Trip Notes on a Return to Israel and the West Bank: Reflections on U.S. Peacemaking, the Security Mission, and What Should be Done
The following document, previously unpublished, was written in March 2010 by a recentlyretired (June 2009) U.S. Army colonel with thirty years experience in the Middle East, including tours of duty and advisory roles (in both military/security and civilian domains) from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. The subject of the informal report is the author's first two trips as a "civilian" to Israel and the West Bank, where he had served two tours of duty, most recently as U.S. military attaché in Tel Aviv during Israel's 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the formation of the U.S. Security Coordinator's (USSC) mission to reform Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces.
Written as an internal document for military colleagues and government circles, the report has been circulating widely-as did the author's earlier briefings on travel or missions in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and especially Iraq-among White House senior staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense Intelligence Agency, CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command), EUCOM (U.S. European Command), and the USSC team.
The document's focus is the state of the "peace process" and the current situation in the West Bank, with particular attention to the PA security forces and the changes on the ground since the author's last tour there ended in mid-2007. But the real interest of the paper lies in the message directed at its intended audience of military and government policy officials-that is, its frank assessment of the deficiencies of the U.S. peace effort and the wider U.S. policy-making system in the Israel-Palestine arena, with particular emphasis on the disconnect between the situation on the ground and the process led by Washington. The critique has special resonance in light of the emerging new thinking in the administration fueled by the military high command's unhappiness (expressed by CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Michael Mullen) with the State Department's handling of Middle East diplomacy, especially with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the grounds that diplomatic failures are having a negative impact on U.S. operations elsewhere in the region.
For most JPS readers, the report has additional interest as an insider's view of the U.S. security presence in the Israel-Palestine arena. It also reflects a military approach that is often referenced but largely absent in public discourse and academic writings.
The author, in addition to his tours of duty and peacekeeping missions in various Middle Eastern countries, has served as advisor to two U.S. special Middle East envoys, the U.S. negotiating team with Syria, General Petraeus, Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, Vice President Dick Cheney, and, more generally, to CENTCOM, the Department of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, among others. In retirement, he has worked with CENTCOM as a key primary subject matter expert in the development of analyses and solutions for its area of responsibility, leads predeployment briefings for army units heading to Iraq, and travels frequently to Iraq and elsewhere in the region as an independent consultant. He is currently in Afghanistan with the CENTCOM commander's Afghanistan-Pakistan Center of Excellence.
The report, made available to JPS, is being published with the author's permission.
TO THOSE OF US with long experience on the ground in the Middle East and with Washington's policy-making circles, it is no surprise that President Obama's initial foray into "Middle East Peacemaking 101" did not start with a bang. I wish the reasons for the initial missteps were complicated, but they are not. His administration's demand for a halt to Israeli settlements as its opening shot clearly missed the mark. But so did his concession, in an interview with Time magazine (21 January 2010), that he had "overestimated" his administration's ability to persuade Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. The problem is not about persuasion or the over- or underestimation of this or that. Bluntly put, it is that both Washington and the Mitchell team are too far removed from the real attitudes of the main parties and the pertinent nuances of the situation on the ground.
What is behind the lack of momentum between Israelis and Palestinians is not simply the divide over Israel's settlements or future borders or anything else on the proverbial time-honored peace process matrix. Settlements are indeed an important issue, but in the complex chessboard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no single issue and hasn't been for some time. At the core are the fundamental human dimensions of the conflict in all their complexity and emotions. But these fundamental facets apparently remain out of view both in Washington and within the Mitchell team and are therefore not being given their due attention. This being the case, developing the means to forge a realistic way forward is also lacking, if not impossible. From my experiences, these shortcomings are the norm rather than the exception.
These perceptions were reaffirmed during two recent trips to Israel and the West Bank. I returned to the area in June 2009 for my first post-government foray and followed it up with another in February 2010. As a recently retired U.S. Army officer who specialized in the Middle East for most of his career, I have traveled and worked continuously throughout the region since the late 1970s, witnessing numerous conflicts and their ramifications up-close from multiple sides. Included in this resumé are the Lebanese civil war, al-Asad's destruction of Hama in Syria, the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war, both Palestinian intifadas, and Israel's 2006 war against Hizballah. I supported the opening of Gaza's new airport in 1998 (not a pretty sight today) and led the White House advance team (our helicopter was the first ever flight of a U.S. aircraft to Gaza) in preparation for President Clinton's arrival in December 1998. I formulated the reception plan and managed the aerial port of debarkation in the Sinai for the historic arrival of PLO leader Yasir Arafat's Fatah forces to Palestine in May 1994. From 1997 to 1999 I served as a defense attaché in Tel Aviv and worked on the ground with a firsthand view of the Oslo Accord framework. In 2003, I designed the first operational "road map" monitoring plan under the auspices of the [U.S. Ambassador John] Wolf mission. From 2005 to 2007, I worked with the two U.S. Security Coordinators, General Kip Ward and Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, in their mission to support Israel's disengagement from Gaza and to rebuild a viable Palestinian security entity.
