It would be quite an irony if the Obama administration, which has already withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq and may yet withdraw all of them from Afghanistan, while refusing to become heavily engaged in Syria or Libya, were to cap its tenure by dispatching U.S. troops to guard a new Palestinian state in the West Bank. It would also be pretty unlikely. It would be downright miraculous if troops from other NATO nations were to join U.S. troops on the front lines of what amounts to a fight against Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and myriad other radical groups.
That seems to be what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is proposing in this interview with Jodi Rudoren and Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He has told Secretary of State John Kerry, who for mysterious reasons has made the Israeli-Palestinian peace process his top priority, that a future Palestinian state will have its own police force but not army. To make up for the lack of armed forces, he wants to have “an American-led NATO force patrol a future Palestinian state indefinitely, with troops positioned throughout the territory, at all crossings, and within Jerusalem.”
To understand why this proposal is a nonstarter just think about how such a force would work. Imagine a force of, say, Americans, Brits, French, Germans, and Italians patrolling the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They might as well have a “kick me” sign on their backs–their very presence will make them an irresistible magnet for jihadists who want to score points against the Great Satan. If history is any guide, they will either suffer casualties which will drive most of them out (a la the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or attacks on Spanish forces in Iraq in 2004) or they will hunker down in a “force protection” mode which will make it utterly impossible for them to police the borders.
It is hard to know, in any case, how the multinational force could possibly stop arms smuggling or incursions by terrorists. Certainly U.S. troops, deployed in far greater numbers, with far more firepower and looser rules of engagement, have had little success in policing the borders of Afghanistan or Iraq.
Border interdiction, in any case, is only a small part of a more comprehensive security strategy which must involve gathering intelligence (including running agents) and arresting suspects. Would this NATO force have such powers and, even if it did, would it really exercise them? It’s hard to imagine, because if the outside peacekeepers were actually effective in stopping militant operations they would make themselves an even bigger target for suicide bombers. More likely the presence of foreign troops would hinder and deter effective action by Israeli forces to defend their own homeland.
Israel, of course, knows all this, and it is for this reason that it is unlikely to agree to any such force if it requires the pullback of Israeli troops from the borders of the West Bank. Israel has had experience before with international peacekeepers and it well remembers how little such forces did to protect Israel when deployed to protect against attack from Egypt (before the 1967 Six-Day War) or from Hezbollah when deployed in Lebanon more recently.
Abu Mazen’s proposal is a nice fantasy, and one embraced by ardent “peace processers” who think it will resolve the deep and understandable security concerns that Israel has about ceding power to an entity that continues to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. But it is not a workable solution, even assuming (which we cannot know for sure) that the West Bank will continue to be overseen by the relatively moderate Palestinian Authority rather than fall to the more radical Hamas. The U.S. should not agree to put ground troops in harm’s way on such a nebulous mission and Israel should not agree to accept them.