"We were fond together, because of the sweep of the open places,
the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The
moral freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up in ideas inexpressible
and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling
campaigns, never sparing ourselves: Yet when we achieved and the new world
dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to re-make in the
likeness of the former world they knew." – T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
There aren't many reasons for optimism
regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict these days. But amid the failed
negotiations, diplomatic maneuverings, and occasional spasms of violence, one unsung
initiative has been an unalloyed success: The mission of the U.S. Security
Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. This hodgepodge staff
of military and civilian advisors, working together in the spirit of Lawrence's
words, has trained more than 5,000 members of the Palestinian Authority Security
Forces (PASF), rebuilt Palestinian security institutions, and fostered a renewed
sense of relevance in the Palestinians' nascent moves toward statehood.
The achievements of the USSC, which began
operations in 2005 and commenced training Palestinian security forces in 2007,
have formed the foundation of every claim of progress made by successive U.S.
administrations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The mission has been
integral to the re-establishment of stability and security in the West Bank for
Palestinians and Israelis alike -- militias are off the streets, crime is down,
and basic order has largely returned.
The mission has been lauded by such leaders
as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Israeli
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Palestinian
Abbas, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But it is perhaps the
opinion of Palestinian citizens themselves that is most telling. A community
leader in the Balata refugee camp in the West Bank, once a center of conflict, compared the period
before 2007, when "the camp was controlled by militias and thugs who partially
financed their regime through theft and extortion," and after new security
forces' return, when "life changed for the better."
The work of the team headed by Lt. Gen. Keith
W. Dayton, who was its second coordinator and guided the USSC from December 2005 to October 2010,
continues to reap dividends to this day. The efforts of a professional,
motivated, and well-trained Palestinian security establishment have allowed
West Bank business enterprises to flourish and local economies to boom. These
successes have facilitated Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's efforts to
reconstruct government and local institutions. Perhaps the greatest mark of its
success is that, even as the political impasse between Israel and the
Palestinians widens, security coordination between the Israel Defense Forces
(IDF) and Palestinian security forces continues at levels unseen since before
the Second Intifada, which raged from 2000 to 2004. This development was unimaginable
just a few years ago.
While the accomplishments of Dayton's
team were recognized and celebrated by Europeans, Israelis, Palestinians, and
our regional partners alike, its significance seems largely lost on those in
Washington. President Barack Obama's Middle East team has particularly failed
to grasp the importance of this effort: It has not only failed to exploit the
progress for political gains, but has in fact scaled back the mission's key
role as an interlocutor between the parties. It's a fact well understood, and
at times lamented, by our Israeli and Palestinian counterparts. "The USSC
bought critical time, time for the politicians," said former IDF Chief of Staff
Lt. Gen. Amnon Lipken-Shahak in a meeting with Dayton in 2009, "which, sadly,
those on all sides have wasted."
While not explicitly stated,
the USSC was created by President George W. Bush's administration as part of
the overarching peace process. Given Israel's neuralgia with the concept of armed
and organized Palestinian groups in the wake of the Second Intifada and the
Palestinians' anxiety about lacking a security patron, the organization was
meant to give the Israeli political and defense establishment confidence that
an individual was in place who would do nothing to jeopardize Israel's
security, while simultaneously giving the Palestinians someone they could point
to as their "big brother" within the whole of the process. The USSC was thus never
just about "training and equipping" the Palestinian security forces, nor achieving
institution-building goals. It was, first and foremost, a U.S. confidence-building
measure between both parties.
Why was this concept lost? The course
taken by former special envoy George Mitchell and his team, which began its
mission with the unrealistic belief that negotiations were the one and only key
to success, was emblematic of the Obama administration's entire approach. Members
of his team explicitly told us that focusing on anything other than
negotiations -- such as security or other bottom-up economic and institution
building efforts -- would be seen as an admission that their efforts were lackluster
Their actions were even worse than their
rhetoric. Mitchell's team consistently excluded and bypassed the USSC, then Washington's
most trusted agent, including on issues that clearly dovetailed with his security
Mitchell and his team failed to understand
that the top-down negotiations process had to be augmented by a bottom-up
institution building process. Beyond being saddled by the president's own misguided pronouncement on Israeli settlements,
Mitchell also failed to supervise the activities of the senior members of his
team, whose views were both out of tune with the realities of the ground and the
perspectives of key Israeli and Palestinian players. None seemingly understood
the importance of Israel's defense establishment as a gateway to energizing
their own politicians to exploit the security progress, nor valued the critical
relationships the USSC possessed upon their arrival.