Upon retiring I was curious to return to view life in Israel and the West Bank in an unofficial capacity for both professional and personal reasons. My main interest was to see the changes and dynamics along the Israeli-Palestinian political and security front, particularly progress made under the auspices of the Office of the USSC in their charter to assist the Palestinian security forces. Without the baggage of being in an official position, I was able to travel freely on my own throughout the West Bank as a simple citizen-tourist using local transport. What a pleasure it was after having been forced in recent years to work within the overly restrictive and anachronistic force protection measures mandated by the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv and consulate general (CONGEN) in Jerusalem.
During my recent tours of duty in Israel and Palestine, I never understood how untrained and often clueless American tourists could travel about as they pleased in the territories, while professionals with extensive Middle East training and combat experience first had to ask mother-may-I from the RSOs [regional security offices] of the embassy or CONGEN. After multiple tours in the region's hot spots in the worst of times, I am well familiar with the region's cultural, historical, and political dynamics, as well as the inherent dangers of its complicated geography. But with the in-country security policies established in 2000 at the onset of the second intifada, this expertise was never taken into account when I went to fulfill my professional duties in the territories. Even if the RSOs (whose personnel usually had no regional experience) approved the travel, I couldn't go unless accompanied by overpaid private security contractors who weren't required to have any requisite knowledge of the areas in which they were supposed to provide protection or speak any of the relevant languages.
Such restrictions did not apply to Israel itself, though sometimes specific areas could be restricted. As a precaution during the 2006 war, the embassy closed the northern border area to civilian-but not military-embassy personnel. In the embassy's judgment, it was up to the military professionals-not some RSO official trained primarily in the close protection of visiting senior dignitaries-to analyze the environment, determine the risks, and decide the best course of action in the conduct of their official duties. The result was perhaps the greatest irony of my last tour: while the sleepy-hollow environment of the West Bank was completely off-limits to me, as to all embassy and CONGEN personnel, I was able to move about "freely" for thirty-one days along Israel's northern border area in situations sometimes more dangerous than anything I had experienced in Iraq, with barrages of wildly inaccurate incoming Hizballah rocket and antitank missile fire (hundreds a day) that could land anywhere and fires raging against vast stretches of territory.
With no "military exception" necessary for the West Bank in my present status, I took full advantage of my newfound freedom on these recent trips, while being fully cognizant of the complicated environment I was voluntarily entering.
THE STATE OF PLAY IN THE TERRITORIES
The starkest observation I came away with during my visits to the West Bank was the decreased number of manned Israel Defense Forces (IDF) checkpoints. Many smaller roadblocks remain in some form or another. But the major Israeli security-staffed checkpoints placed to impede Palestinians along their main lines of communication and between Palestinian cities are now few and far between. On the outskirts of Nablus, once the location of a major multilane checkpoint much like at a U.S. toll road, I was queried by older graying Palestinian security officials rather than young fresh-faced IDF soldiers. Also missing was the normally heavy presence of IDF soldiers patrolling the roads or manning "flying" (no-notice) checkpoints.
That said, the one component that remains unchanged at the IDF manned checkpoints and crossings still in place is the culturally callous behavior of the Israeli security personnel on duty. Their basic behavior continues to involve humiliating and demeaning Palestinian men in front of their families and in general treating people dismissively-something that does little to enhance security. I received a good dose of this behavior myself when trying to exit the newly opened Jalama crossing north of Jenin. Israeli security couldn't understand why a foreigner, particularly an American, would be traveling to the West Bank just for the heck of it-there had to be something more. This behavior is part cultural and part a hangover from years of conflict and as such will take years to dissipate. It is also indicative of the real attitudes on the ground between the parties.
In concert with the IDF's more relaxed presence in the territories was the renewed visibility of PA security forces (PASF), namely the blue-garbed police and green-fatigued National Security Forces (NSF). These forces were out and about in small numbers in most of the major towns I visited. They looked professional, uniformed, and clean, and were modestly equipped with their new (nonlethal) gear supplied by the USSC. In places like Tulkarm or Jenin, some attempted to carry out basic policing functions like clearing busy shopping streets. In Ramallah, however, they appeared to be mainly standing along the street eyeing locals, proudly showing off their rehabilitated public presence. Starting from the second intifada (2000-2005) and up to the not so distant past, there was little, if any, uniformed Palestinian security presence, even in the PA-controlled (Oslo-derived) area A. This was due to Israeli-mandated restrictions on Palestinian security personnel (including on their movement) throughout the West Bank. In the past, I would have had to seek out Palestinian security officials to meet with them, and then only behind closed doors. Now I was able to just walk up to them and chat freely on the streets, and they were always more than eager to engage and assist.
