Fortifying Palestinian state-building

In the eyes of many knowledgeable Israeli observers, improved security in the West Bank and the role played therein by Palestinian security forces is the most important aspect of the Palestinian Authority’s successful state-building program of recent years. We pay far less attention to the other aspects: creating judicial, financial and administrative institutions that work and are relatively uncorrupt. We don’t particularly care whether the Palestinians have a national bar code system. Only a few Israelis have become involved in the renascent West Bank economy.

Nor is this centrality of security issues unique to Israeli perceptions. The recent unification dialogue between Fateh and Hamas in Damascus has focused, and has virtually collapsed, over the nature and status of a combined security force in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Yet, precisely because the Palestinian security effort in the West Bank has proven so successful and the Israeli man or woman in the street is no longer preoccupied with a Palestinian terrorist threat, there is no strong movement in Israel to make the political sacrifices necessary to reward Palestinians with a state of their own. Thus Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can drag his feet on final status negotiations without paying a domestic political price. Compare this situation to that of the early part of this decade, when frightened Israelis demonstrated and signed petitions in favor of a West Bank security fence to stop terrorist suicide bombers, eventually forcing the hand of a less-than-enthusiastic Sharon government.

This helps explain why the positive security legacy in the West Bank left behind by American General Keith Dayton, who departed last month after five years of efforts, provides a significant wind in the sails for only one of the two parallel peace processes that we confront today.

The first, failing process, is the Obama-Clinton-Mitchell effort to maneuver, pressure and entice the Netanyahu government and the PLO into a renewal of comprehensive final status negotiations. The Obama administration has complicated the process by introducing a problematic preoccupation with a settlement construction freeze, while both the Netanyahu government and the PLO leadership under Mahmoud Abbas appear to be too conflicted and constrained ideologically and too hamstrung politically to commit to a serious negotiating progress. The only security element in this process is Netanyahu’s demand that final status talks begin with security–seemingly as if Dayton had never existed.

This is not the case with the second process, the Palestinian and Arab countdown toward an effort to gain United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Here the Palestinian state-building exercise, spearheaded by the successful security effort, is a key factor in persuading the international community that the Palestinian Authority is ready for the transition from autonomy to statehood. True, security has been enhanced only in the West Bank, and the Hamas leadership ruling the Gaza Strip remains a primary threat to PLO designs regarding the West Bank. Nevertheless, the contrasting role of security in each of the two processes highlights the problematic nature of Washington’s role in shepherding them.

On the one hand, as the Dayton mission illustrates, the US (together with the European Union) correctly identified the key role of security in setting the scene for progress of any sort. A major investment in funds, training and expertise that commenced under the George W. Bush administration has paid off handsomely. It’s fair to say that the Dayton legacy is the engine driving the state-building process.

On the other, the Obama administration’s effort to promote a comprehensive negotiated end-of-conflict agreement within a year has foundered. If this flawed venture continues to be pursued, it could well jeopardize the Dayton achievements and plunge Israel and the West Bank back into some form of renewed conflict.

Thanks to Dayton, Washington would be far better off abandoning its construction freeze and negotiations demands and concentrating instead on making Palestinian unilateral state-building work at the international level. It should be seeking to co-opt Jerusalem into integrating Israel’s security and political needs within the framework of the necessary UN resolutions. Rather than trying to sit the reluctant sides down to reach an elusive comprehensive solution within a year, the US should be capitalizing on Dayton’s achievement in order to foster an indirectly-negotiated but internationally-recognized partial solution that capitalizes on the Palestinian unilateral state-building initiative and concentrates on borders, settlements, water and security.