Only one week remains for Israel to form a government and avoid a third election, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is pulling his most tried and true trick out of his hat to maintain the premiership. When Netanyahu is in political peril, he invariably turns to security, insisting that there is either a historic opportunity to strengthen Israel’s position that only he can seize upon, or that there are myriad yet nameless threats beyond the horizon against which only he can protect. In recent days he has taken to publicly exhorting Benny Gantz to bring Kachol Lavan into a unity government where he will remain prime minister during the first rotation in order to see through annexation of the Jordan Valley and strike a mutual defense treaty with the United States. Netanyahu portrays these as potentially momentous accomplishments for Israel’s security, and maintains that his continuation as prime minister is critical to realizing them. In this, he is being helped along by the Trump administration, following a publicized call with President Trump last weekend and a meeting in Lisbon with Mike Pompeo yesterday where Jordan Valley annexation and joint efforts to counter Iran were both on the agenda.
While Netanyahu presents Jordan Valley annexation and a mutual defense treaty as clear security imperatives that nobody can credibly dismiss, the reality is far more complicated. There is more opposition to both of these initiatives among Israel’s security establishment than there is support. Permanent Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and a treaty committing the U.S. to Israel’s defense might put Israel in a more solid position to deter external threats, but each of them comes with a significant downside.
Nobody within Israeli security circles questions the need for Israel to maintain security control in the Jordan Valley. It was famously part of Yitzhak Rabin’s last policy speech to the Knesset, and is embraced not only by Netanyahu but also by his former IDF chief of staff rivals in Kachol Lavan. It has also been a core Israeli demand during previous rounds of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and will likely remain so during future rounds. Where Netanyahu has gone further is in conflating annexation of the territory with security control of the territory. Israel currently has the latter without annexation, and a long-term Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley in the form of a light troop footprint and early warning systems is the way that many IDF strategic planners have envisioned maintaining that security control even when the Jordan Valley is part of a future state of Palestine.
Annexing the territory is therefore unnecessary from the standpoint of ensuring that the Jordan Valley remains Israel’s eastern security border. Not only that, annexing the territory would actually complicate Israeli security by raising tensions with Jordan, with whom cooperation is essential to making sure that the security border – and also Israel’s longest border – remains quiet. Friction between Israel and Jordan is arguably at its highest point right now since the signing of the peace treaty between the two sides in 1994, and Jordan Valley annexation runs the risk of rupturing that relationship completely at a time when it is most vulnerable. It would also unquestionably put a deep freeze on recent efforts to strike non-belligerence pacts with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, and Morocco, something that is a long shot but actually would improve Israel’s security in a tangible manner. The complications that annexation would create is why Gantz has specifically not endorsed it, always making sure in his public statements to reference the need for Israel to control the Jordan Valley but not once calling for annexation of the territory.
A mutual defense treaty is complicated as well. One of the bedrock principles of Israeli security doctrine is preserving freedom of operation, and a defense treaty would make Israel beholden to a potential U.S. veto on its actions. For instance, if Israel were to determine that it needed to strike Iranian nuclear sites, which would almost certainly invite Iranian retaliation that would then bring the U.S. into the conflict, Israel would need explicit authorization from the U.S. before launching its military operation. When Menachem Begin ordered the destruction of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, it led to months of friction with the U.S. in the aftermath of the strike. That ended up being a substantially more palatable outcome than would the counterfactual of Israel’s hands being tied by the U.S., which would have been a near-certainty. The need to preserve the ability to operate independently is why a mutual defense treaty may engender even greater opposition in IDF circles than Jordan Valley annexation does.
Yet on both of these, Netanyahu is not only giving the illusion that he is rushing ahead because they represent historic no-brainer opportunities, he is using them as part of his campaign to remain prime minister. No matter what the outcome here, Netanyanu wins politically. If he is able to browbeat Gantz into joining him in a unity government by hammering on the need to take advantage of security opportunities whose value is actually disputed, he gets to unprecedentedly serve as prime minister while under indictment and get the seal of approval to do so by his primary opposition to boot. If his campaign is unsuccessful and Israel goes to a third election, he will spend the entire period leading up to the next election telling every Israeli voter that Gantz sold out Israeli security in order to carry out a personal vendetta against Netanyahu, and he will still remain as prime minister in the never-ending transitional government. If he manages to convince Trump to give a public green light to Jordan Valley annexation before the next election, he will have yet another arrow in the arsenal of his argument that Israel cannot afford to hand the prime ministry to anyone else. No matter what, Netanyahu wins, and he does it by getting Israelis to believe that his own political imperatives are actually security imperatives.
All of this is coming against the backdrop of the House of Representatives considering H.Res. 326 this week, which not only voices support for two states, but specifically warns about any unilateral annexation of territory while reinforcing the U.S. ironclad commitment to Israel’s security. The passage of this bill will suggest two things: that Israel does not need a self-binding treaty in order to be assured of an American commitment to its defense and security, and that Jordan Valley annexation would create tensions with the U.S. and make it more difficult in the future to have Congress express the same ironclad commitment. While there has been some resistance to passing H.Res. 326 while Israel still does not have a government as it may be interpreted as using American policy to influence Israeli politics, it is striking that the Trump administration has already been attempting to use American policy to influence Israeli politics. Pompeo’s declaration two weeks ago shifting American policy toward settlements has been used by Netanyahu to further his argument that he is deserving of more time in office, and given Israelis a false sense that a green light for annexation will be U.S. policy across the board. If Israeli politicians and voters are relying on U.S. statements in deciding what to do next, Congress should at the very least be on the record – and ideally in a bipartisan fashion – about how Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley plan will land beyond the confines of the White House before he carries it out.