But while I viewed the PASF's renewed public presence as a positive change, numerous local Palestinians made it clear that it was too early to tell if anything else was really different-mainly, whether the security services were chartered to protect Abbas's regime or them. That said, I found common agreement that life is generally better-more open and less uptight than it has been for years. Militias no longer have free reign, many Hamas leaders have been rounded up, and petty crime is down. Building, road construction, and other small business enterprises are booming in Ramallah and beginning in Jenin and Nablus-two towns formerly dominated by Palestinian militias and criminal elements. The Jenin refugee camp, the scene of intense fighting in 2002, is almost completely rebuilt. In Bethlehem, Palestinians noted that while tourism is up, local business development remains slow. The security barrier-Israel's almost-complete new fence/wall around the territories-remains the big problem blocking more concerted economic development, according to one well-to-do Ramallah businessman. But he and others I spoke with have figured out how to manipulate both the PA and Israeli bureaucracies to facilitate what is clearly a fair amount of new business. He also noted that while the import and export customs systems are corrupt on both sides, "No one on either side wants things to be done legally-it won't work." This isn't just a question of more leeway for profit via corruption, but mainly because the system works in its own ways, which are not the ways of a legal modern Western bureaucratic customs regime.
In Nablus, I had lunch at a prominent businessman's house, high on the city's northern hills. He noted that I was the first American to visit his home in over eight years. In Tulkarm, I had coffee with a bunch of shabab (young men) who were sitting across the street from a female-only university. All the women under observation were covered in hijab (conservative garb), a testament to other rising influences in the territories. The men were bored and out of work and arguing with each other about their choices for brides across the way-as if any of them had a real chance without a future. They were surprised by my presence, but like the security personnel I encountered, were very happy to talk to an American. Most had not done so in a very long time and I had trouble trying to break away gracefully.
The city of Hebron, however, continues to be the exception. While life is seemingly better in Hebron's Palestinian areas (H1), in central Hebron-the area under Israeli control known as H2-a large and intrusive IDF presence watches over the few hundred settlers clustered among the thousands of Palestinians. Settlers have taken over numerous Palestinian homes and businesses, and they have expanded into other areas as well. The tiny settlement of Tal Rumayda, which when I first visited consisted of only three small single-family trailers on a ridge overlooking central Hebron, is now a small neighborhood with "appropriated" former Palestinian houses and a small park. Once bustling Palestinian businesses, including the barber shop I used to frequent near the historical Shuhada (martyr) Street in the town center, are deserted. Shuhada Street is personal to me, and I was heart-stricken at its mostly deserted and decaying condition. I had spent a lot of time during my first tour navigating through tough fighting and riots along this street and played a key role in the embassy's front-line effort to rebuild this street after decades of neglect. It was supposed to serve as a model of bilateral economic development in the post-Oslo period. Instead, it is much worse than it has ever been. Jewish settlers and their rude children still roam freely about stopping visitors like myself (since there weren't any Palestinians around to hassle) asking what my business was. I answered them as I always did in the past-none of their business. In a microcosm, Hebron's realities are symbolic of a peace process dream unrealized and a stark reminder of how bad things can get if left unchecked.
In stark contrast to my heyday in the territories in the late 1990s was the absence of official American personnel in almost any capacity. It was obvious that we still do not have a presence on the ground where it counts most. In fact we have not had a presence since 2000 and the early days of the second intifada. And regardless of the publicity surrounding the West Bank's much improved security environment, when diplomats and other USG [U.S. government] officials do travel, they do so in flashy and obtrusive armored vehicle convoys, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visuals are not lost on the Palestinians. Other international officials are not very present either-except at the American Colony Hotel bar in East Jerusalem in the evening. This is something that has not changed in many years. Wannabe peacemakers still pass the night away in hopes of catching the eye of someone important, or expounding their latest Nike "just do it" idea to forge Middle East peace and win the Nobel Peace Prize. Regarding internationals, I thought it was interesting that only a few Palestinians I spoke with in Jenin knew about the efforts of former British prime minister Tony Blair's team. Elsewhere in the territories, knowledge of the mission was virtually nonexistent.
PREVAILING ATTITUDES AND COMPLICATING DILEMMAS
The improved security situation in the West Bank was a breath of fresh air. But it was not enough to affect the prevailing attitudes among the majority of Israelis and Palestinians I spoke with, both holding official positions and otherwise. Attitudes were dismissive at best about what will come next in the peace process and how to proceed. This apathy did not surprise me after years of personal interaction with the parties. On this visit, much as I would try to solicit views on the peace process, discussions on the subject would eventually veer off in some other more concrete direction-such as what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan or the cost of a latest must-have commodity. Israelis and Palestinians are by no means against forging ahead to find a way out of the complicated muddle. They just see little light at the end of the proverbial peace process tunnel.
