I. Executive Summary
Israel’s recently declared intent to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank beginning in July, based on the Trump peace plan, has sparked passionate discussion. Often overlooked is the distinction between Israel extending its sovereignty to all proposed areas of the West Bank, versus just to the Jordan Valley. The former encompasses 29 percent of heavily populated areas in the West Bank, while the sparsely populated Jordan Valley comprises just 15 percent of the West Bank’s landmass. ( This excludes the ancient city of Jericho, to which Israel is not now considering extending sovereignty. Jericho currently has a population of about 20,000, mostly Palestinians.) And the Jordan Valley is a critical slice of strategic territory that holds the key to Israel’s security.
At JINSA’s Gemunder Center, we focus on U.S. strategic and security interests, and in this paper we explain that U.S. national security interests would be well served if Israel enshrined its permanent control of the Jordan Valley by acting now to extend its sovereignty there. This will boost the security of Israel, as well as Jordan, two pivotal American allies in the region. We believe it important to consider the status of the Jordan Valley on its own terms and dispassionately.
The rationale for applying Israeli civil law there is primarily strategic, differentiating the issue, at least in part though certainly not wholly, from the political and
often sentimental considerations that inform the broader debate about West Bank Israeli and Palestinian population centers and territory.
The security of Israel has been a vital U.S. national security interest for over half a century. That interest has only grown as Islamic extremism and the long reach of Iran menace much of the Middle East, and as the United States seeks to reduce its presence there. Israel has stepped up its efforts to hold back the growing disorder and especially Iran’s aggression, in the process protecting not just itself but regional partners like Jordan and Gulf Arab states, which are also close American allies.
To play this role effectively, however, Israel must remain secure. And the security of the Jewish state, in turn, necessitates permanent Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, which it has controlled for 53 years, since the Six Day War. The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, revered globally for his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, stated to the Knesset a month before his assassination in 1995 that a sustainable peace required that “the security border of the State of Israel will be located in the Jordan Valley, in the broadest meaning of that term.”1
Indeed, the Jordan Valley serves as a defensive buffer protecting Israel against attacks from the east, the West Bank from terrorist infiltration, and Jordan from potential instability or hostility originating from the West Bank or elsewhere. These risks cannot be underestimated.
The region remains in flux and the upheaval of the past decade is likely to continue. The Hashemite Kingdom, the majority of which is Palestinian, could be overthrown by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Palestinians or other forces, offering an opening for Iran or other nefarious actors to threaten Israel from Jordan. Israel has saved Hashemite Jordan before, most notably in 1970 when PLO leader Yasser Arafat sought to overthrow the kingdom. The Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, which already sponsors terror against Israel, could become more radicalized through elections (if ever permitted) or overthrown by Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from the PA in 2007 and has used it to smuggle in and manufacture missiles and rockets that it has launched against Israel, including in three wars.
Yet, Israel has faced pressure to relinquish control over the Jordan Valley. Previous American peace plans in 2000 and 2014 envisioned Israel ceding control of the Valley to certain alternative, and inadequate, security arrangements. These plans also minimize the costs – in time, Israeli casualties, and in American and world opinion – if Israel would need to reassert control in the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank if they and/or Jordan become bases for attacking Israel like Gaza or south Lebanon. A future Democratic or Republican administration could pressure Israel to accept these, or even more radical, proposals, with potentially significant political costs if Jerusalem refuses.
Thus, the Trump Administration’s support for Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley — its plan states, “The Jordan Valley, which is critical for Israel’s national security, will be under Israeli sovereignty”— could be a rare chance for Israel to assure its security and that of its tacit Arab allies, too.
Israel’s current political alignment is also very favorable to do just that. Its unity government of the dominant center-left and center-right parties now has significant parliamentary support for applying sovereignty, demonstrating broad, bipartisan agreement among the Israeli public and their elected representatives. This move would be difficult to undo in the future, requiring an unlikely two-thirds of the Knesset or a majority of Israeli voters in a referendum.
The expectation of such an Israeli decision has provoked passionate opposition – to what critics incorrectly call “annexation”* – by many Democratic Members of Congress, Arab and European leaders, and various American experts on the Middle East. The highly regarded Emirati Ambassador to Washington took the unprecedented step of expressing his opposition in an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper.
Criticism ranges from claiming the lack of a pressing need to alter the status quo, to concerns that the decision could spoil Israeli relations with Arab countries and torpedo prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. These charges do not sufficiently distinguish between the Jordan Valley and other areas of the West Bank.
There will certainly be costs associated with incorporating the Jordan Valley into Israel proper. Yet, when it comes to the specific issue of the Jordan Valley, we believe that, given the benefits of enshrining permanent Israeli control, these regrettable costs are likely to prove manageable and short-term.
Indeed, despite public opposition voiced by some Arab states, the overwhelming convergence
of their interests with Israel, which has led to warming ties, are too vital to countenance a full
break over Israeli policy in the Valley. This is true for the Gulf Arab countries, but it is especially
true for the Hashemite Kingdom, which requires for its survival close security and intelligence
ties with Israel, as well as growing economic ties, such as subsidized Israeli deliveries of
natural gas and water.
* The media and critics of Israeli plans use the term “annexation,” but that word suggests one country taking territory
that is legally viewed as belonging to another. As we explain in this paper, we don’t believe that is the case here.
Hence, extending Israeli civil law or sovereignty is a more accurate description.
Nor is extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley likely to foreclose future security
cooperation with the Palestinians, including negotiations for Palestinian statehood. The
Palestinians, like the Jordanians, need security cooperation with Israel for their own survival.
Two years after Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, Hamas grabbed power from the
PA and would have assassinated its president, Mahmoud Abbas, if not for Israeli intervention.
Moreover, the PA’s budget is highly reliant on Israeli tax transfers. The peaceful daily lives of
the 9,000 Palestinians now living in the Valley (along with 15,000 Israelis) would not change
under Israeli sovereignty, and neither should Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Extending Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley also would not torpedo chances for an
Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In fact, it likely would improve the chances for one. Peace
talks can succeed only if they are realistic, and one challenge for reaching an agreement, or
even for commencing negotiations, has been the yawning gap between what the Palestinians
demand and any Israeli government can accept – hence Palestinian rejection of very favorable
terms for 20 years. Enshrining permanent Israeli control over the Jordan Valley, which any
Israeli government will insist upon, could well offer a dose of much needed realism to the
situation, as well as convey to the Palestinian people that time continues to work in their
In this unique moment, the United States should support Israel’s extension of sovereignty to
the Jordan Valley, which Israel must permanently and physically control to defend itself while
advancing U.S. security interests.