Argument

Boots on the Ground

Boots on the Ground

Will U.S. peacekeepers be heading to the West Bank?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently stirred controversy when he suggested that a U.S.-led NATO force might backfill Israeli soldiers as they withdraw from Palestinian areas under a two-state peace agreement. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has voiced skepticism about foreign peacekeepers, most recently in his March 4 speech to AIPAC in Washington. Hamas meanwhile has said that they’d view NATO as a hostile occupier. For his part, Secretary of State John Kerry cautiously noted in February that a third-party force is "something for the parties to work out."

Controversial though it may be, Abbas’s proposal is not going to fade quickly. Indeed, if negotiators in the peace process start making progress on other contentious issues, the question of how to transition Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) out of the West Bank in a way that both sides would find reassuring will loom ever larger. Negotiators shouldn’t wait to shift gears toward implementation challenges. They should start thinking now about how to surmount obstacles to a successful security transition. In doing so, they’ll need to focus on six critical questions.

How would an international peacekeeping presence be viewed? Peacekeepers would need to be seen by the Palestinian public as tangible evidence of outside support for their independence, lest they become lightning rods for radicalization or magnets for foreign jihadists or Hamas spoilers. Managing such dynamics could be the biggest challenge that a peacekeeping force would face. An energetic public affairs strategy — a collaboration of troop-contributing countries, the Palestinian Authority, civil society, and the private sector – would need to show how the force advanced the goal of a peaceful, sovereign Palestine and how extremist attacks against it could jeopardize that goal. Equally important would be a strategy for engaging Israeli stakeholders to convey credible assurances that the third-party force would not tolerate activities that would directly threaten Israelis’ security.

What would the peacekeepers’ responsibilities actually be? While the final peace agreement would be the ultimate decider on these terms, peacekeepers could be tasked to assist in the return or resettlement of Palestinian refugees, as well as stabilize areas within the borders of a Palestinian state. (They should not be responsible for managing any mutually agreed-upon land swaps, as no third-party force would have the political credibility to do so; only Israeli government entities have the strength and credibility within Israel to implement those parts of agreed-upon land swaps that require the relocation of Israeli settlements.) They could also help the Palestinian Civil Police continue to build its capacity, or support the delivery of essential services to underserved communities. This is a very diverse menu but not unusual for a complex peacekeeping mission.

What "stress tests" would peacekeepers likely face? In addition to the extremist/spoiler problem, one could imagine civil disturbances flaring in urban areas (especially greater Jerusalem) or at newly established border crossings. If local police were overwhelmed, a third-party force would surely get the call and would need to be prepared to respond. Hamas-style cross-border rocket attacks are clearly Israel’s greatest concern and would immediately trigger pressures for IDF air strikes or commando raids, unless third-party units were willing and able to quickly suppress the threat. Security along a Palestinian state’s eastern border would also be a grave concern, given how stressed Jordan is by the Syrian conflict. Border and riverine operations, enabled by overhead reconnaissance and Amman’s active cooperation, would be vital for denying access to foreign fighters. A stronger U.N. peacekeeping presence and mandate on the Golan Heights could be an important supporting factor, as well.

How "American" should a third-party force really be? If this idea gets traction, Israelis as well as Palestinians would likely want to see an American commander at the helm of peacekeepers, as well as a sizable U.S. force presence. Given America’s decades-long commitment to Arab-Israeli peace processes, it would not be surprising if Washington policymakers accepted a "boots on the ground" presence. The U.S. challenge, alas, is that the country could not shoulder this burden itself. Allies and partners would surely need to be in the mix, but who they are and how effective they might be as implementers of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would attract much more intense scrutiny than how they have operated in, say, remote Afghan provinces. Indeed, a patchwork of national caveats on permissible actions by troops could rob the operation of its credibility and raise risks to all.

How would Gaza and an unstable Sinai figure into the mix? As post-Mubarak Egypt has progressively lost control of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel has lost a valued buffer zone. This might ramp up pressures on a third-party force to grow its area of operations beyond the West Bank, possibly to replace the Multi-national Force and Observers (MFO) that was established by the Egypt-Israel peace pact of 1979. The United States has contributed troops to the MFO since 1982. Whether a heavier international presence in Sinai might raise tensions with Hamas-dominated Gaza or, alternatively, offer a secure means by which Gaza could rejoin the West Bank as part of a Palestinian state without threatening Israel poses a challenging "fork-in-the-road" issue that our negotiators will need to ponder.

What would the exit strategy be? When defining successful outcomes, strategists and operators usually resonate to a "conditions-based" exit strategy, while authorizers and appropriators are more comfortable with a firm date on the calendar. But the real issue here is political. Would a third-party force ever be able to withdraw? For his part, President Abbas has referred to a permanent NATO presence, and surely some members of the Israeli Knesset might ask, "After our international buffering force departs, then what?"

Over the long term, success will hinge upon Israelis and Palestinians living peacefully by themselves, side by side. That said, as peace talks move forward, negotiators will need to engage intensively with mission planners, operators, intelligence experts, trainers, and logisticians on how best to shape a strategy for effectively implementing an agreement, in particular the role of third parties. Given the blend of high hopes and deep angst that a peace treaty would surely generate, stakeholders must agree in advance on the size, composition, capabilities, and tasking of a third-party force.

It would be tragic if poor treaty implementation turned into the Achilles heel of this peace process. Yet it’s also true that any third party signing up for a peacekeeping mission — including the United States — would be highly motivated to get the job done right. The stakes are incredibly high; the world will be watching intently. And if Israelis and Palestinians could agree on a role for NATO, a successful closure to one of the world’s longest-running conflicts would also be a fitting legacy for the world’s oldest collective defense alliance.