Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is on to something smart. His proposal that U.S.-led NATO troops patrol a future Palestinian state would resolve one of the toughest disputes standing in the way of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The impasse centers on Israel’s concern about invasion — a justifiable worry given the nearly catastrophic coordinated attacks by neighboring countries in 1973. By occupying the West Bank, Israel can man early warning systems that look east into the Jordan Valley; if Arab forces were to attempt an invasion, the Israeli military could slow or stop them in the West Bank before they reached Israel.
Israel has said that even under an agreement in which it would turn over most of the West Bank to a Palestinian state, it would want to keep troops in the Jordan Valley. For the Palestinians, that’s a deal-breaker; the whole point of a final accord is to end the indignity of an Israeli occupation that has lasted 46 years.
At the same time, Israelis have good reason not to entrust their security to Palestinian security forces. Their record in thwarting attacks on Israel is checkered. And with the militant group Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip and its leader giving Abbas decent competition in polls, Israelis can’t be sure which Palestinians they will be dealing with in the future.
Abbas’ compromise is one that both sides could tolerate, with roughly equal discomfort. He proposes that a North Atlantic Treaty Organization force patrol not just the Jordan Valley but also the entire Palestinian state.
If Israel cannot patrol the Jordan Valley, a U.S.-led NATO force is as friendly an alternative as there is. Unbound by the limitations of United Nations peacekeeping forces and operating throughout Palestine, it could stop future rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. What’s more, under Abbas’ plan, the Palestinians would give up the right to a military — a huge plus for Israel.
In rejecting earlier proposals to replace their troops in the Jordan Valley with an international force, officials in the current Israeli government have said the only military that will reliably protect the country is their own. Self-sufficiency has always been an essential part of Israel’s identity.
Yet the idea that Israel is militarily self-sufficient is a fallacy. Its military grants from the United States have amounted to $96 billion since 1949. The U.S. is Israel’s principal arms supplier and its guarantor of a qualitative military advantage over its Arab neighbors.
It might sting the Israelis’ pride to back down from their earlier rejection of an international force. But the long-term rewards of Abbas’ proposal would be worth it.
The Israelis are unlikely to find a more promising negotiating partner than they have in Abbas. In proposing the NATO compromise, in an interview with the New York Times, the Palestinian leader demonstrated considerable good faith. He proposed that Israeli settlers and soldiers have five years — rather than the three he’d earlier suggested — to leave Palestine once the state is formed. And he vowed never to return to armed struggle.
On the other hand, Abbas made clear that if talks fail, he will pursue membership at various U.N. bodies, including the International Criminal Court, where Palestine could seek Israel’s prosecution for war crimes.
From Israel’s perspective, NATO troops in Palestine would not be such a terrible prospect.