Israel official: Jordan Valley must remain border


GITIT, West Bank (AP) — A senior Israeli Cabinet minister and more than a dozen hawkish legislators poured cement at a construction site in a settlement in the West Bank's Jordan Valley on Thursday, in what they said was a message to visiting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel will never relinquish the strategic area.

Virtually all of the politicians were either members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud or other parties in his coalition. Their visit to the isolated community of Gitit highlighted the political backlash Netanyahu would face if he agrees to leave the valley in a peace deal.

The valley runs along the eastern edge of the West Bank, abutting Jordan, and its fate is expected to be one of the key issues raised during Kerry's meetings in coming days with Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry is to present his ideas for the outlines of a peace deal during these meetings, but is not expecting a final response during this trip.

Israel has traditionally viewed the valley as a buffer against possible Arab attack from the east, though Israeli security experts are now split on whether Israel needs to maintain control there in an era when long-range rockets perhaps pose a greater threat than tanks. Israel also has a peace treaty with Jordan.

The Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in 1967, and say such a state cannot be viable without the sparsely populated valley's agricultural potential and open spaces. The valley makes up about one-fourth of the West Bank.

Kerry has kept his bridging ideas largely under wraps, though Palestinian officials have said the U.S. raised the possibility of a continued Israeli military presence along the West Bank-Jordan border for at least 10 years, before withdrawing from the area.

Jordan Valley settlers number several thousand in 21 communities, a fraction of the nearly 600,000 Israelis who have moved to the West Bank and east Jerusalem since 1967.

Thursday's event at Gitit, a community of 70 families, was organized by the Land of Israel lobby, a pro-settler caucus of 39 of the Israeli parliament's 120 legislators, said spokesman Itai Chamo.

Thirteen members of the lobby attended, including six from Netanyahu's Likud Party, along with Interior Minister Gideon Saar, a senior Likud representative in Netanyahu's Cabinet. They dedicated a new neighborhood of 20 homes, two of them already under construction.

Saar said the Jordan Valley must remain Israel's eastern border and its settlements must remain in place.

"The Jordan Valley is Israeli and it will remain Israeli," he said after the visitors, posing for cameras, poured concrete from a plastic bucket onto the foundation of a house under construction.

"I want to make clear that this would be not for a few years, not temporarily, but permanently for coming generations, for eternity," said Saar.

Dani Dayan, a settler leader, said Thursday's dedication signals that Israel will remain in the valley and that this "should be understood loud and clear in the State Department, the White House and in the Mukataa," a reference to Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah.

Netanyahu hasn't revealed his intentions, but faces a possible breakup of his center-right coalition if he opts for compromise in a deal with the Palestinians. Opposition politicians have said they would support Netanyahu and counter any right-wing defections in such a scenario.