Jordan Valley's Future At Stake In Mideast Peace Talks

The broad swath of fertile land next to the River Jordan is one of the many contentious issues in Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. The Israeli government says the area is vital for security, and Israeli troops must maintain a presence there even if the military pulls out of the more populated areas of the West Bank. Palestinians say they can't give up their breadbasket — nor what would be their only international border.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The River Jordan - where we're going next - is the dividing line between Jordan to the east, and Israeli-occupied areas to the west. When you hear that heavily Palestinian zone called the West Bank, that's what it means, the West Bank of the Jordan. Its future is at stake in peace negotiations. Israelis see the River Valley as a vital security zone. Palestinians call it their breadbasket.

NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: High on a hill overlooking the Jordan Valley, former Israeli military commander Uzi Dayan says Israel belongs here.

UZI DAYAN: My point here is the Jordan Valley is the only available place to be the defensive borders of Israel to the east.

HARRIS: Dayan says even if peace negotiations lead to a Palestinian state, Israel needs to retain military control here for whatever the future might bring.

DAYAN: We don't know what will happen in Syria. We don't know what will happen in Iraq. We worry very much about what might happen in Jordan. So we need to defend ourselves, and this is an ideal place. You have enough space here down the hills, the mountains.

HARRIS: Dayan estimates that about 3,000 Israeli soldiers are spread around the Jordan Valley now. More than 6,000 Israeli settlers live here, too.

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HARRIS: A soldier opens the electronic gate of Moshav Masu'a, an Israeli agricultural community. Resident Leslie Elbaz came to the Jordan Valley from London on a lark, 20 years ago. She married an Israeli farmer. They have four children and a pen full of sheep.

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LESLIE ELBAZ: I literally grew up here. From 19 years of age, I grew up in the soaring temperatures. We would work the land in those temperatures. All the community is like one big family in itself. It would be very, very difficult to know that in the future that we wouldn't be together, as a big community together.

HARRIS: If this became part of a Palestinian state, Israeli settlers would most likely have to leave. Leslie says that would be a shame for Israelis like her and for local Palestinians, too. She feels there is mostly harmony here.

ELBAZ: I see our role as helping the local community, our communities, helping them to build themselves, too, and provide a lot of work for them. They're a good workforce for us and that - we're good for them, too.

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HARRIS: A stone's throw north, Palestinian workers spray pesticides on squash vines. This is a Palestinian farm. Oday Mah-Sayyid works his own land in the afternoon after seven hours as a laborer on a nearby Israeli date farm. There, he says, it's a servant-master relationship.

ODAY MAH-SAYYID: (Through translator) I don't really communicate with the Israelis. There's an Arab foreman who goes between the two. We go to work; we do the work. We're here to work for them.

HARRIS: He wants Palestinian rule here, with no Israeli settlers or soldiers.

MAH-SAYYID: (Through translator) I was in Jordan for 10 days. No one asked me for my ID there. Here, I can't walk 10 yards without my ID. There are checkpoints; people watching you, ordering you around. You don't feel free.

HARRIS: In a recent interview with the New York Times, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he would accept a five-year transition period for the Israeli military to withdraw as part of a peace settlement. He proposes a U.S.-led NATO force could assure Israeli security. Majed al-Fatyani, the governor of Jericho, the biggest city in the Jordan Valley, says a Palestinian state wouldn't need an army.

GOV. MAJED AL-FATYANI: We are not going to fight the Israelis anymore when we reach this agreement with the Israelis. This is our main idea, this is our feeling; and this is how we think.

HARRIS: Some Israeli officials are skeptical about Palestinian intentions, and doubt an international force would be motivated to truly protect Israel's borders. Palestinian leaders say to be truly independent, they need at least one border with some country other than Israel.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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