Since Mitchell left his post, however,
he seems to have recognized the error of his ways -- too late. At a January
2012 event sponsored by The Atlantic, he
laid out a plan that
joined a top-down process with a bottom-up institution building effort -- identical
to the approach advocated by the USSC, and ignored by his office when he had
the power to actually implement them. (When Dennis Ross re-inherited his de
facto role as the president's lead man on peace-process issues after Mitchell's
departure, he also ignored his own proclaimed lesson that there should not be a
disconnect between those sitting at the negotiating table and events on the
Obama's Middle East team to date has sought
to diminish Dayton's role rather than build on the USSC's successes in the
field. By 2010, unnamed administration officials were holding forth that he was
"very difficult to deal with" and "excessively deferential toward Israeli
Based on our own experiences working
closely with the general from
these views are deeply misinformed. These negative assessments were primarily
based on Dayton's increasing calls for more concerted action to reach a
diplomatic breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As his tenure progressed,
he came to realize that security gains alone -- no matter how emotionally satisfying
for his team -- would not resolve the conflict.
Dayton was not overly deferential
to the Israelis. However, he realized early on that without their buy-in on
every initiative, nothing could
progress. Had the Israelis not come to trust and respect the general, we would
not be writing this article -- there would be no successes to report.
Dayton departed the USSC in October 2010 after five years at the helm of the organization without so much
as an exit interview with President Obama, although he had met three times with
Bush in the Oval Office to review progress of the mission.
(After numerous requests, he did eventually meet with Secretary
Clinton and then-National Security Advisor James Jones.) He was also not
afforded a final congressional testimony -- which, according to a senior congressional
staffer who wishes to remain anonymous, was blocked not by Congress but by the State
Department's Office of Near Eastern Affairs. Finally, he was not asked for either
an after-action report or an assessment of the five years he worked to advance
successive U.S. administrations' peace-process efforts in the region.
These political schisms within the U.S.
government are not lost on Israelis and Palestinians. They privately lament
that those in the administration charged with dealing with Israeli-Palestinian
issues appear to have little real interest in understanding what goes on
outside of Washington or how changing developments on the ground can fit into
the greater scheme of resolving one of the world's most intractable problems. Officials
in Washington concerned with Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking should see the
USSC's hard-won victories as an integral part of the peace process that should
be built on, not ignored or discarded.
When Dayton took over the security
mission in 2005 from Gen. Kip Ward, who initiated the effort and successfully led
it through the complicated political hazards surrounding Israel's unilateral
withdrawal from Gaza, progress of any sort was far from assured. Palestinian security institutions had
to be built from scratch while its territory remained under Israeli occupation,
and Palestinian political actors were embroiled in simmering civil conflicts.
All this had to be done at first without
dedicated operational funding -- prior to Hamas's takeover of Gaza in 2007, no
U.S. funds were allocated to the mission. The USSC also answered to the more
risk-averse and top-down State Department, rather than the Defense Department. Furthermore,
falling under the State Department's control meant that the USSC was
constrained by not one, but two, local "chief of mission" authorities in the field
-- the Consulate General in Jerusalem and the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, whose
own relations were fraught with petty intrigues and turf battles.
The Dayton mission was further hobbled
by the diplomatic missions' restrictive local travel and contact policies. The
Pentagon was not the address to seek relief from these restrictions, no matter
how valid the need. During the Bush administration, "relief" would come from
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when Dayton could make the case that amid the
intensely polarized atmosphere of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as
that which existed between the local U.S. missions, the USSC stood out as the
one American entity that was not perceived as taking either side.
One internal weakness was the USSC's staff,
which was comprised mostly of individuals on six-month to one-year assignments
who had never been to the Middle East. Further complicating the mix was the multinational
composition of the team, which featured major contributions from Britain and
Because of the highly charged political
environment and emotional nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the
USSC's every move was under a microscope -- from the Israelis, Palestinians, U.S.
government bureaucracies, Congress, international actors, and political
advocacy groups alike. Success was far from a given; a long line of failures by
distinguished international envoys was the historical norm.
To complicate matters further,
Israeli-Palestinian dynamics were as unpredictable and combustible as ever upon
Dayton's arrival in late 2005. Abbas's Palestinian Authority was in disarray
following the end of the brutal Second Intifada, the chaotic security situation
after the death of Yasir Arafat, and the unsure political and security wake of
Israel's historic disengagement from Gaza.
