Should NATO Protect the Palestinians?

Israeli hardliners have long rejected the idea of a foreign peacekeeping force on the West Bank because it might restrict Israel’s freedom to attack Palestinians. But such a proposal is now on the table and has put Prime Minister Netanyahu on the spot, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The suggestion by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas that a NATO force might be indefinitely stationed in a Palestinian state in the West Bank to meet Israeli security concerns sounds at first glance like a can of worms that the United States and its allies would best avoid, and perhaps it is.

It would seem to put Western soldiers in the middle of a conflict so long and so bitter that, even with a peace settlement, of which such a deployment would be one of the terms, some distrust and doubt would linger and some extremist wild cards would still be in play. But the idea should not be peremptorily discarded. Maybe the North Atlantic Council should discuss it.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas

Consider first of all the basic reasonableness of what Abbas was saying. He explicitly recognized that Israel has legitimate security concerns about what would be going on in a Palestinian state on the West Bank, concerns that some sort of security force would have to assuage. He also disavowed creation of a Palestinian army, for that or any other purpose.

But for Israel’s military to stick around in the territories would be indistinguishable from continued occupation, an end to which is a central part of what the peace negotiations are supposed to be about. That leaves the alternative of a third party force.

Consider also precedents, especially that of the peace observation force in the Sinai known as the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), which was created pursuant to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The MFO is not a NATO mission, but the United States and several other members of NATO participate in it.

(More attention should be given to the Egyptian-Israeli peace as a precedent in other respects as well, including demonstrating what trading land for peace really means and avoiding extraneous negotiation-inhibiting demands such as insisting that one side characterize the other in terms of a particular ethnic or religious group.)

It’s not as if a NATO force in the West Bank would be likely to get in some big fight in the course of performing the mission of helping to keep Israel safe from foreign threats. Much of what the current Israeli government has been saying about such threats is fundamentally phony, especially as it relates to a supposed need to maintain defenses in the Jordan River valley. No NATO force would have to repel an invasion force coming across the river.

Individual acts of terrorism are a different matter, of course. But it cannot be said often enough that a peace agreement that ends the occupation would drastically change the bidding and change the motivation and likelihood of attacks on Israel of any sort.

There would remain the possibility of a terrorist act by a rejectionist fringe, and the stickiest situation in which a NATO force might find itself would come in the wake of such an attack. Israel might then chomp at the bit to do what it has done several times on different azimuths in the past, which is to send its forces across a border and wreak some destruction, with its only hesitation this time being that some NATO troops would be in the way.

If that caused Israeli decision-makers to think twice before launching yet another attack, that would be a good thing. It would be hard for anyone to make a case that Israel’s previous similar attacks, when all their secondary effects are taken into account, have reduced terrorism. It would be easier to make a case that such attacks have strengthened the roots and motivations of further terrorism. It is an ironclad case that such attacks have increased the total number of innocent people killed.

Meanwhile, some positive reaction to Abbas’s suggestion, as a supplement or modification to whatever was in General Allen’s security plan, might have some modest additional benefits.

One would be in effect to call the bluff of the Netanyahu government regarding whether some of what it terms a security need is really just a desire to cling to land. That government is unlikely to change any of its positions in response, but perhaps a few more Israelis would be stimulated to think hard about whether endless conflict and reliance on repeated use of their own military resources is how they really want to live.

Such a gesture might also lend one small bit of balance to the U.S. tilt toward the Israeli negotiating position and thus reduce the chance that the Palestinians will feel they have no choice but to abandon the peace talks. The gesture, moreover, would be one taken in the name of Israeli security.

Finally, if the proposal ever were implemented it might give the old Cold War alliance something useful to do. It would probably be better than endlessly waging a war in Afghanistan.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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