For Israelis, apathy about the peace process is not new and has been building for years. It stems from a combination of recent political-military events and a sense of resignation about what it means to be a Jewish state in the Middle East. Recent events that Israelis cite as reinforcing this view include the total collapse of the Oslo process in 2000; the up close and personal second intifada (Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel's major urban centers vs. punishing IDF assaults); the unrealized security benefits of Israel's 2005 unilateral Gaza disengagement; Hamas's 2006 election victory and 2007 takeover of Gaza; the disharmonious internal debate surrounding the conduct and outcome of the 2006 Israeli-Hizballah war; and the very real problem of Iran, both its continuing march toward nuclear weapons and its unrelenting support of Hizballah and Hamas. As a consequence most Israelis are no longer looking for peace but have simply resigned themselves to accommodation at best. This realism is supported by the fact that the West Bank security barrier, though still incomplete, works and is proof positive of the controversial concept that separation is the answer. It is also supported by the IDF's relentless counterterror efforts over the last several years-notably in the Palestinian A (central urban) areas. In sum, and in Israel's own terminology, the "terrorist grass has been mowed" to an acceptable level for now. Israeli officials close to the action such as the Ministry of Defense believe that things are progressing, citing the positive trend in the security realm. The statistics support their claim-i.e., terror incidents both within the Green Line and in the West Bank have clearly decreased. I would add that the reduction of security incidents is also due to decisions made by Israel's antagonists, i.e., Hamas, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, for their own interests, particularly the remarkable turn away from violence-at least for the time being-of the al-Aqsa Brigades in Nablus and Islamic Jihad in Jenin.
But outside this small circle, there are few Israeli "true believers" in the lasting effects of the trend. The doubters note that regardless of the current short-term security statistics, the long-term, deep-seated foundational problems of a Jewish state in the region remain. Israelis are constantly repeating that no matter what "they do," it never proves to be enough. Cynics abound: they have been "back to the future" before. How many Mitchells have there been already? How many U.S. presidential speeches? How many agreements on the books, public or secret, have produced anything lasting? They have already tried joint patrols, district coordination offices, shared microbusiness ventures, etc., and yet they are as insecure as ever. For many, the peace process machinations held mostly behind closed doors continue more for the sake of the politicians themselves than as a real attempt to solve the key issues. (And few Israelis take the first batch of post-1948 generation political leaders seriously.)
As for Washington's call for a complete halt to Israeli settlement activity in the territories, Israelis made clear their view that this was an unfortunate beginning for the Obama administration. Responses to my questions about Washington's demands ranged from the emotional, "How dare the United States dictate to us?" to the more sober, "Okay, we halt them, but in what context? What comes next?" In my years of involvement in the Middle East in a range of professional responsibilities, one key cultural aspect I discovered is that no negotiation begins or ends with a bottom line or unwavering position. I have also learned that the majority of those who live within Green Line Israel-as well as the IDF-don't pay a lot of attention to the settlers, particularly the religious types with American accents. One Israeli noted, "We can't live with them and we can't get rid of them."
In the case of the Palestinians, their apathy also stems from a combination of factors. First, the second intifada proved to be yet another failure in the history of their armed revolutionary efforts to get Israel to release its occupational grip. Left in the intifada's wake was an almost impenetrable wall-physical and metaphorical-and until recently a highly intrusive IDF, resulting in an even more oppressive occupation. Never mind that Arafat is still a revered figure whose portrait adorns walls in almost every building in the West Bank. He left the Palestinians with an outdated, corrupt, and untenable political system incapable of anything other than basic local governance. Ramallah's political governing reach does not extend far, Gaza is gone, and the West Bank's governorates and cities are run by a combination of local actors with varying factional loyalties and their own personal interests. The political predicament is compounded by Hamas's stunning 2006 electoral victory, for which to this day senior PA officials refuse to hold themselves accountable in any way. A week after Hamas's electoral win, I gathered some senior PA security leaders from Gaza and the West Bank together for a rare reality check. I argued that even if Hamas could be rolled back, there would still be a problem. Trying not to be too direct for cultural reasons, I implied that we would simply be back where it started, in the hands of Arafat's corrupt cast of leftover actors-in other words, in the hands of those present in the room. Retorts were few that day, but I was invited to stay for lunch so I knew that I would at least be able to show my face again in the territories.
The parallel with their Israeli "cousins" is that few Palestinians have much if any faith in their leadership, particularly the post-Arafat leadership that arrived in 1994 from abroad. Many doubt their leaders will be able to rise to the occasion and solve their own internal problems. This is in part because Palestine's political and military leadership remains as divided as ever. For its part, Fatah as a political organization and military revolutionary culture is having a major identity crisis heightened by the death of Arafat, their founding father. This stems from a number of factors including the lack of any military victory to date and the rise of a new generation wholly from within the territories. I found few members of the PA's "old guard," whom I had known for years, interested in expressing any common vision of a Palestinian state or any other shared goal. When queried about what the future may hold, most reminisced about the glory days of the distant past in southern Lebanon or some historic conflict they participated in a world away.