Meanwhile, the security relationship
between the IDF and the PA security services was nonexistent. It wasn't hard to
see why: Israeli citizens were being killed by suicide bombers, while Palestinian
militants were operating openly and frequently launching rocket attacks on
Israeli cities and towns; meanwhile, IDF units were conducting an intensive
campaign of daily incursions and raids throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In the aftermath of Israel's historic Gaza
disengagement, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians appeared to be serious
about forging a constructive relationship, as many in Jerusalem and Washington
had hoped. PASF veterans appeared more concerned with maintaining access to
power and personal wealth from the traditionally corrupt avenues established by
Arafat. Israelis, on the other hand, remained intent on achieving improved security
largely through unilateral means as they had always done. The result was that little
to no trust -- the primary component for real cooperation -- existed between the
two sides in any sphere.
Things did not begin well for Dayton's
tenure. Hamas won a majority in parliamentary elections held in January 2006, within
the first month of his term. Due to Washington's direction to bypass Hamas, which
assumed control of the Ministry of the Interior in a coalition government, the
USSC could only work with Abbas's inner circle and security elements directly subordinate
to his office. As a result, the USSC partnered with Abbas's Presidential Guard
on Gaza's southern border at Rafah and the major Gaza-Israel commercial border
crossing at Karni, while ignoring the Palestinian Civil Police and its closest
natural counterpart and largest body, the Palestinian Authority's National
Security Force (NSF), which were under the control of the Ministry of the
Bedeviled by these political constraints
and restricted to doing the majority of its business from within the walls of
the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem -- a situation
akin to operating within Iraq's Green Zone -- the USSC dutifully tinkered away
from a safe distance. But this distance ensured we were largely blind to the internal
intrigues within the PA, as well as its brewing conflict with Hamas in Gaza,
which was directly relevant to the mission's initial efforts. As such, the
rapid fall of Gaza in the summer of 2007 not only came as a surprise, but also
put the mission at risk.
Paradoxically, however, the loss of Gaza
provided the first significant opportunity for the USSC's endeavors. It brought
Israeli and Palestinian strategic interests in synch for the first time since the
Oslo Accords -- Israel, the United States, and the PA all wanted to roll back
Hamas at any cost. Since any security cooperation with Hamas remained off the
table, its takeover of Gaza caused the USSC to redirect its efforts toward the
West Bank, which remained in the "friendly" hands of Israel and Abbas's
Jolted by the events in Gaza and without
a clear idea of how to proceed, the Bush administration had no choice but to allow
the USSC significantly more room to maneuver. Dayton, moreover, was now more
seasoned and savvy on the ways of all the parties involved -- including the
United States -- and assumed a role more befitting a military commander in the
field. And, with the appointment of the Western-friendly technocrat Salam
Fayyad to the post of prime minister, the way was now cleared for cooperation
with all West Bank security forces, not just the Presidential Guard.
In short order, the USSC team saw a
unique opportunity in a Jordanian training facility previously used to train
Iraq's security forces. In 2007, the team commenced negotiations between
Israel, Jordan, and the PA to repurpose and retool the structure to begin to
train nascent Palestinian forces. Jordan now became another critical regional player
contributing to the effort.
But gaining the
trust of both Israelis and Palestinians was even more important than rebuilding
physical infrastructure. Dayton needed to convince both sides they had vested
interests in his mission's success. To do so, he needed to challenge the deeply
engrained beliefs of both parties. He had to convince Palestinians they were
not being trained to substitute for Israeli security efforts nor facilitate a
more streamlined Israeli occupation. At the same time, he had to convince the
Israelis that his mission enhanced, not undermined, their security interests. Senior
Israeli policy and security officials made it no secret from the outset they
were more than skeptical of the USSC concept. Acting accordingly in the early
days, they resisted even the most minor initiatives, such as allowing the entry
of non-lethal equipment into Gaza or the West Bank or approving alternate entry
points into the territories for USSC team members to execute their tasks.
The first step Dayton took to build this
trust was having his team live in the region -- a major break with the
tradition of previous U.S. envoys. Dayton and his team did not parachute in for
a few days, make the proverbial rounds of office calls, and return home filled
with "first-hand observations." Instead, the British component of the USSC, led
by a serving brigadier general, actually took up residence in the Palestinian
capital Ramallah, while the Americans and Canadians lived in Jerusalem. The
continuous presence of a small but dedicated team that worked directly with all
sides allowed the USSC to understand the realities on the ground and the
complicated human terrain -- crucial for getting anything done in the Middle
Second, Dayton and key members of his
staff created and continually nurtured private and informal relationships with
Israeli, Palestinian, regional and international interlocutors, particularly
the invaluable EU mission to the
Palestinian civil police. We cultivated genuine partnerships in Jordan, Israel,
and the Palestinian Authority, spending significant face time with all levels
of their respective hierarchies. This is something few in Washington officialdom
will ever countenance, for fear of diminishing their standing both in their own
minds and among peers. The cornerstone of the USSC's success, on any given day,
resided in these hard-won personal relationships.
