Biden Needs to Transform a Symbolic Visit to Lasting Security Reform in the West Bank
While the press focus of President Biden’s Middle East visit has centralized on his visit to a tumultuous Israel and whether he would fist bump MbS, the short visit with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas deserves some attention of its own. While the Palestinians were expected to offer up some big asks during the visit, President Biden’s own remarks were appropriately scaled to reflect the dismal state of Palestinian politics, and how this impacts the future of the region.
Saying that “the ground is not right” to currently reignite negotiations, Biden noted that “there must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel. We cannot allow the hopelessness to steal away the future.” Coming on the near-anniversary of Palestine’s most recent set of promised-but-canceled elections, Biden’s assessment of the lack of a political horizon reflects not just the uneasy rightward lean in Israel, but Abbas’ own failures of leadership that have stalled out any opportunity for progress.
And while much of the tepid enthusiasm for Biden’s Middle Eastern travels center around how Israel and Saudi Arabia can counter the Iranian security threat, in reality, improvements in West Bank could also offer significant strides to increase regional stability. For however much Israel would like to deny the damaging consequences of decades of unresolved conflict, most other regional leaders consistently point to the lack of resolution as a symbol of global injustice that has long plagued the region. This makes partnerships flimsy, and trust hard to come by. For an administration focused on limiting direct involvement in the region and instead relying on partners to advance shared security interests, a change in the West Bank that actually puts a hope for resolution on the horizon would be a significant win for American security.
The president’s trip was not focused on promoting Palestinian political and/or security reform, so much as on emphasizing a renewed U.S. commitment to the relations between both states. But the broader intent of the trip – including supporting the further warming of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel – could be leveraged in the long term to do just that.
First, while Saudi Arabia appears to be on a path to investing millions into at least two Israeli startups, it is within the interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, and the United States to promote similar initiatives to incentivize and nurture entrepreneurship in the West Bank. Part of Jared Kushner’s push toward Saudi investment in Israeli firms was that Saudi Arabia stood to lose out on the “Silicon Valley of the Middle East” if they passed on the opportunity. Saudi Arabia has the interest and the capacity to push to open doors that would allow Palestinians to be part of that vision. Entrepreneurship in Palestine is currently limited by the challenges of establishing credit systems, payment options, and exporting goods.
But if Saudi Arabia decided to condition investment in Israeli firms on reducing obstacles to West Bank economic growth, Israel would have new incentives to support Palestinian development. With Saudi leadership and American support, this could be done without any threat of development being annexation contingent, and would instead slowly improve the conditions in Palestine, thereby laying the groundwork for a future economic partner in a two-state solution.
Second, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. both have a bully pulpit from which to call out Abbas for his failure to hold elections as promised. Abbas has held his “four-year” position since 2005, and has cited unstable conditions in the West Bank and Gaza as reasons for extending this term an absurd 13 years. Some of the hopelessness that Biden referred to reflects the absence of confidence the vast majority of Palestinians have in their own government. As of June of 2022, more than 75% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign from office.
Obviously, there are legitimate concerns about who would be elected were Abbas to allow elections to take place. It is well known that if Abbas ran against the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, Haniyeh would easily win (in both the West Bank and Gaza) by a margin of around 20 points, which is deeply problematic. But things get more interesting when pollsters look at what would happen if Abbas did not run, or ran and allowed others he has traditionally excluded from running as well.
The same poll that shows Haniyeh beating Abbas by 20 points, shows Haniyeh losing by nearly 30 points if he were to run against long-time Palestinian leader and (not for nothing, accused terrorist and Israeli prisoner) Marwan Barghouti. And there are others that Abbas has systematically eliminated from contention that also stand to make an impact, should elections actually be held.
Why should the U.S. security community care whether Palestinians hold elections? Israelis have long contended that they have no legitimate partner in the peace process, and as long as 75% of Palestinians have no confidence in their own leadership, and the Israelis are right. But if Palestinians could become politically invested in their leadership, opportunities for resolution become possible, and this enhances regional stability.
Third, the United States must continue to support the Palestinian Security Forces. The U.S. has a long history of supporting the PASF, both financially and through consistent training, since the 1990s. The PASF is not a traditional military (indeed this was one of the conditions of the Oslo Accords), but rather a large conglomerate of security entities, including the Presidential Guard, a national security force, a police force, and an emergency services branch (think firefighters and first responders). The Force has undergone significant reform since that time, and U.S.-funded training programs have been assessed as effective in advancing the capacity and professionalism of the force.
The PASF have significant problems, (among them, an overabundance of overpaid and underworked senior officers on the payroll) but they are the only institution in a position to maintain security in the West Bank other than Israeli security forces. And while the presence of the PASF has not deterred troubling nighttime raids by the IDF, prospects for a two-state solution are impossible without a force that could eventually be transformed into a sovereign security institution.
To build capacity toward this goal, the U.S. needs to continue to provide not just physical training, but educational opportunities that promote interoperability across services as well as reform in the incentive structures for promotion and retention. The Saudis could support this effort as well. With the millions currently being invested in the development of a Saudi National Defense College, they could allocate student spots in each yearly cohort to promising Palestinian leaders.
Finally, the United States should think about reforming the role of the United States Security Coordinator. The role was created in 2005 as a means of advancing the Middle East Roadmap. While that “map” has not led to the goal intended, the USSC has been a consistent influence in Israel and Palestine in the decades since. A joint initiative that stretches across countries and agencies, the USSC is in a position to build important relationships with Palestinian political and security leaders. But there are structural challenges limiting this influence.
First, although the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem resulted in the USSC offices being moved, they are still housed in Israel. Interestingly, the offices of the USSC’s international counterparts are located in Ramallah (Palestinian territory). There are Palestinian advisors to the U.S. team, who are granted passes into and out of Israel – and these mitigate some of the hardships faced by Palestinians crossing into Israel – but they still face curfews and specific transport requirements.
Consequently, there have been instances when Palestinian advisors have stayed late to support U.S. initiatives and found themselves unable to cross back into Palestine, but also unable to legally remain in Israel. These instances are counted in the dozens, not hundreds or thousands, but continue to place unnecessary hardships on Palestinians endeavoring to affect change through legitimate international channels. If the offices were moved to Ramallah, the U.S. would have the ability to build more robust and natural relationships with leaders than possible under the current arrangement.
Additionally, U.S. postings to the position of the USSC are generally shorter than those of our European partners. Some are as short as a year, and few extend beyond two. This is in contrast to European postings that begin at three years, and in some cases extend well beyond. While the timing of postings makes sense from a U.S. force perspective, it is another structural factor that makes lasting reform difficult. Each of the last three U.S. generals serving as Security Coordinator have had broadly different personalities, ambitions, and goals for their tenure during their time with the PASF. This creates a sense of uncertainty among PASF officers and diminishes the returns even on valuable U.S. reform efforts. Even establishing one or two positions within the USSC that are dedicated to longer-term tenures would produce a sense of continuity of objectives, methods, and relationships that would further increase the security relationship between the U.S. and the PASF.
Nothing proposed here will bring about a two-state solution in the short term. It is clear that while they support the idea in theory, actively pursuing the outcome in practice is not part of Biden’s Middle East agenda. But that doesn’t mean steps cannot be taken now to change the facts that will be present on the ground when such a solution is pursued. The Biden administration’s emphasis on partnerships, particularly with Israel and Saudi Arabia provides a window of opportunity to make some of these changes with minimal direct U.S. cost, and a considerable investment in the future of regional security.