I was in Palestine in 1994 when Palestinian national flags were first seen on rooftops flying freely and not as an act of protest. Nationalist slogans and posters were on every wall. It was truly a new beginning full of promise for the future. I went to great lengths to get one of the first flags. Today, the flags flying and slogans scribbled on walls and on IDF concrete outposts mostly come from political factions, militias, and religious supporters. I did find one or two true patriotic actors at local levels who were willing to talk about how things could be, but as noted earlier, local cooperation is entirely personality dependent. Nowadays PA leaders are mainly concentrating on their own wellbeing and on getting access to Abu Mazin and the constant stream of senior international interlocutors. These attitudes are not new but are a holdover from the Arafat era. PA old guard leaders and officials are also jealous and defensive concerning any effort that could be perceived as potentially unseating or weakening their traditional base of power. This includes any efforts by the Mitchell team or the USSC to bring young newly trained Palestinian NSF "soldiers" to think of themselves as nationalists first and as members of a new PA vanguard second. The old guard Fatah types continue to remind outsiders that they are the only possible front for Palestinian statehood and legitimate dealings with Israelis. And since they have yet to be rewarded for their efforts, they feel they are still owed their just due. Thus, while admitting that a young generation of PA rank and cadre is necessary, they insist that it should be allowed to develop only under the watchful and tutorial eye of seasoned members. For the younger generation, particularly the newly trained security personnel, these attitudes pose problems. What good is their new-found motivation if they see the same old faces and party politics above them?
Complicating matters are the militias. They believe they are the true Palestinian vanguard bolstered by their legitimacy as coming from the territories and the fact that they have carried two intifadas against the Israelis. As such, they believe they have done more to advance the Palestinian cause than Arafat's men did in exile or after arriving in 1994. The odds are good that the militias will act again if they believe they are once more being sidelined or bypassed by their own. Last is the issue of those termed independents and the technocrats in Western suits, like Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Though an international favorite, he does not have a militia or political party actively behind him. As such, he is battled at every step and consequently his long-term effectiveness is at risk.
President Obama's Cairo speech in June 2009 and the appointment of yet another U.S. special envoy [George Mitchell] were initially welcomed by PA officials and citizens alike. As with many in the Arab world (other than Iraqis for the time being) there was still a profound belief that if America really wanted something to happen it would make it so. Mitchell's appointment fostered a bit of short-term relief because, among other things, it relieved Palestinians of the onus of having to do something themselves, particularly while the political process is deadlocked. However, I did hear Palestinians say that it would be actions on the ground-not the speeches and the high-level private meeting circuit-that would be needed to carve a path out of the present quagmire. So far, they have proven right: On my most recent trip, large billboards and banners in Arabic across the West Bank proclaimed, "One Year with Obama, so What's Changed?" And on both visits I was asked various versions of the question: What good is a Washington-sponsored peace process if there is nothing competent institutionally within Palestine to support it besides those with guns and new uniforms? This is especially relevant now given the ongoing intra-Palestinian struggles that are out of view of most USG officials due to the above-mentioned restrictive security travel policies still in effect. When U.S. diplomats are able to meet with Palestinian interlocutors, it is only for official meetings for a snapshot period of time. In a world where personal relationships are everything, these policies and methodologies inhibit this critical cultural dimension. In Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, I lived and worked with my counterparts. While at times this entailed a considerable amount of risk, it was the only way to develop the relationships necessary to understand and work on the complicated issues at hand. But current U.S. diplomatic practices allow at best only episodic glimpses, not the in-depth views needed to develop the context necessary to keep Washington abreast or develop viable, not pie-in-the sky, options to move forward. In a real sense, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv live within their own Green Zones.
U.S. SECURITY COORDINATOR EFFORTS
One good news story, at least on the face of things, concerns the efforts of U.S. Security Coordinator Keith Dayton and his international team. The USSC effort in my view is the first notable hands-on, "bottom-up," operational development process in the history of the Middle East peace process-the first where the focus of activity and initiative clearly rests with those in the field and where ideas are checked through a reality filter driven by the environment and the people directly involved. Up to now, the process has been conducted from Washington in a very managed and directed "top-down" manner. It includes the "traditional triad" of the National Security Council (NSC) and the State Department in Washington, and the ever-present special envoy whose visits are episodic at best. This conventional strategy has been followed consistently by almost every U.S. administration since Jimmy Carter but has yet to deliver any notable long-term strategic success since Camp David in 1979. In this paradigm, only a select few senior officials are ever privy to information. Meeting after meeting with key regional interlocutors is close-hold, attendance confined to the absolute minimum with little sharing of the information afterward for vetting by government experts. This means that subsequent policy deliberations and decisions do not benefit from the full range of critical context or options. Ideas can be "thought of" in Tel Aviv, Ramallah, or Jerusalem, but prior to any action they must be sent to Washington via restricted cables not seen by the wider government policy community. This circular loop not only adds time from thought to action, it also leaves out any cultural nuance or points that can't be effectively made in writing to busy leaders who have little time to read each and every line of reporting cables carefully. More seriously, the Washington-directed approach does not allow for building personal relationships and shared interests between the USG and the local parties it is chartered to assist-relationships that have proven key to success in this part of the world. In short, what is critically missing is linkage with what is happening on the ground, so it is not surprising that this flawed paradigm contributes to continued missteps and miscalculations.
