Something to build on

Israeli security officials avow that the West Bank security situation has not been this good for 15 years. Much of this can be attributed to the deployment of newly-trained Palestinian security forces throughout West Bank cities in the course of the past year. This has made a major contribution to the restoration of law and order and the prevention of terrorism.

One example of the success of this operation is the degree to which the Palestinian Authority maintained order during Israel’s recent military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. There were more angry demonstrations of solidarity among the Israeli Arab population than in the West Bank.

Arguably, the Palestinian force deployment is the single most significant Palestinian state-building achievement of the Oslo period. It deserves more international attention and Israeli reciprocation.

The force-training program is administered by General Keith Dayton, a three-star American general. Dayton-trained contingents of the Palestinian National Security Forces are deployed in large numbers in Jenin and Nablus in the northern West Bank and in Hebron in the south, with smaller units in other Palestinian towns. Dayton, whose team also trains the Presidential Guard, works in close coordination with British and European Union security contingents who train Palestinian police. He emphasizes that the forces whose training he oversees are trained to deal strictly with internal Palestinian law-and-order issues and will in no way jeopardize Israeli security interests, and that his security efforts go hand-in-hand with Quartet envoy Tony Blair’s program for strengthening the West Bank economy.

There are a number of existing and potential snags in this otherwise positive picture. For one, the NSF has only begun to deal directly with Palestinian terrorist threats. The IDF still roams Palestinian territory every night, when the NSF is confined to bases. Dayton has improved IDF-NSF coordination regarding these issues, but there is plenty of room for Israeli-Palestinian misunderstanding. And there are constant allegations by Hamas and others that the NSF is little but a proxy for Israel. In this sense, "successes" such as preventing demonstrations during the Gaza war have a downside as well.

Still, overall this security program is recognized as a success. Logic dictates that Israel find a way to respond to Palestinian security achievements by reducing night incursions, removing checkpoints and reopening more West Bank roads to Palestinian traffic. Eventually, Israel should be contemplating turning over additional territory to Palestinian security forces in the northern West Bank, particularly in areas where settlements were in any case removed nearly four years ago in parallel with the withdrawal from Gaza.

With the exception of dismantling a few checkpoints, none of this happened under the Olmert government, while the new Netanyahu government can claim that it is still studying the issues and planning its approach toward a political process with the Palestinians. The key personality on the Israeli side is Defense Minister (under Olmert and Netanyahu) Ehud Barak, who presumably fears the political price he will pay if reciprocal Israeli gestures are seen by the Israeli public to have led to renewed Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

PM Binyamin Netanyahu will meet next week with President Barack Obama to discuss ways to get an Israeli-Palestinian peace process going again. Beyond their possible disagreements regarding the substance and modalities of a two-state solution, both presumably agree on the need for early confidence-building measures in the security and economic spheres. Indeed, Netanyahu has developed an entire "economic peace" theory that embodies a "bottom up" approach to improving the quality of life in the West Bank.

It is universally understood that there can be no serious Palestinian economic development unless checkpoints and roads in the West Bank are opened and free movement facilitated. The improved performance of the Palestinian National Security Forces should be reciprocated by Israel with a reduction of restrictive IDF security measures. A more serious effort to remove "illegal" outposts and prevent settlement expansion in accordance with the commitments of previous Israeli governments will also facilitate a reduction in Israeli security deployment.

While the validity of Netanyahu’s "economic peace" program as a strategy for reaching an end-of-conflict agreement is debatable, no one can deny that at the tactical level these measures would make an important contribution to improving the atmosphere. We can only hope the Obama administration and its emissary, George Mitchell, will begin insisting on them forcefully, even as they support the ongoing Dayton mission.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence that the real power behind the successful Palestinian force buildup over the past year is PM and Defense Minister Salam Fayyad, who recently resigned his post in the shadow of the abortive Fateh-Hamas unity government talks. He should not be allowed to leave the scene.