Our region is increasingly characterized by militant non-state actors, many of them Islamist, operating in anarchic conditions in collapsing Arab states or entities. This description fits Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Somalia–no fewer than five out of 22 Arab League members. Israel confronts these non-state actors on two fronts: Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and to some extent the West Bank as well.
This dynamic not only reflects the gloomy state of health of the Arab state system. It also invites outside involvement and intervention. Hizballah, for example, enjoys Iranian patronage and Syrian support. Hamas relies for financial and material support on wealthy backers from the Gulf and increasingly on Iran and Hizballah. Israel is no stranger to this reality: witness its relationships in the past with the Kurds of Iraq, the Maronites of Lebanon and the South Lebanese Army.
The question before us today is whether a similar Israeli patronage status is being applied to the Fateh-based Palestinian security forces in the West Bank, and what this might mean for the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Here a brief look at recent history is relevant.
From the mid-1980s until the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Israel trained and paid the salaries of the SLA, which numbered some 2,000 soldiers, deploying it as a proxy buffer force against Hizballah. There was no Israeli-Lebanese political dimension whatsoever to this enterprise.
Beginning in May 1994, within the framework of the Oslo accords and in an effort to establish Palestinian political autonomy and eventually statehood, PA/PLO leader Yasser Arafat created no fewer than 12 competing and overlapping security services in Gaza and the West Bank. By and large they were corrupt and inefficient; at various times and to various degrees, but especially after October 2000, they engaged in or collaborated with terrorism against Israel. Some of them were also linked in a variety of cooperative relationships with the Israeli security establishment. But they were not accused of "collaborating" except in those few instances, such as in the spring of 1996, when they actively confronted Hamas, particularly in the Gaza Strip. On the other hand, their overall behavior was one of the main factors that led to the current sorry state of the Palestinian state-building enterprise.
Now, after years of violent intifada, Arafat’s death and replacement by Mahmoud Abbas, the Hamas takeover of the Strip and the IDF’s return to area "A" Palestinian cities in the West Bank, an attempt is being made to reconstitute the decimated and demoralized Fateh-linked security forces there. In view of everything that has happened, there is far more external involvement and control in this effort, particularly American and Israeli, than 13 years ago. Indeed, if we accept the conventional wisdom that the Abbas/Salam Fayyad government in the West Bank could not continue to exist and function without tacit Israeli security support, then any effort on the part of that regime to deploy security forces, beginning with the 400 policemen recently dispatched to Nablus, cannot but appear to reflect elements of a patron-client relationship with Israel and, accordingly, remind us of the pre-2000 era in southern Lebanon and the relationship between the IDF and the SLA.
From an objective standpoint, there may be no alternative. Certainly, in the short term a patron-client relationship between the IDF and the nascent Palestinian security forces in the West Bank is preferable to the adversarial relationship that characterized the years of the al-Aqsa intifada after 2000. Nevertheless, it is a dangerous relationship because it portrays the Abbas/Salam government as a lackey of Israel, and this can only work to the detriment of a nascent Israeli-Palestinian peace process that in any event enjoys slim chances of success.
Obviously, the SLA in its day was a very different creature than today’s Palestinian security forces, which are part of a political state-building enterprise that enjoys broad international support. Still, the last thing we and the Palestinians need right now is a Hamas campaign to portray the PLO/PA as the reincarnation of the SLA. Hence Israel in particular should make every effort to enable the renewed Palestinian security establishment to operate as independently as possible.
The former SLA commander, Major General Antoine Lahd, now runs a restaurant in Tel Aviv. Any comparison to Abbas and Salam is, to say the least, not flattering.