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Our Man in Palestine

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Rina Castelnuovo/The New York Times/Redux
Lieutenant General Keith Dayton (right), the US security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with Brigadier General Munir al-Zoubi, commander of the Palestinian Presidential Guard, the elite force that protects top officials and guests,

On August 31, the night before President Obama’s dinner inaugurating direct talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Hamas gunmen shot and killed four Jewish settlers in Hebron, the West Bank’s largest and most populous governorate. The attack—the deadliest against Israeli citizens in more than two years—was condemned by Palestinian and Israeli officials, who said that it was meant to thwart the upcoming negotiations. According to a Hamas spokesman, however, the shooting had a more specific purpose: to demonstrate the futility of the recent cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. This cooperation has reached unprecedented levels under the quiet direction of a three-star US Army general, Keith Dayton, who has been commanding a little-publicized American mission to build up Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.1

Referred to by Hamas as “the Dayton forces,” the Palestinian security services are formally under the authority of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president and chairman of Hamas’s rival, Fatah; but they are, in practice, controlled by Salam Fayyad, the unelected prime minister, a diminutive, mild-mannered technocrat. Abbas appointed Fayyad following Hamas’s grim takeover of Gaza in June 2007—which occurred seventeen months after the Islamist party won the January 2006 parliamentary elections—and entrusted him with preventing Hamas from also seizing the West Bank.

Fayyad received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Texas at Austin and held positions at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the World Bank, and the IMF before becoming finance minister under President Yasser Arafat. His reputation as a fiscally responsible and trustworthy manager ensures the steady supply of international aid on which the Palestinian economy depends. Though he has neither a popular following nor backing from a large political party (his Third Way list received a mere 2.4 percent of the votes in the 2006 legislative elections), today he is responsible for nearly every aspect of Palestinian governance. Yet he is not participating in the negotiations over a settlement with Israel, which are the province of the PLO (of whose leadership Fayyad is not a member) and are handled by its chairman, the seventy-five-year-old Abbas.

Fayyad is criticized at home for many of the same reasons he is lauded abroad. He has condemned violence against Israel as antithetical to his people’s national aspirations, stated that Palestinian refugees could be resettled not in Israel but in a future Palestinian state, and suggested that this state would offer citizenship to Jews.2 He is praised in the opinion pages of The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, and has good relations with foreign leaders unpopular in Palestine: on Fayyad’s first visit to the Oval Office, in 2003, George W. Bush greeted him with index and pinky fingers extended to display UT Austin’s “Hook ‘em Horns” sign. When the daughter of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff was married several years ago, Fayyad sat next to Sharon at the wedding and talked with him at length.3

In February, Fayyad spoke before Israel’s security establishment at the annual Herzliya Conference, where he was compared by Israeli President Shimon Peres to David Ben-Gurion.4 Much of Fayyad’s speech concerned his ambitious plan, made public in late August 2009, to establish unilaterally a de facto Palestinian state by August 2011. By that time, according to Fayyad, “the reality of [a Palestinian] state will impose itself on the world.”5 Fayyad’s plan to “build” a state—he does not say he will declare one—has been endorsed by the Quartet (the US, EU, UN, and Russian Federation) and supported eagerly by international donors.

Some Palestinians have rejected it as too closely resembling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s notion of “economic peace,” which proposes that development precede independence. And a number of Israelis have expressed suspicions that Palestine will seek UN recognition of its statehood when the plan is complete. Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli foreign minister, has warned that any unilateral steps Fayyad takes toward a state could prompt Israel to annul past agreements and annex parts of the West Bank.6

Fayyad has said that his plan to build a new state “is intended to generate pressure” on Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, and the direct talks recently started by the two parties have a late summer 2011 deadline that coincides with Fayyad’s.7 Mike Herzog, former chief of staff to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, told me, “Ultimately, I think Fayyad calculates that political negotiations will not succeed and his plan [to establish a state] will be the only game in town.” The danger, for Israel and the Palestinian Authority alike, is what will happen if negotiations fail and Fayyad’s plan does not produce significant concessions from Israel. “We are not going to withdraw from certain areas just because there was a declaration or a UN resolution,” Herzog said. In that event Hamas will be able to present a persuasive argument that violence is the only means of achieving national liberation. “Fayyad sets an arbitrary date and says, ‘Okay, now all of you break your heads if you want to avoid a catastrophe,’” Herzog said. “What he did is very risky but also very smart.”

So far, Fayyad’s strategy is succeeding. His administration has started more than one thousand development projects, which include paving roads, planting trees, digging wells, and constructing new buildings, most prominently in the twin cities of Ramallah and al-Bireh.8 He has reduced dependence on foreign aid and started to carry out plans to build new hospitals, classrooms, courthouses, industrial parks, housing, and even a new city, Rawabi, between Ramallah and Nablus. But “reforming the security forces,” Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, told me, “is the main and integral part of the Fayyad plan. Many of the government’s other successes, such as economic growth, came as a result.”

