Help the Palestinians Help Us

Having just returned from the Middle East, I find it hard to have much optimism about peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel sees Hamas’s control of Gaza as a situation it cannot do anything about, a weak and divided Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, increased arms smuggling and a growing threat from Israeli Arabs. Palestinians see a steady growth in Israeli settlements and restrictions, a weak Israeli government and faltering international assistance. And all sides seem to see Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visits as an end-of-administration effort in résumé building.

There is, however, one potential chance to move forward. It centers on an American-led mission, based in Jerusalem, that is trying to build new security forces on the West Bank that will support stabilization efforts by the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, prevent a Hamas takeover there and end the corruption and abuse of the older intelligence forces, Yasir Arafat’s Mukhabarat.

The importance of this effort cannot be overstated: unless there are effective Palestinian security forces, Israel will never trust in a Palestinian state or be able to act on the quiet progress being made toward reaching a final settlement. And we’ve had some promising signs. With assistance from Jordan, Britain and Canada, the Americans have activated the first battalion of the so-called Presidential Guard, and it’s had some success in bringing order to the refugee camp at Jenin. There are more battalions to come, and a real possibility that this aid effort could create effective new security forces.

As became all too clear on my visit to Israel, however, this American-led effort is being crippled by decisions within the State Department. The small mission, called the office of the United States Security Coordinator and under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, is effectively locked into a building in Jerusalem. While it’s a military mission, the State Department and the consulate in Jerusalem are in charge of Palestinian affairs and General Dayton’s advisory teams.

There are several reasons for this — from not wanting the American government to appear to be favoring any faction in a complicated situation to good old-fashioned turf wars — but the result is that the Dayton team has to rely on British and Canadian officials and private contractors to do its work in the field and develop critical personal relationships with Palestinian officers and officials. In fact, even the American military attachés at the embassy are forbidden by the State Department to go into the West Bank and Gaza to carry out liaison efforts with Palestinians or develop human intelligence on the threat of Hamas.

Admittedly, letting the American military take on a greater direct role raises risks. All of those involved know they will be targets of violence and may pay with their lives. Many in the Israeli forces and government fear that any American military presence in the West Bank would undermine Israel’s status there and become, in effect, direct military support for the Palestinians from Washington. And Mr. Abbas has failed to abolish the older Palestinian security services like the Mukhabarat, which specialize in corruption, repression and incompetence, and will resist the new Palestinian units.

There is, however, no lack of courage among the American military personnel, and they know they cannot succeed without freedom of movement, embedding with fledgling Palestinian security units, and forming personal relations with Mr. Abbas’s officers.

It’s a shame that at such a pivotal moment in the peace negotiations, a key barrier to the first real step toward peace — and an effective war on terrorism in the West Bank and Gaza — is a set of State Department decisions.

Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.