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Talking Peace Amid an Arab World Explosion

7 January 2014

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

Two very contradictory processes are at work in the Middle East. US Sec. of State John Kerry is pressuring Israel to make far reaching concessions to the Palestinians in continuing American efforts to arrive at a two-state solution while simultaneously the surrounding Arab states are imploding and/or exploding at an ever quickening pace. The West is focused on Palestinian-Israeli issues as Egypt swirls in civil unrest, Syria continues to be blasted into rubble and Iraq is broken down into three states in all but name, suffering unrelenting bombings and civil war. Lebanon is teetering on the verge of collapse as the battle between Hezbollah and radical Sunni Salafists heats up and Jordan suffers from Islamist influences, becoming increasingly unstable especially due to the refugee influx from Syria. To make matters worse the Palestinian Authority police security report of January 2 warns of Salafist and Al Qaeda cells in the West Bank, some remaining dormant for many years. They are lying in wait to overthrow the Fatah/PA regime when the correct opportunity arises. Israeli security interests are paramount especially as concerns the border region with Jordan.

The situation is surreal. Israel and the Palestinian West Bank are relatively quiet and both sides enjoy more security than most anywhere else in the Middle East. But as indicated above serious troubles lurk around the corner. On the other hand Israelis have gotten used to the American demand that any peace agreement with the Palestinians be based on the 1967 borders (with land swaps). There will be no territorial compromise on the West Bank. In particular many Israelis previously envisioned Israel would retain the Jordan Rift Valley. Today such hopes appear unattainable and any civilians living in this sensitive region along the Jordan River will be expected to leave should there be an agreement, even in principle. Relinquishing civilian control is one aspect of peace making, but giving up security control in this region would endanger the Jewish State itself.

The Palestinians demand that no Israelis remain within their state once there is a final agreement. The Jordan River is Israel's security line to the east. The PA claims that Palestinian security forces using early warning systems, state of the art technology at border crossings and satellite surveillance are the best guarantee of Israel's security. This only works if the force is dedicated to Israel's security. Israel appears willing to concede the settlement issue in the Jordan Rift, but IDF ground forces on the western side of the Jordan River are an imperative. Jerusalem trusts no one to ensure its security, especially with Middle East instability at its height. Israelis are very skeptical of relying on the PA for anything. It is far from unreasonable to see Jordan fall to Islamic extremists. Should there be no Israeli presence along the river any Salafist threat originating in Jordan will quickly find its way to Tulkarm, just a few kilometers from Netanya. The PA security forces, even if American trained, are no match for such al Qaeda types. Suggestions are being made for a joint PA, American and possibly even European contingent. Sounds good but should serious trouble begin, the Europeans will bail out (remember Iraq and Afghanistan?). A bit more pressure – meaning casualties and the US may very well follow suit. There are those who attempt to compare an international Jordan Valley force to the US led multi-national operation in Sinai, but there is little in common. The US force in Sinai monitors a semi-demilitarized Sinai, while anyone in the Jordan Valley will need to halt terrorist infiltrations at the least. Should Jordan become hostile (with help from Syrian/Iraqi Salafists) could such a force be expected to defend the Jordan River line?

The IDF must be part of any Jordan River defensive arrangement. Although to Israel's security detriment, the PA will make demands to field its own men as part of the political – diplomatic deal. America and even Europe could then round out a multi-national arrangement. Let's face it Israel does not trust the PA on its own even should they have good intentions, which is not always the case. Gaza is an excellent example – less than two years after Israel left Gaza in 2005 the Fatah/PA was overthrown by Hamas. The Europeans are making the situation even more difficult, inferring threats of economic and political boycotts by EU members should the peace talks not succeed. There is an assumption that whatever is disagreeable to the Palestinians is automatically Israel's fault. Israel may well face condemnation for insisting on being responsible for its own security. Although the objective of a two-state solution is an admirable one, this cannot be had at any cost. The Kerry led negotiations must lead to Israeli security no less than Palestinian sovereignty. A weakened Israel will be a magnet for extremist attacks.

The discussions over security issues in the Jordan Rift Valley are indicative of a broader strategic thinking. The US wants at least one corner of the Arab Middle East to be stable and "friendly" serving as an example of a pro-western, secular, freely elected government where material development leads to a western standard of living. Call it the "model Arab society" (in western eyes). Many hoped it would work with Tunisia but the Ben Ali dictatorship scuttled any hopes of democracy and eventually the Muslim Brotherhood overthrew the regime. Some thought Jordan could be the answer but internal Islamism, threats to overthrow the pro-western monarchy and continuing refugee influx prevented democracy from taking hold.

The Fatah/PA ruled West Bank is a good bet. Independence comes with strings attached – not necessarily in the negative sense. The US and EU will pour billions of dollars and euros into the new mini-state. The West will "ensure" security and material well being. Overall the PA will need to relinquish refugee return to Israel and take compensation. The ruling Fatah/PA elite will not object to the western bear hug provided the Islamists are defeated and the massive infrastructure investments are forthcoming. The plans for joint industrial zones to be established in the West Bank through Israeli and foreign investors can now go forward, further expanding possibilities for joint Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian cooperation. The idea is to secure and stabilize the region through interdependent economic development. On the negative side the Fatah/PA will become a lightning rod for Jihad actions. The PA will be in need of a tough, very dedicated security apparatus. Only the West can see to it that Israel has international legitimacy to join such a multi-national force in working for its own and Palestinian State security. The two are bound together with Jordan the third beneficiary. Economic development is rooted in regional security.

Israel's security concerns are peripheral if one assumes the Palestinians will defeat the internal Hamas and overall Islamist threat (with western and even some Israeli help) and Jordan will remain in the western camp. Such assumptions are ridiculous. The unpredictability of the next Middle Eastern earthquake makes such planning very tenuous. Europe and even the US will not remain committed to keeping troops in the Jordan Rift Valley in the face of an Islamic onslaught. Israel's existence will hang in the balance should there be no Jordan River defensive line. A future invasion coming out of an Islamist dominated Jordan coupled with a Hamas overthrow of the PA would be a disaster, much worse than the Gaza threat. Short and medium range rockets originating in the West Bank would hit all Israel's major cities and close down international traffic arriving at Ben Gurion airport.

The Fatah/PA has one major demand when accepting entry into the great western experiment as the model Muslim Arab state – no Israeli presence anywhere. Israel cannot afford to take such a chance. The IDF must continue holding the Jordan River line. This can certainly be done together with the US, EU and PA (or without). With all serving together for joint Israeli and Palestinian security, it will be that much more difficult for the US or even the EU to leave such a cooperative arrangement. More than anyone, Israel's interest is paramount and this bodes well for overall security along the Jordan River and throughout the immediate region. As for the Palestinians security determines economic development, a very necessary factor when building a stable, successful state.