All that said, it is obvious that a bottom-up approach can only go so far in most cases. It cannot succeed in a vacuum or a lack of national strategy. There must be concomitant forward momentum at the strategic level to link with what is happening on the ground, to ultimately "seal the deal." This linkage has been realized in both Iraq and Afghanistan-from the soldiers to the diplomats to the NSC-but there seems to be a lag in applying it in the Israel-Palestine arena.
The USSC's original mandate when it was established in 2005 and led by General Kip Ward was primarily to work with the parties in support of Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza. This general directive was the only guidance provided by the Bush administration's NSC and State Department. No additional guidance was provided on how this ad hoc mission fit into a larger strategy or what was to come next when successfully completed. No resources were allocated other than a hodgepodge of personnel from different military services on temporary duty, the overwhelming majority of whom had never been to Israel or Palestine before. When General Ward completed his mission, he commissioned his team to write a paper for the secretary of state. The purpose was to provide thoughts about a flexible way forward in light of what his mission faced during his nine months on the ground. I was one of the authors. We later learned that Secretary Rice never saw the paper.
After the Gaza disengagement, the USSC mandate was extended but Lieutenant General Dayton assumed an even less defined follow-on mission: "to assist the PA security services." Initially his mission was not functionally resourced either. To his credit, his team within a few years has earned the unique distinction of at least penetrating the USG institutional phalanxes, breaking through their time-honored bureaucratic ways and resistance to yet another ad hoc mission that might (whatever its mandated purpose) threaten to impinge on the closely guarded turf of high-profile diplomacy. I was involved early on, and this experience only solidified my belief that our own myriad USG organizations are sometimes more of the problem than the local parties we are chartered to work among. Dayton initially had to endure a steep learning curve largely because he was forced to work from the periphery of Gaza and the West Bank due to the U.S. security restrictions. It was only through the Canadian and British team members that the Dayton mission could venture into the territories and get any sense of the complicated realities it faced.
After the historic 2006 elections and Hamas's takeover of Gaza, Dayton refocused and expanded his effort into the West Bank. This is where the USSC really took off and developed a coherent training program, primarily for Palestinian NSF units. Under the program, an NSF unit (battalion size) is trained in Jordan and then deployed to a town in the West Bank with new uniforms and personal gear, vehicles, and communications equipment. Contrary to rumors, the USSC does not provide weapons, which are plentiful in the territories anyway, though in various conditions. (When they need more, they have to work it out with the Israelis.) By all accounts, the training-which focuses primarily on conventional military tactics-has been well received, particularly by the younger Palestinian participants. The timing of the training and subsequent deployment of the initial units could not have been more fortunate. I liken it very much to the U.S. surge in Iraq. In both arenas, plus or minus a few months could have made a big difference in the outcome. In this case, the newly trained NSF forces arrived just when the security barrier was almost complete and Israeli security operations had reduced Palestinian terror to a tolerable level-a unique dovetailing of security dynamics indicative of the complex political-military interchanges occurring on the ground.
Another promising program is the Ramallah-based Senior Leader Course (SLC) led by the USSC's British contingent. The SLC is the only formally designed staff course in Palestine attended by members of all the security services, and one of the few places where they interact openly for a common purpose. The most important result of the USSC's efforts to date, however, is not the decrease of terror incidents or the renewed presence of PA security forces on the streets. It is that West Bank security officials have now regained enough confidence to deal directly with their Israeli counterparts rather than constantly through the intermediary of the USSC and other international actors. While not the days of Oslo, this renewed face-to-face cooperative effort represents tangible and noteworthy progress. It continues to develop, with all agreeing that there is still a lot more work to do.
THE MISSION'S SHORTCOMINGS
Though on the surface the USSC's programs appear to be working tactically, there are strategic and operational pitfalls, both in Israel/Palestine and within USG circles.
First, while a more visible PASF presence in place of the former militias is a positive development, many Palestinians remain skeptical about the changes. The abusive and redundant Arafat security system remains largely in place. There are still too many security organizations, particularly the intelligence services, and they all want something to do. One family in Bethlehem laughed derisively when I asked about the police I saw outside their home, because, they told me, the police were not to be taken seriously and nothing had changed. Another said that once the newly U.S.-trained services finish with Hamas and the other militias, they would turn on their own citizens like the PLO forces did when they arrived in Palestine in 1994.
