That’s what the terror group Hamas, in its propaganda, derisively calls the U.S.-led multinational effort to train, finance and bolster the Palestinian Authority’s security forces in the West Bank, headed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the 59-year-old, no-nonsense, highly respected officer overseeing the operation, working directly with both the Israelis and Palestinians on a daily basis.
While peace diplomats seem guided by sweeping visions, Dayton sees himself as an “artilleryman,” trained to aim for the target but then quickly readjust his sights.
Pro-Israel critics on the right call the notion of spending American dollars and personnel to professionalize Palestinian armed forces foolhardy, a recipe for disaster that will result ultimately in those forces using their expertise against Israel.
/>Supporters say the work of overseeing the training of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ police force is the best thing that has happened yet in stabilizing the West Bank, and a win-win for the Palestinians, Israelis and the U.S.
Both sides, though, would agree that the success or failure of this endeavor, whose commander until now has stayed under the radar of the media, is absolutely key to the future of Palestinian-Israeli relations. In effect it is testing, on the ground and on a daily basis, the very premise of the two-state solution — the idea that Palestinian forces can maintain order and prevent terrorism directed at Israel.
In his first interview with U.S. media, Dayton told The Jewish Week last Monday that creating “law and order” in the West Bank is “the first step” to building a Palestinian state committed to human rights. He said his goal over “the next year or two” is to help train a total of 10 battalions (500 men each) of organized policemen, formally known as gendarmes, and to improve the Palestinian judicial system with the help of European counterparts.
“Nothing we are doing will jeopardize the security of Israel,” Dayton asserted. On the contrary, he believes the program will ease Israel’s military burden in the West Bank.
The team’s reason for being, and goal, is to train the Palestinians to police the West Bank so as to reduce crime and terror in cities like Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, Ramallah and parts of Hebron, where it is now deployed, and allow Israel gradually to withdraw its military presence, leading to increased security in the territories and trust between Israel and the PA, paving the way for a Palestinian state.
Advocates of the program, including some of Israel’s leading military officials, hail it as a breakthrough — even miraculous — in stabilizing the West Bank.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, said last week that Gen. Dayton is “doing a great job… We are working with him closely,” he told an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We’re very happy with what he’s doing.”
Describing the work of the team, which has helped train three battalions to date in a rigorous four-month program held in Jordan, Herzog said: “I think for the first time, those three battalions that have already finished their training and deployed in the West Bank, are doing a good job. It’s not that they can assume full security responsibility in the West Bank, but we are on the right way. And for the first time, I see some sense of professional pride there that we’ve never seen in these faces.”
But Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, says the U.S.-led effort is “the stupidest program the U.S. government has ever undertaken.”
He said there is “overwhelming evidence that the great majority of Palestinians are determined to eliminate the Jewish state. So why are we training them?
“If Dayton doesn’t recognize the absurdity” of this program, “he is going into it with his eyes closed.”
‘Solution Is Achievable’
Whether or not you agree with the program he heads, Dayton is hardly naïve. A three-star general (one of only 35 in the Army), he was educated at Cambridge and Harvard, has served almost 40 years and is a scholar of the Bible, often spending his rare moments of free time visiting Israeli sites of historical significance, according to Dov Schwartz, his advisor and spokesman.
Prior to this assignment, for 13 months Dayton headed up the U.S. effort to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, causing him to quip that he wasn’t sure whether the Mideast post was a reward or a punishment for his efforts.
Dayton’s demeanor is crisp, to the point, but not intimidating. During an interview at The Jewish Week, he wore civilian clothes, including jacket and tie, and was focused on the topic at hand — Mideast security operations, not Mideast politics — though capable of making small talk, like his passion for baseball.
He explained at the outset that he initiated the interview because after three and a half years in his current post, he wants a wide audience to know what he and his team are doing.
“We’re proud” of what is being accomplished, he said, laying out “three bedrock principles I have,” namely, that “it is in our national interest to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; we believe a two-state solution is achievable and the best way to satisfy Israeli security concerns and Palestinian aspirations; and America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow and forever.”
The United States Security Coordinators Team (USSC) is really an international team of about 35 personnel, 16 from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, and the balance from the United Kingdom, Canada and Turkey.
It was created in March 2005 to help the Palestinians reform their security services, which under Yasir Arafat had been poorly trained and equipped and with no clear mission, according to Dayton, who took over as commander from Gen. William “Kip” Ward in December 2005.
A month later, Hamas won the Palestinian elections, and for the next 18 months, the USSC efforts, hampered by that fact, focused on coordinating activities of Israel, the Palestinians and Egypt at the Rafah and Karni border crossings.
In June 2007, the PA’s Presidential Guard was overrun in a coup by the well-financed and trained forces of Hamas, which has since controlled Gaza. Some blamed the U.S. and Dayton for the rout, and said it indicated how ineffectual the security coordination program was.
As a result of the setback, the USSC began to concentrate on the West Bank and on the police training program, an attempt to transform the Palestinian national security forces into a highly professional and well-coordinated body.
