John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is striking fear into the hearts of settlers in the Jordan Valley, 40 years after the first Jewish settlers arrived.
As one settler puts it “We are going to be guinea pigs for a peace process that may or may not work. My fear is that afterwards, he is going to return to his nice life in Washington while we end up with all the problems and all the missiles that will land in Tel Aviv.
Against a picturesque backdrop of mountain peaks and soaring palm trees, Lesley Elbaz uses a word common among fellow Jewish settlers to describe her rural idyll in the Jordan Valley: heaven.
“This is the way of life we wanted for our children,” said Mrs Elbaz, 41, a mother of four who converted to Judaism after emigrating to Israel from her native London. “We have raised a family. We have a beautiful date plantation. We grow everything in the garden that we can eat. To leave here would break our hearts.”
But, 40 years after the first Jewish settlers arrived in this arid part of the occupied West Bank to establish farming communities that have burgeoned into flourishing businesses, inhabitants fear that their modern-day Eden is under threat from John Kerry, the US secretary of state.
Mr Kerry, who has made a peace accord betweenIsrael and the Palestinians his diplomatic priority, is expected soon in Jerusalem for his 11th visit in less than a year, aiming to push forward negotiations largely brought about by his intensive shuttle diplomacy. The five-month talks have shown little sign of progress over familiar issues such as borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.
But those traditional stumbling blocks have been overshadowed by Mr Kerry’s proposals for a compromise over the Jordan Valley – a strip of land 75 miles long and nine miles wide abutting the River Jordan. The area is home to 4,500 settlers and 60,000 Palestinians, most of whom live in the oasis city of Jericho.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister insists that Israeli troops must remain indefinitely after any peace agreement. Israel’s military planners say the territory gives the country “strategic depth” against possible invasion.
The Palestinians have rejected the demand, arguing that an Israeli military presence would undermine their future state’s sovereignty by surrendering control of their eastern borders.
Mr Kerry has provoked Israeli anger by suggesting a compromise that might entail the installation of hi-tech monitoring equipment, perhaps with provision for Israeli troops to remain for a limited period after any agreement.
The idea provoked an embarrassing diplomatic spat last month when Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli defence minister, attacked Mr Kerry as “obsessive” and “messianic” and dismissed his Jordan Valley plan as “not worth the paper it was written on”. The sentiments are supported by settlers, most of whom say they came to the area for economic rather than religious or ideological reasons.
Many fear Mr Kerry’s pursuit of an agreement will result in them being forced from their homes while leaving Israel vulnerable to attack from jihadist groups that they say would flood into the vacuum if Israeli forces departed.
“I think John Kerry is a problem for us Israelis,” said Kooki Elbaz, 44, the husband of Lesley, whose plantation sits less than a mile from the frontier with Jordan. “We are going to be guinea pigs for a peace process that may or may not work. My fear is that afterwards, he is going to return to his nice life in Washington while we end up with all the problems and all the missiles that will land in Tel Aviv.
“The horrible truth is that until no Jew lives in Israel, there will never be peace around here. After you give them the 1967 borders [a key Palestinian demand], they will want Akko, Haifa and Tel Aviv [cities in present-day Israel].
“Despite all that, if the government tells me to move tomorrow, I will go and give peace a chance.”
The chances of Mr Netanyahu’s government giving such an order in the near future seem remote.
In December, a cabinet committee backed a bill tabled in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, proposing formally to annex the Jordan Valley. Mr Netanyahu is expected to kill the legislation – fearing that it would lead to Israel being blamed for the collapse of the peace talks. But the pressure from within his Likud party to stand up to Mr Kerry is intensifying.
The Yesha (Settlers) Council has further upped the ante by taking out newspaper advertisements that quoted former Israeli prime ministers – including Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and Menachem Begin – on the area’s importance.
David Elhiani, the Likud mayor of Jordan Valley regional council, which administers the area’s 21 settlements, said: “Look at how hypocritical the Americans are. Obama says Israel has the right to defend itself, but he is talking about defence against Iran. When it comes to the solution to the Palestinian problem, it’s, 'I will tell you how to defend yourselves’. They should honour us that we are their only friends in the Middle East.”
Despite such indignation, settlers such as Mrs Elbaz say their forced evacuation would be as much of a blow to Palestinians, several thousand of whom work in the local Israeli agricultural businesses.
“What happens to those workers when we are not here?” she asked.
“We buy from their shops, they buy from us. We teach them farming and a way of life.”