Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Increasing Importance of Jordan Rift Buffer

The landslide electoral victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections has created an entirely new strategic reality for Israel which vastly increases the importance of the Jordan Valley. But not only Israel's internal security is at stake, but its eastern neighbour and strategic ally, the Hshemite Kingdom of Jordan, has become under jeopardy as well.

The general in charge of Israel's central command, Major General Yair Naveh, had recently sparked a round of diplomatic turmoil when he told foreign correspondents and diplomats that King Abdullah II of Jordan could be the last Hashemite ruler, if the Islamic fundamentalist movements on both sides of the River Jordan, will dominate the political scene. This trend has already started shaping up late March, when Hamas officially became the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza.

In a recent study on Jordan released by the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Professor Asher Susser has predicted that the January Palestinian election results, with Hamas winning a landslide victory, might appear to have particularly negative consequences for the Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, the young king has every reason to worry over the negative developments in the West Bank. An escalating Palestinian – Israeli confrontation has always been a Jordanian nightmare because of the possibility that it could spread across the River into Jordan. What has sofar efficiently blocked such a dangerous spillover, is the strong Israeli military presence in the strategic Jordan Rift Valley, creating a near hermetic Buffer Zone, between the volatile West Bank and Jordan.

The topographical features of the Jordan Rift Valley are unique. The section which represents the Israel-Jordanian border ranges from the Sea of Galilee in the North to the Dead Sea in the South and thereon to the Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat). The Jordan River flows from north to south for 330 km, three times as far as its straight line, which measures only 105 km. The difference results from meanders, windings through thick overgrowth, impenetrable even on foot. Only a few meters deep, even during the high winter season, the river itself can hardly be regarded as a serious military obstacle but the thick overgrowth makes it so. The rift valley itself, some 300 - 400 meters below sea level, the lowest in the world, rises sharply to near 1,000 meters to the west, and similarly to the east, a significant topographic feature over which only a few narrow paved roads and difficult mountain tracks lead. The valley itself is only some 5 km wide in the north and 23 km wide in the south. It is dominated through its entire length from the positions overlooking it, by the high mountain ridges on both sides of the rift valley, ideal features, from a pure military viewpoint.

There are strong mutual strategic interests between the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel to maintain Israel's military presence in the Jordan rift buffer zone, but complex internal and external political issues are involved here. The Hashemite Kingdom, while it would never admit this publicly, has a strong vested interest in a continuing Israeli military presence in that strategic part of land to its West. In fact, with Hamas dominating the Palestinian Authority, Jordan could, without Israel's presence, find itself sandwiched between the pro-Iranian forces in Iraq and a pro-Iranian Palestinian Authority.

As regards Israel's own security, after the 2003 Iraq War, it became commonplace in parts of the Western policymaking community to assert that, since the U.S. had eliminated the threat emanating from the armoured formations of Saddam Hussein, Israel could relax its traditional territorial claims for defensible borders in the West Bank. The argument was further reinforced by the fact that Israel had a peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since 1994. This led many observers to the conclusion that Israel no longer needed to control its strategic barrier in the Jordan Valley that served as its primary line of defense since 1967. However, according to Dr. Dore Gold, heading the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel in 2006 already faces a rapidly changing strategic landscape. The Iraq war has had a number of unintended side effects which could destabilize Israel's eastern front in several respects. A waning presence of US military forces in Iraq will only escalate this trend.

First, there is the direct threat of jihadi terrorism. Iraq clearly has replaced Afghanistan as a new global terrorist center, drawing Islamic volunteers from Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Speaking last January, at the Herzliya Conference to a panel on "Defensible Borders for Israel," former IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel might face the threat of mujahideen from the Iraq war seeking to infiltrate into Israel. First signs of this have already been sighted, with the recent "first" 122 mm Grad rocket fired from Gaza.

Colonel Ephraim Kam, deputy head of JCSS, a former IDF military intelligence official, stresses that the Jordan Rift Valley is an essential element in Israel's national security within the context of an overall agreement with any future PNA. Although he accepts that sweeping changes, mostly positive in nature, have taken place in the region during the last two decades, recent trends in increased fundamentalist expansions in the region, especially in Iran, and are threatening to reverse these positive developments.

Although the Hashemite regime has achieved considerable stability over the past decades and King Abdallah II seems to be in full control, it would be a grave strategic mistake to regard Jordan as a reliable buffer zone for Israel's security on a long-term basis. Serious challenge to the royal Jordanian household, both from its east and especially to its west, through a growing Iranian-supported Hamas regime, could create new national identity pressure among Jordan's Palestinian population. Under such uncertain strategic circumstances Israel would have no alternative but to undertake significant security precautions in sensitive areas affecting its national defence priorities. The Jordan Rift Valley with its highly strategic topographic features would certainly remain one of those highly indispensable assets.

Should, however, the present trend for Islamic fundamentalism still be halted in time, by a determined joint western effort, before engulfing the entire region and replacing a "normal' PNA in power, then a possible agreement, under which Israel maintains its military presence on a long-term temporary basis, could perhaps be worked out, satisfying both the Hashemite Kingdom and Israel's security demands. The latest incident should illustrate how serious the tension between Hamas and the Hashemite authorities is growing into a critical escalation.

To safeguard their political survival, the Governments of Israel and the kingdom of Jordan will want to squeeze the Palestinians in the West Bank with the hope that Hamas’ influence can be contained. Israel will fear seepage into the one million strong Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jordan will fear infiltartion of Islamic extremism over the Jordan River. There will be more seepage eastward than westward. Under these circumstances, the critical importance of the strategic Jordan rift valley will become a major issue, more than ever before, in the forthcoming future.

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