Second, U.S. public claims of the USSC's successes have proven counterproductive [see Lieutenant General Dayton's 7 May 2009 speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in JPS 152, Doc. D2]. PA leaders have cautioned the Dayton team to tone down its public information campaign of speaking engagements and interviews at home and abroad. PA leaders are annoyed to be portrayed as second fiddle and complain that U.S. boasts are being used by their Hamas nemeses to depict them as weak collaborators rather than protectors and liberators. Such perceptions ultimately weaken rather than empower them in their own environment. As such, their ability to continue to lead the Palestinian cause forward and negotiate seriously with their Israeli counterparts becomes at risk. This is perhaps why surprisingly few Palestinian security leaders I met expressed much praise for the USSC's efforts. Most noted the results in a perfunctory manner and then moved on to cite their own efforts as the real key to noteworthy successes. The Qalqilya raid, staged in May 2009 against two wanted senior Hamas members and conducted solely by PA units, is a prime example. Every PA leader I met claimed to have played a major role in the raid and the subsequent killing of the two leaders. Highlighted in their accounts was that the operation was conducted independently and without giving prior notice to the USSC; no mention was made of the fact that the forces involved were among the first trained by the USSC in Jordan. Indeed, very recently there has been a formal PA request to downsize the USSC's presence and efforts in Ramallah.
Third, and more broadly, is the undefined nature of the USSC mission and its desired end state. Is the aim for the PA to take on and defeat Hamas militarily? To seek vengeance for the loss of Gaza? To maintain order on Israel's behalf? Or is it to lay the security groundwork for a free and independent democratic Palestinian state? While Israelis and USG officials view recent PA successes in the field rather myopically as a win against terror, wary Palestinians view them as new regime protection by the old order. Two recent events support this view: the above-mentioned Qalqilya raid, and the much-noted PA security effort to contain West Bank demonstrations against the operation in Gaza in winter 2008-2009. In both examples law and order was claimed to have been preserved by the new and improved PA security services. Was this really the case, and if so, at what cost? In the first instance, what laws did the PA follow in the attempted arrest and subsequent killing of the Hamas suspects? Was there a judicial process to identify the nature of the crimes against Palestine (not Israel)? Were there plans to bring the suspects, if captured, before a judge? In the second case, a key tenet of the founding charter of the PASF is to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. Isn't the holding of planned peaceful demonstrations such a right?
The dilemma is that what Israel and the United States view as PASF successes are all too often seen through regional and Palestinian eyes as acts subcontracted to the interests of the USG and Israel rather than Palestinian interests. Moreover, it remains to be seen whether Israel will permit a political and territorial payoff for the PA's improved security performance. These widespread perceptions are more than problematic and undermine the PA's position and security gains to date. At the same time, the mission fails to deal with or identify the relevance of the continuing Israeli occupation. PA security forces, no matter how well trained, cannot be expected to win their public's favor in the long run if they are not permitted to address what the populace perceives as its foremost threat. The failure to integrate these nuances into the USSC's focus and foundational doctrine could prove fatal.
Fourth, while the USSC mission has arguably achieved more progress on the ground than any other U.S. effort in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the broader USG and international effort remains disorganized and unproductive. This deficiency is best described by a USG official I met, who stated: "The Dayton team left the train station long ago while other USG entities are still waiting to buy their tickets." Despite its success, the USSC effort is not fully supported by other elements of USG power-in Washington, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem. I have personally been witnessing this kind of dislocation for years and am beyond perplexed as to why this kind of conduct continues. Recent lessons in Afghanistan and Iraq reinforce the notion that improved security is a precondition for political progress. But senior government officials also acknowledge that a "whole of government" approach is ultimately necessary for strategic success, in concert with success along the security front. This mantra is also being articulated as applicable to the Middle East peace process. Yet, other than rhetoric, little has been done to reinforce or complement the USSC's effort, which remains a mostly unilateral effort detached from the big-name enterprises of George Mitchell and Tony Blair) and from the continuing intra-PA political wrangling.
Disturbingly, the USG has already paid a price for this strategic disconnect. While the USSC tinkered at the edges of Gaza's border crossings in 2005, PA political and security organizations were slowly crumbling from within. The results are well known: Hamas's electoral victory in 2006 and its subsequent lightning takeover in Gaza in 2007. The current dislocation is partly due to the USG's out-of-date restrictive force protection policies noted earlier. USG officials are not out on the ground enough to discern critical realities and have not been for almost a decade. There is no sleeves-rolled-up, down-in-the-trenches effort to engage or influence key actors, governmental nodes, and myriad important issues of the conflict. The key component of human engagement and personal relationship building, a concept reaffirmed in Iraq and Afghanistan, remains woefully lacking.
