US and israel discuss the safeguards needed for a peace deal
Ron Ben Yishai
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meetings in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the second week of December – focussed on US proposals for security arrangements for a final agreement – were historic. That can be said without fear of overstatement and even without knowing all the details, because the security issue is the matter which has locked the current peace negotiations into a deadlock. It is also the matter that was most difficult to solve in the previous negotiations held in a bid to reach a permanent agreement.
At the heart of the issue is Israel’s demand that even after the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israel’s citizens will have the same level of national personal security as they enjoy today. This demand is Israel’s strongest card in the negotiations, because the Americans are not the only ones who acknowledge its legitimacy and validity – so do the Europeans and in fact the entire international community. So it’s no wonder that the deadlock reached between Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni and Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat on the security issue is in essence preventing progress on all other issues.
According to the little information leaking from the negotiations, it appears that all issues have already been discussed there, including the core subjects which the parties must agree on not just for a permanent agreement, but even for an interim arrangement. But Israel, rightfully, is unprepared to discuss the borders of the Palestinian state, the water issues, land exchanges and all the other subjects which have to do with territory before an agreement is reached on security issues.
Relying on the Jordanians
This isn’t an abstract concern or a technical issue which will make Israel feel safe if resolved. The security arrangements component in any Israeli-Palestinian agreement is made up of at least seven or eight issue-areas, and one can say without exaggeration that each of them is critical.
The most discussed issue is the demand for an IDF presence on the Jordan River for a long but limited period of time, which will end once there is no longer a threat of weapon smuggling and infiltration of terror activists from east of the Jordan River into the West Bank. Another threat is an invasion or attack by an Arab or Muslim army against Israel from the east (for example, an Iraqi army or any other state or non-state organisation, as a result of the turmoil in the Arab world).
It’s reasonable to assume that the American proposal devised by General John Allen, Kerry’s advisor on security issues, will include several components, some technological and most related to the integration of an international force and cooperation with Jordan.
The Americans were expected to argue that what really prevents the smuggling of weapons and terror activists into the West Bank is not the thin presence of the IDF along the Jordan River and Dead Sea. The Americans probably explained that what prevents the smuggling of rockets and anti-aircraft shoulder-fired missiles – which would jeopardise both the citizens of Israel in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and civil aviation from Ben-Gurion Airport – are Jordan’s security services.
According to the Americans, it is mostly thanks to the security-supporting presence of Jordan’s royal regime that Israel enjoys the ability to thwart the sort of smuggling which has turned the Gaza Strip into a huge launching pad for high-trajectory weapons. So they will likely suggest an international system for tight cooperation with Jordan’s security organisations to replace the current arrangements between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom.
They also may have suggested establishing a fence and joint policing forces incorporating Palestinians and reliable international organisations along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. The arrangements will include anti-personnel radar and perhaps even a barrier supervised by an international organisation.
It’s reasonable to assume that Israel argued that the Americans are indeed right when they say that security on the eastern border relies very much today on the goodwill of the Jordanian regime, but asked what would happen if, as a result of the turmoil in the Arab world, the Islamist groups in the Kingdom gain the upper hand? In such a case, the Americans will suggest guarantees and perhaps even that the international force along the Jordan River will be comprised mainly of American soldiers that Israel can trust for their reliability and desire to protect it.
Problems and solutions
Another related issue is the supervision on the border crossings between the West Bank and Jordan. Only thanks to Israeli control over the border crossing has it been possible to prevent a massive spillover of al-Qaeda activists and explosive devices into the West Bank and from there into the State of Israel.
Israel will also note that the attempt to place European inspectors at the border crossings between the Gaza Strip and Egypt failed miserably, and that at the first opportunity, following the Hamas coup in 2007, the supervisors fled for their lives into Israeli territory. The Americans will likely suggest a technical solution which will allow Israel to monitor from afar whoever tries to cross the border with Jordan.
