Recent news reports indicate that a major stumbling block in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is the insistence by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on maintaining a military force on the border between the future Palestinian state and Jordan, along the Jordan Valley.
This demand, and the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry seems to support it, so infuriated Mahmoud Abbas, head of the P.A., that Abbas went over Kerry’s head and appealed directly to President Obama. My suggestion for a way out of this impasse, which follows below, makes sense only once one realizes why both sides feel so strongly about this matter and why they both have good reasons for feeling this way.
Israel sees this force as necessary to prevent the new Palestinian state from turning into a Hamastan and to ensure, as Jackson Diehl put it in The Washington Post, “that the post-occupation West Bank does not become another Iranian base.” As Netanyahu recently said, “We don’t want to see rockets and missiles streaming into a Palestinian state and placed on the hills above Tel Aviv and the hills encircling Jerusalem. If Israel does not maintain a credible military and security presence in the Jordan Valley for the foreseeable future, this is exactly what could happen again.”
Given what happened in southern Lebanon, after Israel fully retreated (granted, from a place where it should not have lingered in the first place) and removed its forces behind an international border recognized by the United Nations and the nations of the world, one cannot deny that on this issue, Israel has a legitimate concern.
At the same time, the Palestinians hold strongly to the principle that Palestine will be a sovereign state. That suggests that the Palestinians “will not accept the presence of any Israeli soldiers within the borders of a Palestinian state,” said Saeb Erekat, chief negotiator in the peace process. Abbas also stated that, “All the talk about an Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley is empty talk, because as long as there is a presence of the occupation army in the territory of Palestine, there will be no solution, and all the settlements on Palestinian lands must be removed.”
The Palestinian point is equally compelling. A sovereign state has a right to ensure that no foreign military forces be stationed in its confines.
Suggestions have been made to use the forces of a third party such as NATO to ensure that the border with Jordan is not overrun with terrorists, trucks carryings missiles or tank brigades. However, Israel holds that NATO’s record in securing borders, in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan, is far from reassuring. And the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban famously observed of the U.N. Peace Keeping Force positioned on the border between Egypt and Israel (which left its post in 1967 as Egypt threatened to invade) — it was like an umbrella that folds up when it rains.
Instead, what is called for is a new force, composed of a combination of Israeli and Palestinian border police that would have their own uniforms, flag and command. Call it the Palm Brigade. It would not violate sovereignty, as it would not be a foreign force but one composed and ruled by both sides, and such forces have proved to be effective. Such a joint border patrol would be similar to the largely successful patrols that were carried out between 1945 and 1955, when the United States, the United Kingdom and France patrolled the center of Vienna jointly with the Soviet Union — a nation that was already emerging as a Cold War adversary.
Moreover, there is precedent for such operations in the area at issue. The 1993 Oslo peace accord established a series of joint patrols to be carried out by Israelis and Palestinians in regions where political control was shared by the two sides. Such patrols were implemented in 1994 in both Gaza and Jericho and, in their first 21 months of operations, successfully thwarted roughly 80 attacks against Israelis. These operations were expanded to include the city of Hebron in 1997 and continued through the end of the year 2000, when a security incident led to their cessation. During their operation, the patrols reportedly served to enhance cooperation between the two sides, to soften the attitudes of those whose security they ensured and to reduce overall Israeli-Palestinian tensions by focusing on common threats.
One may say that this information is dated. However, there is strong evidence that the Palestinian security forces have cooperated with Israeli ones in recent years. Thus the reliable Congressional Research Service reports, “By most accounts, the P.A. forces receiving training have shown increased professionalism and have helped substantially improve law and order and lower the profile of terrorist organizations in West Bank cities.” And improvements in the P.A. security forces’ leadership and capacity may factor into Israeli data that showed a 96% decrease in West Bank terrorist attacks from 2007 to 2012.
Security is hardly the only area in which binational solutions can and should be considered. Israel and the P.A. (and Jordan) just agreed to work together to save the Dead Sea. And various suggestions have been made to turn contested border areas into bi-national parks. So one can envision one day the flag of the Palm Brigade flying over other projects, but resolving the security issues surrounding the Jordan border is the most urgent one.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University and author of “Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World” (Transaction, 2012).