News Analysis: Jordan Valley Residents Wonder; Are They Being Negotiated Away?

Hardly a person in the Jordan Valley felt much like celebrating the 33rd anniversary of the Six-Day War, which gave Israel control over the entire West Bank.

On June 5 this week, the anniversary of the war’s beginning, Mordechai Dahaman, the head of the regional council of Megilot in the Jordan Valley, sat in his office and said that the war was not actually over yet.

The final battle was still raging, and the 5,000 settlers in the Jordan Valley were not really ready for it.

“We thought we were part of a national consensus that the Jordan Valley was not up for grabs,” Dahaman said.

But these days, nobody is sure. Interior Minister Natan Sharansky has accused Prime Minister Ehud Barak of offering the Jordan Valley to the Palestinians, but sources close to the negotiations have denied the accusation.

The Jordan Valley lies on both sides of the Jordan River. The eastern bank is in Jordan. The western side of the valley has been under Israeli control ever since the Six-Day War.

Some 23 Jewish settlements have been erected in the valley, in a narrow strip from Beit She’an in the north to Ein Gedi by the Dead Sea in the south.

Only several hundred Palestinians lived in the region when Israel conquered the territory from Jordan in 1967. By and large, the area was barren. Israeli farmers developed the area into a center for high-tech agriculture, and Jordanian farmers on the other side of the border eventually followed suit.

“We came here from Ramat Hasharon 18 years ago because we wanted to become farmers,” said Orit Artzieli, a mother of four from Petzael.

Artzieli, like most of the residents of the area, supports the Labor Party of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Through the years, Jordan Valley settlers differentiated themselves from the West Bank settlers, who were politically associated with the National Religious Party and Likud. They even made a point of calling themselves residents, rather than settlers.

Whether these Jordan Valley residents will someday find themselves under Palestinian rule is only speculation at this point.

Very few people really know what’s going on in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is in the region this week to push the process along. But the talks, first in Stockholm and now at an undisclosed location in the Middle East, have been conducted out of the public eye.

The secret nature of the talks has produced a large amount of speculation and disinformation — which is sometimes spread to serve various, sometimes conflicting, interests.

Leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea explained last weekend in the newspaper Yediot Achronot how it works: Take Ahmed Karia, the speaker of the Palestinian legislative council and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team. According to Barnea, Karia leaked information on Palestinian achievements in the talks to Likud leader Ariel Sharon.

Sharon, in turn, spread the word that the Israeli government is making major concessions. Karia collected political credit in the Palestinian street — and Israeli policy-makers found themselves facing growing opposition, which gets together strange bedfellows like the rightist settlers of the West Bank, the left-leaning residents of the Jordan Valley and the politically mixed settlers of the Golan.

Gabi Flexer, secretary of Kibbutz Kalia on the northern shore of the Dead Sea, is convinced that Barak is the one who leaks the maps to the press. “This is his way of testing public opinion,” he said.

Both Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat said this week that the gaps between their positions are still too wide to reach an agreement. But this did not prevent the rumors from spreading.

Some say Barak is planning to give away 92 percent of the West Bank. The Jordan Valley settlers believe that if 92 percent is the real figure, then the Jordan Valley must be part of the deal.

Flexer’s theory is simple: For political reasons, Barak will not be able to give up West Bank towns like Ma’aleh Adumim near Jerusalem, and Ariel near Nablus.

“When they can’t fight the stronger ones, they will turn to the weaker ones, like us,” Flexer said.

“Our sources are totally reliable,” said David Levy, chairman of the Jordan Valley regional council. “We know for sure that the plan, which is supposed to be concluded at the end of this month, refers to giving up 78 to 90 percent of the West Bank.

“We have passed the stage of psychological warfare. We know for sure that this is it. The Jordan Valley issue is on the negotiating table.”

Flexer said, however, that a senior official from Barak’s office told him, “Don’t make any waves, stay put, everything is going to be all right.”

Last weekend, Barak told a Labor Party gathering that under his plan, 80 percent of the West Bank settlers will remain under Israeli sovereignty.

Levy is not reassured. He fears that the intention is to shrink the agricultural settlements of the Jordan Valley into small urban communities that will not be viable.

“They call us and tell us that it’s all bull, and this is what frightens us,” said Dahaman of Megilot.

The Jordan Valley residents say they asked for a meeting with Barak, but have not been granted one.

“How is it possible that the prime minister will not meet with community leaders like us? Dahaman said. “When Rabin was prime minister, we used to meet him every few weeks.”

The difference, of course, is that when Yitzhak Rabin was premier, talks with the Palestinians had not reached this delicate stage.

If, indeed, territorial concessions in the Jordan Valley are on the agenda, it would be a major shift from past policy, even of Labor governments. So far, the Jordan Valley was conceived as an essential eastern security belt, mostly against a potential Iraqi invasion through Jordan, which was to remain under Israeli control no matter what.

Levy is convinced that Barak deviated from Israel’s traditional security concept only because he bowed to American pressure.

Jordan Valley settlers are unimpressed by unconfirmed reports that the settlements will not immediately be turned over to the Palestinians, but rather stay under Israeli sovereignty for “an interim period of 10 years.”

“Great,” said Orit Artzieli with a bitter smile, “they will let us dry out for 10 years, and we can go home and everything will be OK and there will be peace.”

But Dahaman promised this week that this would not be the case.

Dahaman sounded this week like his counterparts on the West Bank: “We are about to launch a wide political campaign. If need be, we shall topple the government — and we have the power to do so.”

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