A second fundamental issue, perhaps even more important than the supervision along the Jordan Valley, is thwarting terror in the West Bank by collecting intelligence and conducting arrests. The Israeli claim is that only thanks to the operational and intelligence freedom of action that the IDF and Shin Bet have in the territories, including those areas under full Palestinian control, has it been possible to foil more than 80% of terror attempts by organisations and individuals – acts of terror which could threaten not only Israeli Jews, but also the survival of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel says it must retain in its hands, to some extent, the option of entering territories and surveilling them even after a Palestinian state is established, otherwise it will be impossible to thwart terror. This demand is justified mainly because Palestinians scattered in other countries, for example in Lebanon, will likely be allowed to return to the territories of the future Palestinian state.
Even if Abbas waives the “right of return”, he will be forced to take in thousands of Palestinians who are residing at the moment in what are referred to as refugee camps in Lebanon. Many of these individuals are already active in Salafist and global jihad organisations. At the moment they are operating from Lebanon, but when they are given the “right of return”, they will settle in the West Bank, and attempt to turn it into a branch of the global jihad – with all that this implies for Israel’s security.
The preferred American solution for this issue will likely be establishing a joint American-Palestinian-Israeli super-system for coordinating security. Its goal will be to ensure that the PA’s security organisations are working to thwart terror attacks effectively. In other words, not just revolving-door arrests (in the best-case scenario) or warning terrorists to escape (in the worst-case scenario) as happens today, but complete and effective prevention and deterrence: Arrests, investigation, prosecution and imprisonment for long periods of time, just as the PA acts towards those terrorists it is warned by Israel are jeopardising its own survival.
Al-Qaeda headed to the West Bank
Another issue is warning stations like the ones Israel has at the moment on several high mountain-tops in the West Bank. Israel needs these stations in order to warn against aerial threats, missiles, aircraft, etc, and also against foreign armies approaching the Jordan Valley. That also includes warning against the new threat to Israel taking shape in Syria.
The threat stems from al-Qaeda becoming established in Syria in the form of the Jabhat al-Nusra organisation, which already has some 10,000 terror activists and fighters in the country today, and is slowly but surely taking over a huge arsenal of modern arms captured from the Assad regime’s army. The danger is that Jabhat al-Nusra will use these weapons against Israel or smuggle them into the West Bank through Jordan.
The warning systems are needed to provide Israel with early warning against such dangers, but the Palestinians object to Israeli presence on the territory of the future state. The solution Kerry and General Allen likely suggested was that the warning stations will be manned by American operators, in addition to observation balloons and listening and other devices. It’s very possible that in this context General Allen will adopt the model the Americans suggested at the time for Israeli presence on Mount Hermon in the case of an agreement with Syria.
Can we fly over Palestine?
There are other issues on the agenda, like controlling the airspace over the West Bank: Where does Israel’s freedom of the air end? The Palestinians are demanding full sovereignty over the airspace just like they are demanding over the land. But if this demand is fulfilled, will Israel be able to fly in the Palestinian airspace using remote-piloted vehicles in order to collect intelligence? What about Air Force drills? Will this not clash with the freedom of the air for civilian planes landing at Ben-Gurion Airport [which is just a few kilometres from the 1967 armistice line]?
Another question the Americans will have to provide an answer to is the control over the electromagnetic space – not just cellular phone operators and communication networks, but also Palestinian radio stations which may disrupt Ben-Gurion Airport’s communication with civilian planes seeking to take off or land.
All these are issues which are difficult to resolve, and it’s completely reasonable to assume that the American response proposed by General Allen will not have satisfied PM Netanyahu and Defence Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon. In principle, the American response must suggest a satisfying arrangement for three fundamental issues:
• What will happen in case of a coup in the Palestinian state or in Jordan, or in both at the same time, which sees a radical Islamist group rise to power there?
• What will happen if an American Administration has an interest in concealing information from Israel and decides not to pass on what the international monitoring system discovers (as happened recently for months with respect to the Americans’ secret negotiating channel with the Iranians)?
• How will the Gaza issue be handled as part of the agreement, and what will be the fate of the “safe passage” slated to be set up between Gaza and the West Bank?
Until an answer to these issues is found, the security issues for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will not be resolved, and this will likely thwart the attainment of a permanent agreement in the near future. Let’s hope that the sides can at least reach an American-brokered interim agreement.
Ron Ben Yishai is a veteran Israeli military reporter and national security correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronoth and Israeli TV’s Channel 1. © Yediot Ahronoth, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.