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CNAS explores an International Force for Palestine

What role could an international military force play in securing a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace?  That's the question addressed in "Security for Peace", released today by the Center for a New American Security after nearly a year of discussions and meetings.  I wrote the final chapter for the report, which was edited by Andrew Exum and which includes four comparative case studies and a sweeping overview by Ambassador James Dobbins.   The report does not advocate for an international military force to be deployed.  Instead, it asks what role such a force could play in making a peace agreement succeed, should one be proposed, and the conditions under which it is most likely to be productive.  It's a pretty hot issue for CNAS to take up -- and some of its conclusions will likely be controversial.  Hopefully, the report will generate some fresh and productive thinking about concrete ways to make a two state solution work in practice.

The idea of an international force is not new, of course.  The Clinton Parameters of December 2000 included discussion of "an international presence that can only be withdrawn by mutual consent" which would "monitor the implementation of the agreement between both sides."   The idea was floated by Tom Friedman several times back in the violent days of 2001-02 as "a way out of the Middle East impasse."  A 2005 RAND study of how to build a Palestinian state included a chapter on an international force.   Current National Security Adviser James Jones reportedly floated the idea several times towards the end of the Bush administration --- to generally hostile response.   This report builds on those discussions, looking to comparative cases and the current political and strategic context to offer up a number of sharp recommendations for what kind of international force would be needed were one chosen.

The full report is too rich for me to easily summarize here.  But a few key arguments and conclusions are worth highlighting.   Several authors point to the need to the importance of incorporating all armed factions into the new state and securing the "acquiesence of all belligerents", and warn against the dangers of the international force turning into a partisan actor carrying out a campaign against one faction (i.e. Hamas).  Indeed, one of the key determinants of success may be whether the international force is supporting a Palestinian government which includes Hamas or is confronting Hamas as an adversary.  If it's the latter -- as seems most likely given current trends -- then it may prove very difficult for the IF to avoid shifting from peace-keeping and enforcement of agreements into a counter-insurgency force which, I'd wager, nobody wants to see it become.  

  The report points to the need for a well-integrated political and military strategy, with sufficient forces and a clear and robust consensus on the force's mandate and rules of engagement.  A token force sitting in bases is not likely to be especially useful.  The international force would need to provide public security and demonstrate tangible improvements in the lives of the people in their zones of engagement.   A successful mission would also need to deliver comprehensive security sector building --- i.e. with civilian institutions and the rule of law rather than only  narrowly defined security force building.  That means drawing on the civilian side and the "whole of government" concept which is all the rage these days.

 The authors also often note the absolute centrality of maintaining impartiality by protecting and ensuring compliance by both sides --- both Palestinians and Israelis.   That will be difficult, obviously, especially in what is likely to be an intensely contested arena with heavy media coverage and domestic political implications in the contributing countries.  As Dobbins notes, the Palestinians are "unlikely to be enthusiastic about trading an Israeli occupation for an international one." I propose a strategic communications campaign to ensure that the the international force is viewed as a supportive presence by both Israelis and Palestinians -- but that will only work if it is, in fact, such a neutral and constructive presence.

What kind of force would it be?  Dobbins concludes that the most successful architecture would be "a NATO-led military component with a civilian-led parallel organization to handle political, governance and development matters.  Both components would require the explicit consent of all the parties to the conflict."  It would require the full buy-in of both the Israeli and Palestinian sides for the U.S. or any other government to be willing to play such a role, given the "potentially toxic political and media environment, the near constant potential for violence from spoilers, and a high risk of attacks on its members."   

My concluding chapter sketches out four scenarios under which such an International Force might be deployed --- with or without the Palestinian Authority in its current form, and with or without a negotiated agreement.  The best case scenario of a full negotiated peace is complex enough, with many opportunities for spoiler attacks and with the job of enforcing compliance with the agreement creating endless opportunities for conflict and clashes.    A partial agreement scenario, where Israel reaches a peace agreement only with the current PA in the West Bank, is one of the more likely scenarios and one of the most dangerous for an international force since there would be great pressure for it to morph into a counter-insurgency force battling Hamas and other opposition movements.    The other two scenarios would follow from an Israeli decision to unilaterally disengage from the West Bank as Sharon did from Gaza, a move which the current PA might or might not survive.  While no government may want to become involved in such a situation, they may do so as the only alternative to the PA's collapse.

There is much more there, and this overview can not do it justice.  I hope that you'll read the whole thing and that it might help trigger productive debate on exactly how a two-state solution might be achieved should we ever get to that point. 

Marc Lynch

Don't waste the Obama peace plan card

The latest idea making the rounds to break through the Israeli-Palestinian impasse is that President Obama should publicly put an American plan on the table to serve as the framework for final status negotiations. I understand the impulse, rooted in deep frustration over the failure of other approaches and a sense that the window for a peace push is closing (if it isn't already closed). But I don't think it's a very good idea at this moment. If Obama puts a plan on the table right now, Palestinians will likely say that they've heard big talk before and want to see action, while the Israelis will just say no and pay no price for their refusal. And then the administration will have wasted a major card which can only be played once. The President should only put his plan on the table if his team has prepared the ground for it, and has a clear sense of what the U.S. can and will do when the parties say no. 

The argument for seizing the moment to put an American plan on the table is in many ways compelling. Attempts to bring the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority leadership together to commence negotiations have failed, and nobody expects much from "proximity talks." There's a palpable sense of spinning wheels. The endless succession of U.S.-Israeli skirmishes over settlements haven't produced much, the Palestinian side remains as weak and divided as ever, and nobody quite seems to know where to go from here. A bold presidential initiative may seem like a way to rekindle the flames, to give some desperately needed momentum, and to set the terms for pointed, direct negotiations aimed at an agreement. 

But I doubt it would work out that way. Presidential intervention is a precious asset, to be used at a moment when it's likely to make a difference. American credibility on the issue is low because of Obama's failure to win a real settlement freeze from Netanyahu or to impose any significant costs for Israeli refusal. A presidential speech at this point will probably be dismissed across the region as just more words. Netanyahu will almost certainly dismiss it out of hand, and no consequences will follow. Arabs and Palestinians will embrace the high level American involvement they've long urged, but will not make any concessions before they see the Israelis doing so. The moment will come and go, little will be accomplished, and then a card which can only be played once will have been wasted.  

If the Obama team does decide to put its plan on the table, it had better be prepared to do what it takes to make it succeed. There will really only be one shot. They shouldn't expect to get too much traction from the President's involvement, no matter how good a speech or how clearly they signal American preferences. They will have to do better than they've done thus far at anticipating the likely obstacles and at mounting a sustained strategic communications campaign to build Israeli, Arab, Palestinian and international support for a final push for peace. That means thinking through what pressure they are really willing to bring to bear, and it means having a clear Plan B in mind for when the Israelis say "no" and the Palestinians say "wait and see."

I very much sympathize with the instincts of those who want to see the President take the reins and launch a bold, public initiative to push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Without such an intervention, we may be doomed to another lost year. And it should be a major U.S. priority, linked to broader strategic interests across the region. But I'd hate to see that last card wasted  in a poorly conceived roll of the dice. An Obama speech isn't going to be enough, so if that's the play then it had better be set up right in advance. 

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