The Bush administration is finalizing plans to send a team of monitors to verify the implementation by Israel and the Palestinians of the “road map” peace plan. The size and composition of that team, though, is a source of disagreement.
While the administration appears ready to settle on a small CIA team, as Israel would prefer, the other members of the so-called Madrid Quartet — the United Nations, European Union and Russia — as well as the Palestinians would like a larger and broader monitoring team on the ground.
Following Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip to Israel last weekend, an American team will visit the region to assess the situation and decide on the final scope of the mission, according to a U.N. source. Jeff O’Connell, a former head of the CIA’s Tel Aviv station, has reportedly been tapped to head the security mission.
The outline of the monitoring mechanism, which is still being negotiated among the quartet members, envisions an American official at the helm of a monitoring structure with four subcommittees. The American, presumably O’Connell, would head a security subcommittee comprised of American, European, Russian, Egyptian and Jordanian delegates, according to a Western diplomat.
However, Israel is opposed in principle to the presence of monitors that could herald a “soft internationalization” of the conflict, in the words of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. While it has indicated a readiness to accept a small CIA team of a dozen persons, Israel does not want monitors from other countries.
The administration is said to agree with Jerusalem, but the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot reported earlier this week that Washington would like to find a compromise on a team of about 60 to 70 inspectors composed mostly of Americans but also including a handful of Canadians and Britains.
Most experts said the administration was likely to settle for now on a small CIA presence.
“We are talking about a very limited conception, with a small CIA team sent to try to reconstruct the Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation,” said Israel expert Stephen P. Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum.
Several sources told the Forward that a larger American presence was premature, particularly given the volatile situation and more pressing priorities.
“I’m sure there’ll be intelligence sharing among the Israelis, U.S. and [Palestinian Prime Minister] Abu Mazen’s crowd, but whether U.S. would be willing to have boots on the ground is more doubtful,” an intelligence source told the Forward.
He noted that for now, the CIA was heavily involved in helping provide security protection for Abu Mazen and his interior minister, Mohamed Dahlan.
“Both gentlemen are under real threat from Hamas… and both Israel and the U.S. have a lot riding on these two guys,” the source said. “The Al Aqsa brigades already sent a warning to Dahlan, and both Al Aqsa and Hamas are capable and willing to pop either gentleman. That’s what worries the U.S.”
The issue of a broader international presence in the region was broached recently by former top Middle East diplomat Martin Indyk in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.
Based on his belief that the Palestinian Authority will not be able to deliver on security, Indyk proposes that the West Bank and Gaza be put in a trusteeship led by the United States for three years before the advent of an independent state. The trusteeship would entail the presence on the ground of American — and maybe British and Australian — troops to maintain security and retrain Palestinian forces.
A Palestinian official told the Forward that informal discussions over such a project have taken place recently between Palestinian and Israelis.