Now that direct peace talks have officially collapsed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to take unilateral steps towards statehood, including appealing to the United Nations. His hope is to achieve independence by the end of 2011. So far, the United States has been wary of any unilateral actions, preferring a comprehensive peace deal. To help achieve a negotiated peace, however, President Obama must dramatically increase security assistance to the Palestinian Authority and exert significant pressure on the Netanyahu administration.
President Abbas is dangerously close to being labeled a failure. The Palestinian Authority has effectively lost control of the Gaza Strip since Hamas’ takeover in 2007. In the West Bank, Israel continues to build settlements on disputed lands and has nearly completed its security barrier. The Palestinian economy is weak and dependent on freedom of movement allowed by Israeli security forces. Peace negotiations, meanwhile, have little prospects for success given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. At the age of 75 and with no clear successor, Abbas could use a unilateral declaration of independence as a means to overcome the current deadlock and establish a legacy as the father of a nation.
Yet President Abbas understands this approach is fraught with peril. Israel has made it clear that it will not recognize a Palestinian state without a negotiated peace deal. Should Abbas unilaterally declare independence, Israel has threatened to formally annex large parts of the West Bank and annul past peace agreements. Given its near complete control over the Palestinian economy, Israel could effectively prevent any independent state from becoming viable. Abbas knows unilateral independence will make him the father of a failed state and an alternative path for progress must be found.
Distressing as it may seem, this situation presents an opportunity for the United States to advance the peace process. A key prerequisite for any lasting peace is a Palestinian security force that can maintain internal stability and prevent attacks against Israel. To help achieve this end, the US Security Coordinator, LTG Keith Dayton, has spent over $500 million since 2005 to reform the Palestinian security services while training over 400 Presidential Guardsmen and 2,200 National Security forces. All parties, including Israel, have been impressed by the ability of these forces to help restore law and order in Jenin and other key Palestinian cities.
By rapidly expanding this initiative, the Obama Administration can offer Abbas the alternative path he needs to avoid a unilateral declaration yet present clear evidence to the Palestinian people that progress is being made towards statehood.
At the same time, building Palestinian Authority security capacity has a multiplying effect on Abbas’ stature and ability to secure a final peace deal. To begin with, establishing a competent security force negates a central Israeli negotiating position that only Israeli troops can dismantle terrorist networks and prevent attacks against Israel. Perhaps more importantly, a competent security force gives Abbas the capability to prevent an increasingly assertive Hamas from assuming power in the West Bank. With the West Bank firmly under his control, Abbas can better pressure Hamas to accept his national leadership and reconcile with Fatah, thereby removing internal Palestinian divisions as a major obstacle to peace negotiations. Should the reconciliation process between Hamas and Fatah fail, as it appears it will given the groups’ divergent ideologies and leadership, Abbas could also use a stronger security force to retake the Gaza Strip militarily if required.
None of the above will occur, of course, unless the US pressures Israel to permit the Palestinian Authority forces to receive increased training, equipment, manpower and authority. Israel legitimately fears that any weapons or training given to Palestinian forces could ultimately be used against Israel. The United States, drawing from lessons on building security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, must make it clear to Israel that the potential rewards for building Palestinian security capacity far outweigh potential risks. If Israel wants to eventually end its occupation and achieve a lasting peace, it must allow the Palestinian Authority to assume greater capabilities and flexibility of operations in the West Bank. No longer can the Palestinian Authority forces be restricted to day-time operations using only outdated AK-47s.
Israel is unlikely to see a future Palestinian leader as committed to a negotiated peace as President Abbas. With the near completion of the security barrier and Iron Dome missile defense system, Israel should feel confident enough to accept an expanded Palestinian Authority security role. If Israel is serious about pursuing a comprehensive peace deal, it should support a US-led initiative to strengthen the Palestinian Authority security forces and help strengthen Abbas’ position vis-à-vis Hamas. The risks of such an approach are truly great, but without taking such risks Israel allows Abbas and the Palestinians to proceed down a path of unilateral statehood from which no party benefits.
“The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.”