To its citizens, Fayyad’s government has presented reform of the police and other security forces as principally a matter of providing law and order—apprehending criminal gangs, consolidating competing security services, forbidding public displays of weapons, and locating stolen cars. But its program for “counterterrorism”—which is directed mainly against Hamas and viewed by many Palestinians as collaboration with Israel—is its most important element: targeting Hamas members and suspected sympathizers is intended to reduce the likelihood of a West Bank takeover and, as important, helps Fayyad make a plausible case that he is in control and that Israel can safely withdraw from the territory.

In 2009, Palestinian and Israeli forces took part in 1,297 coordinated activities, many of them against militant Palestinian groups, a 72 percent increase over the previous year.9 Together they have largely disbanded the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a principal Fatah militia; attacked Islamic Jihad cells; and all but eliminated Hamas’s social institutions, financial arrangements, and military activities in the West Bank.

According to the latest annual report of the Shin Bet, Israel’s FBI, “continuous [counterterrorist] activity conducted by Israel and the Palestinian security apparatuses” reduced Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to their lowest numbers since 2000.10 Today’s level of cooperation, Herzog said, “is better than before the second intifada even—it’s excellent.” Mouna Mansour, a Hamas legislator in the Palestinian Parliament and widow of an assassinated senior leader of the movement, told me, “The PA has succeeded more than the Israelis in crushing Hamas in the West Bank.”

At the center of the Palestinian government’s security reforms are several “special battalions” of the National Security Forces (NSF), an eight-thousand-member gendarmerie that makes up the largest unit of the 25,000-strong Palestinian armed forces in the West Bank.11 The officer in charge of the vetting, training, equipping, and strategic planning of these special battalions is Lieutenant General Keith Dayton, the United States security coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

In a desert town sixteen miles southeast of Amman, more than three thousand Palestinians have completed nineteen-week military courses under Dayton’s supervision at the Jordan International Police Training Center, built with American funds in 2003 for the instruction of Iraqi police. In Hebron, Jenin, Jericho, and Ramallah, the Dayton mission is organizing the construction and renovation of garrisons, training colleges, facilities for the Interior Ministry, and security headquarters—some of which, like the one I visited on a hilltop in central Hebron, were destroyed by Israel during the second intifada. The office of the USSC plans to build new camps in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Tubas, and Tulkarm. It offers two-month leadership courses to senior PA officers, and has created and appointed advisers to a Strategic Planning Directorate in the Ministry of Interior.12 Over the past three years, the State Department has allocated $392 million to the Dayton mission, with another $150 million requested for 2011.13

At its headquarters in a nineteenth-century stone building at the US consulate in West Jerusalem, the USSC has a forty-five-person core staff composed primarily of American and Canadian but also British and Turkish military officers. In addition, it employs twenty-eight private contractors from the Virginia-based DynCorp International.14 State Department rules require the mission’s US government staff to travel only in large, heavily armored convoys, though these restrictions do not apply to its private security contractors and foreign military officers, some of whom are based in Ramallah. By late 2011—a date that dovetails with Fayyad’s deadline—the USSC plans to have supervised the training of ten NSF battalions, one for every West Bank governorate except Jerusalem.15

General Dayton reports to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He advises George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, and has been praised by influential senators, congressmen, and Middle East analysts, who view the work of the USSC as a singular achievement.16 Israel has granted greater responsibility to Palestinian security forces, expanding their geographical areas of operation, sharing higher-quality intelligence with them, and lifting their midnight-to-five-AM curfews in several of the largest West Bank cities.17 According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel has also reduced the travel time between most urban centers in the West Bank by opening roads, relaxing controls at checkpoints, lifting vehicle permit requirements, and removing physical obstacles, which are expected to be reduced in the near future to their lowest number since 2005.18

Colonel Philip J. Dermer, a former member of the USSC, wrote in a March 2010 report circulated among senior White House and military staff that “the USSC mission has arguably achieved more progress on the ground than any other US effort in Israeli- Palestinian peacemaking”19 Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, has said, “You can send George Mitchell back and forth to the Middle East as much as you like, but expanding what [General] Dayton is doing in the security realm to other sectors of Palestinian governance and society is really the only viable model for progress.”20

The first United States security coordinator, Lieutenant General William “Kip” Ward, arrived in Jerusalem in March 2005. Elliott Abrams, formerly the deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, told me that Ward’s mission was organized in response to three closely coinciding events: the reelection, in November 2004, of Bush, who wanted to rebuild Palestinian security forces as a part of his 2003 road map to Middle East peace; the death, nine days later, of Yasser Arafat, who had resisted American attempts to reform the Palestinian security services; and the victory of America’s favored candidate, Mahmoud Abbas, in the January 2005 presidential election.

