While the Biden administration has been busy encouraging and funding the Israeli protest movement against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, it has also launched a far more potentially dangerous and lethal attempt to destabilize the leading military power in the Middle East. The wave of domestic protests in Israel comes on the heels of the most deadly series of Palestinian terror attacks since the end of the Second Intifada. Incredibly, the U.S. is now proposing to take advantage of its ally’s political weakness by standing up a potential 5,000-man Palestinian terror army that would ostensibly fight terrorism in the West Bank in place of the IDF.
Washington, D.C.’s latest bout of Mideast pyromania began with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Ramallah at the end of January, right after a Palestinian terrorist shot dead seven Israelis outside a synagogue in Neve Yaakov. Naturally, the secretary of state came bearing condolence gifts: a lot more money for the Palestinian Authority, an agreement to provide 4G communications in the West Bank—an initiative from U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides, which he “pounded the table” in order to get rolling, even as there are concerns that advanced ICT infrastructure might complicate efforts by Israeli security to monitor terrorist communications—and a commitment to reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem.
In addition to those goodies, which in no way constituted a reward for terror, or an incentive for PA-rewarded terrorists to commit further acts of terror targeting Jewish worshippers and other innocent civilians, Blinken also carried with him a new security plan for the West Bank, which the Biden administration has spent the past month putting in play.
The U.S. plan, said to have been drafted by the U.S. security coordinator Lt. Gen. Michael Fenzel, was reportedly presented to the Israeli government and the PA in weeks prior. It envisions the creation of a special Palestinian force that would supposedly go after militias in Jenin and Nablus. Unnamed U.S. officials told Israeli media surrogates that during his visit the secretary of state pressed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept the U.S. plan. He then did the same to Israel, which has been repeatedly victimized by mounting waves of Palestinian terror, incentivized by the PA’s “pay for slay” policy.
At his press briefing in Jerusalem, Blinken relayed the administration’s demand that the Israelis stop “any unilateral actions” that “would add fuel to a fire,” echoing a Palestinian condition that Abbas delivered in his joint presser with Blinken—the message being that Team Biden disapproves of Israeli counterterrorism operations. Blinken implicitly blamed Palestinian terrorism on Israel’s actions, painting the Palestinians themselves as an equally injured party in the recent wave of Palestinian attacks.
A Channel 14 news story, cited by Israeli commentator Caroline Glick, provided additional details of the American plan, which were reportedly raised at the Aqaba summit in February:
1. The administration plans “to provide 5,000 Palestinians with commando training in Jordan and then deploy them to northern Samaria, and perhaps the South Hebron Hills.”
2. As noted earlier, Israel would be required “to sharply curtail IDF counterterror operations.”
3. The plan “foresees the deployment of foreign forces, including U.S. military forces, on the ground.”
The U.S. plan, which is being pushed by Blinken, does several things, none of which seems likely to have a positive impact on the physical security of Israelis, whether living inside or outside the West Bank—which is known to Israelis as Judea and Samaria. First, by standing up a 5,000-strong militia, training it specifically in counterterrorism and commando tactics, and (one must assume) arming and equipping it, the U.S. will be giving the Palestinians military capacities far in excess of anything they can organically create or currently possess. The U.S. plan will create a working military command structure for a faction (the recruitment pool is likely to be controlled by Fatah) likely to be armed with advanced weapons.
While at first glance the new proposals might recall prior U.S. equip-and-train programs in the West Bank, the administration’s plan is in fact shockingly at variance with previous such efforts. Functionally, this small army, as evident from the type of training it will reportedly receive, would not be a gendarmerie or border guard; rather, it would be an organized and well-equipped 5,000-man army with specific expertise in terror tactics.
Providing the Palestinians with guns and bullets, and the training to use them effectively, appears to be the point of the Biden administration’s plan.
How such training will be used by the ostensibly “pro-Western” Fatah faction in the event of Palestinian terror attacks on Israelis, let alone any wider conflict, should not be a mystery. First, the idea of a Palestinian force actually “countering” Palestinian terror is without precedent during the 30-plus years of the Oslo process, meaning it has never happened. Second, there are the words of the Fatah leadership itself. As Tawfiq Tirawi, Yasser Arafat’s former intelligence chief and perhaps the single most capable and best-informed member of Fatah’s senior leadership, put it in a speech posted to his personal Facebook page in 2020, the terrorists themselves are part of the Palestinian Authority’s security establishment and should therefore be left alone by PA security officers. “These fighters are your brothers, so be on their side,” Tirawi urged.