Still, the mission was not without its
critics. In a 2010 report, the
International Crisis Group noted erroneously, "With the improvement of
Palestinian capacity ... the security reform project has gone on autopilot."
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Throughout the entirety of
Dayton's tenure, the general and his team spent countless hours in
consultations and negotiations, maneuvering through byzantine bureaucracies --
the U.S. bureaucracy included -- and against long-standing local biases.
Major issues were resolved via informal
get-togethers rather than formal meetings, notably with IDF Chief of Staff Lt.
Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, at his home, or with other key Israeli commanders in
relaxed settings and far from the view of eager diplomatic note takers. It was often
at these meetings where resolutions to longstanding issues -- such as the
opening of the a new West Bank crossing site, elimination of longstanding
checkpoints, and facilitation of the Palestinian Authority's 2008 Bethlehem
Investment Conference -- were hashed out.
Establishing these relationships was
fraught with complexity. Palestinian politicians, as well as many within the
State Department, overly concerned themselves with the USSC's close
relationship with Israel's security apparatus -- behaving as though Israel's
presence in the West Bank was solely something to decry rather than something
to be mitigated through intense work with both sides. As former U.S. ambassador
to Israel Daniel Kurtzer pointed out in a meeting with the authors, "The USSC
was started to get someone in the door who could work both sides of the street;
the training aspect was secondary."
The USSC argued that it had to deal in
reality -- not the situation everyone wished existed. As such, it worked with
senior IDF planners and commanders in the field to gain their confidence and
ultimately convince them to take risks in support of their new Palestinian security
partners. Dayton's team took advantage of multiple opportunities to "midwife" the
renewal of substantive trust between the IDF and PASF -- not just superficial
top-level collaboration, but genuine security coordination on the ground.
This burgeoning trust paid off in initial
Palestinian security campaigns to get militias off the streets in the West Bank
cities of Nablus and Jenin. These nascent campaigns were marked examples of bold
Palestinian security initiatives and the IDF's newfound willingness to support
the test-case enterprises. The campaign, as one unclassified
IDF document noted, helped to "create
positive momentum, particularly among the Palestinian leadership and population
... despite inherent security risks [toward Israeli citizens] this may create."
In the West Bank, success begot success:
These initiatives created confidence among Israeli security officials that
Palestinians could be trusted to maintain law and order, and led to the
implementation of similar programs in other Palestinian cities. The reality was
of real benefit to the civilian populations on both sides, allowing for a
reduction of major fixed checkpoints in the West Bank from 42 in 2007 to 14 in
2009. If the IDF had not been a full partner in this effort, none of the USSC's
labors would have worked.
The third element of Dayton's strategy
was allowing for decentralization within the team and freedom of maneuver in
the daily operation of his organization. The complicated environment required
staff to be creative and flexible, and to be in a position to make things
happen in short order. USSC staff was given latitude to act quickly on opportunities,
so long as all were informed.
This organizational method, however, was
counterintuitive to our very hierarchic and cautious counterparts at the State
Department, who preferred to make a decision only when every option had been
thoroughly examined or exhausted, and only upon final written permission from
Washington. British and Canadian contributions to the USSC would become seminal
to the mission's success, as their members were allowed to perform functions
that the U.S. diplomatic corps prohibited its own military personnel from
conducting, such as unaccompanied travel into the West Bank.
Authority within the USSC was not
commensurate with rank, but rather background, experience, and utility. As a
mere reserve major in a sea of lieutenant colonels and colonels, Steven White served
as the USSC's senior Middle East advisor. Based on his previous background in
Israel and his longstanding relationships with IDF officers, he was granted the
trust and confidence to liaise directly with senior Israeli officials and
address their concerns. Dayton intuitively realized early on that Israelis
prized and respected experience and judgment over the trappings of rank, and
altered his organizational hierarchy accordingly.
Fourth, Dayton deftly lobbied and
coordinated actions with international partners, primarily the British and
Canadians, for both financial and personnel contributions. He allowed the
British and Canadians on the team a wide degree of autonomy. As such, trust was
reciprocated by international capitals, which in turn fostered crucially needed
funding from a variety of allied sources to fill Washington's initial funding deficit.
