What a Bureaucratic Pentagon Decision Says About Biden’s Palestine Policy
By keeping the US Security Coordinator’s military rank the same, Biden doubled down on the pre-Trump status quo: supporting the Palestinian Authority, but doing little to end Israel’s occupation.
Palestinian Authority security forces fire tear gas at protesters during a rally calling for the resignation of President Mahmoud Abbas following the death in PA custody of political activist Nizar Banat, Ramallah, West Bank, June 26th, 2021.
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LAST WEEK, The Times of Israel reported that the Pentagon has reversed its plan to downgrade the military rank of the US Security Coordinator (USSC)—an official tasked with bolstering what is known as “security coordination” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank—from general to colonel. The decision to downgrade the role traces back to late 2016, when Congress directed the Pentagon to cut the number of generals and flag officers by 111 as part of a budget-saving plan to be enacted by 2023. In June of this year, Axios reported that the Pentagon was deciding whether to downgrade the rank of the USSC in Israel/Palestine from a three-star general to a colonel. The proposal did not originate with the Biden administration; a former US ambassador to Israel told Axios this was a decision Biden had “inherited” from the Trump administration, which wanted to carry out Congress’s directive by reducing “generals and admirals posted in bases and positions around the world.” But the Biden-era Pentagon was set to carry out the plan—until the proposal ran into fierce opposition from across the political spectrum, including from the State Department and Israeli officials. Proponents of keeping the USSC as a general said reducing the rank would have left the security coordinator without access to relevant Israeli and Palestinian commanders crucial to the security cooperation program, and would send a signal that Washington no longer prioritizes cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian armed forces.
Security coordination refers to cooperation between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the PA’s armed forces to crack down on Palestinian groups that launch attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers as part of what groups like Hamas call “armed resistance” to Israeli repression. That cooperation, which the US has supported not only through the USSC but with hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to the PA, has been key to the sharp reduction in West Bank violence since the Second Intifada of 2000-2005, though lately, Palestinian armed groups have experienced something of a resurgence, despite PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s opposition to a strategy of armed struggle. US and European support has helped shore up the PA’s rule even as no elections have been held for PA leadership since 2006, and as the PA escalates a crackdown on internal dissent, including on critics of security coordination such as Nizar Banat, who was killed by PA security forces in July 2021. While most Palestinians support ending Israeli–Palestinian security cooperation, seeing it as collaboration with Israel’s military occupation, the policy’s success in curbing violence has earned it support from Washington and from across the Israeli political spectrum, excepting the extreme right that wants to dismantle the PA. Israel’s security establishment opposed the Pentagon downgrade plan, viewing it as a danger to the cooperation with Palestinian forces that it sees as crucial to curbing armed attacks from the West Bank.
“This is one area where you have Palestinian [Authority] and Israeli consensus,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who opposed the Pentagon’s planned downgrade. “This then translated into support from very different organizations in the American system. AIPAC was supportive, and the [liberal Zionist] Israel Policy Forum was supportive.” J Street, a more left-leaning group, also supported keeping the rank the same.
To preserve the USSC’s role, which much of Washington sees as an unqualified success, Republicans and Democrats have mobilized to pressure the Pentagon to reverse course on a policy that was out of step with the rest of the Biden agenda on Palestine. “Downgrading this position would undermine critical security programs and degrade communications between Israelis and Palestinians, which the USSC facilitates,” read a letter sent to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in June and signed by 32 senators.
Those arguments ultimately won over the Biden administration. By keeping the US Security Coordinator’s rank the same, the Defense Department avoided taking a step that could have undermined the Biden administration’s policy of renewing ties with the Palestinian Authority. The reversal represents a doubling down on the administration’s overall emphasis on improving daily life for Palestinians by ameliorating the effects of Israel’s occupation, as opposed to diplomatic initiatives aimed at ending the occupation and securing a Palestinian state. “The current policy is basically stabilization, as well as quality-of-life type of initiatives, and this [decision] fits nicely because the security coordinator plays an important role in stability,” said al-Omari. “Remove the three-star, remove the security component, and you end up with conditions on the ground that might not be conducive to the kinds of initiatives that the administration is pushing for.”
Al-Omari worried the downgrade would have “killed the mission” of the USSC—not only because of the signal it would send and the lack of access a lower-ranking US officer would have to Israeli and Palestinian generals, but because he believes the seven other NATO-member countries that support the mission also would have downgraded the ranks of their representatives rather than send high-ranking officers to serve under an American colonel. But Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said he didn’t think the downgrade would have had much practical impact. The criticism over the plan, then, was due to it reinforcing “what a lot of people are already concluding, which is that the administration is not interested in the issue, that they’re actually divesting from it in real and tangible ways,” he said.
On several fronts, President Biden has departed from former President Trump’s policies toward the PA. Trump cut off US humanitarian aid to the PA and funding to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, and shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington—policies that Middle East analyst Omar Rahman said represented the Trump administration’s opposition to “expressions of Palestinian identity and collective nationalism,” which it viewed as “threatening to Israel and its legitimacy.” While former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the cuts to UNRWA, Israeli defense officials reportedly opposed them because of fears they could destabilize Palestinian areas and fuel unrest that ultimately would reach Israel. Biden restored US funding to UNRWA, resumed humanitarian aid for Palestinians, and reaffirmed US support for a two-state solution. “It’s a fundamental break from the Trump administration,“ said al-Omari. Biden has reaffirmed the pre-Trump status quo on Palestine, which Elgindy said is about supporting the PA’s ability to provide services to its people, and to continue security coordination with Israel—policies that the Israeli government strongly supports. Keeping a general as the USSC, then, was just the latest decision showing Biden’s desire to avoid challenges to Israel that would inevitably generate opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. “When you have the Israeli security establishment weighing in and saying this is important, that’s when people listen,” said Elgindy.
The lack of any challenge to Israel is evident in other Biden policies. Biden has not prioritized the launch of diplomatic negotiations between the PA and Israel in pursuit of a two-state solution. His promise to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem to serve Palestinians has not been fulfilled in the face of Israeli protests. Biden has also kept in place a major change implemented by Trump’s secretary of State, Mike Pompeo: rescinding a 1978 State Department opinion declaring Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank to be “illegal.”
“Their approach is to expend as little political capital as possible on the issue,” said Elgindy. “The tone obviously has changed, but for the most part, the Trump legacy remains intact.”