Israeli security expert IDF Col. (ret.) Shaul Arieli, “This front eventually faded, beginning with the destruction of the surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley and the downing of 86 Syrian aircraft in the First Lebanon War, through the cessation of free weapons shipments from Russia to Syria due to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1988, the peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 and the conquest of Iraq in 2003, and ending with the civil war in Syria since 2011.”[13]

Arieli’s assessment is buttressed by the findings of a 2012 report by the Council for Peace and Security (CPS) that determined the Israeli annexationist position vis-à-vis the Jordan Valley to be outdated: “The central threat Israel faced in the past was that of a massive ground attack with air power support from a coalition of Arab states. Clearly, the current reality of the military balance in the Middle East renders this threat nearly irrelevant due to the collapse of the pan-Arab movement, the peace agreements Israel signed with Egypt and Jordan, and the eradication of Iraqi military forces.”[14]

Or as Major General (ret.) Natan Sharoni, the former Head of Planning for the IDF, put it to Haaretz: “To say that the strategic depth of the Jordan Valley will save Israel, that is a deception … what has traditionally constituted the Eastern Front against Israel is now non-existent. Iraq doesn’t have the capacity to send ground divisions against us; we have peace with Jordan, and Syria won’t go to war against Israel by herself.”[15]

Even if these states were to try to invade through the West Bank, the threat posed to Israel would still be low. This is due to the fact that the Jordan Valley is an excellent natural barrier, almost insurmountable for invading armies, regardless of whether or not the IDF is actually present in the West Bank. Any invading army would have to enter the Valley in Jordan through a very narrow road one at a time, creating a long trail of vehicles that would be sitting ducks for Israeli air strikes. These militaries would be destroyed long before they ever got to the Israeli-Jordanian border, let alone up to the end of the Valley in the West Bank. As Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld observes, “The ascent from the Jordan Valley into the heights of Judea and Samaria is topographically one of the most difficult on earth,” and would be easily thwarted by Israel’s superb air force.[16] He further notes that a permanent IDF military presence in the Jordan Valley is not required to thwart such an invasion.

In the improbable event that some country or combination of countries decide to send land forces to attack Israel from the east, despite the topographical challenges, Israeli military superiority would make any such attempt suicidal for the invading forces. Israel’s early warning capabilities, which comprise sophisticated reconnaissance technologies, including satellites, are such that under no circumstances could Israel be surprised by a land invasion.[17] Finally, Israel has the strongest and best-equipped air force in the region, enabling aerial attacks on any ground forces advancing toward Israel. Proponents of unilateral Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley will typically point to the threat of Iran, but no serious strategic expert believes that Iranian armed forces could trek more than 932 miles through the largely Sunni-controlled areas of the Arabian Desert toward Israel, while exposed to the Israeli Air Force.

Of course, Israel must and no doubt will do its utmost to prevent the recreation of an Arab-Israeli war era ‘Eastern Front,’ and the best way of doing that, as Israeli security experts point out, is through diplomacy and certainly not through unilateral land grabs.


The infiltration of terrorists and the smuggling of weapons into the West Bank, as well as the use of projectiles against Israeli targets, are valid concerns, as is the concern that terrorists will use smuggled or locally-made projectiles against Israel. But a sustained Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley is not a guarantee against terrorism. Even when Israel was in full control of the Gaza Strip, rockets and mortar rounds were routinely launched at Israel from the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Fire from the Gaza Strip stopped when the Palestinian authorities in Gaza decided to stop it. Likewise in the West Bank, a motivated Palestinian government will be the most effective means of stopping terrorism.   

The simple truth is that the supposed territorial ‘strategic depth’ that permanent IDF presence or Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley would provide — particularly when measured in single miles rather than in tens or hundreds of miles — is insignificant in an age of intermediate- and long-range missiles. Israel’s adversaries already have missiles that can reach every corner in the country. Keeping the Jordan Valley does not provide Israel additional meaningful strategic depth with respect to such a threat. In fact, according to the aforementioned CPS report, “‘Strategic depth’ with regard to the Jordan Valley and the West Bank makes a mockery of the term. With or without the Jordan Valley, Israel does not have strategic depth; it is only about 40 km across, including that Valley. Thus, regardless of control of the Valley, this threat must also be countered with other responses.”[18]

By contrast, under an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the achievement of which is presently being hindered by Israeli annexation plans, Israel would likely also benefit from intensified security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA has already shown its capability to fight terrorism in the West Bank and to cooperate with Israel’s security authorities, despite the fact that the occupation is ongoing. Enhanced security coordination, negotiated by Israel as part of a peace agreement, would include anti-smuggling measures, early warning systems, intelligence sharing, and possibly joint Israeli-Palestinian patrols – all done in cooperation with Jordan’s security forces.

Alternatively, subject to negotiations and the agreement of both sides, there is a possibility of deploying an international force (probably the United States or a U.S.-led NATO force) inside a future Palestinian state, as has been the case, successfully, in the context of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Indeed, the Multinational Force & Observers in the Sinai often goes beyond the scope of the security arrangements delineated in the 1979 treaty to combat the spread of terrorism, and at times even in violation of Egyptian sovereignty in the Peninsula.[19] A similar force could, for example, monitor the Jordan-Palestine border to prevent infiltration of terrorists and the smuggling of weapons. Moreover, under a peace agreement the existing Israeli-Jordanian security cooperation would likely be strengthened and serve as an additional component in counter-terrorism efforts. All parties – Israel, Jordan and the future Palestine – would have an interest in keeping the peace.


