By AARON MEHTA and ARIE EGOZI
Amos Gilead, a retired general officer for the IDF, told Breaking Defense, “Especially at this time, this decision is a mistake. It is a mutual American and Israeli interest to strengthen the US influence on
WASHINGTON and TEL AVIV: A below-the-radar American military liaison role between Israel and Palestine is facing a major change, one advocates and experts worry could further set back relations between the two sides.
On June 1, Axios reported that the Pentagon was looking to downgrade the role of the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority from a three-star general, which it has been since its creation in 2005, to a colonel-level position, as part of a Congressionally mandated requirement to cut the number of general officer roles at DoD. Despite pushback from a number of corners, including 32 US Senators, the Times of Israel reported Tuesday that the downgrade is still likely to happen by the end of the year.
The USSC serves a unique role: a military officer who reports both to the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Officially, its role is to help develop the Palestinian security forces, work with Israel’s security apparatus and have a “persistent presence [that] provides a positive and visible sign of the U.S. commitment to an enduring partnership with both Israel and the Palestinian people,” according to an official State document.
But while security cooperation efforts between the two sides and the US can happen at a number of levels, the real job of the USSC head, according to a former official from the USSC team, is to serve as a neutral party and backchannel and calming influence in times of crisis. Doing so, according to a number of interested parties, requires being able to be in the room and have frank conversations with key military officials — something that is much harder to do if not armed with sufficient rank.
“The Israeli defense chief is a three-star. Their West Bank chief is a two-star. No colonel will get the one-on-one time they need for this job,” the former official said, adding that the system “actually worked” well for a number of years and expressing frustration that it could be scuttled now.
“About the only groups opposed to the USSC’s work has been Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. So that tells you that the USSC is doing something right,” the former official added.
Jonathan Lord of the Center for a New American Security calls the USSC role a “thankless job” because of the restraints put on it.
“It’s basically what he can do through the power of diplomacy and small” security assistance funding, said Lord, who before joining CNAS held a number of regional jobs for the Pentagon and led the Middle East portfolio for the House Armed Services Committee. “But while it’s not a huge investment we’re making in there, the fact it’s a three-star gives it credibility and allows them to do things that otherwise can’t be done by field grade officers. Ultimately, rank matters.”
Amos Gilead, a retired general officer for the IDF, told Breaking Defense that if the Pentagon goes through with the downgrade, it may come to regret it.
“Especially at this time, this decision is a mistake. It is a mutual American and Israeli interest to strengthen the US influence on the relations between Israel and the Palestinian authority,” Gilead said.
Gilead served in the IDF intelligence and in 2001 was appointed Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). In that position he held through 2003, Gilead was responsible for the overall relations with the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority. In 2006, he was reassigned to this position in addition to his position in the Ministry of Defense.
There are concerns on the pro-Palestinian side as well. Robert McCaw, government affairs director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), told Breaking Defense that “now, more than ever, Palestinian leadership needs a back channel to mitigate possible conflicts … Our government still doesn’t have a consulate in Palestine, and downgrading the security councilor now would just weaken our ability to mitigate future issues and security concerns for Palestinians.”
What Options Are On The Table?
But the office may not be what it was when it was first formed, said Eitan Dangot, another retired Israeli general who served as the COGAT in 2014. Prior to that post, he served as the military secretary to three ministers of defense. He noted that in recent years, the USSC seemed to lose some of its importance — which perhaps is why the Pentagon considers the position expendable.
“When the USSC was formed, generals like [Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton] and others that replaced him played a major role in shaping the US role related to the Palestinian authority. The change started in the Obama era and especially in the Trump era. That is why I think the Americans [have reduced] their material help to the Palestinian authority and decided that a colonel is enough in this position,” he said.
So what are the options? The former USSC official suggested turning that job into a civilian role, which would still eliminate a flag officer spot, but could fill it with a retired general officer who would still bring gravitas to the job. In theory, it could be someone with experience in the region like a former CENTCOM head, or even a former USSC official himself.
Lord, for his part, is skeptical that could work, noting it’s “not realistic to think you can consistently put a retired general in that role. … Perhaps you can ask someone to serve and he or she agrees, but there’s no facility to permanently billet US government roles for retired military personnel.”
And, Lord said, the message would likely still be interpreted the same: that “this role isn’t enough of a priority to billet an active-duty general officer.”
Counters the former USSC official, “Retired General Officers with Middle East experience would be knocking on the SecDef’s door left and right to lead the USSC.
“The USSC makes a difference. It advances American interests in the Middle East and greatly impacts the lives of Palestinians and Israelis,” the official said.