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How Obama Missed an Opportunity for Middle East Peace
Why did the president ignore the only part of the "peace process" that was working?
"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 President Mahmoud 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 by comparison.
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 purview.
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 ground.)
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 security assessments."
Based on our own experiences working closely with the general from 2005 to 2010, 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 Canada.
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 Interior.
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 Palestinian Authority.
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 East.
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 top."
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.