Palestinian security forces will buckle under irreconcilable pressures
Soon after the turn of the year, Lt. General Frederick Rudesheim assumed his position as US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He inherits a programme that over the last decade has seen more than half a billion dollars spent on training and equipping 5,000 Palestinian soldiers belonging to the Palestinian National Security Forces (PSF) in the West Bank.
Operationally and in the field, the forces belonging to the PSF, along with the civilian “blue police”, have performed beyond the expectations of friend and foe alike. They ended the anarchy that characterized the last years of the Aqsa
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Intifada. They continue to be the leading edge of the ongoing Fatah-led PA campaign against Hamas and other challengers. They keep the Palestinian public away from Israeli-manned checkpoints during times of tension and they deploy to stifle popular Palestinian opposition when Israel makes war in Gaza, as it did in 2008-9, 2012 and again in 2014.
Indeed, “Dayton’s army” – the reference is to the first and most influential USSC commander, Gen. Keith Dayton – has, to the mounting dismay of most Palestinians, performed too well. Its ability to pacify the West Bank and its role as security “subcontractor” to permanent occupation are now taken for granted. And the PSF continue to perform this mission despite the failure of the US-led diplomatic process – a failure that has frozen the security services, like the PA itself, in place.
Indeed it could be argued that the PA’s security prowess has contributed to a sense of American and Israeli complacency: Why fix something that isn’t, from their perspective, broken?
“It’s been twenty years since the PLO returned to the territories and ten years since the USSC was established,” observed a former US army colonel and military member of the USSC. “It is now business as usual, and this should not be the case.”
One has to have sympathy for PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Almost 80 and by any measure in the twilight of his long career, he finds himself today in an ever-shrinking box that, when it is not fatally constraining his options for ending Israel’s occupation, often reduces them to empty threats.
Count among the latter the threat to “return the keys” to Israel and stop security cooperation with the Israeli military.
Abbas has defined the PA-Israel security relationship as “sacred”. He knows only too well that Israel’s willingness to enable the creation and operation of a Palestinian security force under Abbas’ nominal command is critical to its continued operation. The memory of Israel’s destruction of PA security forces, including the destruction of police stations and prisons during the second intifada, remains etched in the collective memory of the Palestinian leadership.
But it is also the case that Palestinian political and security leaders believed that they could beat Israel at its own game by taking advantage of Israel’s backing to outfit an effective Palestinian fighting force. In the process, the thinking went, the PA would engage the US, as the trainers and financial supporters of this effort, to swing its weight in support of an independent Palestine.
To his enduring frustration, the bargain Abbas thought he had struck with Israel and the US has not paid off. Indeed, rather than being an engine for liberating Palestine and ending occupation, the PA security and police are prohibited from addressing what most Palestinians consider their most pressing and existential threats – the Israeli army and settlers. They have in turn become simply “part of the wall paper” -- unremarkable factors in preserving the status quo defined by military occupation and continued Israeli settlement and land confiscation.
Yet Abbas is simply pushing the wrong button when he threatens yet again that the PA will end its security ties with Israel if progress at the UN or at the negotiating table is not forthcoming.
However much Abbas, and the PA would like to cut security links with Israel, they simply cannot and expect the authority or its leadership to survive in the form it has assumed since the Oslo Accords were signed more than two decades ago. The Palestinian leadership knows that short of an unprecedented demonstration of leadership and the creation of entirely new relationships governing ties between Palestinians and Israel in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the option of cutting links with Israel’s security establishment – the heart and soul of the bargain sealed at Oslo -- is only an empty threat that all have long since stopped taking seriously.
The tactic also reflects a Palestinian misreading of Israel’s support for PA security forces. Does Abbas truly believe that Binyamin Netanyahu is so concerned about losing the services of Abbas’ gendarmerie and police that he will surrender to a political and diplomatic agenda Israel has successfully opposed for half a century? Or that the Obama administration, when faced with the implementation of a threat it long since stopped considering real, will move in support of a Palestinian state?
Israel’s rejection of an independent Palestinian security capability was sealed during Israel’s total reoccupation of the West Bank during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002. Israel never viewed its support for the PSF as promoting the creation of an institution that would successfully challenge Israel’s security and settlement agenda. Despite facile calls to "strengthen Abu Mazen", Israel is prepared to strengthen him and his security forces only to the degree that they are prepared to assist in the implementation of Israel’s settlement and security agenda.
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Washington too subscribes to this formula. It support for PA security institutions has been conditioned and limited by the constraints imposed by Israel. The rules and limitations of this engagement were set during Dayton’s 5-year tenure, during which it became clear that Palestinian security forces, no matter how well they performed, would not be granted what they desire most: more uncontested "space" in the West Bank, more equipment suitable for a sovereign army, and determined US support for independence. Led by Dayton’s successors, the mission has been running in place.
Israel supports the PA security forces only insofar, and only as long as, they enable Israel to pursue its settlement and security agenda. While Palestinians threaten, and many in the Israel’s security establishment warn of the costs Israel will bear in the event that the Oslo security framework implodes, Israel’s political leadership is far more sanguine about such a prospect.
The day will come when Palestinian security services buckle under the irreconcilable pressures of serving contradictory Israeli and Palestinian interests. Israel is confident that when this comes about, it will not be the end of the world. The transition to a post-Oslo system will be a challenge, to be sure, but the almost fifty years of occupation have presented challenges no less daunting.