Analysis from Israel

In the run-up to John Kerry’s arrival in Jerusalem today for yet another round of Israeli-Palestinian talks, media attention naturally focused less on real obstacles to peace than on an Israeli bill to annex the Jordan Valley that supporters and opponents agree hasn’t a prayer of becoming law. Yet despite this coverage, the most interesting fact about the bill has been largely overlooked: One of the biggest behind-the-scenes fans of Israel retaining control of this strategic location is none other than the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Last month, the Israeli daily Maariv reported that Jordan has been urging Kerry to support Israel’s demand for a permanent IDF presence in the valley under any deal with the Palestinians. Three months earlier, the Jerusalem Post‘s Khaled Abu Toameh quoted a senior Jordanian official’s response when asked in a closed briefing how Amman viewed the possibility of Palestinians replacing Israel along the Jordan border:

“May God forbid!” the official retorted. “We have repeatedly made it clear to the Israeli side that we will not agree to the presence of a third party at our border.”

The Jordanian official claimed this has been Jordan’s position ever since 1967. But it was undoubtedly reinforced by watching the deleterious effects on Egypt’s security of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

With the IDF no longer there to impede the flow, radical ideology, terrorists, and weaponry began pouring from into Sinai, providing local terrorists not only with enhanced resources (as I explain in more detail here and here), but also with valuable training. As a result, Sinai quickly became a terrorist hotbed that poses a major threat not only to Israel–whose Shin Bet security service now devotes the same resources to monitoring Sinai that it does to the northern West Bank–but also to Egypt itself. A Sinai terrorist group, for instance, claimed responsibility for last week’s deadly bombing in Mansoura.

The last thing Jordan needs is a similar influx of arms, radicalism, and veteran Palestinian terrorists pouring over its border, especially given its large Palestinian population. Already destabilized by a massive influx of Syrian refugees and rumblings of homegrown discontent, such an influx would surely send it over the edge. And unless Israel remains in the Jordan Valley permanently (or at least for many decades to come), that’s exactly what will happen. Allowing the IDF to stay there merely for another few years, as Kerry is reportedly proposing, does nothing but temporarily postpone the inevitable.

Western leaders repeatedly say they want Israel out of the territories because its presence there is “a major source of instability” in the region, as President Obama put it his UN address in September. Yet experience shows that Israeli withdrawals may well be a far greater source of instability. The Gaza pullout certainly turned out that way for Egypt (as well as for Israel), and Amman clearly fears a Jordan Valley pullout would have a similarly negative impact on Jordan.

If the West truly cares about stability, pushing for an Israeli withdrawal that would destabilize Jordan, one of the region’s last remaining islands of stability, seems highly counterproductive. Indeed, given how often Israeli pullouts have had negative results, the West might do better to abandon this paradigm altogether and start searching for a new one. Supporting a permanent Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley would be a good place to start.

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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