  1. 1

    For an excellent report on Palestinian security reform, see “Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform Under Occupation,” International Crisis Group, September 7, 2010.

  2. 2

    Fayyad: Jews Can Be Equal Citizens in a Palestinian State,” Haaretz, July 5, 2009.

  3. 3

    For an example of the sort of approbation Fayyad receives, see several recent columns by Roger Cohen, who has called Fayyad “the most important phenomenon in the Middle East,” and Thomas Friedman, who has coined a term for the prime minister’s brand of “transparent, accountable administration and services”—”Fayyadism”—which he thinks “the most exciting new idea in Arab governance ever.” Roger Cohen, “Beating the Mideast’s Black Hole,” The International Herald Tribune, April 27, 2010; Thomas Friedman, “Green Shoots in Palestine,” The New York Times, August 4, 2009.

  4. 4

    Akiva Eldar, “A Day in the Life of the Palestinian Ben-Gurion,” Haaretz, February 11, 2010.

  5. 5

    Fadi Elsalameen, “Fayyad: ‘Build, Build Despite the Occupation,’” The Palestine Note, July 30, 2010.

  6. 6

    Merav Michaeli, “Lieberman: Israel’s Gestures to Palestinians Met with ‘Slaps in the Face,’” Haaretz, May 13, 2010.

  7. 7

    Fadi Elsalameen, “Fayyad: ‘Build, Build Despite the Occupation.’”

  8. 8

    Much has been made of a report by the International Monetary Fund stating that real GDP in the West Bank grew by 8.5 percent in 2009. For a source arguing that the IMF’s report of West Bank economic growth is greatly exaggerated, see Bassim S. Khoury, “Putting the Palestinian ‘Carriage Behind the Horse,’” ForeignPolicy.com, July 1, 2010.

  9. 9

    Measures Taken by Israel in Support of Developing the Palestinian Economy, the Socio-Economic Structure, and the Security Reforms,” Report of the Government of Israel to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, April 13, 2010.

  10. 10

    2009 Annual Summary—Data and Trends in Palestinian Terrorism,” Israeli Security Agency, 2009. See also previous Israeli Security Agency reports and “Four Years of Conflict: Israel’s War Against Terrorism,” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 3, 2004.

  11. 11

    On the size of the NSF, see the estimates made in “Palestinian Authority: US Assistance Is Training and Equipping Security Forces, but the Program Needs to Measure Progress and Faces Logistical Constraints,” Government Accountability Office, May 2010; and “Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform Under Occupation.” The number used in this piece falls between the figures provided in those two reports and represents a slight adjustment, presented to me by a spokesman for EUPOL COPPS (the European Union Police Mission for the Palestinian Territories) in April 2010, of a previous estimate made by US officials. See “West Bank: Palestinian Security Forces,” US Security Coordination Road Warrior Team, June 2008.

  12. 12

    These courses are open to members of each of the seven security services: the National Security Forces, Presidential Guard, Civil Police, Civil Defense, and three intelligence services—Military Intelligence, General Intelligence, and Preventive Security.

  13. 13

    Palestinian Authority: US Assistance Is Training and Equipping Security Forces, but the Program Needs to Measure Progress and Faces Logistical Constraints.”

  14. 14

    Palestinian Authority: US Assistance Is Training and Equipping Security Forces, but the Program Needs to Measure Progress and Faces Logistical Constraints.”

  15. 15

    The State Department, however, expects the forces to be deployed in only nine governorates, with one battalion as a reserve force. (The PA security sector treats the governorates of Jenin and Tubas as a single unit.) See “US Security Assistance to the Palestinian Authority,” Congressional Research Service, January 8, 2010; and “Squaring the Circle,” International Crisis Group, September 7, 2010, p. 11.

  16. 16

    Dayton served alongside the national security adviser, General James Jones, who was special envoy for Middle East security in 2007–2008; wrote a glowing blurb for a recent book coauthored by Dennis Ross, a senior director at the National Security Council and special adviser to the President; and has given presentations to influential senators, congressmen, and interest groups visiting Israel.

  17. 17

    Squaring the Circle: Palestinian Security Reform Under Occupation.”

  18. 18

    West Bank Movement and Access Update,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory, June 2010.

  19. 19

    Colonel Philip J. Dermer, “Trip Notes on a Return to Israel and the West Bank: Reflections on US Peacemaking, the Security Mission, and What Should Be Done,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring 2010).

  20. 20

    James Kitfield, “United They Fall; Divided They Stand,” National Journal, March 28, 2009.

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