Last, not a single piece of paper or presidential order exists that outlines the wiring diagram among the key USG/international players in terms of leadership or responsibilities on the ground. Neither is there a single document that outlines the USG/international strategy and how all the various organizations or myriad agreements already signed should be nested into that strategy. A "no more settlements" strategy has to mesh in with other moving parts and take into account the actual (not wished for) realities on the ground. I liken this strategic deficiency to building a house. How do you get from the homeowner's vision to a finished house if there is neither an architectural design from which to begin nor a competent builder and his tradesmen familiar with the plan and experienced in the real world to make it work? The answer is, you don't.
What are the viable paths forward? As someone with almost thirty years experience in the region and at all levels of USG policy venues in Washington, I offer the following.
The policies put forward in presidential speeches and developed in close-hold senior envoy meetings need to be operationalized on the ground, especially through building on and exploiting the groundbreaking efforts of the USSC. Keeping in mind the pitfalls of the USSC's efforts noted above, there must first be common agreement on the purpose and end state of the USSC's mission-the latter being a national level decision, not one for Keith Dayton. This undertaking needs to be complemented by a unified, coordinated, and robust political/economic engagement program aimed principally at fostering effective PA leadership and governance in the territories. This would involve a concerted human effort via a formal engagement program that is philosophically in line with our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Focus would be on the PA hierarchy, but not exclusively-the leadership potential of the younger independent Palestinians must be explored as well. For too long, the senior U.S. diplomats have keyed on the same circle of corrupt actors known to be primarily concerned with their own wellbeing rather than with the interests of the greater Palestinian polity. The level of our engagement here would dovetail with and lend better substance to the issues addressed in the closed-door, high-level meeting circuit as well as foster concrete action that would respond to the president's promises of progress offered in his Cairo speech. The timing here is especially important given Prime Minister Fayyad's proposal late last summer to establish a Palestinian state within two years through the development of competent institutions. It is in our national interests to support this gutsy proposal-particularly given Fayyad's vulnerability as an independent (i.e., outsider) in PA politics.
A program like the one sketched out above, however, requires that the right people with the right skills be on the ground, not just in the traditional venues of the U.S. embassy and CONGEN. I am not advocating large numbers of personnel as in Iraq or Afghanistan. Israelis and Palestinians have made it clear they are not interested in robust, complicated third-party foreign mechanisms or truckloads of gadfly advisors looking to pad their resumes. The nature of this conflict requires a few focused and experienced individuals in the right places, well versed in the regional and local complexities. This requirement might pose problems, as this kind of expertise is a commodity sorely lacking in the USG. Given the multiple ongoing conflicts we are engaged in and the nature of our own institutions, there is an operational deficit at present. But absolutely essential to this proposal is that the anachronistic and risk-averse embassy and CONGEN force protection measures must be loosened.
There are also key contextual dynamics and interests important to the parties that must be understood by USG officials in order to move forward. The Iranian dilemma and Syria's support for Hizballah in Lebanon are two problem sets that Israelis cannot overlook when dealing with the Palestinian effort. For the Palestinians, if concrete progress is to be made in dealing with the Israelis, Hamas cannot be ignored or wished away-they exist and they are Palestinian. How many years was it before we came to the overdue conclusion that Arafat and his PLO were not going to go away and took steps to deal with that reality? Aren't we now talking to Sunni and Shi`a terrorists in Iraq? Aren't we thinking about how the Taliban might be brought into the fold, or at least admitting that they are part of Afghanistan's social fabric?
In sum, the many wide-ranging discussions in which I engaged during my recent visits to Israel and the West Bank, coupled with my own long experience, convince me that this is no time for a traditional Washington-dictated, top-down, envoy-focused process in and of itself-regardless of what the regional actors, Europeans, or Washington's beltway circuit may advocate. Moreover, whatever the real and perceived successes of the USSC, it is unlikely that continued focus on the security element alone will carry the day. The USSC's steady bottom-up approach, however, does have the potential for even bigger payoffs if supported and exploited appropriately. The results of the U.S. military-led efforts across the governmental spectrum in Iraq and Afghanistan support this thesis.
At the end of the day, it is not about what Washington wants. The saying "we cannot want it more than the parties themselves" remains as relevant as ever. After thirty years, I still live by it in my current business in the Middle East. In his grandiose memoir, Dennis Ross acknowledged this when he noted that those sitting at the negotiating table during the Clinton and Bush years-himself included-were disconnected from the realities and the dynamics on the ground. What he did not note was that there were those in the USG in various official capacities who did understand those realities and dynamics, but Ross and his U.S. colleagues simply refused to listen. This being the case, key context about the nature of the problems faced at the table was missing, with the result that real bridging proposals and operational methodologies were unobtainable. Palestinians and Israelis paid the price for the U.S. team's inexcusable hubris. In order for this not to happen again, vigorous efforts must be made to get the right personnel in the right places on the ground in a coordinated effort that goes beyond the high-level secret meeting circuit to work all aspects of the conflict. Ideas developed in a vacuum in presidential speeches or policy meetings in Washington in and of themselves will not work. The results of a Middle East peace process that has followed this misguided strategy are clear enough.