Last Thursday, in what was billed as his very first on-the-record address, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, spoke to the 2009 Soref Symposium organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. WINEP, of course, is the chief thinktank for the Washington-based Israel lobby.
And in his talk, Gen. Dayton delivered an important warning.
First, the background. For the past three and a half years, Dayton has lived and worked in Jerusalem and across the West Bank, overseeing the creation of three Palestinian battalions of troops, hand-picked in the West Bank, trained at an academy in Jordan, and then deployed in the occupied territory.
The three 500-man battalions are intended to grow, to as many as ten battalions. Their mission, he said, is to "create a Palestinian state." Recognizing that many in the WINEP audience were not exactly enamored with the idea of an independent Palestine, Dayton told his audience: "If you don't like the idea of a Palestinian state, you won't like the rest of this talk."
From the detailed description provided by Dayton, it's clear that the Palestinian forces he's enabling could certainly be accused of carrying out the self-policing of the West Bank for the Israelis. Because the West Bank is, after all, occupied by Israel and riddled with illegal settlements besides -- plus beset by a surrounding wall, 600-plus intrusive checkpoints, and a network of Jews-only highways -- the Palestinian troops are utterly at the mercy of the Israelis. Each recruit is vetted by US security forces (i.e, the CIA), then vetted by Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence arm of Israel, and then by Jordan's super-efficient intelligence service, before they begin their training in Jordan. Dayton made it quite clear that the Palestinian units thus trained are primarily deployed against two targets in the West Bank: against criminal gangs, and against Hamas.
So far, they've received $161 million is US funding.
Dayton described how, during the Israeli assault on Gaza last December and January, the West Bank remained quiet -- even though some analysts were predicting an upsurge of sympathy for Hamas, which controls Gaza, along with violence, even a third intifada. "None of these predictions came true," said the general, who added that the Palestinian battalions allowed peaceful demonstrations of solidarity with Hamas, but kept the lid on violent actions. Israel, he said, "kept a low profile," and not a single Palestinian was killed in the West Bank during the three-week carnage in Gaza.
Most of the work he's done, Dayton said, occurred in the West Bank after the June, 2007, Hamas takeover in Gaza. "What we have created are 'new men,'" he added.
Now for the warning. Recognizing that by organizing and training thousands of Palestinian troops, professionally led, he is creating in effect a nationalist army, Dayton warned the 500 or so WINEP listeners that the troops can only be strung along for just so long. "With big expectations, come big risks," said Dayton. "There is perhaps a two-year shelf life on being told that you're creating a state, when you're not." To my ears, at least, his subtle warning is that if concrete progress isn't made toward a Palestinian state, the very troops Dayton is assembling could rebel.
Dayton was responding to a question from Paul Wolfowitz, the neoconservative former deputy secretary of defense, who now hangs his hat at the neocon-dominated American Enterprise Institute. "How many Palestinians see your people as collaborators?" Wolfowitz asked. In answering Wolfowitz, the general acknowledged that Hamas and its sympathizers accuse the Palestinian battalions of being "enforces of the Israeli occuption." But he stressed that each one of them believes that he is fighting for an independent Palestine. The unstated message: the United States and Israel had better deliver. Thus the two year warning. Which, to me, sounds spot on with the Obama administration's timetable.
One more thing: General Dayton signed up for another stint in the West Bank. And how long did he agree to serve? Yes--two years.