Tinkering will no longer help

The role of third party intelligence ! agencies in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been primarily one of contact and facilitation. Long before the PLO became an acceptable political player in the West, back in the Lebanon days, intelligence agencies opened several avenues of communication with the Palestinian community. Once trust was established between the intelligence services and the PLO leadership, it became possible to build a political process. That process culminated in the Oslo Accords.

The Oslo Accords changed the role of third party intelligence involvement. While maintaining clandestine lines of communication between western intelligence services and the PLO remained an important function (and one utilized to ease diplomatic friction between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government), the training and empowerment of Palestinian security forces became the primary focus of intelligence cooperation. While the training was aimed at providing security enhancement, it was also engendered to deepen political contacts between prominent Palestinian and Israeli intelligence and political figures. But the contacts were deepened primarily to maintain the course of the peace process and, say Palestinian security officials now, to suppress any Palestinian dissent to that process.

The peace process was soon paralyzed. The clearer this became the greater became the security aspect of third party intelligence involvement. But the enhanced profile of these third party officials inevitably backfired. The more powerless the PA seemed in its efforts to end the reinvigorated settlement building in the occupied territories (the most obvious and grievous Israeli transgression of the Oslo agreements), the more unpopular the peace process became. The Palestinian security services sought to quell this growing dissension particularly among the Islamist opposition, and increasingly repressive measures were employed. The greater the public perception that the PA, through its security services, was acting as the guarantor primarily of Israel’s security and by extension of the growing number of settlements, the more unpopular it became.

The rank and file of the security services could not remain immune to such criticism, tantamount to treason. Once the intifada broke out, and confronted with the massive and brutal Israeli military response to the stone throwing demonstrations that prevailed in the first weeks after September 29, 2000, members of the security services duly broke ranks, and the Palestinian resistance, outside the Islamist groups, became more than factionalized, it became fractionalized.

With no clear role left–political activity was frozen and Israel had completed the destruction of Palestinian security infrastructure–the intifada saw third party intelligence involvement revert to intelligence gathering for its own sake. Some activity continued, notably the brokering of the deal over the Nativity Church siege in Bethlehem, but intelligence agencies were casting about for a new role.

The fragmented Palestinian political scene provided an answer. Taking its lead from European thinking, Egypt, in the person of intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, expended much effort in facilitating contacts and negotiations between the PA and the Islamist opposition. The result has been the unofficial ceasefire that continues to prevail (though just barely) and the entrance into the mainstream Palestinian political process of Hamas, the largest Islamist opposition faction.

Certainly, Hamas chose its moment well. Having been united against the PA onslaught during the 1990s, it had little trouble in adapting to the intifada, and has emerged, unlike the traditional Palestinian party of power, Fateh, institutionally unscathed and with as much popular support and in many places with more. Belatedly, western intelligence agencies have cottoned on to this fact and opened up their own lines of communication with the movement.

But to what avail? Every inch of the Palestinian political landscape appears to be monitored carefully, not only by Israeli and western agencies, but, probably more competently, by the Jordanian and Egyptian sides. In terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, however, there seems little point in pushing political movement absent an Israeli government interested in political negotiations.

Western intelligence on Israel, particularly US intelligence, appears to be sorely lacking. How is it, for example, that a US president can allow himself to be embarrassed by a country dependent on his goodwill and financial and military aid the way George Bush did recently when he publicly excoriated Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on settlement expansions only for the latter to turn around just two weeks later and announce tenders for yet more settlements in the West Bank? Where was the CIA? Where were the intelligence analysts to warn Bush that he was about to make himself look not just like a fool, but even worse, a weak fool?

Third party intelligence services need to restore their role as facilitators of contact between the two sides. But this time, rather than the onus being on the Palestinian side to prove that it can provide security for Israel, the onus needs to be on the Israeli side to prove that it is serious about a negotiated settlement. Without any credible signals to this effect, no amount of tinkering with the Palestinian factions will lead anywhere.