How Obama Missed an Opportunity for Middle East Peace: Why did the president ignore the only part of the “peace process” that was working?
May 25, 2012
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 thepresident’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.