Existing Israeli-Jordanian security cooperation would be significantly undermined, if not entirely rescinded, by an Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley. Israel’s peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom is a major strategic asset. According to Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) Executive Director Robert Satloff, unilateral Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley would be viewed by the Jordanians “as confirmation that Israel was bent on implementing their doomsday scenario of transforming Jordan into al-watan al-badil — an alternative homeland for Palestinians.”[20] Satloff further writes in his WINEP report, “Wrestling with Annexation: The Elusive Search for a Policy Rationale,” that the core supporters of Jordan’s ruler King Abdullah II, comprised of the East Bank tribal elite who occupy influential government, military, and security positions, would respond to annexation by going after the King.

This “morbid dread that Israel’s ideological right has long harbored dreams of solving the Palestinian issue at their expense” has animated the Hashemite leader’s anti-Jordan Valley annexation campaign, warning of “massive conflict” if it proceeds.[21] The Jordanians unequivocally oppose the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the Valley that would come at the expense of Palestinian national aspirations west of the Jordan River. Here again, the argument for annexing the Jordan Valley in the service of security considerations falls flat. Such a move is a national security threat to the State of Israel, or as IDF Col. (ret.) Shaul Arieli puts it in Haaretz, “a tasteless joke showing a lack of national responsibility.”[22]


Many Israelis and Americans alike are justifiably concerned about the security ramifications of a pullout from the Jordan Valley. They consider the unilateral 2005 Gaza disengagement to be a strategic mistake, given that it was promptly followed by the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip from PA control. “The result is that more Israelis are now demanding a long, drawn-out redeployment process, if they condone redeployment at all,” according to a 2016 report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).[23] Netanyahu’s proposed annexation of the Valley has increased in popularity and a majority of his Knesset allies oppose any redeployment from the West Bank. However, sustained Israeli military presence visible to Palestinians, let alone the extension of sovereignty, in the Jordan Valley is inconsistent with a two-state solution that would preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. As mentioned previously, it would also prevent the future creation of a viable Palestinian state. Instead, the CNAS report “A Security System for the Two-State Solution,” proposes that “after a multiyear transition period during which Israeli forces would redeploy, the most realistic option would be for American forces to remain in a 2-kilometer security zone west of the Jordan River and east of Route 90.”[24] IDF Lt. Col. (res.) Ron Tira, in a paper published by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies analyzed the workability of this “Integrated Approach.” Tira pointed to the United Kingdom and Germany as “models” that should provide “reassurance” to Israel that “multinational systems in which the U.S. military is the main building block” are feasible.[25] 

Further reassuring is that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), in its negotiations with Israel, has already agreed that as part of a peace agreement the Israeli military could remain in the Jordan Valley for a few years during the evacuation of settlers and the reorganization of Palestinian security forces throughout the West Bank. In fact, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas himself proposed that armed American forces, subject to Israeli approval, temporarily remain to facilitate this transition.

Of the parties to the conflict, Israel now stands alone in its unwillingness to compromise on the Jordan Valley issue: Two American participants in the 2013-‘14 Kerry Initiative, the last direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro and President of the Brookings Institution Gen. John R. Allen penned an op-ed in The Hill opposing Jordan Valley annexation out of U.S national security interests. They wrote that in 2013-‘14, Netanyahu himself proposed alternative mechanisms to ensure Israeli security in the Jordan Valley without applying sovereignty. “Israeli military leaders were open to a range of solutions. Then, they were sensitive to the political needs of Palestinian leaders and the impact on Israel’s relationship with Jordan. What has changed?” Shapiro and Allen ask.[26]


Another question in this debate is one of values. Ask yourselves, is unilateral Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley that would permanently block the formation of a viable Palestinian state and perpetuate the occupation consistent with Israel’s founding vision? IDF Col. (res.) Gilead Sher, who served as Chief Israeli Negotiator at the 2000 Camp David Summit, forcefully argues that it is not. On the contrary, Sher writes in War on the Rocks that such a move would be “lethal to Zionism and would likewise detrimentally affect the Palestinian aspiration for a peacefully negotiated statehood.”[27]

In this vein, Adam Rasgon of The New York Times, reporting from the West Bank, recently described Palestinian fears about impending Jordan Valley annexation as follows: “Many worry that it could block them from their farmlands, prevent them from getting to their jobs in Israeli settlements and choke off their villages behind walls, fences and checkpoints.”[28] Rasgon in his moving piece, quotes Abdel Rahman Bisharat, 71, a Bedouin shepherd and resident of the Palestinian village of Al Hadidiya in the Jordan Valley as saying, “We now fear they will try to expel us from our land.”[29]

This Palestinian desperation at the hands of the Israeli occupation, as IDF Col. (res.) Gilead Sher argues, not only runs contrary to Israel’s national security interests, but it is also in violation of the “spirit of the Declaration of Independence.”[30] And it certainly does not bolster Israel’s security.


The fact of the matter is that potential attacks by Arab armies or terrorists are not the greatest threat facing Israel. The greatest threat facing Israel is to a large extent self-inflicted: the impact of the perpetuation of its occupation of disenfranchised Palestinians undermining Israel’s viability as a Jewish state and a democracy. Unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank would do just that.  

Instead, as IDF Col. (ret.) Shaul Arieli notes, “A regional peace deal, including normalization, as promised by the Arab peace initiative, would confer more security than a few thousand dunams in the Jordan Valley.”[31]Such a deal would necessarily involve the creation of a future Palestinian state that encompasses the Valley. Indeed, the prosperity of an independent state for the Palestinians in the West Bank is dependent on it.[32]

Promoting this annexation plan under the guise of national security, by leveraging well-founded concerns for Israel’s safety among Israelis and Americans, is shamefully misleading, anachronistic, and has the potential to put the final nail in the coffin of an equitable and just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Written by Avraham Spraragen, APN Intern

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