The Gaza Incursion
The four-month course is held in Jordan because the Jordanians are highly qualified and because it was considered wise to remove the trainees from clan, family and political influences in the West Bank, Dayton said.
How does he know the U.S. it is not unwittingly training future terrorists?
Dayton pointed out that the program is held with full Israeli cooperation and that every Palestinian recruit is vetted by the Shin Bet and Israeli police, as well as by the Palestinians and Americans.
The U.S. initiated the curriculum and provides “quality control,” Dayton said, emphasizing that “we equip them [with uniforms and vehicles] but no guns or bullets. Period. Full stop.”
The USSC also is building bases and modern barracks for the Palestinian police in West Bank areas like Jericho and Jenin, believing that it is important for the officers’ sense of morale and pride. Eight-week seminars for senior Palestinian leaders are being given on how to think about operating a state, and many of the participants ask for more instruction on human rights policies, according to Dayton.
He has attended the graduation ceremonies for the police course in Jordan, and noted that the Palestinian officers tell the graduates that their job is to protect the security of the Palestinian people, not to fight Israel.
In his remarks to a group of graduates last month, Dayton said: “As I look at you, I couldn’t be more proud of the fact that you stepped up to be the founders of the Palestinian state.”
As the most tangible proof of the success of the program, Dayton points to the fact that, defying many experts, the West Bank remained quiet throughout the three-week IDF incursion into Gaza last winter. There were protests and blood drives on behalf of the citizens of Gaza, but little overt support for Hamas.
More significantly, senior IDF commanders and a large portion of active army left their West Bank positions and were used in Gaza during the conflict, Dayton acknowledged. He noted that this would not have happened if Israel was concerned that the Palestinian security forces could not maintain order in the West Bank.
“We have transformed the security situation now,” Dayton stated. “Security by itself won’t result in a Palestinian state,” he added, noting that there are political and economic concerns. “But security is an important first step.”
Observers credit much of the success of the program to the fact that Dayton, as commander, is not commuting to the region from Washington, as past army officials did, but has been living in Israel for almost three and a half years, meeting on a daily basis with both Israeli and Palestinian security officials (though never together).
“We have built up relationships,” he said, “and that counts for a great deal in the Mideast.” Officials credit Gen. Dayton with believing in full coordination, which means transparency – no secrets – and he is trusted by both Palestinian and Israeli officials, Mideast experts confirm.
“If you don’t live there, you don’t understand the situation the same way, and that’s key,” he said.
What’s more, Dayton agreed to special Mideast envoy George Mitchell’s request that he remain in his post for another two years.
During his visit to the U.S. last week, Dayton sought Congressional support for additional funding for the USSC program. He did not specify a dollar amount, but reports say it is $130 million; the U.S. contributed $161 million over the last two years.
In an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Dayton said the funds would be used, in part, to reduce the IDF presence in the West Bank. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, supports the expenditure.
Skeptics insist that for all the buzz about the Palestinian police becoming more professional and efficient, the most effective means of keeping Palestinian cities quiet is still the Israeli army forays on an almost nightly basis, arresting would-be terrorists.
Those familiar with the USSC program say the two notions are not mutually exclusive. One Mideast expert in Washington said the Palestinians are sharing intelligence with the Israelis, who then step in.
“The problem,” this source said, “is that if you make public the high degree of cooperation between the Palestinians and the Israelis, Abbas would be made to look like a quisling to his people.”
Dayton did not respond to this charge directly but seemed to agree with its premise. And he noted that the intense level of Hamas propaganda suggesting that the USSC effort has failed to sway Palestinian opinion is proof of its success.
Still, can the small numbers of newly trained police eventually handle security for all of the West Bank, and further, be in a position to take on Hamas?
Dayton emphasizes that the current program is internal, to police the West Bank, not fight Hamas, or Israel. But it is clear that he would like to see it accelerated, and he noted that discussions are under way to include patrolling the border crossings.
“Everyone calls for the Palestinian to renounce terror and do something about it,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to both Egypt and Israel and currently a professor of Mideast policy studies at Princeton University.
Until now, Kurtzer said, the Palestinian Authority did not have the capability to counter terror, even if it had the will.
“Dayton is trying quietly to build a credible, non-politicized unit to operate with law and order, and that’s what is needed,” he said, adding: “It’s working. But the pace is too slow, it has to be accelerated. The Palestinians want Israel out of their cities and you need a credible Palestinian force on the street.”
Dayton seems well suited to the task of incremental success, the kind of “slow and sure” steps that Kurtzer calls for.
The general describes himself as “an artilleryman,” explaining that his training in the military concept of “adjust fire” has helped him in his current post because one is taught to aim for the target and, after firing a first round, keep fine-tuning until you home in on your objective.
That’s his analogy for the constantly changing effort to work with and build trust between the Palestinian Authority and Israel despite the numerous distractions and setbacks.
The fact that he has chosen to go public now in describing the work of his team indicates that Dayton feels the formula is a success. Surely it will be tested in the weeks and months ahead.