A previous U.S. plan, supervised by U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton and long ago consigned to the ash heaps, was explicitly designed to train Palestinian troops in riot control and other police methods to control civilians—not counterterrorism. As Dayton put it, “we don’t give out any guns or bullets.” Even the riot control equipment such as body armor, shields, billy clubs, and water cannons was carefully inventoried and supervised by the U.S. military and its contractors in concert with Israeli authorities. “We don’t provide anything to the Palestinians unless it has been thoroughly coordinated with the State of Israel and they agree to it,” Dayton said at the time of his mission. “Sometimes this process drives me crazy—I had a lot more hair when I started—but nevertheless, we make it work.”
Such precautionary measures, designed to guard against the possibility of the U.S. providing the Palestinians with a large-scale terror army, were once understood as foundational for U.S. equip-and-train schemes. Now such thinking appears to have gone out the window. Indeed, providing the Palestinians with guns and bullets, and the training to use them effectively, appears to be the point of the administration’s plan—which in current U.S. parlance aims at “building state capacity.” In the absence of any kind of even semifunctional Palestinian state, the American goal is therefore to create a U.S.-backed Palestinian Hezbollah minus the theology for the West Bank.
In fact, several aspects of the Biden administration’s plan replicate a variant of the U.S. Lebanon model with the Palestinians. In Lebanon, the administration has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into equipment, arms, training, and programs for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). That massive and frankly insane expenditure itself then creates and justifies requirements for continued funding ad infinitum, and not just from the U.S. As a result, U.S. and other international military trainers are constantly in Lebanon in order to shore up their dubious investments. Over the past two years, the administration has picked up the rest of the LAF’s tab, and, in a legally questionable precedent, is now paying their salaries directly, as the economic situation in Lebanon has deteriorated. The logic here, again, is self-sustaining: If we don’t continue to underwrite the LAF, then our entire investment, including all those expensive weapons, will be lost.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the Biden administration aims to replay its Lebanese scenario with the Palestinians. In fact, at the time of Blinken’s visit, an Israeli official spelled out what is sure to become a U.S. talking point for perpetual future funding to the new Palestinian special regiment: “Some PA security force members have taken to selling ammunition and weapons to fighters throughout the West Bank as a means to make a living amid Ramallah’s dire financial state,” the official said. So, America, if you don’t want to see all that expensive equipment being sold in Jenin and Nablus, you might want to keep the cash flowing.
Of course, not only does the LAF not go after Hezbollah ever, to the contrary, it facilitates, provides support, coordinates, and deploys jointly with Hezbollah, while also interfacing on its behalf with international interlocutors. And if you thought this was in conflict with American and European expectations for the force, you have it exactly backward. No one defends this behavior more than American policymakers, who ridicule the suggestion that the LAF should perhaps behave differently. Do you want civil war in Lebanon? is the prepackaged retort.
This will most likely be the U.S. posture after the creation of the new Palestinian force, whenever the latter opts not to take action against other factions—as has repeatedly already been the case in the West Bank, where Hamas enjoys a sizable share of public support. We can therefore expect to hear plenty more on how “acting as Israel’s police force” erodes the credibility of the force, or how it could trigger a Palestinian civil war in the West Bank, which “wouldn’t be in Israel’s interest,” and so on.
The point is, the administration’s plan, and the U.S. investments it is designed to create and sustain, are meant to be disincentives for Israeli operations in the West Bank. This is the model the U.S. has been implementing in Lebanon, turning that Hezbollah-run territory into an effective American protectorate run by a terror army that directly benefits from increased U.S. and European investments. In the Palestinian case, the potential deployment of U.S. and other foreign servicemen would serve as an added deterrent to Israel acting in its own defense, and putting American investments at risk.
In addition to the umbrella it provides to the PA, the plan similarly gives the Jordanians one more tool with which to poke the Israelis, for free, while currying favor with Washington and pushing its own share of the Palestinian hot potato onto Israel’s lap.
Team Obama-Biden has sought to redefine the Abraham Accords, locking Israel back into Palestinian-centric forums featuring Egypt and Jordan, such as the Negev Forum and more recently the Aqaba summit. The Israelis had to slow down the tempo of raids ahead of the Aqaba summit, which was billed as an attempt to “deescalate” and to “calm” the situation in the West Bank, and where, according to the above-mentioned Channel 14 report, the security plan was discussed. On the same day as the Aqaba summit, Palestinian terrorists shot and killed two Israeli brothers south of Nablus.
Importantly, despite U.S. pressure, especially after acts of revenge for the Yaniv brothers in Huwara, this week Prime Minister Netanyahu authorized a counterterrorism raid in Jenin that eliminated the terrorist, a Hamas operative from Nablus, who murdered the Yaniv brothers.
As he faces a multipronged American campaign to shackle and possibly unseat him, showcasing that he won’t be distracted or constrained by Washington and its plans for American-sponsored security protectorates, neither in the territories nor with Iran, is critical both for Bibi and for the country he leads.
Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.