Ironically, as a result, the USSC eventually had more Canadian members than Americans.
Lastly, Dayton embarked on an intensive
lobbying campaign at home and abroad. His first major accomplishment was
attaining direct congressional funding for his mission following the fall of
Gaza, almost two years into his tenure. The Bush administration reprogrammed
State Department funds from USAID and other State Department bureaus to meet
Palestinian security needs early on, and Congress, not wanting the West Bank to
follow Gaza, unlocked its coffers.
This strategy ultimately allowed the
team to effectively provide security assistance to the Palestinian Authority in
a manner that built up its own confidence, while at the same time creating an
atmosphere that obliged Israel to understand and appreciate the tremendous
strides being made on the other side of their security barrier. While the USSC
played a critical role in facilitating this accomplishment, the critical point
remains -- the lion's share of the credit for the renewal of
Israeli-Palestinian security coordination belongs to the parties themselves.
To be sure, using the term "success" to
describe the USSC's efforts is a fraught business. There are many Israelis and
Palestinians who are still convinced that the effort will meet the disastrous
fate that similar initiatives did in 2000, when highly touted post-Oslo
security cooperation efforts unraveled amid the bloody Second Intifada. Many
Palestinians observe that, although they fulfilled their part of the bargain by
improving local security conditions, the Israeli occupation not only remains in
earnest but Israeli settlement construction is booming and Israeli settlers are
becoming even more radicalized.
In light of the political stalemate,
former militia members and PA elites are beginning to claim that U.S.-trained
forces are working more for Israel's interests than Palestine's. These claims
put a lot of pressure on the new PASF, particularly the younger members, the
majority of which, unlike their predecessors, come from within the territories.
On the other side, some Israelis fear that the newly minted professional
Palestinian security forces will one day turn their arms against Israelis, as occurred
in the recent past.
Doubters and detractors aside, the most
ardent supporters of continued security cooperation are IDF senior leadership
and their counterparts in the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency.
These officials, who include those who fought in the Second Intifada, have come
to see a rebuilt PA as aligned -- but not subordinate to -- Israeli security
interests. As Gen. Nitzan Alon, the Israeli commander with responsibility for
security in most of the West Bank, told the New York Times, "Stability in the region
includes the ability of the Palestinian Authority to pay its salaries... Reducing the Palestinians' ability to
pay decreases security. American aid is relevant to this issue."
The USSC, in concert with its Israeli
and Palestinian partners, also upended previous conceptions of how effective
policy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is made. In his last meeting
with Dayton in 2010, the head of Israel's Civil Administration, Yoav Mordechai,
told us, "When it comes to policymaking, most people think all the decisions
are made at the top and then implemented at the operational level." But with
security cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians, "most of the important
things and strategies have been envisioned and birthed at our level, then we've
pushed them to the top for a decision ... The bottom is now largely driving the
Many of the "important things and
strategies" pushed and fought for within the Israeli political system by very
senior officers within the IDF leadership were doubted by the officials within
the State Department and Obama's Middle East team. Regardless, the IDF's
ability to affect larger changes on the ground essentially ended in September 2010,
when negotiations with Abbas failed and the United States had nothing else to
offer in its place. Without a negotiations process, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
government has labeled every action in the West Bank as "political," demanding
a quid pro quo for every move, thus handcuffing the IDF Central Command, which for
decades enjoyed the autonomy to make local security concessions on issues such
as road block removal and the transfer of security responsibilities to the PASF.
Although the State Department and
administration officials deny it, Palestinian and Israeli officials report that
in the aftermath of Dayton's departure, the role of his successor, Lt. Gen.
Michael Moeller, has been maneuvered to focus more formally on the traditional
"train and equip" model, with an eye toward establishing of a more detached
Department of Defense Office of Defense Cooperation. This is a far cry from the
involved, personal trust- and consensus-building roles played by Dayton.
This modification is a mistake. Security
issues represent a critical bridge to a political solution, and need the
dedicated attention of an American "constant gardener" who tends to the
concerns of both parties -- at least until other approaches can yield progress.
U.S. policymakers should also recognize that security progress can't stand on
its own -- it must be buttressed by an approach that emphasizes governance and
economic issues, and overseen by an official who has been empowered to coordinate
the entire effort. No such leader exists today.
This current course must be reversed if
the United States wants to maintain what little success it has achieved and
what little leverage it has left in the Middle East peace process.
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